CIAW craic was simply brilliant

Musicians of all ages were much in evidence in East Durham.

By Daniel Neely

If you weren’t up in East Durham, N.Y., last week for the Catskills Irish Arts Week, well you sure missed out on something special. With a first class roster of instructors and a packed schedule of events, no one was left wanting for things to do. All week musicians traveled between place like the Shamrock House, McGrath’s, the Blackthorn, and beyond to hear music, play tunes and renew friendships, as has become custom over the last two-plus decades. It was brilliant.

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Without a doubt, the center of things was the Blackthorn Resort, where the craic went well beyond 90 basically all the time. It seemed each night there were spontaneous sessions that went well into the morning, many of which were led by groups of extremely talented next-gen young people, who only last year would have been retiring CIAW students! (I have to say, the number of young people at CIAW this year was impressive and bodes well for the future – it’s a great place to bring your kids.) Wednesday and Thursday night featured incredibly well attended CD launches for Dan Gurney, Dylan Foley, and Jake James. Friday night’s highlight was the late-night “Boylesque” show. Hosted by Deirdre Corrigan and Liz Hanley, the part-burlesque- part-Rio Carnival-inspired extravaganza featured several revelrous contestants and reached its climax with the suspense-filled unveiling of organizer Aaron Olwell's horn playing. (Olwell did indeed bring his “Tune Bus” again this year, which as you might expect was the center of several great sessions.)

The concerts and listening rooms were popular attractions and there were lots and lots of céilís during the week. Pride of Moyvane Céili Band played for most of the dances, although Kelly’s Brookside Céilí Band was in charge on Thursday, and a group that included Mike McHale, Dylan Foley, Pauline Conneely, Dan Gurney, Isaac Alderson, Christina Dolphin, Kathleen Boyle, Séan Earnest and Josh Dukes was on the stick on Tuesday. Nothing but smiles from the dancers, which is all you want there to be in the end.

The afternoon lectures and lunchtime chats were once again a big hit and very heavily attended. Mick Moloney lectured each afternoon and was as excellent and informative as you would hope. His presentation on the McNulty Family was truly something to see and included an amazing amount of rare and in many cases unique material that shed stunning light on this Irish American group’s career. The depth of visual material there was truly impressive. His talks on percussive dance and his interview with Oliver O’Connell were real crowd pleasers as well.

I ran the lunchtime chats. On Monday and Tuesday I led panel discussions about harping (with Eileen Gannon, Iris Nevins, Marta Cook, Hilari Farrington Koehler, and Máire Ní Chathasaigh) and piping (with Isaac Alderson, Joey Abarta, and Benedict Koehler), which were lovely and briskly attended. On Wednesday, I was joined by Eva McManus, one of the original McNiff dancers, who was utterly fascinating. She was there to talk about her book “The Fifty Year Road to Riverdance,” which is an important memoir describing a seldom addressed but quite important moment in Irish dance history. (To purchase, contact McManus through On Thursday I gave a lecture about the banjo in Irish music that elicited great feedback, and then on Friday I hosted a discussion about the Mulhaire family’s compositions. Members of the Mulhaire family were there and a very large number of musicians came out to reminisce about Martin Mulhaire and his influence on the music here. It was a brilliant end to the week. If you’re not aware of the Mulhaire Music website, check it out at

The week’s finale, the East Durham Trad Fest on Saturday, proved an outstanding affair. The show opened with a performance by Mary Bergin, Benedict Koehler, Hilari Farrington Koehler, Mike McHale, Jimmy Coen and and Anthony Coen. The Casey Sisters, Mairéad, Nollaig, and Máire (who, incidentally spent a good portion of the week rehearsing for a new project to follow up on their 2015 album “Sibling Revelry,” which we’ll have to look forward to) played an excellent set, as did Cherish the Ladies, who were joined by singer Mary Courtney for a song and a group of dancers led by Donny Golden. The highlight of the Cherish set has to have been the dancing of McManus and Joan McNiff, of the McNiff Irish Dancers, who came out and danced brilliantly, much to the crowd’s delight. Green Fields of America were majestic in their feature. Moloney, Athena Tergis, and Billy McComiskey played wonderfully, but keep an eye on what going on between Castles and Hanley – there’s some mighty music happening between them. The Green Fields had Msgr. Charlie Coen up to join them, which was great. Other acts included Laurence Nugent, Pauline Conneely, Laura Byrne, Brian Conway, Rose Flanagan, and Pat Egan; and Oliver O’Connell, who delighted the audience as well. The Yanks (Dylan Foley, Dan Gurney, Sean Earnest, and Isaac Alderson) closed things out and were joined by Josh Dukes, Joey Abarta, and Jaclyn O’Riley. A great close to a tremendous week.

Hats off to Reidin O’Flynn, the Catskills Irish Arts Week’s artistic director, who put on what was truly the finest Week in recent memory – it was a great stuff at every turn. And mark your calendars, as 2019 is going to be a big year because Arts Week will be celebrating its 25th anniversary. Next year it will take place July 14-20 and I am certain they’ll have some special plans in store to celebrate the big milestone! Keep up with all things CIAW-related at