By Earle Hitchner
Confronting a stagnant economy and stifling weather, the 16th annual Catskills Irish Arts Week of July 11-17 emerged as an artistic triumph of vision, taste, and execution ranking among the finest ever. In his seven years as artistic director, Paul Keating has worked hard to transform CIAW from a favorite regional event to a national and international mecca for Irish traditional music, dance, and other culture of unstinting quality and irresistible craic.
I arrived on Wednesday afternoon, July 14, in East Durham, N.Y., to give a lecture at Weldon House on Eyrecourt, Galway-born button accordionist and composer Martin Mulhaire. The first-floor hall was packed with those who admire and those who were curious about Mulhaire, a former member of the famed Tulla Ceili Band and a current member of the Pete Kelly Premier Ceili Band. Living in Pearl River, N.Y., Martin and his Portumna-born wife, Carmel, were present at my 45-minute lecture. It was followed by a question-and-answer session with Martin and then live music from him, fiddler Seamus Connolly, flutist Brendan Dolan, and keyboardist Felix Dolan that lured set dancers onto the wooden floor. Never seeking the spotlight, Martin Mulhaire received the close attention and the encomium he so richly deserves. I doubt this interlude with Martin Mulhaire would have happened at all if not for the receptivity of Paul Keating.
Another musician and composer, Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll, was at Weldon House on the afternoon of July 16 with host Larry McCullough, who co-produced the 1978 album "Irish Traditional Instrumental Music from Chicago" on which Carroll appears. Now a grants officer in Woodbridge, N.J., McCullough spoke congenially with Carroll about her compositional process reflected in "Collected," her newly published book of more than 180 original tunes. When McCullough asked her about the chances of accidentally picking up a tune already composed by another, Carroll replied, "The gift is that you don't hear the other tune."
Among the slew of recordings launched at CIAW were Edel Fox's "Chords & Beryls," Anton Mac Gabhann and Mick O'Connor's "Doorways & Windowsills," Jerry O'Sullivan's "O'Sullivan Meets O'Farrell, Volume Two," Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly's "The Living Stream," Laura Byrne's "Lucky Day," Frank Claudy's "The Pretty Blue Seagull," NicGaviskey's "Home Away from Home," Liz and Yvonne Kane's "Side by Side," and Joe and Joanie Madden's "A Galway Afternoon," with the latter two albums each featuring a Martin Mulhaire composition.
The July 15 nighttime showcase for "A Galway Afternoon" at the Blackthorne featured uilleann piper Mattie Connolly, fiddlers Liz Carroll and Willie Kelly, button accordionist Martin Mulhaire, keyboardist Felix Dolan, concertinist Msgr. Charlie Coen, guitarist Mary Coogan, and flutists Mike Rafferty and Joanie Madden on stage. Their performance was full of life yet laced with emotion in remembrance of button accordionist Joe Madden, Joanie's father, who passed away in November 2008.
It's impossible in this one column to recount all the musical and dance highlights I witnessed in East Durham. But chief among them would be very impressive CIAW debuts by NicGaviskey (Sean Gavin on flute, Anton Mac Gabhann's daughters Bernadette and Caitlin on fiddle and concertina, and Billy McComiskey's son Sean on button accordion), Headford, Galway, singer-songwriter Don Stiffe, and Achill Island, Mayo, resident harper Laoise Kelly.
Equally spellbinding were main pavilion or dance pavilion performances by the quartet of Martin Mulhaire, Seamus Connolly, and Felix and Brendan Dolan; button accordionist John Whelan, uilleann piper Jerry O'Sullivan, keyboardist Brendan Dolan, flutist Linda Hickman, and fiddler Rose Flanagan, whose solo CD debut is long overdue; whistle virtuoso Mary Bergin; dancers Tommy Browne, Donny Golden, John Jennings, Nathan Pilatzke, Regan Wick, Dan Stacey, Patrick O'Dea, Bernadette and Caitlin Nic Gabhann, Kieran Jordan, and new Cherish the Ladies' member Marianne Knight, whose singing is also exceptional; and the phalanx of musicians and dancers who made up Cherish the Ladies' silver anniversary showcase on July 16.
Button accordionists Billy McComiskey, Jackie Daly, and Damien Connolly, fiddlers Eileen O'Brien and Matt Cranitch, uilleann piper Blackie O'Connell, concertinist Edel Fox, the band Girsa, children's performers Julie Glaub and Mark Weems, singer Deirdre Connolly (Mattie's daughter), flutist Laura Byrne, and the Pride of Moyvane Ceili Band (Margie Mulvihill, John Reynolds, John Nolan, Felix Dolan, and Jimmy "Iron Man" Kelly, plus guests Erin Loughran and Don Meade) stood out as well.
Only Bua, an Irish traditional band out of the midwestern United States, was disappointing. Their music was competent but glacial and, in the end, bland, even with an occasional pulse-racing pace. Band members Brian Miller on guitar and Sean Gavin on flute, who shines far brighter in NicGaviskey, have obvious ability, but Bua did not live up to its name in Irish, which has several meanings, including "victory." Whatever moments of victory the band summoned on stage were, at best, fleeting.
In stark contrast was the soulful, beautifully paced music played at the "Jolly Good Fellow" session between 10 p.m. and midnight on July 16 in Bernie O's, where Mike Rafferty was congratulated for the National Heritage Fellowship he won this year. Joining him in the session were Mary Bergin, Msgr. Charlie Coen, Mattie Connolly, Martin Mulhaire, Felix Dolan, Don Meade, and Willie Kelly, and a delightful surprise was the superb twin fiddling of brothers John and Brian Killackey, two former students of Kelly.
Teaching is the lifeblood of CIAW, and I visited several classes to gauge the interaction between instructors and pupils. Seamus Connolly had his intermediate fiddle students finish with a French-Canadian reel. Julie Glaub had the young children in her class sing a "happy" rendition of "Red Is the Rose." Willie Kelly taught "Munster Buttermilk" in sections to his basic fiddle pupils. Margie Mulvihill played "Dear Irish Boy" for her intermediate whistle students. Rose Flanagan exhibited endless patience and encouragement in teaching some polkas to her basic fiddle students. Edel Fox wrote out on the blackboard and then played "Love at the Endings" for her advanced concertina pupils, who included accomplished fiddler Tina Lech. Mike Rafferty's advanced flute students included Lesl Harker, who compiled and transcribed 600 tunes that she learned from him and published in two books, and Paul Wells, a recently retired professor of music at Middle Tennessee State University and director of its Center for Popular Music. The teaching style of Mike Rafferty, whom I profiled in the July 13 Wall Street Journal, displayed an enviable blend of calmness, focus, and reassurance.
Even singer, multi-instrumentalist, and composer Tim O'Brien, former leader of the bluegrass band Hot Rize and their honky-tonk alter ego Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, drifted over from the nearby Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, N.Y., to sit in a late night Irish traditional session at Stack's on July 15.
Under the helm of Paul Keating, the Catskills Irish Arts Week has helped to spawn at least three Irish traditional bands or spur them to prominence: Girsa, Pride of New York (Joanie Madden, Brian Conway, Billy McComiskey, and Brendan Dolan), and NicGaviskey.
It's further proof of how seriously CIAW takes its motto: "Keeping the Tradition Alive."