As a child, my family and I ventured every summer up to East Durham, NY, for a week or so of vacation. About two hours from our home in New Jersey, East Durham was far enough to get away, but strangely we found ourselves in the midst of the most familiar - the Irish.
This summer and last summer, I went up to East Durham again after several years of not going. I remember fondly weeks during the summer spent running around as a child at the now defunct Fern Cliff House, swimming in the pool and listening to music in the pub at night.
However, with my two younger brother and I being close in age, my parents found it hard to keep us entertained for long stretches in East Durham as teenagers, and instead opted for other vacation locales like the Jersey Shore, or even Ireland, instead.
Last summer though, my mom and I packed up for just one night up in East Durham again. As a lifelong Irish dancer with Patsy McLoughlin at The McLoughlin School of Irish Dance, I had always participated in the annual Feis in East Durham. My mom and I couldn’t say no when some friends who were competing invited us to come along for the night.
Returning to East Durham after having not been in at least 12 years, one would expect to hardly recognize the town I knew so well as a child. However, East Durham remains eerily the same.
My mom and I rather enjoyed ourselves during our return to East Durham last summer with the same group of friends we used to vacation with when I was younger. Finding ourselves easily entertained at both the Feis and the craic at The Shamrock House bar and dance hall afterwards, we became hooked on East Durham all over again.
This year, we decided to go up again, but extended our stay for a full weekend instead of just a quick night like last year.
Heading down Route 145 into East Durham - fondly dubbed ‘The Emerald Isle of the Catskills’ - time feels like it slows down. This year, I took my boyfriend with me for the first time and he was immediately taken aback by the overwhelming Irish presence in the area, one that I had nearly grown immune to.
McGrath’s, The Shamrock House, The Irish Cultural Center, Guaranteed Irish - Route 145 in East Durham is like the gates to Ireland in rural New York.
In an era that is increasingly defined by constant updates and modernization, East Durham has effectively resisted such notions by remaining much of the same as when not only I was a child, but back to when my parents were younger as well.
My mom, whose parents hail from Galway and Mayo, spent many years of her childhood in East Durham as well. She fondly remembers the area being a bit of a refuge for Irish immigrants, like her parents, who wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of their new lives in more urban areas like the Bronx. East Durham had the feeling of Ireland, a feeling of home for the immigrants.
She remembers taking her boyfriend John, a Kerryman who is now her husband and my father, to East Durham to enjoy Irish music and general craic in the summertime in the 1980s. There, they would both mingle with the community of Irish immigrants and Irish Americans in places like Gavin’s, McGrath’s and The Fern Cliff House, environments so reminiscent of Ireland.
Today, not much has changed. Though the crowds may have tapered off a bit, East Durham knows to expect an influx of Irish returning to the area during the weekend of the annual Feis and, of course, during Catskills Irish Arts Week. These annual events invoke the experiences of years past, showing that while the rest of the world moves into the future, East Durham keeps plodding along steadily not willing to change all too much, thankfully.
While East Durham doesn’t appear to have done much to remain modern, its efforts in preserving the Irish culture are both apparent and growing. Irish arts, both music and dance, as well as Irish sport are all carefully taken care of in the area. The Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural and Sports Centre is primarily to thank for its preservation and promotion of all things Irish.
This past weekend, I found myself quite enjoying much of the same activities my parents enjoyed when they were my age. Heading to the Feis for the day, cooling down with a nice beer while watching the dancers, I was more than thankful that I didn’t have to dance on in stage, nevermind zip up into a velvet costume and wig.
Heading back to the motel - this year, The Shamrock House - we relaxed by the pool and partied into the early hours of the morning accompanied by traditional Irish music.
Generations of dancers from my dance school, The McLoughlin School of Irish Dance, took over the dance floor at both Gavin’s and The Shamrock House for a Four-Hand Reel and a couple of renditions of The Sweets of May. Couples young and old danced old time waltzes, and my mom and her friends took a few turns at some jives. Everyone was up out of their seats for a rendition of The Siege of Ennis at The Shamrock House.
The ending of the night was marked by, of course, the singing Amhrán na bhFiann (A Soldier’s Song) as well as God Bless America, a clear indication of the successful merging of Irish and American culture in East Durham. The next morning? A trip to Our Lady of Knock for Mass, at least for those whose heads weren’t too sore.
Before driving back to New Jersey, my mother, boyfriend and I of course had to stop into the Irish Centre to catch the showing of the Donegal and Kerry semifinal football match. Perhaps one of the only clear indicators of the distance between now and then, we were able to watch the match on a live feed on the big screen, a far cry from the huddling around a radio my mother and father had to do.
Though I was none too pleased to see that Kerry won’t be headed for the All-Ireland Final next month, the range of ages that were in attendance at the showing proved that the Irish community in East Durham is still thriving, something I am thankful for. The live feed on the big screen showed that East Durham is mindful in embracing only certain forms of technology - it uses what’s necessary, but doesn’t overwhelm itself with inundating modernity.
My mother and I already decided that we’ll be back next year for even more East Durham fun. Hopefully, it’ll still be the same by then, the same it was even as when my mother used to go decades ago, but I have no doubts it will be.