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Traditional Irish music without borders

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Catskills concert set with Anna Colliton, Caitlin and Bernadette nic Gabhann, Matt Mancuso, Pauline Conneely, Billy McComiskey and Brendan Dolan. (Photos by Tim Raab)

The raison d'être for a column like this is to give voice to the powerful force that is traditional Irish music in the world of Irish culture even if it doesn’t dominate the media arts pages on either side of the Atlantic.

Nowhere is that more apparent to me on this side of the Atlantic than in the Catskills Mountains every July when the pilgrimage to East Durham takes place for the Catskills Irish Arts Week.

As the latest artistic director for the past eight years, it has fallen upon my shoulders to piece the program together in a fashion that is both creative and entertaining for both the teaching and performing staff, and the student body and audience who are drawn to the upstate New York hamlet of East Durham.

It is seemingly as mysterious as a Harry Potter movie or as complex as a Rubik’s cube puzzle, but the reality is that it is an embarrassment of riches at my disposal when it comes to choosing staffers. At the conclusion of each week, I always marvel at how they exceed even my expectations.

It is a long exhausting week for all involved, admittedly because most attendees refuse to yield up the nighttime for the comforts of a bed and sleep after their day’s labors in the music vineyards around town.

But it isn’t just the addiction to chunes that keeps them out late at night, but the opportunity to forge new or strengthen bonds gained in the music scene. That community atmosphere is the elixir that fosters traditional music around the world.

The teaching staff of 2011 contained folks who were born in five different countries, seven Irish counties and myriad American states, but all shared a common devotion to Irish traditional music.

Chosen for their skills as teachers and performers individually, they were assigned to carry a staggering array of 50 different concert sets, including the Andy McGann Festival at week’s end, 50 music sessions and six ceilithe after their daytime regimen that included 120 different classes for all levels of students.

The performances on stage or the ceilithe bandstand or in roadhouses around town all week are done without rehearsal or proper soundchecks that usually assure musicians of this quality that their talents will be perceived at their best.

The Catskills Irish Arts Week is able to get around that with a crack engineering team that is familiar with the artists and instrumentation over the years. The musicians also have the intuition and experience to play alongside people they may not be familiar with, but have that gra (love) for the music that overcompensates for the lack of special attention.

That expertise and personal backgrounds of the staff also allowed for multiple informative and well attended lectures all week in the late afternoon intervals before supper.

They included the Foras na Gaelige Irish language series conducted by Bernadette nic Gabhann, The Yellow Bittern documentary screening with Robbie O’Connell adding background on Liam Clancy, Jesse Smith on Michael Coleman, Brendan Dolan on the Mick Moloney Archives at NYU, Connellan Harpists by Kathleen Loughnane, Early American Irish recordings with Roxanne O’Connell, Len Graham on Joe Holmes of Co. Antrim and Dan Milner on traditional Irish American Folk Songs.

There was an accordion session that led to a great workshop at the Saturday Andy McGann Festival highlighting the  different boxes played by the Catskills artists this year.

Participating in that were TG4 Traditional Musicians of the Year Charlie Harris (2010) and Jackie Daly (2005), Billy McComiskey, John Nolan, Colm Gannon, Patty Furlong, Mirella Murray, Mary Staunton and Kathleen Boyle.

And the last event in this timeslot on Friday was the most emotional of all as Jimmy and Ann Leonard Kelly were heralded for all they have done to promote and foster Irish music over the years at a packed Blackthorne Resort Pub.

The largest gathering of any day takes place on the Quill Centre Festival Grounds each evening where up to five different acts perform for a crowd of about 500 each weeknight from Monday to Friday.

Most are groups cobbled together because of similar musical styles or places and randomly musicians are thrown together for whimsy sake to see what comes of it.

This year Girsa, the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra and Cherish the Ladies also took to the stage to launch new CDs that were brand new to the audience.

The wonderful grounds and pavilion stage and facilities make it possible for so many to gather in one place to showcase the assembled artistry on staff all week and highlight some special guests as well. It is one important aspect of building the community during the week.

Another important building block is the late evening sessions (40 in all) featuring the staff assigned around to all the participating roadhouses and resorts.

It is a chance for the artist and audience to come together in smaller gatherings for music and chat in historic rooms that have entertained the Irish for generations in the Catskills.

While it was a year of transition without the intimate Wayside Tavern in Oak Hill owned by Sean McCarthy, where so many “quiet” sessions and singsongs occurred in the past, and the more formidable Furlongs Riverside Pub known for the very late night craic, the void was quickly filled this year.

New pubs like the Saloon and Stone Castle Inn opened their doors to sessions and classes and reaped the benefits immediately.  The Blackthorne Resort’s newly rebuilt main building with its spacious dining hall (and decks) and pub were an instant hit, and the back beer garden transformed into the Catskills Irish Arts Week Village Square where chunes and chat filled the late night and early morning hours.

Here people from all over made friends or renewed annual acquaintances that form the basis of the worldwide community of traditional Irish music.  It’s not insomnia that drives people to stay up all night, but rather fierce devotion  to the music and the kinship it brings.

And in these days of harsh economic challenges to musicians, it affords a marketplace as well for collaboration and inspiration that very often leads to more creative activity well beyond the confines of the Catskills, as we have discovered over the years.

Sandwiched in between all of the craic in the Catskills and not to be overlooked for its significance this year was the midweek foray down to Lincoln Center in Manhattan.

Encouraged by Culture Ireland and its bold Imagine Ireland campaign, Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night
Swing took on an Irish band to perform for an Irish Ceili Night on Wednesday, July 13.
Making the jitney journey down and back from the mountains were Charlie Harris, Maeve Donnelly, Eamonn and Geraldine Cotter, John Carty and Caitlin nic Gabhann as the ceili band that night.

An unexpected summer shower chased some of the crowd away after Megan Downes’ dance lesson and a rain delay, but a decent number stayed on for excellent dance music and even a rainbow over the skyscrapers once the floors were dried off.

Catskills Irish Arts Week 2011 was another historic happening and proved yet again the resilience of the Irish American resort area in staving off the doldrums of the continuing recession as the town still had what is its busiest week all year.

It is the power of Irish music and dance that knows no bounds that have made this a flourishing and world-renowned week wherever Irish musicians gather.  And I hope it continues for a long time yet.

Finally, kudos to the Michael J.Quill Irish Cultural and Sports Centre for their support of the Catskills Irish Arts Week this year and for all 17 years of its existence.

And also for a successful concert a week later with the outstanding Irish tenor Ronan Tynan organized by Andy Cooney as a fundraiser for the Quill Centre. It was a terrific show on a very hot evening, but the musicians contributing were even hotter.

They included Bill Lewis (with Tynan), Bugsy Moran, Colm Graham, Matt Fisher and Jimmy Kelly, Jr. (with Cooney and backing Tynan) and Kitty Kelly Band (Keith Sammut, Tony Marino, Peter McKiernan, John Reynolds and Colin Kelly).

Congratulations to a hard-working committee led by Tom and Joan McGoldrick and Donal Gallagher and including Ken Dudley, Kitty Kelly, Debbie Jones and M.A. Tarpinian for an historic and enjoyable night.

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