A decorated, lit Christmas tree on the left and fake snow lining the sides of the stage may have set the scene, but it was the music, dance, and anecdotes that conveyed the full spirit of this Irish Christmas.
The show opened with a rake of tunes buoyantly played by Moloney on banjo, Athena Tergis, Liz Hanley, and guest Dana Lyn on fiddles, and Brendan Dolan on electric piano, with stepdancer Niall O’Leary leaping on stage for some entertaining footwork.
That was followed by the evening’s first carol, “The Holly, She Bears a Berry,” compellingly sung by Moloney and backed by him on octave mandolin.
“Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake,” once a staple of the McNulty Family, was sung with seasonal brio by Moloney, who recorded this whimsical inventory song on “Uncommon Bonds,” an album he made in 1984 with Derry fiddler Eugene O’Donnell.
Another medley of tunes was begun by Athena Tergis, who played “Port na bPucai” with impressive expressiveness.
A song rapidly becoming one of the most popular for Moloney is “Shirley Levine,” a hilarious take on the Irish-Jewish connection expertly explored by him on his most recent recording, “If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews.” (The song is not on that CD but, I hope, will be on a future album.)
Brendan Dolan teaches Irish music to children on Long Island, and nine of these New York Irish Center players (eight on tin whistle, one on bodhran) performed “Silent Night” to the delight of the crowd.
Mick Moloney displayed his interviewing skill at various times on stage with old-timey fiddler Rhys Jones, Irish Arts Center Executive Director Aidan Connolly, and hairdresser Penny Harrigan. The conversation was relaxed and congenial, and Moloney coaxed some interesting Caribbean Christmas memories from Harrigan, who was initially nervous. In some ways these chats echoed the Christmas entertainment often found in Irish homes, where everyone is expected to come up with a party piece, such as a story or poem, to make the occasion more festive.
Born in Chicago, raised as a child in southern West Virginia, and now residing in Vermont, Rhys Jones played solo fiddle on “Old Christmas Morning” and, with the other musicians, “Breaking Up Christmas.” These skillfully performed tunes and Jones’s comments about them showed that Christmas is common to many musical traditions and cultures.
With harmony from Moloney, Liz Hanley poignantly sang “Christmas in the Trenches,” John McCutcheon’s song about a Christmas Eve 1914 truce between German, British, French, and Belgian soldiers along the Western Front during WWI. In No Man’s Land the combatants exchanged drink, cigarettes, letters, and addresses, and even played an impromptu game of soccer. This miraculous, if too brief, cessation in carnage is superbly distilled in McCutcheon’s lyrics, all the more relevant during this time of war for America.
More tunes closed out the first half of the concert, and the second half opened with “The Holly and the Ivy.” Hanley then sang “The Cherry Tree Carol,” which she said she learned as a child, and Tergis sang “The Angel Gabriel” with instrumental support from the other musicians.
Niall O’Leary followed with his surefire crowd-pleaser, a sand dance. He sprinkled two cups of sand on a small, square, portable board and then danced on the sand to create a percussive, scraping rhythm behind “Kitty O’Neill’s Champion Jig.”
Rhys Jones soloed on “Glory in the Meeting House.” Then the ensemble joined in on Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” with a four-fiddle line of Jones, Tergis, Hanley, and Lyn. The audience was also encouraged to sing along.
Moloney sang “The Bushes of Jerusalem,” a song by County Down’s Tommy Sands, and that was followed by “The Wren! The Wren!” complete with O’Leary’s stepdancing.
A rousing encore of Tommy Coen’s melody “Christmas Eve” and other tunes featured Moloney on mandolin and then banjo, Jones on guitar, Lyn, Tergis, and Hanley on fiddles, Dolan on piano, and O’Leary on spoons along with some stepdancing.
It was a memorable night of well-woven musical traditions, music, stories, and dancing tied to Christmas. “An Irish Christmas” is now a tradition itself. Let’s hope the fourth annual Irish Arts Center series expands to, say, a dozen shows. Bravo, Mick Moloney and company, on making the holidays brighter for all lucky enough to attend.