Philadelphia’s Irish community is known for its musical family dynasties.
There are the Boyces—brothers Michael and John are the linchpins of the Celtic rock group Blackthorn, while sister Karen, formerly with the group, Causeway, still sings solo at many Irish events. The McGillians—they’re Boyce cousins—include accordion player John and guitarist Jimmy. Sister Mary will burn up a keyboard now and again. There’s John, Judy, and Eugenia Brennan, a perfect trio of guitar and fiddle, keyboard, and voice. And siblings Dylan and Haley Richardson, a guitarist and fiddler respectively, have already produced their first CD and they’re not even out of their teens.
Now, these musical siblings have to make room for the McGroarys. Donegal brothers Seamus and Raymond are well known in the area. Both singers and guitarists, they’ve played most of the Irish musical pubs in the city and suburbs though, Raymond says, “Seamus play a lot more bars than I do. I mostly play events and people’s parties.”
The brothers, who rarely play together, will be headlining one big event as part of a McGroary trio on Sunday—The Gathering, an annual event at The Irish Center featuring music, food, kids’ activities, and raffles. For the first time, they’ll be joined on stage by their niece, Leanne, a 17-year-old senior at Haverford High School, a self-taught guitarist and singer. Her father is Colin, another McGroary brother. The three men emigrated to the US from the small town of Letterbarrow, County Donegal, located in the Blue stack Mountains near Donegal Town.
The McGroary’s entrée to music came indirectly from Colin, says Raymond, who is with the painters’ union in Philadelphia. “Colin started learning to play the guitar, but then he put it away and didn’t touch it. I found it in the shed, replaced the strings, dusted it off, and put it to good use.”
Another brother, Alan, who still lives in Ireland, picked it up next. “Then Seamus learned it from Alan, until that particular guitar couldn’t take it anymore!”
He says he’s fairly sure that Leanne picked up her musical inclinations from he and Seamus, though it may have been by osmosis. “When we’re back in Ireland together we all head to O’Neill’s pub in Letterbarrow and there are epic music sessions that go on till morning. She’s always been too young to go, but I’m sure she’s heard about it.”
Actually, no, says Leanne, although she’s been “singing all my life.” She’s ventured out on the stage at school, where she’s had parts in three school musicals, Grease, Footloose, and Legally Blonde. “That’s what has made me more confident,” she says.
She’s no stranger to performing. This year she “retired” from Irish dancing; she’d been a stepdancer with the McDade Cara School in Delaware County for 14 years. Yes, she acknowledges, 17 is young to retire “but not from dance,” which is both physically demanding and time-consuming. This year, she’s dealing with plenty—including deciding on her future. She’s planning to study business and marketing in college with an eye to opening her own beauty shop. “I love to do makeup and hair, it’s something I really enjoy, but I’d like to know the business aspect of it before I decide to go to beauty school.”
Though both her father and mother, Fidelma, are Irish immigrants, Leanne confesses that “I actually don’t know any Irish songs on the guitar. I know, I know,” she laughs. “It’s horrible. But they’re much harder to play than pop songs.”
Fortunately, her uncles can accompany her on the songs she loves to sing—like Katy Perry’s “The One That got Away;” Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie;” Carrie Underwood’s “Just a Dream;” and “Rip Tide,” by Australian singer Vance Joy, who was born James Keogh. “They know all my usual songs,” she says. “I performed at our family picnic and they’ve chimed in. I’m planning to email them the songs I’m planning on and the chords, and hopefully we’ll be fine on Sunday.”
You can find out for yourself at The Gathering, which starts at 10:30 AM at the Irish Center, 6815 Emlen Street, Philadelphia, with a full Irish breakfast cooked on site. WTMR radio personality and Irish Center President Vincent Gallagher will be broadcasting his Irish radio show starting at 11 AM, and there will also be performances by the Emerald Pipe and Drum Band, which is headquartered at the center, and the Cummins School of Irish Dance, which also calls the center home. There will be food from The Irish Coffee Shop in Upper Darby, kids’ activities, face painting, and raffles. Admission is free.
Below is a short video of Leanne singing.
See photos below from last year’s festivities.