By Michael P. Quinlin
BOSTON – Somewhere in Finland, an aspiring Irish musician is preparing a journey to Boston. In Alaska, a musician is making his way toward the capital of Irish-America, and another is coming up from Australia. And from all parts of Canada and the U.S., hundreds of dancers, singers and musicians are making their way to Boston College in what has become an annual pilgrimage by Celtic music lovers.
The Gaelic Roots Festival and Summer School, which this year runs from June 21-27, has swiftly become one of the most popular and successful musical gatherings in North America. What began in 1993 as a one-day experiment of concerts and workshops has turned into a packed week of world-class performances, teaching, all night sessions and, above all, great craic.
Seamus Connolly, Ireland’s national living treasure on the fiddle, has orchestrated this extravaganza of music, song and dance, in association with Boston College’s prized Irish Studies Program, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this fall, winning accolades not only for longevity but for breadth and quality of its efforts.
In developing Gaelic Roots, Connolly has also taken a cue from Larry Reynolds, the godfather of Irish music in Boston, by outreaching to other Celtic cousins who inhabit the fertile ground of traditional music in the Boston area. Gaelic Roots not only includes Ireland’s best musicians, but their counterparts from the Scottish, Quebecois, Cape Breton and Appalachian traditions as well.
The excitement generated by the three previous Gaelic Roots, held in 1993, 1995 and 1997, has created its own momentum this year. With the help of the Internet, the summer school has reached a worldwide audience of Finns, Aussies and Irish, as well as Canadians and Americans. Success has its downside, especially for latecomers.
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“The program is completely sold out,” Connolly said recently from his office near the bucolic college campus, located just on the outskirts of the city. “All of the concerts are sold out, and we have more students than we can handle.”
Little wonder, with a lineup that includes musicians and teachers like Noel Hill, Joe Burke, Paddy Glackin, James Keane, Kevin Crawford and Robbie O’Connell. And Phil Coulter, whose songwriting and performances have come to define Irish popular music in our time, will give a musical lecture entitled “A Musical Life,” along with Connolly and Keane.
The opportunity to consider traditional music in an academic vein has proven to be a pleasurable pursuit to many. In addition to Coulter’s lecture on Irish music, Dr. Mick Moloney and O’Connell will talk on the 1798 Uprising, a subject replete with musical and poetic associations. And Helena Rowsome will give a lecture on her famous father entitled “The Life and Times of Uilleann Piper Leo Rowsome.”
The combination of grassroots music making in a college setting is what makes Gaelic Roots such a unique program in a circuit that includes a variety of summer camps and outdoor festival settings. The enormous credibility that Boston College brings to matters Irish has been extended to the realm of music and dance, subjects unlikely to be found in many Irish Studies curriculums in North America.
“My colleagues in the Irish Studies program – Kevin O’Neill and Adele Dalsimer – have been wonderfully supportive of our efforts to treat traditional music with the respect and diligence it deserves,” Connolly said.
Indeed, having Coulter as a visiting professor for a semester suggests an ingenuity that goes beyond the scholastic approach to Irish Studies, which typically concentrates on history, politics and literature. Coulter is part of a program that dates back to 1990, when the Irish Studies Program brought Michael O Suilleabhain to the John J. Burns Library for a year. The program has also includes instruction on the fiddle, tin whistle, harp, uilleann pipes and flute.
The most promising features are yet to come. Connolly said that Boston College plans to hire a lecturer in traditional music, and is currently combing the ranks of doctorate ethnomusicologists here and in the British Isles to fill the slot, which would begin in the fall of 1999. This September, B.C. will hire a music librarian and an assistant to work on the Irish Music Archives that Connolly and his colleagues set up several years ago.
“Here’s what I’m most excited about,” Connolly said. “This year we offered one scholarship to young people to attend the summer school, and we ended up awarding two scholarships based on the high quality of the essays.
“Sarah Thom’, a 15-year-old fiddler from Westford, won for a powerful essay on the 1798 uprising, and Aine NicGabhann, another fiddler, from County Meath, wrote a 68-page essay on Irish Dance Masters. We want to encourage this kind of scholarship for up and coming musicians.”
For those who fear traditional music might become static from too much analysis and discussion, Connolly is quick to put that fear to rest.
“The most popular event of the week is the Harbor Cruise Ceili in Boston Harbor,” he said. “Larry Reynolds and the lads will make sure the music never gets too stuffy. You can count on that.”
For those who waited too long to sign up for this year’s program, Connolly said he and his assistant, Theresa Hanley, are taking applications for the 1999 program, which runs from June 20-26. For more information, call (617) 552-0490 or visit the Gaelic Roots website at www.bc.edu/g’licroots.