How it’s New York: The Catskills are in New York state, and Catskills Irish Arts Week has become a destination, at least for a day, for all the trad players on the East Coast.
How it’s Irish: Before air conditioning and cheap flights, East Durham was where Irish immigrants went to relax over the summer, and dance, and play. Joanie Madden played there as a girl with her father Joe.
I was blessed to meet Kevin Ferguson while he was making this important documentary, “The Irish Catskills: Dancing at The Crossroads.”
The film, which celebrates the legacy of Irish music and dance in the Northern Catskills, premiered just before St. Patrick’s Day this year, and airs tonight on PBS here in the Tri-State area at 7 p.m.
AND you can purchase a digital copy at narrowbackfilms.com.
…pulls you along the rural roads of East Durham on long-ago hot summer days and nights when children ran freely through hay fields without a worry. It pulls you out onto the crowded dance floors of historic Irish hotels like the Weldon House as rows of dancers line up to do the Ceili on a Saturday night in the 1950s.
This was a time in a simpler America when there were no craft beers, the beer was Irish, and the sound of Irish music and heels clacking against bare wooden floors could be heard echoing out of the dance halls along Route 145. There were no iPads, no Facebook, and, way back then, no air conditioners even.
Paul Keating in Irish Central wrote, when the film was still raising money at Kickstarter (yay for Crowd funding):
Since the 1930s Irish families sought the cooler mountain fresh air especially from New York City just 125 miles away, but also around the northeast because it was where the Irish vacationed when they couldn’t afford to go back to Ireland.
The lush green hills of the Catskills reminded them of the Emerald Isle. Music and dance were the social elixirs that brought young men and women from the Old Country out to dance halls in the cities, and they were also the allure to the Catskills where in the summertime music could be heard seven nights a week in the resorts and roadhouses.
I didn’t make it this year due to a foot surgery but hope to make it to Columbus Day weekend, or at other points during the year. There are many wonderful teaching weeks and festivals in America (and Ireland too of course), but the heritage of the Irish Catskills makes it of particular interest to people who love history. This Jewish girl had no idea there even WAS another Catskills. Of course I’d heard of the Borscht Belt, but that was really before my time– and though I’m a Jersey girl, my parents are Yankees and we visited Cape Cod and Long Island Sound.
So the Irish Catskills with their beauty, their signs in English and Irish, were a revelation.
I love that if you visit the Facebook page for the film and look at the photos, there are comments like, “that’s my mother”
And, “the banjo player was a regular in Dad’s band!”
The film uses archival photos, home movies, and interviews to tell the story of the Irish Catskills– East Durham and the towns around it, Leeds, South Cairo, Oak Hill, where Irish Americans came for more than a century.
And just look at the music in the movie: a real “who’s who” of Irish music todayL Girsa, The Yanks, Tullamore Celtic Band, Pride of New York, Paddy Noonan, John Reynolds, Michael Coleman, Bernadette Fee… and as it says, “100 years of Irish and Irish-American music.”
A lovely article by Michael Malone appeared in The New York Times last week, titled “The Last, Sweet Days of the Irish Alps in Upstate New York.”
Every year, we would spend a week at the O’Neill House, one of around three dozen Irish resorts in East Durham at the time. We would wake up groggily with the breakfast bell, spend hours in the pool, hike the mountain behind the ball field, build rock dams in the creek and play baseball until the crickets came out. Our parents would then put us to bed and, along with the rest of the grown-ups, walk up the hill to the pub for live Irish music and dancing.
Malone’s article has an elegaic tone, but it’s hopeful towards the end, when he notes that
my children didn’t seem to mind the skittish Wi-Fi and sulfur-smelling water. They had their cousins to run around with, way after bedtime, as the grown-ups caught up over Guinness at the outdoor bar.
One of the amazing things about CIAW is the children: young kids who pick up music as if it’s just another language. Brian Conway was my teacher last time I was there; I kind of kept up with the 9-year-olds, but I’m sure they’re ahead of me now.
Because there are concerts after dinner and then directed sessions, the real sessions don’t begin until midnight: the new 6 p.m. You see children wandering along free on “the strip” at 3 a.m., or playing together at the Blackthorne.
Nobody’s minding them, and everyone’s minding them.
While many hotels have closed, some are still around: The Shamrock House. The Weldon House. McGrath’s, which has the best Irish breakfast in town.
I met the late Kathleen McGrath in the summer of 2014, and she’s featured in the documentary as well. The McGrath family still runs the place, and it’s become a true central location again.
Ferguson brings his personal experience to the documentary: his family used to go. He said in a press release,
“The people who came were mostly Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans. That ratio shifted as time went on. Some places played the traditional Irish dance music on one floor and more American stuff on the next. They even had signs that said, “Irish Music,” “Irish-American Music,” or “American Music.”