Overview of Catskills Irish Arts Week in this month’s Irish Examiner!

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How It’s New York:  Irish Examiner (USA) is one of three Irish weeklies that come out of New York.  It distributes nationwide and even internationally, but also always covers New York intensively.
How It’s Irish:  Published by Corkonian Paddy McCarthy, the paper includes some news of Ireland as well as fostering connections between the Irish and Irish-Americans.
I also write for Irish Examiner and this week put up a feature on the Catskills Irish Arts Week.  Some of this you’ll know already from blogposts I’ve put up here, but there’s more to come– I will be doing a little post on “downtime,” that includes Marilyn Stern’s video of John Nevins’ party, and a post on classes.  Meanwhile, here’s a feature that covers the week in general.  Enjoy!

Tuesday August 9, 2011

Home Away From Home

Pauline Conneely (guitar) and Chicago Reel (Gwen Orel)

Gwen Orel Reports From The Catskills Irish Arts Week

“Pace yourself.” That was the advice given to Pauline Conneely before she came to the Catskills Irish Arts Week for the first time this summer.
She launched her album with Chicago Reel, For the Love of Music, during the week, and taught banjo classes.
It’s good advice.
She told me this while chatting backstage at the Michael J. Quill center during the all day long Andy McGann Festival on Saturday, July 16, the final day of the week.
Backstage is a big open field. There are no real wings to the stage, which is in a great barn-like building; while one group is performing, another sets up.
Musicians mull in and out of the open sides, and dancers climb up the stairs to the stage as if they’ve just had the inspiration to do it – when in fact it’s all closely worked out and planned.
It’s a bit like the week itself, which ran from July 10-16th.
This year marked the week’s 17th anniversary of the teaching week in East Durham, New York.
Artistic Director Paul Keating, who also writes for the Irish Voice and works with Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann of the mid-Atlantic region, has been running it since 2003, though involved with it since the 90s.
There’s a lovely feeling of catch as catch can to it, but don’t be fooled – it’s worked out to a tee, as demonstrated by the blue gridsheets Paul makes up.
They show lectures and concerts on one side, and sessions on the other, by hour, level, with instructors and leaders listed.
On the other hand that overwhelming choice is part of the fun.
Should you go to the intermediate session at Stack’s Lamp Post, or the listening room at Gavin’s Golden Hill Resort?
Should you go to the lecture on Michael Coleman from fiddler Jesse Smith (with note for note transcriptions! Jesse launched his new album with accordion player Colm Gannon, Ewe with the Crooked Horn during the week) or the Foinn Seisuin with Patty Furlong and Dylan Foley?
Those Foinn seisuins were new this year, an experiment, Paul told me one late night at Blackthorne’s Resort, a way to build up peoples’ repertoire and match what’s in the Foinn books.
Or should you go walk in the stream, or float in the hotel pool? It’s gorgeous up in the mountains (after the sweltering heat moved off!). There’s actual wild mountain thyme growing in the parking lot/field at McGrath’s Motel.
At night, you’re torn as well: The listening room at McGrath’s Motel is going so well, with accordion player Billy McComiskey and fiddler Charlie Harris (winner of the TG4 Irish musician of the year in 2010), how can you leave?
You’d be congratulating yourself on grabbing a seat as others come to the door, then depart.
If you’ve ever done the downtown clubbing thing, it’s a teensy bit like that, only it’s trad, and there’s no dress code, and it’s friendly.

About 500 students registered for classes this summer, with three times that many swelling the town for the week of craic.
There were family (children’s classes and some non-music classes, like Iris Nevins’ jewelry), and musicians who came for a day or two, like many of the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra who performed Thursday night (admission to the nightly concerts is included for students).
The day consists of classes-you could take one or two, from about 65 teachers, including 18 from Ireland, then afternoon lectures and seisuins, then concerts (including 7 album launches), then nightly seisuins(intermediate and open), and listening rooms that go from 10-midnight. And it’s only then that the afterparties really began.
So when you think about it, 3 am is really just when things begin heating up. Pauline’s friends told her right. You have to pace yourself. As it is, the week flies by, and there were unofficial after parties in Manhattan the following week: the Sunday night seisuins at 11th Street featured many of the teachers Paul brought over, including Charlie Harris, whistle and flute players Geraldine and Eamonn Cotter, piper Blackie O’Connell, as well as New York area players and teachers like Don Meade, Anna Colliton, Ivan Goff.
When I went to see fiddler Maeve Donnelly and flutist Conal Ó Gráda play on the following week at Jalopy in Brooklyn, I greeted so many people from the week my friend asked me if we travel in packs.

Ivan Goff, Matt Mancuso, Blackie O’Connell and Isaac Alderson (Gwen Orel)

