On Sunday, November 18, 2018, when Sister Frances Kirk, SSJ, is honored by the Delaware Valley Irish Hall of Fame, it will be for a lifetime devoted to education and service. But it was as chairperson and organizer of Project Children for over 30 years that she was able to make an extraordinary impact on the lives of thousands of children in both the United States and Ireland.
Born in 1932 in Northeast Philadelphia to parents Frank Joseph Kirk and Elizabeth Rose “Lizzie” Falls, who had come over from County Tyrone in the early 1920s, Sister Frances has always embraced her Irish heritage. Nine of the 14 siblings in her mother’s family left their village of Glenelly Valley to make Philadelphia their home, but they kept in close touch with the ones who stayed behind. “Letters, letters, letters,” Sister Frances explained. “And money, money, money. Every letter had to have a five pound note in it. There was no money at home.”
The oldest of the five siblings in her own family, Sister Frances came to the convent at age 19. Though she took a year off after graduating high school to work, she had no doubt that her life would be devoted to the Sisters of St. Joseph. Continue Reading
Those were words spoken to Denise Foley—in a good way!—back in 2015 in the middle of her dedicated campaign on the Irish Philadelphia Facebook page to raise money for the Commodore John Barry Arts & Cultural Center in Mount Airy. The Irish Center was looking at thousands of dollars in repairs and back taxes, and as part of the group that had come together to make sure the doors of the center didn’t close, Denise was going to make sure they succeeded.
And succeed they did, raising over $83,000. For Denise, the triumph was as much in how they did it as in the fact that they did it. “This was another case where it was just a great group of people. Everybody did everything they could, everybody was 100 percent behind raising this money. And this was hundreds of people giving $10, $20 … all these people working together for something.” Continue Reading
Jimmy Fallon, eat your heart out! You may have made lip syncing cool, but last Friday night the Irish Immigration Center of Philadelphia filled the ballroom of the Paxon Hollow Golf Club in Broomall with its Lip Sync Challenge. Over 300 people turned out to cheer on the ten acts who performed like the entertainers they were channeling.
And the theme of the night was FUN.
One of the most important missions of the Immigration Center is its work with the seniors in the community, including a monthly lunch at the Irish Center in Mt. Airy, so it was only fitting that two of the acts, The Jailbirds and Seniors in Sync, were composed of seniors. Proving age has no season, they brought the house down with their performances, including interpretations of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Continue Reading
Tiernagh & Mia Moore and Meagan & Jenna Diver with their cards for Caolan & Conall
“It’s overwhelming how people just come together in situations like this. Situations that you don’t even think about before they happen.”
These are the words of Fidelma McGroary, and she knows what she’s talking about. Fidelma is one of five Delaware County women who organized last Sunday’s Garden Tea Party to raise money for two strong little boys who are fighting cancer.
Caolan Melaugh, the cousin of Fidelma’s sister-in-law in County Donegal, was diagnosed at four weeks with Neuroblastoma. Now four months old, Caolan is undergoing an 18 month protocol in Ireland to treat his cancer, but the best chance for a successful cure would mean treatment in either the U.S. or Europe. An expensive undertaking, the Caolan Melaugh Fund has been established online, and half of the money raised at Sunday’s Tea Party will be donated to Caolan.
Conall Harvey is much closer to home. The five year old, whose family is part of St. Denis Parish in Havertown and whose great-grandmother was the late Rosabelle Gifford, was diagnosed in March of this year with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. The Leukemia was discovered when Conall was admitted to the ER with what his parents thought was dehydration from a stomach virus. But instead of a stomach virus, Conall’s body had gone into septic shock from a bacterial infection that his immune system was too weak to fight off. Doctors amputated both Conall’s legs at the knee and part of his hand to save his life; the other half of the money raised Sunday will go directly to Conall’s family as he undergoes chemotherapy and rehabilitation.
“These are two special little boys,” Fidelma said. “And we decided we weren’t going to let another day go by without doing something to help them. We’ve been talking about giving back and paying it forward for years. I wanted to do something for Caolan, and then we heard about Conall. That’s how it started.
“This could not have happened without Louise Moore, Sharon Doogan, Kathy McGuinness and Colette Gallagher-Mohan. And the people who donated raffle baskets and food and their time. Everybody lifted the phone and said ‘What can I bring?’ And then the word started to spread, that’s the people of the Irish Community.”
Another group that was instrumental in making the Garden Tea Party so successful was their children. “They did all the decor. They did everything, we couldn’t have done it without them,” Fidelma said. “It was important that the kids were a part of this. I wanted them to grow up realizing how blessed they are and to learn to give back. So when they grow up and we’re old and gone, they’ll carry on.”
