How It’s New York (New Jersey):  Going “down the shore” is a New York thing too (did you know none of those kids on “Jersey Shore” are from the Jersey Shore? I did!).  Some of the Ceilí circuit players are there, including Patty Furlong.
How It’s Irish:  It’s all about Irish-ness:  the Irish Festival at the Jersey Shore includes book-signings and talks, Gaelic language, strolling singers.  This year’s honoree is Father Dan Cahill from Co. Kerry, who is also the AOH Division Chaplain.

This article appeared in this week’s Irish Examiner USA.  I’m heading down to Sea Girt tomorrow!  See you there!

Tuesday September 13, 2011

Being Irish On The Shore

By Gwen Orel
The Irish love the beach. At least, they do, in New Jersey.
Surfing is great in Ireland, but on the Jersey Shore, you don’t need a wetsuit – not even in September.
Summer may be officially over, but Indian Summer’s begun, and Irish Festivals are going on up and down the Eastern Seaboard throughout September and into October.
The Irish Festival at the Jersey Shore in Sea Girt, New Jersey, Sunday Sept. 17th takes place just outside of the beach.
If it’s sunny, bring the SPF for the Festival on the dunes at the Sea Girt National Guard Armory.
“It’s a Festival unlike any other,” says Jack Sullivan, the Chair, who started the Festival 13 years ago (it has been in Sea Girt for ten years).
Many Festivals have step dancing, music, food, but they go further, and try to offer a little of everything Irish heritage related.
Not bagpipers though – “you can see them in a parade.” While there are pipers at mass, Sullivan thinks piping competitions take away from the traditional Irish.
He marches in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Belmar, “the largest in New Jersey,” he says, but “this is a family day.”
There is ceili dancing all day long, music in 11 different venues, Irish language workshops, speakers and authors, music lessons, strolling minstrels who sing in Gaelic and even Civil War reenactment.
The television station TLC is even coming down to cover the Festival this year. Sullivan is thrilled to get Irish culture on TV. “This is why we travel to Jersey! I always wanted to make sure we covered everything.”
And then there’s that clean ocean air.
It’s a real community event, attracting a lot of locals. Maybe that’s why it has been somewhat unknown to people farther North.
Sullivan lives in Middleton, which, like Se Girt, is in Monmouth County. The town of 68,000 people is 25% Irish, he says.
“If you look at cars, and this is a fact, I do this all the time, look at the backs of cars on the Garden State Parkway, you’ll see more shamrocks and things related to the Irish than to any other ethnic group.
“There’s something about the Irish; they hold on to this tradition of being Irish.”
As we speak I can hear faint whistles in the background – eh’s listening to one of AOL’s streaming Irish radio stations. His enthusiasm is catching. “It’s all free!” he says.
After leaving Brooklyn, where he also ran a Festival, for New Jersey, he began a Festival in Sandy Hook. Then he looked for a home in a more affluent Irish area. Sea Girt fit the bill.
The neighboring town of Spring Lake, with its Victorian mansions, is known as the “Irish Riviera.” It has an Irish Festival in June (we’ll get there next year!).
Driving around and looking at all the huge Victorian mansion, I made my mother laugh by chanting “Irish flag!” each time we passed a flagpole (often a double-flagpole, with one that is American) in a front yard. And they continue in the enchanting Victorian town of Sea Girt.

South Jersey has attracted people from Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Jersey City; it’s convenient to the city, but it also has the shore.
Its popularity has grown, and Sullivan expects more than 10,000 people this year: “As the day goes on, we back traffic up into Belmar.” Good thing parking is free! Patty Furlong, who has played for the Ceilis since the Festival began, loves the “feel of the salt air. There’s a constant breeze,” she says.
She lives in Peal River, not New Jersey, but spends much of her summer on the Jersey Shore.
She plays many Festivals in the area (when we spoke, she had just come from a Feis where she played in a barn), and also participates in the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, New York.
The Catskills, she says, are “an escape from the city and work. It’s a social scene.” But, for her generation, “Going to the beach is an escape from reality.”
The New Jersey Shore Festival is her favorite Festival. She plays button accordion with the Pride of Moyvane, and teaches at the Pearl River School of Music.
For the first time this year, she is bringing a group of students to perform as thel Pearl River Children’s Ceili Band. The students range from 8-15, and will sing and dance as well as play.
The Festival also offers a “monstrous” kids’ section, says Sullivan, which opens at noon and runs until five. It’s fenced in, so parents don’t need to worry about their kids.
Festivals take place in Ireland too, of course, but Sullivan thinks “Irish-Americans are more romantic about their Irishness than people born in Ireland. A lot of us came over here 100 years ago and better and had nothing to hold onto other than they’re Irish.”
His family comes from Ennis and Donegal on his mother’s side. His father’s family come from Cork, but they came during the Civil War era so he doesn’t know from exactly where.
There are people in his AOH (Ancient Order of Hibernians) division who might be 20% Irish, he says, but “you would think they were 100% Irish. They just love being Irish.”
It’s a state of mind. While most of the food available is Irish-shepherd’s pie, barbecued ribs with Jameson’s, soda bread-and there’s Italian food. “Everybody loves pizza.” The pizza supplier has an Irish mother and an Italian father.
Along with Patty Furlong, who’s led the Ceili band since the Festival began, the Festival will have the McLean Avenue Band, Bogside Rogues, Derek Warfield and the Young Wolf Tones, Round the House Band, Sean Hennessy and Amadaun, and the Birmingham Six, a Philadelphia band joining the Festival for the first time.

In the Heritage areas, there’s traditional music from Treasa Kane/Ellen Tepper (Jameson Sisters), Ed Beatty and harpist Aideen O’Donnell.
At different times of the day, Irish author Tom Fox, author of Hidden History of the Irish in New Jersey, will speak about the Irish in New Jersey; Patrick Campbell, author of A Molly Maguire Story, will speak about about the mass graves in Abbeyleix County Leix and in Donegal, and Henry McNeely will speak about the Easter Rising.
The Heritage Areas also include an Irish language workshop.
Father Daniel Cahill from County Kerry leads an Irish language mass to kick off the Festival at 10:30 (doors open at 10). “He never says no,” says Jack. “He’s an unusual kind of priest. They don’t make them like that anymore.”
He is the AOH division chaplain, and also the honoree at the Festival, and the Festival Chieftain.
Maybe that’s why when Sullivan said to Father Dan, “Father, let’s pray for no rain,” Father Dan replied, “Don’t worry, I do every year.”
So it’s bound to be sunny. Head to the beach!

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.