On the final night of the recent stint at the Irish Arts Center, Athena Tergis and Mick Moloney were joined by guest musicians to mark the 40th anniversary of the Green Fields of America, the celebration of which continues at various events through 2018.
Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
Earlier this month, the Irish Arts Center hosted a sold out residency with Mick Moloney and fiddle player Athena Tergis. Well known here in New York City and in fact, everywhere they go, Moloney and Tergis are longtime musical partners who share an amazing chemistry, and are renown not just for their skill but also for their ability to add surprising new wrinkles into each night’s performance that keeps their shows fresh and their audiences engaged.
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Over the three nights of their IAC stay, they wowed on their own, but also with guests like button accordionist Dan Gurney, flute player Christina Dolphin, and the great Dylan Foley on fiddle. However, the residency’s final night was special. A celebration of the Green Fields of America’s 40th anniversary, it brought Moloney & Tergis together with band members, button accordionist Billy McComiskey, pianist Brendan Dolan, uilleann piper Jerry O’Sullivan, and its newest member, fiddler Haley Richardson, to air out some of the group’s musical past.
Forty years is a remarkable achievement for any band, but it’s even more noteworthy considering the spot the Green Fields occupies in the history of Irish music in America.
In its four decade-long existence, over 40 musicians and 30 dancers have been official Green Fields of America members. This includes folks like Robbie O’Connell (guitar, vocals), Eugene O’Donnell (fiddle), Jimmy Keane (piano accordion), James Keane (button accordion), and Joanie Madden (tin whistle, flute) and dancers like Jean & Cara Butler, Michael Flatley, Donny & Eileen Golden, Niall O’Leary, Kieran Jordan, and Joe & Catherine Dwyer, to name just a few. Many of these people have gone on to have extremely successful careers in the music and seven have been awarded the prestigious National Heritage Award. The diversity and quality of Irish America’s culture is truly represented in the band’s ever-changing membership.
Moloney told the story of the group’s beginning himself in a riveting article for the Smithsonian’s digital magazine “Folklife” (tinyurl.com/thegreenfields). There, he describes how a chance meeting of the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife’s director Ralph Rinzler led to a job coordinating 26 Irish-American musicians, singers, and dancers for the Festival in July 1976.
Interest in Irish America’s musical roots around this time drove the Green Fields of America’s formation. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts facilitated a January 1978 tour, the first ethnic artists to tour under US government sponsorship, for band’s original lineup, which included Moloney, Liz Carroll, Jack Coen, Father Charlie Coen, Michael Flatley, Sean McGlynn, and Bill Ochs. They took the name from the well-known tunes and song because they felt it symbolized “not only the literal reality of the rich pastures of North America, but also suggested symbolically the promise of a new life for the immigrants in their adopted country.”
Moloney fleshed out what he meant by this for me. “Everyone had day jobs that represented the band’s blue collar roots,” he explained. “Jack [Coen] worked on the railroad, Sean [McGlynn] was a carpenter, Father Charlie was a priest, Mike Rafferty worked at the supermarket. I felt the group really represented the music’s social base at the time. Jack and Mike’s family were living the American dream with kids who went to college. Then, there were the hot shot young kids, Seamus [Egan], Eileen Ivers, who had immigrant parents. Liz Carroll was second generation and was training to be a schoolteacher at the time.”
Fans of the band will welcome the news that the 40th anniversary celebration includes a number of noteworthy performances. For example, the band will reunite for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (festival.si.edu) on the National Mall on Friday, July 6 as part of “The Long View,” a new concert series within the Festival that “looks to the past and towards the future” as its thematic aim. They will also be a featured act at this year’s Catskills Irish Arts Week, July 8-14, and will be joined by Dublin-based concertina player Brenda Castles (catskillsirishartsweek.com). Aug. 17-19 they will appear at Milwaukee Irish Fest (irishfest.com), the country’s largest Irish music festival. Then in 2019, they will appear at Celtic Connections Glasgow on January 24, the Templebar Trad Fest, Dublin on January 26, and the IMBOLC International Music Festival, Derry on January 28. Some high-visibility gigs, indeed!
Congratulations to Moloney, Tergis, and every musician who has passed through the Green Fields’s ranks – it has been a remarkable journey full of incredible music and dance and a pleasure for all who have benefitted. No one has done as much to promote Irish music in America and the artistic standard they’ve set has transformed the tradition. If you’re able to catch them while they’re out this year, make every effort to see them – you won’t be disappointed. To learn more and find out about addition performance, visit greenfieldsofamerica.com.