The special guest of the day was Mairead Comaskey, the Philadelphia Rose of Tralee. Beautiful and gracious, Mairead could usually be found with a trail of young girls in her wake. In addition to judging the best-dressed contests, she happily posed for pictures and shared her sash and crown with the crowd. In a few weeks, Mairead is off to Tralee for the International Rose Pageant, but on Sunday her heart was with Caolan and Conall.
At the time of the fundraiser, Conall Harvey was still recovering at CHOP, but his aunt, Rose Harvey Kurtz, was at the event. “Conall is just a beautiful bright light, a beautiful spirit,” she said. “He’s a fighter. His school dedicated a day to him, and the motto was ‘Conall Strong.’ We do down to visit him to brighten his day, and instead he brightens ours.
“The outpouring of love and faith is keeping us going. There’s something about Conall’s spirit that is bringing out the love and goodness in people. People’s faith is coming back. The positive thing is the strength of the family and friends who are so supportive, and the beautiful people who do beautiful things like this. It’s overwhelming how good people are.”
You can see all the photos from the Garden Tea Party below.
We’re still not quite finished with this year’s St. Patrick’s Day experience in Philadelphia.
We’ve had many requests for the speech that Kathy McGee Burns, President of the Irish Memorial and Grand Marshal of this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, gave at The Memorial (located at Front and Chestnut Streets) on March 17th. So here is the video, and the transcript, of her eloquent expression of not only the story of her Irish family’s experience, but the experience of so many who left their homeland for a better life. And found it.
ST. PATRICK’S DAY SPEECH AT THE IRISH MEMORIAL, BY KATHY MCGEE BURNS, MARCH 17, 2015
“Good afternoon. As you know, I’m Kathy McGee Burns, President of the Irish Memorial, and I’m grateful to be giving this speech because as we all gaze upon this beautiful monument, it tells a story. The story I’m going to tell you is of my family; but it could be any one of your families. That monument depicts many aspects of the Irish.
My great-great grandparents, Cornelius and Kate McGee had six children. Four of them were forced out of Ireland. They all lived in Gweedore, County Donegal, and the McGees were tenants on their own land, forced to pay high rents. That is because the landlord really wanted the land for the grazing of his high-bred English and Scottish lambs and sheep. We were in the way. They thought more of their sheep than our people. So their son, Thomas McGee, got on one of those ships and headed to the Port of Philadelphia. His people were miners and railroaders and servants, but the result of their tenacity and their Irish spirit is part of the fiber of Philadelphia.
They were the builders of St. Malachy’s in North Philadelphia. That’s where Irish children were educated by the Sisters of Mercy. One of those children was my grandmother, Mary Josephine Callahan. Religion was one of the stepping stones to Irish success in Philadelphia; through the nuns and priests who educated us, to the bishops and the cardinals and the parish system which was a powerful builder of Irish success.
Well, Mary Jo and her husband Hugh McGee had a son, Timothy, my father. He was brought up in Swampoodle and I bet if I took a chance, many of you here were from Swampoodle. He graduated from Roman Catholic High School, went to work for the ‘Ac-a-me’ and then started his own business. He was highly successful.
The Irish built these cities through their unions, their bricklayers, their builders, their electricians, the operating engineers, the McCloskeys and the Kellys.
Tim McGee, my father, had four children. He made sure we were educated. Each one of us have graduate degrees. And I am proudly married to an operating engineer. The Irish have gained power by their involvement in the law. They were firemen, policemen, attorneys, politicians and judges. Well, the great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius McGee is none other than my own daughter, the Honorable Kelly Wall, who became a judge.
So this is what The Irish Memorial is to all of us, given an opportunity in this world, this city. It represents the hardships, the ‘Irish Need Not Applies,’ the many avenues of Irish Philadelphia education—Villanova, St. Joe’s, my own school, Chestnut Hill College. It represents Boathouse Row and the lighting of Philadelphia by the electricians’ union. So we owe our love and respect to our ancestors, and a huge thank you to those who conceived the plan and raised the money and built what is known as the most beautiful monument in the world to honor ‘An Gorta Mor.’
Denise has seen the sisters play in Inishowen, I’ve seen one of the sisters (Jolene) play in Buncrana; of course we were going to see the Henry Girls play when they came to us (although, frankly, we’d both rather be in Donegal seeing them play). So last Friday, when Karen, Lorna and Jolene performed at Burlap and Bean, in Newtown Square, along with musician Ry Cavanaugh, we were there. Denise got a few photos, I got a few videos (the atmosphere was small, intimate and dark, so the visual quality isn’t that great; just listen to their magical, musical harmonies). And when they closed the evening with their a cappella version of “The Parting Glass,” they did indeed bring joy to us all.
