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Mad for trad in the mountains

At the upcoming Catskills Irish Arts Week, the premier summer school for Irish traditional music and dance in America, about 70 instructors will teach about 500 students to begin or refine their playing of fiddle, flute, whistle, accordion, concertina, banjo, harp, guitar, mandolin, harmonica, bodhran, piano, and uilleann pipes, their singing, their set, ceili, and step dancing, their storytelling, their painting, and their knowledge of the Irish language and history.

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On top of all that, there will be concerts, sessions, and lectures throughout the July 10-16 week, capped by the Andy McGann Traditional Irish Music Festival on Saturday, July 16, from noon to 7 p.m.

Of the lectures, do not miss the great Armagh singer Len Graham's presentation on his close friend, Antrim singer and fiddler Joe Holmes (1906-78). He is the subject of Graham's "Joe Holmes -- Here I Am Amongst You: Songs, Music and Traditions of an Ulsterman," far and away the best book on Irish traditional music I read last year and easily one of the most beautifully written, meticulously researched, heartfelt, edifying, and entertaining books on Irish music ever published. Be sure to purchase this magnum opus by Graham and get him to sign it at CIAW.

During a time when the miasmic U.S. economy has convinced many summer music schools and festivals to cut costs by cutting staff, Paul Keating, the artistic director of CIAW since November 2003, has taken a counterintuitive approach. "Our budget has no frills, and some have suggested that I also trim personnel to save money," he said by phone from his home in Hillsdale, N.J. "But I feel if I do, what's going to attract people? The drawing card of the Catskills Irish Arts Week has always been the caliber of staff and performers we bring in each year."

The lineup for the 2011 CIAW proves Keating's claim. Matt Cranitch, Maeve Donnelly, Willie Kelly, John Carty, and Tony DeMarco are among the fiddle teachers. National Heritage Fellowship winner Mike Rafferty, Conal O'Grada, Margie Mulvihill, and Shannon Heaton are among the flute instructors. Mike McHale and Cherish the Ladies' leader Joanie Madden will hold classes on flute and whistle. Mary Bergin, Brendan Dolan, and Margie Mulvihill will lead whistle instruction. National Heritage Fellowship winner Donny Golden and Kieran Jordan will teach dance. Blackie O'Connell and Benedict Koehler will tutor piping pupils. Billy McComiskey, Jackie Daly, John Nolan, and Patty Furlong will hold forth on button accordion, while Mirella Murray will teach piano accordion. Msgr. Charlie Coen and NicGaviskey's Cathlinn Nic Gabhann will be concertina instructors. Pauline Conneely, John Carty, and Don Meade will lead classes in banjo, and Meade will add instruction on harmonica.

Eileen Gannon on harp, Mary Coogan on mandolin, Myron Bretholz and Mairtin de Cogain on bodhran, Felix Dolan and Kathleen Boyle on piano accompaniment, Paul DeGrae, Mary Coogan, and Gabriel Donahue on guitar accompaniment, Matt Heaton on bouzouki, and Len Graham on singing are among the other faculty members for 2011.

Teaching children's workshops will be Kathy Ludlow, Regan Wick, and Julee Glaub with her husband, Mark Weems. Storytelling will be led by Mairtin de Cogain. Barbie McCarthy will teach Irish history and language. Celtic crafts will feature the handiwork of Linda Hickman, Iris Nevins, Laura Travis, and Catherine Crowe.

Keating knows that an infusion of new instructors keeps public and student interest keen in CIAW. This year, concertinist Padraig Rynne, fiddler Jesse Smith, button accordionists Charlie Harris and Colm Gannon, harper Kathleen Loughnane, flutist Eamonn Cotter, piano and whistle player Geraldine Cotter, bodhran player Anna Colliton, dancer Mairead Casey, uilleann piper Ivan Goff, fiddler Matt Mancuso, singer Dan Milner, and singer-accordionist Mary Staunton will join Keating's faculty for the first time.

Among the new or recent recordings that will get a CIAW launch this summer is "Craic in the Catskills," comprising two CD's of 15 live tracks each that were selected from the 2010 Catskills Irish Arts Week. Proceeds will benefit CIAW.

Over the past eight years, the steady, inspired helming of the Catskills Irish Arts Week by Keating has transformed it from a respected regional event to a national and international mecca for Irish traditional music and dance. Only Scoil Samraidh Willie Clancy (Willie Clancy Summer School), founded in 1973 in Miltown Malbay, Clare, enjoys a higher profile than CIAW.

Nevertheless, decreases in outside funding and worries over student registrations can't be ignored. "Enrollment is about the same as last year's," Keating said, "but 30 to 40 percent of the registrations come in during the last month, which is unsettling. If programs like ours are to survive, it's important for the public to turn out and support them directly. You don't have to take a course to enjoy what we offer at its fullest. The music and dance never end, in or out of class."

The 17th annual Catskills Irish Arts Week of July 10-16 takes place in East Durham, N.Y., and several venues in and near East Durham will provide food and lodging as well as host classes, sessions, and other activities throughout the week.