Founded in 1963 and currently the second-largest Catholic university in New England (Boston College is first), Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, was the site of the Nov. 4-6 Irish Music and Dance Weekend. It was sponsored by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann’s Northeast Regional Board and hosted by SHU’s Center for Irish Cultural Studies under the direction of Dr. Gerald Reid, a professor of anthropology there.
The weekend at SHU began with a four-hour ceili on Friday night and ended with a three-hour ceili on Sunday. On Saturday morning and afternoon were music and dance workshops.
From 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Sat., Nov. 5, I attended the CCE Northeast Region’s hall of fame inductions of Boston-born fiddler Brendan Bulger, a former student of Seamus Connolly and winner of a 1990 All-Ireland title; Miltown Malbay-born Mary Burke, a founding member of CCE’s Burke-Curry-Seery branch; Leitrim native Pat Stratton, a member of CCE’s P.V. O’Donnell branch; the late Jack Pendergast, born in Syracuse, N.Y., and former CCE Northeast Region chairman; and London-born John Whelan, a seven-time All-Ireland button accordion champion who founded the P.V. O’Donnell branch in 2001. The hall of fame ceremony for all five was very moving.
In introducing John Whelan at his induction, I cited a number of tunes he wrote and named for people, such as “Louise” (for his wife), “Ian’a Return to Ireland” (for his student Ian Carney, who won an All-Ireland button accordion title in 1987), and “Bob’s Garden of Earthly Delights” (for his late father-in-law). I explained that people matter to John more than things or places. I also described an occasion where John, seeing a clearly depressed man in a crowded pub, went up to him and played a few tunes to cheer him up. It revealed John’s character, a side of him that often goes unnoticed or unnoted.
I had the additional pleasure of emceeing the Saturday night all-star concert in Sacred Heart University’s attractive Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts. Entitled “The Journey Continues,” the concert celebrated both the 60th anniversary of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann and the official change in name of CCE’s Milford branch to the P.V. O’Donnell branch, honoring the fiddler from Inishowen, Donegal, who became a fixture in Hartford, Connecticut, and passed away on January 28, 2011.
First on the Edgerton Center stage were fiddler Jeanne Freeman, who studied with P.V. O’Donnell; button accordionist Loretta Egan Murphy; mandolinist and guitarist Claudine Langille, formerly of Touchstone, a band led by Triona Ni Dhomhnaill; and pianist Brendan Dolan. They set an enviable standard of proficiency for the concert.
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Following them were CCE Northeast Region hall of fame inductees Brendan Bulger on fiddle and John Whelan on button accordion, backed by Anna Colliton on bodhran and Flynn Cohen on guitar. All four delivered tunes with crisp energy and expertise.
What also distinguished their set was the official renaming of CCE’s Milford branch to the P.V. O’Donnell branch. Marion O’Donnell, P.V.’s widow, was invited up on stage to receive flowers.
The next group of performers was something of an experiment: two flutists, Brendan Dolan and Christel Rice Astin, and bodhran player Anna Colliton. That combination of instruments is rare, but it worked well. The flutes entwined effortlessly, and Colliton’s bodhran playing, often subtle and nuanced, became an ideal complement.
Jerry O’Sullivan did a solo on uilleann pipes afterward. His reputation for utter concentration and exemplary chanter and regulator work was affirmed by his performance. He is one of the most captivating pipers in the world.
A duo representing a seamless match of chops and sensibility and, in fact, one-half of the acclaimed quartet Pride of New York, fiddler Brian Conway and pianist Brendan Dolan were the final scheduled performers before intermission. The last American to win the All-Ireland senior fiddle championship (in 1986), Conway uncannily climbs in virtuosity with each public performance. His bowing was absolutely brilliant. Dolan was equal in impact, playing chords in beautifully controlled support while inserting brief, delicate, improvisatory touches that enhanced the music. It was sheer magic, and coming out to join the duo later in their set were John Whelan, Jerry O’Sullivan, Anna Colliton, and Flynn Cohen.
After intermission, Connemara-born sean-nos singer Bridget Fitzgerald, who was on the 1985 Shanachie album “Cherish the Ladies” preceding the formation of the band Cherish the Ladies, sang two unaccompanied songs with stirring conviction.
The concert ended with a massing onstage of all the night’s performers as well as several guests, including Brian Conway’s nine-year-old, budding phenom fiddle student, Haley Richardson, harper Regina Delaney, and local balladeer Danny Ringrose, who sang an original song in tribute to P.V. O’Donnell. It was a fitting finale for a memorable night of music that overflowed into a late-night ceili.
Credit for organizing the concert goes to John Whelan, who lives in nearby Milford, Connecticut. His positive impact on the entire weekend was readily apparent and demonstrated just how valuable an asset he could be within Sacred Heart University’s Center for Irish Cultural Studies guided by Professor Gerald Reid, whose vision and work for the center impressed me.
SHU itself is one of the few U.S. universities now offering an undergraduate, interdisciplinary minor in Irish Studies requiring at least one three-credit, immersive course in its “SHU in Ireland” program. The latter is in partnership with the Diseart Institute of Education and Celtic Culture in the gaeltacht of Dingle, County Kerry, where SHU students reside and learn.
Also, the 16 undergraduate courses in Irish Studies offered at SHU in Fairfield, Conn., include “Introduction to Traditional Irish Music” and “Introduction to Irish Language.” And part of SHU’s outreach to the nearby Irish-American community features cooperation with Fairfield’s Gaelic-American Club for selected events, as well as Tuesday evening sessions on campus by the Shamrogues, a group of regional musicians linked to the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society.
It’s clear that Sacred Heart University and its Center for Irish Cultural Studies have already made significant strides in establishing a first-rate Irish academic and cultural presence in Fairfield and Dingle. November 5 was my first visit to SHU. It will not be my last. Everything I saw and heard there radiated promise.
Dana Lyn at Caffe Vivaldi
Dana Lyn, a gifted Irish traditional fiddler who’s often performed with Mick Moloney, and guitarist Kyle Sanna have recorded an excellent new album, “The Hare Said a Prayer to the Rainbow and Followed the Fox Down the Hole.” Lyn and Sanna will hold a CD release concert at 8:30 p.m. on Wed., Nov. 23, at Caffe Vivaldi, 32 Jones St. (off Bleecker St. and near 7th Ave.), New York, NY 10014. There is no cover charge. Call 212-691-7538 for more information