By Earle Hitchner
MAUREEN GLYNN CONNOLLY MEMORIAL BAND, Bishop Ford H.S., Brooklyn. March 5.
Resting on the lip of the stage were a pack of Benson & Hedges cigarettes and a cup of coffee light with two Sweet & Lows.
That was a custom of Maureen Glynn Connolly, the brilliant Brooklyn-born instructor of Irish music who died on March 26, 1998, at age 46. On Tuesday nights when she taught class, Connolly would send one of her students out to a nearby shop for these pick-me-ups every week without fail.
That ritual was honored this night before a strong turnout in the auditorium of Bishop Ford High School. But it was not the only tradition of hers that was recognized. Led by her husband, button accordion virtuoso and maker Martin Connolly, 11 of her pupils in County Clare, where she lived since 1992, flew over to America as the Maureen Glynn Connolly Memorial Band to play and, more important, to remember the enduring influence she had on them.
Also performing on stage were 24 of Connolly’s former students from the greater New York metropolitan area. They hadn’t played together for 12 years — in some cases, 20 years. But with the gentle prodding and organizing of former flute and tin whistle pupil Bridget Hart Spillane, they came together as one to celebrate the incalculable impact of Connolly, who received the ultimate accolade from her peers on March 12, when she was formally inducted into Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s Hall of Fame.
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Where once they were eager, callow kids under her tutelage, now they were all adults, many with kids of their own. For the last couple of months, they practiced hard to get down the music they shared in her classes so many years ago. And this concentrated effort showed.
In the first half of the concert, they tackled a piece familiar to them in the Joe Cooley Instrumental Group, who placed first in the under-15 category of the group competition at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Kilkenny in 1984. With their teacher’s arrangement and sense of tasteful, graceful transitions in mind, they played two selections with remarkable tightness and force, and Karen Foynes’s vocal on "Killarney," a favorite song of Connolly, was absolutely beautiful.
In the second half, they opened with a moving piece of music known to them from the days of the Legend Instrumental Group, also a first-place winner (in the under-18 category) in the group competition at the 1984 Fleadh. It was this arrangement of music by Maureen that prompted one Irish judge to comment, "That was the best seven minutes of Irish music I ever heard." It led with another lovely song by Foynes, "The Banks of the Lee," and the group finished with some reels that included "Maid in the Cherry Tree."
Though younger than their New York-New Jersey counterparts, the 11 members of the Maureen Glynn Connolly Memorial Band from County Clare gave an impressive performance as well. Featuring a number of All-Ireland champions, they did an initial grouping of a march, hornpipes, jigs, and reels. Later, a crisply played set of tunes from three of their fiddlers — Ennis’ Aisling Mulhearn, Lissycasey’s Carmel Doohan, and Tulla’s Mícheál Ó Rourke — was further distinguished by special guest Kathleen Collins, the first American to win the All-Ireland senior fiddle title, achieved in 1966.
A troupe of 16 set dancers, including instructor Collins, came out on stage for the "Plain" and "Skibbereen" sets, accompanied by Chris McLoughlin on piano accordion and either Annemarie Acosta or Michelle Bergin on keyboards, three former students of Connolly. The Donny Golden School of Irish Dance was also well represented, with 10 stepdancers appearing twice on stage.
Sixty-two musicians and dancers performed this night in a gala concert that featured a heartfelt solo performance by Martin Connolly on button accordion and a scintillating solo spot by his talented teenage son, Damien, on melodeon.
A standing ovation greeted the finale, where Clare and New York area musicians banded together on stage to perform "Queen of the Fair," a favorite jig of Maureen. Had she been there, and no one doubted she wasn’t, coffee and cigarettes seemingly abandoned only for a moment, Maureen Glynn Connolly would have seen her husband and 35 of her students playing their hearts out for her. It was a night when memories stirred and emotions soared, a night no one present will ever forget.