By Earle Hitchner
Jim Hogan, an elderly gentleman in suit and tie, was sitting in the hotel lobby near a seisiún of young musicians from the Barefield Céilí Band of Ennis, Co. Clare. A former member of another Clare céilí band, the renowned Kilfenora, he was listening intently to these youngsters, all between 13 and 18, playing flutes, fiddles, and other instruments.
I walked over to him to pay my respects, and before I could speak, he looked up at me and said, "Beautiful music, isn’t it?" I nodded, realizing that the traditional music of his home county still deeply stirred Hogan, an emigrant from Clare to North America almost half a century ago. Turning his gaze back to the teens, he added, "The music’s in good hands."
It was a sentiment shared by 1,200 other attendees of the North American Convention held by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in the Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel, Toronto, Canada, during April 20-22. This year was special, marking the 50th anniversary of CCÉ, an organization headquartered in Dublin that first took root in 1951 in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, to promote and showcase the best of Ireland’s musical and dance traditions. And those traditions were on overflowing display throughout the weekend, aptly themed "A Musical Odyssey." My own ran nearly round-the-clock from Friday to Sunday.
Sleepless in Toronto
A set-dance workshop led by Tipperary’s Pat Murphy, author of the popular dance book "Toss the Feathers," had hundreds out on the wooden floor of the main ballroom early Friday evening. In groups of eight, they heeded the gently prodding instruction of Murphy, who moved around the floor with a cordless microphone to guide the dancers through their steps.
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Afterward, a formal concert in a large downstairs space began auspiciously with New York’s Felix Dolan on keyboards accompanying three musicians from Galway: Killimor button accordionist Ena O’Brien, who immigrated to Canada in 1964; Ballinakill flutist Mike Rafferty, who came to the U.S. in 1949, and Ahascragh fiddler Larry Reynolds, a stateside resident since 1953. This quartet played a set short in length but long in pleasure, including two spirited jigs, "A Trip to Athlone/Killavil."
They were followed by two groups of 13 musicians each from the Barefield Céilí Band, and it was clear that their teacher and leader, Denis Liddy, an excellent fiddler himself, had done his job well. These Clare teens showed a level of musical maturity beyond their years, something also apparent on their self-issued CD from a couple years ago.
Traversing the floors of the hotel, I heard music seeping out of rooms in virtually every corridor. In the subterranean Sean Gorman’s Pub, musicians congregated to play long into the night and morning.
Elsewhere, performers young and old nudged into nooks and crammed into crannies, and even a bank of pay phones in a remote part of the lobby provided an impromptu venue for some tunes by half a dozen musicians.
In the main ballroom, a céilí was in full swing, the blissful payoff for those earlier set-dance lessons. Dancers moved to music played by U.S. and Canadian performers, including members of Inishowen, a Toronto band formed in 1977, who proved that their "Southern" cousins have no exclusive claim to great Irish traditional music on the continent.
Those who can, teach
Saturday morning and afternoon were filled with workshops, reflecting CCÉ’s mission of passing along as well as preserving Ireland’s traditional culture. It was fascinating to witness the different approaches taken by different teachers, and it was refreshing to see that musical instruction need not be dull or daunting.
In Mike Rafferty’s flute workshop, he meticulously played passages of a tune, then had his 15 pupils play those passages together until he felt they had them down cold. The exercise built carefully toward learning the whole tune. He encouraged questions, answering them thoughtfully, no matter how rudimentary or complex, and using his own flute to demonstrate each point.
A dozen students, including well-known OOntarian pianist Julie Schryer (sister of fiddler Pierre Schryer), gathered around the electric keyboard Felix Dolan had set up for his accompaniment class. He had copies of handwritten tune notation to reinforce his tutelage and also used a portable boombox for a tape of solo flute playing. He’d then ask his students to suggest the key appropriate for backing certain tunes heard on the tape, running his finger slowly down the keyboard until the right key was recognized.
