O leary

Veils between worlds thin on Bealtaine

Some dancers from the Niall O’Leary School of Irish Dance displayed their confidence and style. PHOTO: DAN BROWN

By Carmel McMahon

The pagan festival of Bealtaine (Bright Fire) is celebrated on May 1, which is the midpoint of the Celtic year. It marks the transition into the fullness of summer. The ancient people of Ireland maintained a living relationship with their ancestors and their gods. They believed the veils that separated their worlds thinned at this time, making movement between them easy and accessible. Well into the 20th century, ritualistic offerings were made to seek protection and blessings through the coming season.

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Nollaig Na mBan NY is a group of artists who celebrate the four major Celtic fire festivals. We create events to raise funds for women in need in the community. Contributions from the Bealtaine and other events support the Dwelling Place of NY, a privately funded transitional shelter for homeless women in Midtown Manhattan.

The event held at Ripley-Greer Studios was packed full of people anticipating another exciting program curated by Nollaig Na mBan founder, Maura Mulligan. Members Nancy Oda and Karen Daly hosted the evening, an interweaving of poetry, songwriting, and dance. It began with a mix of all three in a breathtaking piece by the extremely talented 12-year-old performer, Mairen Grace Upton. She choreographed an interpretation of Loreena McKennitt’s musical recording of the W. B. Yeats poem, “The Stolen Child.” Watching her, the thought came to my mind: I don’t believe in faeries, but they do exist.

When poets read their work aloud something happens in the atmosphere. Sound waves are pushed against the ear’s drum, beating out rhythms that agitate and shift. We are elevated, carried elsewhere, and deep inside at the same time. Maybe this is why the master poet had equal status with the king in ancient Ireland. Poems are transitional places, and the words of great poets are vehicles for transformation.

Carmel McMahon.

Transitions from loss to integration and hope were the themes of the evening. Bernadette Cullen’s poem “Where it Begins Again,” made us think of the cyclical and generative nature of life. Margaret McCarthy channeled the mythological Deirdre and gave her a journey through which she could discover her voice and the power within herself. John Kearns read poems about his travels around the world. They began with a visit to the Aran Islands 30 years ago where the pony and trap man offers his taxi services. They ended on a recent trip to Old Delhi where a local teenage mother offers to take selfies with American tourists at “the World-Reflecting Mosque.”

Miranda J. Stinson, shared a poem about her late-coming to first love. We were with her every step as she walked with a woman called Sorcha (meaning “brightness”) through the streets of Belfast.

During a section called “Pop-up Poems,” audience members were invited to share their poetry. Doris Marie Meyer read her poem, “St. Brigid at the Well,” in which she sees a homeless woman washing her clothes in the restroom of Macy’s. Doris reminds us that women come from a long, universal lineage of laundresses and that we are each other’s witnesses through the challenges of this life. Mary McIntyre recited an Irish language poem, a beautiful meditation on the color of summer, yellow.

Katie Mulholland is the lead singer of the indie-pop band Kingkween, and a former New York Rose. She told a story of being in Ireland for the 2013 Rose of Tralee Festival where she was among the first group of Roses in a decade to tour Northern Ireland. The reality of Ireland’s past hit them when their tour guide broke down in tears on the Peace Bridge in Derry. He contemplated where Ireland had been and where she is going. We felt the grief and the hope transmitted through the telling. Bernard Smith, an Irish immigrant living in New York for over twenty years sang of triumph over internal troubles, and the struggle to find hope in dark times.

Three generations of Irish dancers trading steps: Maura Mulligan,

Mairen Grace Upton and Alice Ryan. PHOTO: DAN BROWN

A troop from the Niall O’Leary School of Irish Dance demonstrated their contemporary prize-winning steps with confidence and style. A two-hand reel was performed by the beautifully costumed children of the McManus Irish Dance School. Maura Mulligan danced a hornpipe she learned 65 years ago as a child in County Mayo, and Alice Breda Ryan performed in the sean nós (old style). Time changes everything: dances, seasons, attitudes, minds.

Musical accompaniment was provided by Callum Pasqua and Matthew Christian. One highlight of the evening came during the “Trad Tunes” section when they had an opportunity to demonstrate their skills. The veils between us thinned, and three master dancers from three generations were inspired to spontaneously trade steps: Maura Mulligan, Alice Breda Ryan, and Mairen Grace Upton. The room expanded with warmth, as we all clapped and roared them on.

During the festivities, Sister Joann Sambs thanked us for our relationship with the Dwelling Place. Elsewhere, she has referred to the trauma of homelessness and the need to offer hope, help, and healing to women during their transition from homelessness to home.

The Dwelling Place will have a booth at the 9th Avenue International Food Festival in New York City, May 19-20. It will be located between 42nd and 43rd Streets. Stop by to learn more about the services they have provided since 1977. They remain a warm and vital presence, a bright fire for women in need, in the ever-changing neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen.

Carmel McMahon recently completed a memoir, “In Ordinary Time.”