Máirtín de Cógáin, a County Cork native and San Diego resident, is an audience favorite everywhere he goes.
By Daniel Neely
It sounds odd, but California is one of the great spots for Irish music in the United States. Take San Francisco, for example. It’s home for many great musicians and the location of the Plough and the Stars pub, one of the finest pubs in the world for Irish music. Why, this year Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann will even hold its North American Convention in San Francisco, April 16-19 (www.cceconvention2020.com) and they’re expecting a strong turnout.
Lesser known, however, are the riches of Irish music in southern California. Here in New York, you catch wind of it from musicians with a SoCal pedigree like tune guru Don Meade, who grew up in Torrance, and flute player Ben Power, now playing in the show “Come From Away,” who lived in San Diego for seven years.
If you’ve ever seen top uilleann piper Joey Abarta play, you’ll have a good sense of what the region has to offer. Abarta (who now lives in Boston) grew up in Los Angeles and spoke to me of a vital scene that included people Des Regan (a bar owner and button accordion player from Galway), Richard Gee, Paddy O’Neill, David Page (a student of Leo Rowsome), Frank Simpson, Kevin Crehan (Junior Crehan’s grandson), Patrick D’Arcy (his teacher), fiddle player Cait Reed (a friend of Joe Cooley and Kevin Keegan), and Barry O’Neill (who wrote the forwards for reprints of two of Francis O’Neill’s important books), and place like the Celtic Arts Center (which was founded by Brian Heron).
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I heard many of the same names from singer and bodhrán player Máirtín de Cógáin (www.mairtinmusic.com), a native of County Cork, who now calls San Diego home. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to see him, you’ll know de Cógáin is an absolute audience favorite everywhere he goes, from music camps throughout the country, to his bus tours in Ireland, and the many concert stages in between. (By the way, you know he’s is a regular on Joanie Madden’s cruise, joaniemaddencruise.com, right?)
Since arriving in San Diego seven years ago, he’s been impressed with how much is going on out there. He spoke to me about the Irish music (and language!) classes that are given at the House of Ireland in Balboa Park (www.houseofireland.org) and the work the Center for World Music (centerforworldmusic.org) does to bring Irish music into the schools, both endeavors with which he’s involved. It’s work like this that led the Irish Congress of Southern California to name him “Irish Man of the Year” for 2019. (The ICSC organizes the biggest St. Patrick’s Day parade west of the Rockies!)
The things that perhaps impressed de Cógáin the most are the scene’s commitment and high standard. “People – especially those who mightn’t have a ‘genetic’ connection to Ireland – are absolutely absorbed by the music,” he explained. He singled out folks like Ben Jaber, an uilleann piper who also plays French horn who does a lot of music for major motion pictures; Michael Eskin (appcordions.com), a musician and computer programmer who has designed very popular accordion, concertina, flute, whistle, bagpipe, and hammered dulcimer apps for iOS and Android devices; and fiddle players Pete Polansky and Jonathan Parker, all musicians with which de Cógáin plays, as being particularly important in the area’s vibrant community.
Part of what has sustained the music there are a few hallowed, longtime sessions that foster the music on a weekly basis. Everyone I spoke with mentioned the session at Mrs. Robinson’s (which used to be Timmy Nolan’s) in Los Angeles, which has been going for well over ten years and is hosted by Dan Conroy and Pat D’Arcy; the session at the Auld Dubliner in Long Beach (aulddubliner.com), which has been going on for fifteen years and is hosted by Michael Eskin and has featured Patrick D’Arcy, John O’Hara, Kevin Creehan, Patti Amelotte, Kira Ott, Melanie Nolley, Karen Andrews, Skyler BlakesleeBarry Fischer, Amy Law, Tim Taylor, Matt Tonge, and Georgiana Hennesssy; and the one at the Ould Sod (www.theouldsod.com) in San Diego, which has happened under Eskin and George Rubsamen’s watchful eyes every Tuesday night for almost twenty years.
But by all accounts, the region’s lifeblood is the Southern California Uilleann Pipers Club (www.socalpipers.com). Formed in 1997 by pipers D’Arcy and Gabriel McKeagney, the club is open to anyone interested in the uilleann pipes. They hold monthly meetings, provide instruction & instrument loans, and have had a significant impact on the development of Irish music in California.
The SCUPC’s big event is its annual “Tionól,” or piping convention. Since 2000, the club invites a couple of prominent uilleann pipers to San Juan Capistrano for a weekend of instruction and camaraderie. For many, it’s the only time they’re able to mix and mingle with other pipers while learning from top teachers. Fel Bautista, a Los Angeles-based piper and Tionól regular, spoke to me of the Tionól’s importance, particularly the amount of information that is provided both in and out of the workshops, and also the crack. Each year he looks forward to the “great bunch of people that come and play, both to teach and hang out.”
There’s a lot of dance to go with all this music, too – there seem to be many dance opportunities out there. De Cógáin spoke highly of Michael Prine and the Malone Academy of Irish Dance (www.maloneacademy.net), and singled out the Pride of Erin Céilí Dancers (www.pride-of-erin.com) as being a particularly active group. On January 11, de Cógáin will call the Comhaltas céilí in Normal Heights. It was a monster affair last year, with 100 people in attendance!
Those from southern California interested in getting involved in traditional music more generally should be aware that Comhaltas has built a more robust presence in the area. Formed in 2018, Ceol na nAingeal (www.comhaltasla.com) is the new Los Angeles branch. Craobh Barry Cogan (www.sandiegocomhaltas.org), which was founded by Prine and Judy Carlstrom, at the behest of de Cógáin’s father, was also recently founded and already has a membership in excess of twenty people.
Don’t sleep on southern California! Sure, it mightn’t have an Irish community the size of the ones in places like New York and Boston, but the passion for the music is absolutely there and waiting to be found. Keep an eye open for it next time you’re in the neighborhood, you won’t be disappointed!
A special supplement on Southern California is contained in this week’s Irish Echo.