Final concert ciaw 2017

Craic was mighty during CIAW

The final concert during the Catskills Irish Arts Week.

By Daniel Neely

It had been several years since I’d been up to the Catskills Irish Arts Week. Not for lack of desire, mind you, but the commitment I’d made as artistic coordinator of the Augusta Irish Week in West Virginia for the last five years forced me into a begrudging absence. However, the Augusta Irish Week’s recent and unfortunate collapse left me with a bit of available time this summer that went filled by an invitation to CIAW. I was really looking forward to reacquainting myself with this important and deeply enjoyable cultural week, and having just returned happy and exhausted from the craic, I’m very pleased to report that the week was mighty! It really is a must-do for anyone interested in Irish music.

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It all starts at the top with director Reidin O’Flynn, who has been doing good work with the week for the last several years. However, this year seems to have been particularly cohesive. She took an “Irish American” thematic approach and hired the finest U.S.-based instructors from the New York, Boston, Chicago, and Baltimore/DC areas. It really felt like “everyone” was there. To this, she added a select group of instructors from Ireland who added something special and made a real difference in terms of the week’s character. It was a particularly strong staff overall. O’Flynn is a very personable director who truly loves the music and appears to have a keen instinct on what will work, and she did an outstanding job.

I heard nothing but great things about the instructors she chose (all of whom I mentioned in my column two weeks ago), and I think the staff really fulfilled the week’s educational mission. But teaching weeks like these never work unless there is added value, and CIAW 2017 had it in spades. For example, Baltimore’s Billy McComiskey, who grew up in the Catskills with the music, was ubiquitous, not only playing with folks left, right and center, but being an ambassador for the week and all it offers. The amount of support and encouragement he gave musicians of all levels was incredible and broadly representative of CIAW’s positive spirit this year. Joanie Madden seemed to be everywhere as well, often in tandem with Donny Golden, performing, laughing, dancing, and really giving everyone a lift. Seamus Connolly was an important personality as well. His concert with Kevin Crawford got particularly strong reviews from those who attended. In fact, all the concerts and listening sessions were discussed with great warmth and interest.

The sessions and céilís (especially those with the Pride of Moyvane Céilí Band) were great, as were the CD launches which were wonderful. The atmosphere for the U.S. release of Jesse Smith, Sean Gavin, And Jesse Blake’s “Music From The Lost Continent” was electric, as was that for Kevin Crawford, Dylan Foley, and Patrick Doocey’s “The Drunken Gaugers.” I heard great things about the launches for Eileen Gannon’s “The Glory Days are Over,” Bernadette Nic Gabhann’s “Here to Play,” and Brenda Castles’ “Indeedin You Needn't Bother,” all of which happened parallel to Séagda Coyle’s launch for “Rip the Bellows,” which I attended. It included a céilí and was thoroughly enjoyable for all who attended.

One element that was new this year was the series of talks. Mick Moloney, who has a brilliant and engaging intellect, spoke on a different subject late each afternoon and attracted huge audiences. His touching tribute to Msgr. Charlie Coen, who favored the crowd with humor and music and was assisted by the likes of McComiskey, Connolly, Gurney, and Foley, was a particular standout. Your humble columnist also spoke on a range of subjects in the early afternoon and I found them great fun. I, too, covered a variety of useful and interesting areas (and I was able to interview the incredibly charming Mary Bergin), and based on the size of the crowds and the number of recurring faces each day, I feel comfortable saying I achieved a level of modest success as well!

With a week as large and variegated as this you would be correct to think that a few special things happen outside of the officially sanctioned CIAW scheduling that enrich the event. One such happening is the “East Durham Social Club,” a fancy dress cocktail party that’s been going on for a few years. As usual, it attracted a who’s-who of musicians, and although the party was light on tunes the conversation great and it was lovely to see the people milling about in their finery.

Another highlight – and perhaps the week’s most unexpected – was Aaron Owell’s TuneBus, a half sized school bus from which he’d had removed all the seats and added a spinet-sized piano. Olwell is a flutemaker (son of legendary Patrick Olwell) and an incredible musician who, at some point each night, would park the bus outside the Blackthorne Resort, leave the door open, and allow musicians to jump onboard and play. Once the music started, it continued though daybreak. The bus is really a genius-level idea. Its barrel vaulted ceiling creates a unique and entirely enchanting acoustic environment and when you get a dozen or so musicians into it, the foot tapping bounces the shock absorbers in a way that quite literally generates lift. (As one musician quipped, “it’ll keep the bodhrán players in line.”) It was a brilliant spot for tunes and proved incredibly popular with everyone.

Finally, but perhaps most crucially, an informal poll suggested that the area’s accommodations were generally improved. Although the hamlet of East Durham hasn’t yet transformed itself into a “Futuristic City of Tomorrow,” it is very clear that local business owners have put in substantial effort to improve the area’s lodging and amenities and indeed they’re more comfortable and accommodating than I remember them being in the past. The meals and snacks I had at the different resorts were all quite good and food options like Lawyer’s Store, Angel’s, and the Yellow Deli offered good value and variety for those who wanted to eat a few meals off-resort. Cell service was still fairly patchy, but a far cry from where it used to be. I was generally able to get outdoor signal wherever I was, give or take a few feet in either direction, and never missed an important text to let me know where the craic was.

Overall, this is an outstanding week. CIAW draws people from all over the country who look forward to the music and the camaraderie and music – high quality music – is literally happening all the time. The people who go are all nice to be around and contribute to what is ultimately a very warm and close knit community that embodies the finest traditional music Irish America has to offer. If you weren’t there, I would say you missed out on something special. But the good news is that there’s always next year, and with O’Flynn at the helm you’re definitely in good hands. See you then? Yeah, I will! For information about CIAW 2018, keep your eyes on catskillsirishartsweek.com. Updates are to come.