Irish dancers and musicians will have no trouble remembering Muriel Prickitt, who passed away at age 87 on June 7 at Samaritan Hospice in Voorhees, N.J ., following a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. She was simply everywhere and had a hand in virtually everything relating to Irish music and dance.
An exquisite set dancer and legendarily fast accordion player, this force of nature was known by all. She is mourned—and celebrated—by friends and relations almost past counting.
One of those who honors her memory is Gerry Buckley, of Ardagh in County Limerick, Ireland. Buckley was a founding member of the Delaware Valley chapter of Irish music, dance and cultural organization Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. In 1989, the newly wed Gerry and wife Fiona moved to Voorhees, N.J., where they met Muriel Prickitt through the set dance community.
“My wife was a set dancer before she moved over,” Buckley recalls. “She was looking for someplace where she could go set dancing, and she met Muriel and (Prickitt’s companion) Tom Quinn. I forget where they actually met, but they got to talking and Muriel mentioned that she was going for set dance lessons in Jenkintown. She said, ‘Why don’t you come along?’ and that was it.”
That was the beginning of a lifelong relationship that eventually extended to the Buckleys’ now grown-up children, Gráinne and Rónán. Prickitt was one of a group of people who cared for the kids when the Buckleys were working or Gerry was back in Ireland.
“We didn’t think of her as a babysitter,” Buckley says. “She was a nana. Muriel’s house was like a second home to all of us and to a lot of people in the area and to a lot of musicians.”
With Fiona, Prickitt went on to create the highly regarded Shanagolden Dancers.
Long after the Buckleys moved back to Ireland in 2003, Prickitt kept up the relationship. She was the kind who didn’t let go of friends.
And Muriel Prickitt had many.
Jackie Kelly, of Cherry Hill, N.J., former public relations officer for Delaware Valley CCÉ, was another close acquaintance who met Prickitt through dance.
Jackie and her husband John had been interested in learning set dance—they were already experienced ceili dancers—so they went to a workshop, sponsored by Fiona Buckley. John and Jackie were paired with Muriel and Tom, who lived nearby, and that’s how they got to know each other.
Jackie recalls a time, early in the relationship, when she and John were invited to a CCÉ meeting at the MacSwiney Club in Jenkintown. Prickitt made sure they got a seat close to the front so they could hear and see better.
“It just took off from there right away,” she says. “I thought, “wow, she’s really the belle of the ball here. She was that way. That was Muriel. She just made people comfortable and feel right at home.”
Muriel and Tom were also known for entertaining in the basement rec room of their home, which they had christened “Quinny’s Pub.”
Close friend Eileen Glenn was another who first encountered Muriel Prickitt through dance. “Probably it was in the early 1990s when I first began dancing,” she says. “Muriel was there, and she was always warm, inviting outgoing, and she embraced everybody she knew.”
Prickitt also had a talent for organization. “She was the perfect planner,” Glenn says. “Oh my goodness, what this woman could do.”
But Glenn also quickly realized that her friend had serious musical gifts. Prickitt was, for one, an exceptional pianist, a baby grand in her living room, with a broad repertoire that included spirituals and classical compositions.
Prickitt, she recalls, was full of personality. “She had an infectious laugh. It really tore us apart. She just had so many funny things happen to her and she just laughed it off.”
Among her other talents, Glenn says, was her ability to mimic Marlene Dietrich, singing in German. She’d throw her legs up on a bar stool, holding a cigarette that she kept in the freezer in one hand—she didn’t smoke—and a cocktail in the other.
As lighthearted as Prickitt could be, she had a serious and devout side. Prickitt, deeply religious, was well known for organizing the famous Palm Sunday Ceili in the Starlight Ballroom, to benefit the Heart of Camden, a project of Sacred Heart Church Pastor Father Michael Doyle and Sister Peg Hynes, SSJ. When Sister Peg was killed in an auto accident on Dec. 21, 2002—Muriel Prickitt and Tom Quinn were also in the car and were seriously injured—the whole focus became a dedication to Sister Peg, with the proceeds benefiting a scholarship fund for kids going to Sacred Heart School.
