All aboard for the Irish Catskills

"The Summer time is coming

And the trees are sweetly blooming

And the wild mountain thyme

Grows around the blooming heather

Will you go, lassie, go..."

The lassies will indeed be going, many of the lads too, up to the Irish Alps for Memorial Day Weekend.

East Durham will soon be the dead center of the universe - not to mention Gertie Byrne's Leeds, a mere stone's throw down the road.

This will mark my own 18th or 19th consecutive Memorial Weekend spent up there. Pardon the uncertainty, but the moment you exit the New York State Thruway you enter an alternate universe where memories and expectations collide and harsh reality doesn't reassert itself until you fumble for the EZ pass the following Monday evening.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

I sometimes wonder who was the first Irish person to set eyes on the Catskill Mountains, or, more to the point, what Paddy first strode down the dusty lanes around East Durham? He must have experienced a sense of homecoming.

It doesn't really look like Ireland up there but the Irish have left their mark. I religiously take a ramble up the back roads beyond The Blackthorne every Memorial Saturday. It's usually as quiet as the grave; an occasional deer will look up in wonder at the sight of a human.

There's a wall dividing two small fields long ago constructed by some Clare or Connemara man for I've seen its double both on the Burren and around Carna.

Overgrown now, wild lilac and dogwood sprouting through its moss, once it was designed to put some manners on the land. The fine fields once hacked from gorse and maple are now almost totally reclaimed by nature.

That's the way up there. It's a country for tough, resourceful people who never say die. Take the Handels! The Blackthorne was burnt to the ground last September, but they reopened in late April.

Mountainy men and women have that kind of spirit and they throw open their resorts, motels and hearts to the rest of us for the summer season. And, oh by God, are we ready after long city winters rooting around concrete canyons.

It will be all action up there this coming weekend. Gavin's, The Shamrock, Erin's Melody, Weldon House, McKenna's, McGrath's and the others will be pulsing, half the people beyond familiar, the others soon to be friends.

Down at the Michael J. Quill Center, Tom McGoldrick has put his usual fine Irish Family Festival together. He's even persuaded The Whole Shabang to reform for the occasion. Black 47 will have its usual 9 p.m. spot on Saturday night before rushing back to The Blackthorne for a midnight show. They better have the Jameson's handy!

As ever, though the line up at the East Durham Festival is stellar, there are no airs or graces and you can rub shoulders with the like of Shilelagh Law, Andy Cooney, The Prodigals, Celtic Cross, Kitty Kelly, Jameson's Revenge, Brigid's Cross and a host of others.

I wouldn't want to omit London's Bible Code Sundays, Derek Warfield & The Young Wolfe Tones, The Gobshites, Padraig Allen & McLean Avenue, and the King of the Catskills, Peter McKiernan, stars in their own right, who won't make the festival, but will rumble the mountains with their powerful joyous din.

There are those who won't make it. This will be our first Memorial Day without Ginger Handel, house mother to so many musicians. She was always ready for a chat over a cup of tea, a few well-chosen words of advice to lost souls at their wits end, and if none of that worked, then an assurance that an extra dessert or two would not be missed from the pantry.

Yeah, we'll miss her almost as much as her immediate kin, for she made sure to make us all feel part of a larger family.

The mountains may not be trendy but they're strong and constant, and their roots run bone deep. If you're new to the scene, well you won't be a stranger for long. That's the way it is up in East Durham on Memorial Day Weekend.