We’re just a year away from the 40th anniversary of the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival. What started out as a one-day outdoor event at Fischer’s Pool, above Lansdale, is now a three-day celebration of Irish music, dance and culture headquartered at that most Irish of Philadelphia places, the Commodore Barry Club at Carpenter and Emlen in the city’s Mount Airy neighborhood.
We recently chatted with the Ceili Group’s Anne McNiff, to find out what to expect at this year’s festival.
Is it hard for you to believe this is the 39th anniversary?
No, I guess not for me. I’ve only been around for a couple of them. Some of my fellow board members are more generationally tied to it. It might be harder for them to believe. Fischer’s Pool was a big, sprawling property, and it was all outside. That must have been logistically interesting!
What’s new this year?
This year, one of the big changes is that we’re going to have, running currently with the ceili back in the ballroom is a “rambling house” in the Fireside Room in the front of the house. In past years we’ve had a concert on that night, but it just has never taken off the way we would have liked it to. We wanted to have another option for people on Friday night. The rambling house is a little less formal than a concert. Gabriel Donohue is hosting it, and he’s a great entertainer all by himself. He’s hosted the singers’ night in the past, so we know what a good host he is. He’ll invite people to come up and give a song or a recitation. He’ll have the opportunity to invite different musicians to come up and play, maybe along with him, maybe by themselves.
It’s a huge plus that he has relationships with many musicians, not just here in New York, but in New York. He’s gotten Joanie Madden to come here as a guest. She’s certainly going to be a draw. It will be much less formal than what a regular concert would be. That is a big change.
It seems like you have always favorites, some sure-fire hits, like (singer) Matt Ward.
Matt Ward is really a perennial favorite. We get a lot of comments about Matt; he doesn’t sing locally a lot. Frank Malley (longtime festival chairman) was the first to bring him on board. It’s become a tradition for Matt to be invited to come by on Singers’ Night. (Thursday the 12th.) People say they don’t get to see him, except at this place and this time.
Looks like the Saturday workshops are free for Ceili Group members.
Last year we had the lovely opportunity to offer our workshops for free. That aspect of the festival was being funded by a grant. We had such a great response to that. We used it as a way to attract people to the festival, and to get them to commit to membership. It was such a positive thing that, when we talked about what to do differently, we agreed that we wanted to carry that on again this year.
This year we have a couple of new workshops, including an Irish calligraphy workshop. Also very cool and a little bit of a departure, we have local author Kenneth Milano, who will be doing a workshop from 3:30 to 5:30 on the Philadelphia nativist riots.
This year for your Saturday night concert, you have Tony DeMarco’s band, and (singer and flutist) Nuala Kennedy. That’s an interesting pairing.
Tony, of course, has played at Philadelphia Ceili Group events before, so he has to be an old favorite. Nuala Kennedy, on the other hand … she’s new. She’s not played a lot in Philadelphia. She has a big following in Europe, and I believe in New York, I know she tours a lot. She is all over the place.
I saw her some time ago at Gene Shay’s Song Salon. He was hosting it in a small venue that had all kinds of eclectic acts, and Nuala Kennedy was one of them. She and I got to talking. I told her that we do a big festival, and I asked her, is this something you’d be interested in, and she was. Recently, we got back in contact. I found out she tours not just with (guitarist) John Doyle but also with (guitarist, bouzouki player and singer) Eamon O’Leary. I just love the idea of introducing her to a broader Philadelphia audience. People are going to love her.