Kathy DeAngelo and husband Dennis Gormley, who together form the duo McDermott’s Handy, also first began to know Prickitt through set dancing. Traditional Irish music, though, DeAngelo says, came later.
Prickitt was a sight reader—she worked off sheet music—and traditional Irish music generally isn’t taught that way. It’s more by ear.
Prickitt initially expressed an interest in learning harp from DeAngelo, but it didn’t take. Then she took tin whistle lessons from Gormley, but that didn’t suit her, either. But Prickitt also played accordion, and eventually started to get the hang of Irish music.
“She had always been a dancer, she had done set dancing as a kid, but all of a sudden that spark about actually playing the music took over for her,” says DeAngelo. “She had a tremendous ear, a terrific sense of rhythm and time. And once she got bitten by the bug and she figured that she could play by ear, she was off to the races. And I mean that literally because she eventually became a real speed demon.” (So much so, that the degree to which a tune moved along was humorously measured in “Muriels.”)
She became well-known for playing in local ceili bands, often alongside her friend and mentor, the late great button accordion player Kevin McGillian. She was also a long-timer at traditional Irish music sessions at the Treehouse coffeehouse in Audubon and Tir na nOg in Trenton.
Bob Glennan and son Patch often played in sessions with her.
Bob Glennan, who plays guitar, liked to sit alongside Prickitt, and the feeling was mutual. “I know that there were many times that I would sit with her, and she would next with me. She’d say, ‘I need you because I want to hear your timing.’ But I would say, I need you because I want to hear your timing. So we never won on that argument, but we always wound up seated close together many times over the years—but I guess the best memories were always when we just visited her house and played music.”
Patch, who plays fiddle, was very young when he took up the instrument, starting to learn traditional Irish music. At the time, he says, he knew perhaps 20 tunes. Muriel Prickitt, of course, knew far more, but, he adds, she was always learning.
“I remember going to the dances and sessions,” he says, “and a new tune would be introduced, and she would say, ‘Wow, I just worked on this one.’ That was really neat. She really stood out to me. She had a young spirit.”
Patch also recalls a time at a dance when an afghan Prickitt had crafted was auctioned off. He purchased tickets, hoping to win it. Luck wasn’t on his side, and he lost out. “She said, ‘That’s OK—I’ll make you one.’ It doesn’t fit me anymore, but it did at the time, and I still have it.”
On the day she died, Muriel Prickitt was surrounded by the love of her friends. In fact, Bob and Patch Glennan were probably among the last to see her before she passed away.
Jackie and John Kelly also dropped in, earlier in the day. “”I wanted to go see her,” she says. “I knew she wasn’t in good shape. I just wanted to say my goodbyes to her. She was conscious, but not communicating. I took her hand and I mentioned who we were and that we were there. She grasped my hand gently. She was aware of somebody she knew was there. The night before I went, I talked to Gerry and Fiona and they said, ‘If you go, please tell her that Gerry and Fiona love her with all their heart.’ I said that, and she gripped my hand even more.”
Eileen Glenn was with her at the end.
“She was very, very close to the Lord,” Glenn says. “And I know that she’s there now. She’s probably ripping up the heavens with her music and dancing.”
Muriel Prickitt’s funeral is scheduled for Wednesday at 11 a.m. at St. Andrews Church in Voorhees, N.J. Social distancing applies.
In lieu of flowers, a Muriel’s Memorial Dance, sponsored by the Philadelphia Group, will be sponsored in the future at the Philadelphia Irish Center. Checks can be made payable to Philadelphia Ceili Group. Be sure to include “Muriel Prickitt” in the note line. Send to Philadelphia Ceili Group, Anne McNiff, 137 E. Meehan Street, Philadelphia PA 19119.