|The musicians in concert in Pearl River. (Photo by Sean Conway)
A crowd of over 600 people enjoyed a festive and celebratory evening recently up in Pearl River, New York, the Rockland County redoubt for traditional Irish Music.
Pegged as an evening of Irish traditional music, it was to be a showcase not only for the marvelous and spirited youngsters playing Irish music in the epicenter of Irish music in America, but for the very supportive and encouraging community that surrounds them, making it very much a living tradition here in the greater New York area.
Organized as a fundraising event for the students of the Pearl River School of Music and the Martin Mulvihill branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann which experienced great success at the most recent Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann in Co. Cavan in August, it spoke volumes about why Irish music is so deeply rooted here in New York.
The Pearl River School of Music centers around three wonderful and dedicated musicians and teachers who all hail from the Bronx originally, but made the great migration over the Tappan Zee Bridge to Rockland County along with so many other Irish and Irish Americans who now enjoy their own GAA center there as well.
They are fiddler Rose Conway Flanagan, flute and whistle player Margie Mulvihill and accordion and concertina teacher Patty Furlong. All studied with the great West Limerick Irish music master Martin Mulvihill, who taught hundreds of students in the New York Metropolitan area back in the sixties, seventies and eighties, that first golden era of mass Irish music education supplemented by teachers Pete Kelly and John and Maureen Glynn.
Appropriately enough, the CCE branch named after him was celebrating the legacy that Mulvihill left us before his untimely death on a visit home to his native Ireland back in 1987. It was 30 years since one of Mulvihill’s bands won an under-12 ceili band competition in Ireland before the Pearl River School under-12 band accomplished the feat this summer in Cavan, sending the message that the Yanks are back in the competitive ranks again at the All-Ireland level. This night was to salute that accomplishment and many others for the many students of the Pearl River Irish Music School.
The emcee of the evening was none other than the world renowned Joanie Madden, about to embark on her 28th year leading her Cherish the Ladies ensemble on the road. The kids were hopeful she could be there given her very busy schedule not only for her generous support of their efforts wherever she could do so, but to help tie the generations together as someone who came through the same support system of masters from the ould country who passed on their music to the next generation in America.
With equal measures of sincerity and humor, Madden guided the action-packed and tuneful evening to a successful conclusion on stage. The children acknowledged Madden’s own inspiring role in keeping the tradition alive by playing at least a couple of her tunes during the show, including the “Cat’s Meow,” one of her early compositions that one of the Pearl River groups got to play for Bono and President Clinton at an American Ireland Fund Event at Lincoln Center.
Like at any music school recital, it is the enthusiasm and talent that the young people exhibit on stage -- and the practice and dedication leading up to it -- that makes a lasting impression.
And it was a huge boost for the school to be able to pull it off with only six weeks of preparation, especially with the myriad other activities kids and parents have today.
Everyone did their part. The teachers rehearsed their students while the parents once more gave it their all to see that the event ran smoothly, was promoted properly and, of course, all the children who gave it their all and impressed the audience all night.
The young artists who performed ranged in age from six up to 24 over the evening, and in doing so did an amazing job of giving a representational survey of Irish music over hundreds of years going back to Turlough O’Carolan to the Madden compositions.
Along the way they shared many musical influences given to them by their teachers who not only learned their own lessons and tunes well in their day, but work hard (or it is play for them?) at keeping up with new music trends and tunes from the contemporary scene.
The success in Cavan for the under-12 ceili band and for Sarah Buteux, another of Flanagan’s fiddle students who won the All-Ireland medal for fiddling in the highly competitive 15-18 bracket, were especially trumpeted this evening.
Included in the celebration was Finbar Kantor, who copped a third place medal in fiddle slow airs in Cavan. He played “The Wounded Huzzar” taught to him by All-Ireland senior champion (1986) Brian Conway, who learned from Mulvihill initially before going on to study with the Sligo musician Martin Wynne which changed his life and approach to music.
Further evidence of the excellence of the teaching and playing of the Pearl River school was also provided by older teenagers in the 12-15 and 15-18 groups (including the excellent Ceol Milish group) who won the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh top honors earlier in the year.
All that music was complimented by very fine dancing, including dance teachers Mary and Bill Woods and a special nod for Caitriona Furlong for an outstanding set piece, “Planxty Drury,” during the evening along with dance students from the Verlin, Inisfree and Broesler Schools coordinated by Patricia Ross.
Madden wasn’t the only role model on stage as the show was capped by the appearance of the unprecedented fiddling trio who won All-Ireland gold back in 2003 playing as one in Erin Loughran, Maeve Flanagan and Deirdre Brennan who reprised that historic win on stage. All three were among the first fiddle students that Maeve’s mother Rose took on in Pearl River giving rise to the school.
Maeve and Deirdre went on to found the group GIRSA, who were the first students to record out of the Pearl River School and make their own place in the Irish music scene. They took the stage to finish the regular show before the grand finale.
You can’t really say enough about the combined efforts of the teachers, students, parents and families of the Pearl River School of Music not only in putting together a fantastic evening of entertainment, but also making sure that Irish music in America remains a living tradition from which the rest of us will benefit for generations to come.
To give further evidence of the Pearl River mastery, GIRSA will return to their hometown once again for a full concert on Saturday, December 15 at 7 p.m. at the Pearl River High School.
With two CDs to their credit and appearances at many major Irish festivals, the multi-talented septet of Maeve and Bernadette Flanagan, Deirdre Brennan, Pamela Geraghty, Emily McShane, Blaithin Loughran and Margaret Dudasik always give a spirited performance in the place where it all began for them. For more info check out girsamusic.com.