Music, Dance, Workshops, Genealogy, Food and More: The 2019 Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival

Rosaleen McGill has been volunteering for the Philadelphia Ceili Group Traditional Music & Dance Festival since she was 8 or 9 years old. “It was a great tradition in which to grow up. It felt like being raised by a village. And people were always excited to tell me about their instrument or try to teach me a few words of Gaelic or how to make a St. Brigid’s Cross. There was always so much to get involved in and a beautiful range of ages.”

Now, here she is in her early 30s, and it never gets tired. Obviously not, because she’s on the board of the Ceili Group.

Just as obviously, the festival holds an incredible amount of appeal for her—and, she suggests, that’s as it should be, not just for her, but for anyone even the least bit interested in their Irish heritage and culture.

This year’s festival is certainly no exception.

“It’s a unique showcase of Irish culture,” McGill says. “It’s nice to have a culture all your own to dive deep into and examine the traditions and language and stories and the instruments that we have created, and not just celebrate the history, but all facets.”

The festival takes place September 12-14 at the Commodore John Barry Arts & Cultural Center (more familiarly known as the Irish Center), 6815 Emlen Street in Philly’s Mount Airy neighborhood.

For a lot of folks who attend the festival—this one is the 45th—the highlight is typically the Saturday night concert, which this year features the renowned New York Sligo-style fiddler Tony DeMarco and his band, the Atlantic Wave. Those concerts typically draw quite a crowd.

But if you’ve never gone—and we’ve taken in the festival many times—there is so much more to pique your interest. Indeed, as McGill suggests, there’s really something for everyone.

A number of examples:

  • A Thursday night singers night hosted by well-known local musician Terry Kane.
  • A Friday night ceili dance, with music by the McGillians and Friends, and a Rambling House, hosted by the River Drivers with special guest Brían Ó hAirt (Brian Hart) of the band Bua.
  • Also Friday night—and this is new—the Quintessence Theatre Group will perform a scene from its upcoming Synge Festival.
  • A huge array of Saturday workshops, including Ó hAirt, who will be on hand to teach sean-nós (old style) dance; tin whistle for beginners, taught by Dennis Gormley; Irish language for beginners and conversational Irish, led by Poilin Ni Dhuill; a genealogy workshop, led by genealogy maven Lori Lander Murphy; fiddle for beginners, taught by Kathy DeAngelo; story through song, led by Alice Smyth; the seven habits of effective trad players, taught by Damian Connelly and Jonathan Srour; and New York fiddle tunes by Saturday night headliner Tony DeMarco and bodhran taught by Anna Colliton. Donie Carroll, another Saturday night concert performer, will lead a song workshop. (Make reservations for workshops here.)
  • Also Saturday, Chris Brennan Hagy will host a Philly Seisiún Sampler, featuring players from many of the area’s traditional Irish sessions, and an appearance by the Temple University dance team (go Owls). And for the kids, says, there’s plenty of family-friendly activities, including a kids’ story time, featuring seanchaí (story-teller) Tom Coughlin; St. Brigid’s Cross-making; Irish cartoons; coloring and face-painting.
  • Rounding things out on this exhausting Saturday, an afternoon showcase featuring uilleann piper Ivan Goff and fiddler Katie Linnane. And there’s more, including many Irish and Celtic vendors.

One new addition to the festival lineup: a wide array of food for purchase Thursday and Friday night. “That’s exciting,” says McGill. “They’re trying it out to see if they can expand it throughout the year as a revenue stream for the Irish Center. It’s not the same old mozzarella sticks and French fries. Vegetarian food will be included.”

There’s also going to be a tribute to the late fiddler Eugene O’Donnell.

Given the importance of preserving both the tradition and the Irish Center itself, McGill is hoping to attract many younger people to the festival. There are some significant reasons for that.

“These traditions are fascinating. This is really where the roots of a lot of music like bluegrass and all that Appalachian music comes from. It’s just exploring all the different links that all these cultures share together.”

It’s also important to draw in other Irish and Irish-Americans who are part of other traditions—of which there are many, such as Gaelic athletics and Irish rock music.

“It’s both a blessing a curse that we are such a multifaceted people,” McGill says. “We have so many niches in our culture, like artistically, and still be so different from each other. Hopefully, the Irish Center is going to blossom as a place for that, where all the communities can really get to know each other and support each other.”

For details on the festival and tickets, visit the Ceili Group website.

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