Frank Edgley, a Canadian concertina player and maker, also used copies of handwritten notation for the 10 students in his workshop, while Denis Liddy took a teaching approach similar to Mike Rafferty’s, performing sections of tunes, like "Mick Carroll’s Barndance," and asking his 21 fiddle students (New York button accordionist Patty Furlong among them) to play the tunes back, in part or whole.
Joe Molloy, who performed with Lúnasa flutist Kevin Crawford in Birmingham, England, led the banjo class. Kevin Finnegan, a former member of the Liverpool Céilí Band who came to Canada in 1968, helmed the piano accordion workshop. And Jonathan Lynn, a member of the Toronto Irish Players theatrical troupe, taught storytelling to 25 students. Lynn regaled them with "Letting Loose the Major," an original poem modeled after the verse of Robert Service, once dubbed the "Canadian Kipling" for such works as "The Shooting of Dan McGrew."
In a suite on the seventh floor during mid-afternoon, Kieran Hanrahan and Peter Browne, host and producer of "Céilí House" on RTE, taped for later broadcast the playing of Ena O’Brien, Larry Reynolds, Mike Rafferty, and Felix Dolan. "Luckpenny/Sixpenny Money" and "George White’s/Green Gates" were among the traditional tunes they performed in a joyous celebration of Galway’s musical diaspora in America.
Also that afternoon, Mick O’Connor, former flutist with the Dublin-based Castle Céilí Band that won the senior All-Ireland title in 1965, presented "Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann: The First 50 Years," a documentary he produced and narrated. The archival footage included priceless performances by the Clare duo of flutist Peadar O’Loughlin and concertinist Paddy Murphy, and by two New York-based fiddlers, Vincent Harrison and the late Martin Wynne.
The Saturday night banquet was distinguished by the presence of Mary Coughlan, T.D., minister of state for arts, heritage, Gaeltacht, and the islands, who flew over to voice the Irish government’s appreciation of CCÉ’s work. Others who spoke from the podium about the history and achievements of Comhaltas included Sen. Labhrás Ó Murchú, CCÉ’s director general; Pádraig Mac Suibhne, CCÉ’s president; Frank Kennedy, CCÉ’s North American chair for the past two years; Anne McConnell, chair of CCÉ’s Regional Board of Canada, and Stan O’Donohue, chair of the North American Convention.
Dancing feet, musical feats
After banquet tables and chairs were removed from the main ballroom’s wooden floor, a céilí mór began in earnest, lasting from about 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. Ena O’Brien, Mike Rafferty, Felix Dolan, and flutist Pat O’Gorman, a former member of Rare Air and current member of the Windbags, were among the musicians playing for the céilí.
Outside the main ballroom, sessions surfaced everywhere: two inside the lobby pub, one right outside it, three others elsewhere on the lobby floor, and two in the downstairs hallway leading to Sean Gorman’s Pub, which had yet another one percolating inside. Hospitality suites higher in the hotel had their own musicmaking, while others musicians traded tunes on stairs and sills, in corners and empty meeting rooms.
The pulse of all this playing continued on into Sunday, when RTÉ’s "Céilí House" arranged for different bands and musicians to record on tape in Sean Gorman’s Pub. Inishowen performed as eight set dancers moved in a tight figure on the pub floor. They were followed by banjoist Joe Molloy and pianist Julie Schryer paired together, then by button accordionist Patty Furlong, pianist Felix Dolan, and fiddler Denis Liddy, who gave rousing renditions of "Denis Murphy’s Polkas" and "Boys of Malin/Boyne Hunt."
Toronto’s Langan-Gorman Branch (one of 44 CCÉ branches in North America alone) and its convention committee of Stan O’Donohue, Eamonn O’Loghlin, and others made this "Musical Odyssey" memorable for all. By the time I boarded my plane for New York late Sunday afternoon, I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland, except the rabbit hole I had tumbled into was lined with Irish music and dance for three days and two nights. It was one of the happiest falls I ever made.
Next year’s North American convention for CCÉ shifts to St. Louis from April 4-6. (Go to www.slia.org for details.) What can you expect? Well, it is the "Show Me" state, and the convention’s theme is "The Spirit of St. Louis." Remember what Lindbergh did in a plane of the same name?