Lisa Goldberg & Silpa Sadhajun dancing a soft & hard shoe reel with button accordion player Patty Furlong and fiddler Marie Reilly providing the accompaniment. PHOTO: MARGARET MCCARTHY
By Maura Mulligan
Far away from the Hill of Uisneach, the ceremonial site of the traditional festival of Bealtaine, there was a May Day celebration hosted by Nollaig na mBan NYC. As with other of our regular Celtic celebrations, this was a fundraiser for the Dwelling Place of New York –a privately-funded transitional residence for homeless women in Midtown Manhattan.
In Kevin Danaher’s book, “The Year in Ireland – Irish Calendar Customs,” he explains how flowers were always of great importance in welcoming summer. Usually they were gathered by the children before dusk on May eve, and were strewn on doorsteps and paths leading to the home and byre as protection against fairy folk who might be up to a few tricks.
The flower gathering tradition came to life at our celebration when seven year-old Isabella Casey and her brother Charlie and sister, Mia joined the Nollaig na mBan NYC ladies to offer flowers for the refreshment table. Isabella wowed the audience with a lullaby in Irish, Éinníní (little birds).
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Poetry and dance being the focus of the program, we started with “The Sweets of May” danced by Deirdre Btason, Nan O’ Shea, Hara Reiser, Alice Ryan, Patrick Shalhoub, Silpa Sadhujan Kim Tulloch and Maura Mulligan.
Poet, Bernadette Cullen read two of her creations commemorating the arrival of the season. The first poem dealt with Cleopatra’s Eye (a/k/a the moon); the second was an ode to the beautiful “roar” of summer flowers.
Margaret McCarthy read poems “The Tangible Illumination of Summer” and “What the Smell of Boxwood Promised” – from her book “Notebooks From Mystery School” – that celebrated the light and lyricism of the season. Her introduction spoke about the joyful nature of Bealtaine, its Celtic tradition of celebrating the union of the god and the goddess. “It’s a celebration of the earth waking up,” she said. “This year, during difficult political times, it’s especially meaningful – we are waking up as a collective.” To honor the previous day’s Climate March, she closed her reading with a moving poem “Invocation: A Prayer For Creation,” a chant-like call and response poem, invoking the blessings of the natural world and a prayer for our guardianship of this planet.
This poem tied in beautifully with our ancestors’ respect for the earth. At Samhain, for example, they took inspiration from the idea that the earth rests after farm work is complete – a reminder to take the time to look within.
Bealtaine, like other ancient Celtic holidays, is a fire festival. Driving herds of cattle between two bonfires was once believed to bring luck to the farmer. To celebrate the fire element, our audience joined the dancers in “The Bonfire Dance.”
While céilí (group dancing) brought about a sense of joyful togetherness, the footwork displayed by step and sean nós dancing brought jubilant shouts from the audience. Lisa Goldberg and Silpa Sadhujan performed a magical hard and soft shoe reel together and Alice Ryan joined yours truly for a few sean nós (old style) steps. The well-known button accordion player Patty Furlong and fiddler Marie Reilly kept us all in step.
The director of the Dwelling Place of New York, Sister Joann Sambs, was happy to join us for the celebration. She thanked the Nollaig na mBan NYC team, the artists who shared their talents and the audience for their donations of almost $500. She told us that 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Dwelling Place of NY which opened its doors on Oct. 4, 1977.
“The theme for the shelter’s celebrations throughout the year is 40 Years on 40th Street: Leading Women from Homeless to Home,” Sister Joann said. “People are welcome to visit the website at www.thedwellingplaceofny.org to read more information about events coming up.”
To round out this great mix of poetry and dance, the Nollaig na mBan team read their favorite poems and spoke about the reason for their choice and the poets. These included Nancy Oda’s reading of “Poet of the Mountain” by Thomas McCarthy; “The Last Rose of Summer” by Thomas Moore, was read by Dolores Nolan; “Tiocfaidh an Samhradh” by Altan read by Mary McIntyre; “Long Island Sound” by Emma Lazarus read by Karen Daly and “The Listeners” by Walter De La Mare read by Mary Fee.
Maura Mulligan is the author of the memoir, “Call of the Lark.” She teaches céilí dancing in Manhattan.