Sheila Falls Keohane has taken over the reins at Boston College’s Gaelic Roots series from her one-time teacher Seamus Connolly.
By Daniel Neely
That the United States claims so many of Irish heritage, should make the large number of university-based Irish studies programs no surprise. We have several here in New York and some, like Glucksman Ireland House at NYU, put a special premium on music.
And while it’s true that the level of commitment to traditional music varies from program to program, an example of one that does it right is Boston College, which in addition to housing an outstanding Irish music archive runs an important series, “Gaelic Roots.” Presenting “concerts, lectures, and performances based on Gaelic music and the dance traditions of Ireland, Scotland, and the United States” that are free and open to the public, Gaelic Roots has been around in one form or another for over 25 years. As of 2016, it has a new director in musician and administrator Sheila Falls Keohane (www.sheilafalls.com), who recently took some time out to talk to me about her background, the Gaelic Roots series, and how her role there came together.
A product of Greenville, R.I., Falls Keohane was involved in traditional Irish culture from a very early age. She was an Irish dancer at 5 and shortly thereafter began learning fiddle. Her initial training was classically oriented, but by the time she was 8 she was well on her way with traditional music, studying under the tutelage of Seamus Connolly.
Falls Keohane proved herself a prodigious musical talent. She won the All Ireland in the mid 1980s and later, went on to study at the New England Conservatory. On graduating, she joined the New World Symphony in Miami Beach and was one of its noted performers. And while orchestral work was what occupied much of her time in Miami, the considerable hours she spent there talking to and learning from fiddle legend resident James Kelly imprinted on her playing in a very visceral way.
When she finally moved back to Boston in the early 1990s, she jumped right back into the community. She was the first teacher Larry Reynolds called when he started the CCE Boston Music School in Brighton in the early 1990s. Since then, her reputation as a teacher and performer has flowered. She performs widely, has recorded for Tommy Makem’s “Ireland” and has made a solo CD called “All in the Timing,” and is a member of the fiddle-based group “Childsplay.” She also teaches at Wheaton College. It’s a full plate that now includes Gaelic Roots.
Falls Keohane would be the first to admit the responsibility that goes with the gig. The groundwork for Gaelic Roots was first laid in 1990 with “My Love Is in America: The Boston College Fiddle Festival,” an event O’Suilleabhain organized in 1990 when he was at BC as a visiting scholar. It was a seminal event, as among those who performed was a man who would figure prominently into Irish music’s future at BC, 10-time All-Ireland fiddle champion Seamus Connolly. Connolly not only helped organize the concert, but he would go on to spearhead BC’s Irish music, song and dance programs and in 2004 was named BC’s “Sullivan Family Artist-in-Residence,” a most prestigious position.
Subsequent festivals in 1992 and 1995 featured a who’s-who of traditional music: Joe Derrane, Mick Moloney, Frank Harte, Kieran Hanrahan, Liz Carroll, Brian Conway, Brendan McGlinchy, Catherine McEvoy, Seamus Egan, Paddy Keenan, Buddy MacMaster, Sean Potts, and James Kelly (to name but a few). These festivals yielded an acclaimed album and proved influential in and around Boston. Indeed, the festival’s popularity led to an expansion of Irish music at BC with the establishment of the Irish Music Archives in 1998, a cooperative effort of BC’s music department, Irish Studies Program, and Burns Library, directed by the great Elizabeth Sweeney.
So while it was O’Suilleabhain who first advocated for a music series, few could have foreseen its growth. The year 1997 proved an especially pivotal one because it was when the “Gaelic Roots Festival” expanded and became the “Gaelic Roots Music, Song and Dance Summer School and Festival,” a weeklong educational extravaganza featuring workshops and performances. Boasting of a stellar faculty, it attracted the finest traditional musicians and was held in 1999, 2001, and 2003.
Then things changed. Motivated in part by a desire to increase the Boston College community’s appreciation of the program, but also by the imposition of increasingly restrictive security measures introduced after 9/11 that made bringing musicians over a prohibitive venture, the week-long summer school and festival ended and future programming would be moved to the academic year.
Losing the summer school was a major blow, but Connolly worked hard to reorganize Gaelic Roots into a model of tip-tier community-oriented scholarly programming. Over the years, it’s been Connolly who, more than anyone else, fostered Gaelic Roots in all its myriad forms and helped it thrive. However, when he felt like the time was right to begin winding things down at BC, he looked to Falls Keohane and eventually suggested she be the one to continue the program upon his retirement.
Falls Keohane took over Gaelic Roots last spring and was strong out of the box, putting together a program that included Cillian Vallely & Kevin Crawford, Natalie Haas & Yann Falquet, and Michael Tubridy & James Keane. This semester, Keohane’s theme is “Song and Story” and she’s assembled a powerful lineup thus far, beginning with Seán Ó Sé (which included a screening of Matthew Allen’s documentary film “Seán Ó Sé: Saol Caite le hAmhráin agus Scéalta / A Life in Song and Story”) last month, Len Graham this month, and Robbie O’Connell in November.
When I asked what she feels like she brings to Gaelic Roots, she was decisive: “Being the kind of musician I am brings the variety I think Boston College wants at the head of their program. I think it’s important that I grew up around all the trad players in Boston and have that background. When I was, like, 10, I sat on the stage with the greats – people who were upwards of 70 – and I feel like I have a lot of that Boston area history with me. But I think it also helps that I trained at the New England Conservatory, which is something that I think gives me a different perspective and the tools to carry on the program that Seamus worked so hard to build.”
The program’s future looks very bright. Gaelic Roots is an incredible part of Boston College and asset to Irish music in New England, and Falls Keohane is poised to maintain this program’s rich educational mission. If you’re ever up in the Boston area, be sure to check out the schedule. To learn more about Boston College’s Center for Irish Programs and its events (like Gaelic Roots), visit www.bc.edu/centers/irish.html. You can also keep up with Gaelic Roots on social media at www.facebook.com/gaelicroots.