Road to the Catskills


How it’s New York: Catskills Irish Arts Week takes place in East Durham, New York, and lots of New Yorkers go up there every year.
To East Durham, the Emerald Isle

Road to the Catskills

How it’s Irish: It is a traditional music teaching week, and going forward it will be even more dedicated to the other Irish arts. East Durham was a summer getaway for Irish-Americans in the days before air conditioning, and it’s full of Irish roadhouses, and memories.

This article was originally published in Irish Music Magazine, July 2013.

Dew on my toes as I walk in sandals across the parking lot at McGrath’s Motel to a session.

Sun in my eyes as I leave the garden of The Blackthorne Hotel after a session that’s still going, although it’s 8 a.m. Behind me, pipers Ivan Goff and Blackie O’Connell are sharing a tune. Concertina player Padraig Rynne makes me take a picture with my cell phone.

My advanced fiddle class with Liz Carroll, which take place in “the tea room” at Gavin’s Irish Country Inn, goes to “attack” that of Eileen O’Brien, at the pub next door. We play a tune and conquer them.

Standing with WFUV’s Kathleen Biggins, host of  the radio show “A Thousand Welcomes,” watching The Pride of New York play at The Shamrock House.

Ivan Goff and Blackie O'Connell

Ivan Goff and Blackie O’Connell

There’s something particularly New York about the way they play, Biggins says. What is it?


Parking my car on the hill at Weldon’s, and looking up to a black sky full of stars. Forgot about those, in the city.

Is there anyplace like East Durham during Catskills Irish Arts Week?

This week will take place from July 15- July 20. Info is up on the website,

Time was, Greene County, New York, was full of Irish song and story all summer long. In the days before air conditioning, people fled the hot city in the summertime, and for Irish-Americans and Irish immigrants, the rolling hills of upstate New York, with their fields of flowers, were close to home and also looked like home.

Catskills Irish Arts Week began 19 years ago to bring that spirit back to East Durham and the surrounding towns, during a time when people could

easily travel further or even just stay inside in cooled houses.

For traditional musicians in the Northeast, making it up there for at least one day of the week of workshops, sessions and ceilis is a must.

Sessions go on all night, teachers are drawn from the best in Ireland and America, and the craic’s amazing.

A late night session at The Blackthorne, Catskills Irish Arts Week

A late night (into morning) session at The Blackthorne


DSCN1691New Artistic Director Reidin O’Flynn, originally from Cork, wants to change up the week so that it becomes a must for lovers of all of the Irish

arts.  The committee has changed—Irish Voice’s Paul Keating ran the week from 2003 to 2013— and some changes will be seen in the week.

This year, the nightly concerts will be called “The Noble Call,” she says, and include a kind of round robin in part one, with

“a bit of banter, a little bit of everything. I’d love to have a slow air, there’s nothing more haunting.”

She’s looking for a poet to have onstage.

“Growing up in Ireland, when we would be in a session, I don’t know if it’s a Connemara thing or Kerry, but usually when you were around the house, or wherever you were, whoever performs had a noble call, and you had to honor the noble call. It kept the evening


Fintan Vallely, talking about his book, A Companion to Traditional Irish Music

Fintan Vallely, talking about his book, A Companion to Traditional Irish Music

After the first 50-minute session, the second half of the concert will focus on one artist. That’s a change from recent years where many groups would perform each night in short increments.

In the future she hopes to have literary workshops, as well as sessions on cooking and knitting, and sports.

“So many people ask what is that Catskills Irish Arts Week, and they have no idea that it’s a week of all of the arts of Ireland. We will be teaching people how to hurl.”

The Michael J. Quill Centre, where the concerts are held, is a sports center as well: its full name is the M.J. Quill Irish Cultural and Sports Centre Pavilion Fields. This summer will be a yoga session up on the hill by the center to start the day every morning (that could be a way to get the night’s drink out of the system, one way or another).

The Tír Na nÓg children’s sessions are expanding this summer too. What began as a babysitting event, O’Flynn explained, could do more. Last year one of her grandchildren learned three songs, one in Irish. If children are more involved, families will keep coming. The sessions are now broken down by age groups. A teacher from Ireland will teach some mythology and some Irish. Fiddle champ (he just won the over-18 in the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh again, recently in Parsippany, New Jersey!) Dylan Foley will teach fiddle. Regan Wicks will teach dance, and there will be partner dancing too.



And while the week will be a centerpiece, she also intends to have events throughout the year, too.

Part of the charm of the week has been its rustic quality.  Sometimes, that borders on shabby. While the endurance test of the week has an appeal (“My air conditioner broke! My water is brown! There’s a hornet’s nest at my window!”) O’Flynn says the board is working with businesses to up the ante, make sure the food is better in area restaurants and hotels, that people have hot water, air conditioning.

“We’re stepping it up,”

she says.

Accommodations are in the many hotels and motels in town, which also hold sessions and classes, and part of the fun of the week is going from place to place in search of the craic.


There have been a few cutbacks this year—the week was saved last year only through a Kickstarter campaign—but there will still be plenty of incredible teachers, with 15 from Ireland, and 40 from America.

Among them: Teada’s Oisin Mac Diarmada, Catherine McEvoy, Conal O’Grada, Seamus Begley, Mary Bergin, Billy McComiskey, Patrick Ourceau, Willie Kelly, Matt Mancuso. Box player Mairtin O’Connell is going for the first time, and seemed very excited about it a

Me, playing in Matt Cranitch's class

Me, playing in Matt Cranitch’s class

few weeks ago in New York City. Bernadette and Cathlin Nic Gabhain will both be there—Cathlin teaching, Bernadette  teaching Irish. O’Flynn said that the guitar sections are stepping up, with dadgad, Dropped D, and standard. Sean Earnest, of The Yanks, a group made up of Dylan Foley, Dan Gurney, Earnest and Isaac Alderson, will also teach bouzouki. O’Flynn is already snagging top talent for next year’s 20th anniversary, she says. And she’s pursuing Irish players who may not have recorded, as well. One player she’s excited about is whistle player Charlie O’Connell, whom she remembers Liam Clancy admired.

“The gems are there, I know. We need to find them,”

O’Flynn says.

As always, there will be classes during the day, and presentations and lectures. Last year, Fintan Vallely gave a fascinating presentation on the making of his book, The Companion to Irish Traditional Music. Among this year’s presentations, in keeping with O’Flynn’s plans to have more literature in the week, will be a talk on drama by playwright Walter Keady.

Still playing away...

Still playing away…

The night brings concerts, ceilis, structured sessions at different levels, then freestyle. That means the real jamming begins around midnight.

“1 a.m. is the new 6 p.m.,”

said one of the musicians from the stage last year.

It applies to parents and children. Out in the “real world,” you’d be alarmed to see two 10-year-olds laughing and playing in a bar at midnight. Not during Catskills Irish Arts Week.

Album releases, including “The Yanks,” will be launched from the mainstage, rather than in pubs around the area. There will be a tribute concert to Jack Coen,  beloved by so many, and a mentor to so many Irish musicians. O’Flynn said she is putting out a call now for people to send in anything they’d like read, and to contact her about it.

The Andy McGann Festival will close out the week on Saturday, and include the teachers, and others. Then people depart, many hanging around for the New York “after-parties” and concerts.

Nobody wants to say goodbye. But they’ll be back.


with harper Eileen Gannon

with harper Eileen Gannon

Gwen Orel
About the Author

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