Unlike some teaching weeks that take place on college campuses, classes and seisuins happen all over town – in roadhouses, in hotels, in pubs, in the elementary school.
This year there were familiar haunts, like the Shamrock House, Gavin’s, the Blackthorne, Stack’s, McGrath’s and some new places: The Saloon was in the spot that used to be Darby’s; it was lovely, with that new restaurant smell (and air conditioned!). Fiddler John Carty launched his new album At Ease there.
The Stone Castle Inn was also new, a little further out, and really beautiful, with great acoustics and two levels.
There were buses to ferry people back and forth to the school, but loads of people share too.
One day I was leaving my class from Sliabh Luacra fiddler Matt Cranitch and passed the “party car” carrying Corkonian Máirtin De Cógáin, Conal Ó Gráda, Blackie O’Connell, and guitar player Paul De Grae back to Blackthorne’s.
Blackthorne’s this year became the unofficial Festival Club. Previously that was Furlong’s Pub, but the Pub is closed and up for sale.
But Yvonne Furlong was running what Paul called the “Furlong Beer Garden” at Blackthorne’s, which quickly became the all-night venue.
There could be three seisuins going on inside, four outside, and dozens chatting, having a four am burger, mugging for harper Eileen Gannon’s camera, or official Festival photographer Tim Raab.
I left Blackthorne’s at 8:30 am on Saturday (Friday night?), but Cherish the Ladies‘ Joanie Madden was still going strong, talking to Jimmy  Kelly (who plays in Andy Cooney’s band, as well as sometimes with Cherish), and at least 20 other people were still milling around, not looking particularly sleepy.
Blackie and Ivan were still playing outside, while fiddler Matt Mancuso watched in a Hawaiian shirt.
Several people were sleeping it off in cars, because Blackthorne’s, which had a fire in September and rose from the ashes, is a hike from the center of town on Route 145, where the Shamrock and Lawyer’s General Store are located.
John Quirk, who owns he Shamrock and Lawyer’s (where everyone grabs their coffee and Irish candy bars before class), particularly enjoys the Ceilis (the Shamrock hosts two).
There are nightly Ceilis, and the bands are seriously wonderful.
I stopped in the final night at the Ceili at the Weldon House, where Matt Cranitch led a Sliabh Luachra band from Heaven, including accordion player Jackie Daly, Conal Ó Gráda and Paul De Grae. Quirk and his wife bought the 73-year-old Shamrock, opened by the Kelleher family in 1938, last year, and have been renovating it, to the delight of some who found their rooms slightly less rustic.
His bartender Angie said “the hours I’m putting in are amazing but it’s worth it because you’re working around fun, which makes it fun. It’s being part of the party; it doesn’t matter whether you’re serving beer at the bar or in your living room, you’re part of the fun.”
Paul told me that Yvonne sent an email and announced on Facebook that she’d be hosting the all-nighters: “When Yvonne has an iPad, the times they are a changing,” he said. Blackie kissed him as he walked by. “What makes this week work is not just the number of people that come and the music, but some kind of historic connection to the Catskills, and New York music, and even Irish American music. It’s a bold statement about the health of it.”
The week’s closest model is the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbey, and many of the teachers teach and play there too.
“There’s no doubt that CIAW ranks on a similar level with Willie Clancy Summer School at home except it’s on this side of the Atlantic,” said Matt Cranitch.
“You know yourself,” he told me (I was in his afternoon class), “the level of thirst of people to learn more. It’s the people who come that make it.”
My morning class with East Galway fiddler Maeve Donnelly included students ranging from elementary school to senior citizen.
“Younger people want things to keep moving all the time,” Maeve said over lunch at Gavin’s.

Conal O’Grada,Matt Cranitch, Jackie Daly and Paul DeGrae (Gwen Orel)

Kids pick up tunes fast (while the rest of us want to hear that B-part one more time).
“The older generation prefer to talk about it.” Paul Keating also liked to see the great wave of excellent younger players coming up.
“It’s passing the music on. It’s good that they want to be here, as opposed to at the beach; it’s a multigenerational thing.”
One example of that torch being passed is Girsa, a group made up of young women, many of whose parents are accomplished musicians.
They launched their second album, A Sweeter Place, during the week.
Ciaran Spence, about to go into his senior year of high school in Pennsylvania, had been the childrens’ program for years before graduating to the fiddle class.
This was his fourth year, he told me over lunch at a communal table at the Yellow Deli in Oak Hill. “You’d have to travel all over the world to find the different styles you get here in one place,” he said. “Last night at the session at the Shamrock, Jackie Daly played an amazing slow air,” he said. His father Don jumped in, “Could you keep a lump out of your throat?”
No. I couldn’t. I was there too (hurray! Picked the right place!). The air was “The wounded Hussar.” Don and Ciaran’s mother Patrice were taking classes too: whistle, singing and fiddle; in fact Patrice was in my morning class with Maeve.
Brendan Fogarty, from Long Island, had just graduated from high school; he and his dad were also sitting with us.
He was taking uillean pipes from Ivan Goff and Benedict Koehler. He loved that “You’re never getting the same thing, even if you have the same teacher.”
The people, of course, also mean the musicians themselves, many of whom know each other slightly but don’t often get a chance to play together.
At home, Maeve said, she would play mostly with people she knew, where she knows the tunes and settings: “It’s lovely to go and meet other people and be put into a situation where you have to play with them.
“One night, I might be playing with Patrick Ourceau, another with Billy McComiskey. We all meet in various guises and get to know one another.”
And there are also those blissful downtime moments.
When Lucy Healy-Kelly visited me on Friday, we decided to skip the afternoon lecture and go for a late lunch at the Yellow Deli.
And as we walked in, the first people she saw were fellow Corkonians Donie Carroll and Máirtin de Cógain chilling in a booth.
When we sat on the patio we quickly sussed that the people who came in after us were dancers.
“It’s easygoing,” Maeve said. “The people are friendly; it’s very much like home or what you did find at home before our Celtic Tiger descended on us.”
She looked up at a puffy cloud. “If I could carry home a little bit of that sky and that sun I’d be very happy.”

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Copyright 2011 New York Irish Arts

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice article. Good seeing you at the St. James’ Gate session. All the best, Lesl
    http://www.firescribble.net/rafferty/index.html