Eileen O’Brien plays piano at a Seisún at McGrath’s.

How it’s New York: Catskills Irish Arts Week takes place in East Durham, New York. Everybody comes!
How it’s Irish: Historically an Irish town,  the Emerald Isle of the Catskills, the week is a teaching week for music, with a “camp” for kids (some of whom are fierce, fierce players!) and classes in Irish dance and culture too.

I believe that the Good Folk travel.

Like the Fiddler on the Roof (there’s your Jirish reference!) some of them hopped on board the backs of carts, then went on  ships with their people, off to Amerikay.

Off to New York. Saratoga. East Durham.

One of them (at least) taught me a tune in the Catskills last summer, at McGrath’s Motel.

McGrath’s is one of the roadhouses that hosts classes, seisúns, and of course people, during the week. The Motel was established in 1973 by Kathleen & Martin McGrath, who bought the Edgewood Falls Farm. It’s still owned by Colleen and Dermot. That’s more than 40 years. I don’t know who owned the farm, but there’s good reason to believe the Good Folk are fond of the place.

The parking lot, or should we say lawn, at McGrath’s smells like cedar. It’s down the road from the “main drag” of Rte. 145 where The Shamrock House and Weldon House are (and where the lamented Furlong’s used to be), closer to Blackthorne’s Resort (a country in itself).

©McGrath's Motel

Waterfall at McGrath’s. ©McGrath’s Motel

There is a waterfall nearby.

A waterfall would surely appeal to the Good Folk.

There’s history in the wood of the place, in the wooden beams in the plaster of the pub’s ceiling, the screen door that slams on the side of the pub (the side that leads to the motel), even in the china pitcher of water waiting for you to add to your whiskey, sitting on the bar (when I did this last summer Dermot thanked me, as apparently some people didn’t know what it was far. I, however, have seen “The Weir.”)

Last summer, the history also had a sparkle: the pub had been gently updated. There were tables based on barrels. A pool table. The musicians came, and stayed.

East Durham, where Catskills Irish Arts Week is held, is called the “Emerald Isle of the Catskills” because so many Irish people spent happy summers, weekends or weeks at a time, there.

Siobhan Butler dances in McGrath's.

Siobhan Butler dances in McGrath’s.

Since 1995, East Durham has hosted Catskills Irish Arts Week (CIAW), where classes at all levels are offered to people of all ages, and sessions go on, quite literally, all night.

It’s not the only teaching week of course. There are wonderful weeks all around the summer and the world– one of

these days I’ll make it to Miltown Malbay for Willie Week (the Willie Clancy Summer School).  Last summer I went

to CIAW, before heading off to the inspiring, intimate and gorgeous Irish Week at the Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia, originally founded by Mick Moloney. It was a good thing I went there first, despite the grueling drive to West Virginia, because the level of playing at CIAW set me back on my feet.

I took advanced classes from Colin Farrell at the Augusta Heritage Center, but I’m barely intermediate in the CIAW sessions.

All night. Looking around at 3 a.m. at the Blackthorne Resort you might see Dylan Foley, Jayne Pomplas, Dan Gurney, Matt Cranitch, Edel Fox, Brendan Dolan, Joshua Dukes, Rose Conway Flanagan, Patty Furlong, Margie Mulvihill, Mary Bergin.

A session might be winding down at 4 or 5. Then Joanie Madden walks in.

The craic winds back up.

Ivan Goff and Blackie O'Donell on the pipes in the wee hours.

Ivan Goff and Blackie O’Donell on the pipes in the wee hours.

People come from everywhere to play together. At the bottom of this post is blurry video of a late night at the Blackthorne when Ivan Goff and Blackie O’Connell played uillean pipes together. You can hear the buzz, see the lights from cell phones and flash bulbs.

But I promised you a fairy tale.

In 2015, I left my home in NJ late on Friday and it was after midnight before I made it to McGrath’s Motel. I put my bags down and then Amy Beshara came running out to greet me! She was there with Max Carmichael, and inside was Peggy O’Mahoney and other players I know from home. Amy and Max and I stopped by the Blackthorne, got a snack at the Yellow Deli, came back to play some more.

Sunrise at McGrath's.

Sunrise at McGrath’s.

I went to sleep as the sun was rising. I took a picture and my cousin commented I was an early riser.

The second night in the Catskills, after a tremendous all-day concert at the Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural

and Sports Center, during which I saw a real arc of a rainbow– both ends, as in a cartoon!– I went to sleep at a reasonable hour, I think only maybe 4 instead of 6.

During the week, you see, there are structured, instructor-led sessions after the concerts end, so that midnight becomes the new 6 p.m. It’s not unusual to see amazing young players, 10 and under, hanging out in the courtyard of the Blackthorne playing away at dawn.

So here’s the magic part.

When I went to sleep, music from the session was still going strong.

When I woke up, I had a waltz in my head.

I’m pretty sure I had a tune in my head the day before, too, but I shooed it away.

This second morning, the morning I was leaving, it was LOUD in my head.

I am not a composer. I’ve never made up a tune in my life. I envy anyone who can do that. When I try to make up a tune, it turns into another tune I’ve heard before.

This tune was so insistent that I recorded it into my phone. I wanted its name. I sent it to Br

I’ve searched the Irish databases for your waltz using TunePal in every possible key. Also searched the whole internet for any ABC file matching the first measure or two of your tune (but only in the key you played it in). I couldn’t find any matches at all. Surprising!

I asked Don Meade, an Irish music scholar. He didn’t know it. At Elkins, I played it for (National Heritage Award winner!) Billy McComiskey. He didn’t know it. I played it for Colin Farrell. He didn’t know it.

I inputted it to SoundCloud and sent it to Matt Cranitch.

Now there are three possibilities here:

1. I heard it and it made its way into my sleep
2. I heard something like it and changed it in my sleep
3. The fairies, annoyed at it never got played, gave it to me in my sleep.

I prefer the last.

True, it might have been Canadian– there were several Canadian players at the Session.

Here it is. If you recognize it, please name it!

(this was a year ago. My rolls are less muddy, thanks to Brian Conway! And I’ve revised a transition– but again not me composing but remembering it better).

Until then, I’m calling it McGrath’s.


McGrath's Waltz

McGrath’s Waltz



Dancing at the Michael J. Quill Cultural and Sports Center.

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dawn over the Blackthorne Tent


Gwen Orel
About the Author

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