The Henry Girls have three CDs they’ve recorded: “Dawn,” “December Moon,” and “Louder Than Words.” All three are unique, yet showcase the rare and particular unison in which the sisters play and sing.
Their recordings are available for purchase through their website, The Henry Girls, as well as for download on iTunes.
So, check out their music, and then add it to your collection; it’s music you’ll want to listen to on repeat.
How do the judges, lawyers, law students (and their friends!) of Irish descent rejoice in the St. Patrick’s Day season in Philly? They gather their members of The Brehon Law Society together, get John Byrne & Maura Dwyer of The John Byrne Band to play some music and they meet at Tir na nOG in the city on March 11th. With a great turnout, and the food & drink superb, the craic was mighty.
And, with guests like Patrick Murphy, the former Pennsylvania Congressman and current host of MSNBC’s monthly program “Taking the Hill” (which is airing this Sunday, March 22, at 1PM Eastern Time), in attendance, you can always count on The Brehons to throw an exceptional shindig!
Check out our photos from the evening, and see who else showed up for the party.
Caitriona O’Leary’s Enthralling Arrangement of The Wexford Carols
Christmas music evokes the spirit and sublime essence of the season, and Caitriona O’Leary has captured all that is meaningful about the Yuletide in her new CD, “The Wexford Carols,” by restoring original tunes to the 17th century poems and singing them in her glorious voice.
Caitriona, the Donegal born singer known for her ethereal voice and for her group DULRA, became captivated by The Wexford Carols 25 years ago when she first heard Noirin Ni Riain singing them on her album, “The Darkest Midnight.” The story behind the carols is part of Ireland’s dark history: Written as poems in 1684 by Luke Waddinge, Bishop of Ferns, County Wexford, they were published in “A Smale Garland of Pious & Godly Songs.” They were an expression of the politics of the time, and specifically Oliver Cromwell’s 1649 Sack of Wexford, which left the Irish Catholic gentry disenfranchised. The people found solace in this poetry, and began singing them to popular melodies of the era. In 1728, Father William Devereux composed his own version of the carols, titled “A New Garland Containing Songs for Christmas.” There were originally 22 songs, but only 12 are still sung annually in Wexford as part of the 12 days of Christmas. They were passed down as all traditional Irish songs have been—from “mouth to ear to mouth, through the generations.”
“Indeed, it is fascinating how songs are kept alive like that,” Caitriona said. “And how they develop and change, even if only tiny bit by tiny bit over the centuries. You can sometimes see this in songs that have been passed down orally in other regions—they may have started off the same but through the inevitable personal nuances of different singers end up quite different indeed. Look at how ‘Barbara Allen’ is sung in England versus Appalachia versus how it was written down in 18th century Scotland!”
Caitriona’s captivation with the carols led to her 25 year journey researching the history, and then thoroughly and meticulously recreating the original melodies to the songs.
“I listened to recordings of the traditional carolers in Kilmore (as well as hearing them live) and I read every scrap of history I could find. I was very fortunate to be able to hold in my hands and peruse an original 1728 edition of Waddinge’s ‘Garland’ (the second edition) in The National Library (Ireland) and had access to the treasure trove that is the Irish Traditional Music Archives,” Caitriona explained.
Some tunes were easier than others to restore to the poems.
“In the case of ‘An Angel This Night’ it wasn’t so hard at all; Waddinge intended for all of his poems to be sung and beneath the title of each is the instruction ‘To the tune of…’ In this case the tune in question was ‘Neen Major Neel.’ While the tune with that title is no longer known, two other Waddinge poems (‘On St. Stephen’s Day’ and ‘Song of the Circumcision, New Year’s Day’) are also to be sung to ‘Neen Major Neel’ and are both still sung traditionally. I have made the assumption that this is the original tune. In other cases, the prescribed tunes have been a little harder to hunt down. But by trawling through old ballad books and dance books from the 17th and 18th centuries, I did find some that I think are right. Like, for example, ‘This is Our Christmass Day’ which is supposed to be sung to the tune of ‘Bonny-brooe.’ I reckon that Waddinge probably meant ‘The Bonny Broom,’ a popular 17th century Scottish song.
“I really love these texts, the wonderful contrast between the humble and the lavish expressed in fabulously rich, yet accessible language. The tunes are beautiful, too, and the fact that so much of the tradition has been kept alive by the folk is really wonderful. Apart from ‘The Ennisworthy Carol’ (which is quite well known, generally by the name ‘The Wexford Carol’), these songs are almost unknown outside the parish in which they are still sung. And there is not a huge amount of traditional Irish Christmas music in the general repertoire. That fact also made these songs all the more precious to me. Also, I lived in New York for many years, and while there Irish culture took on a whole new meaning for me. Sometimes it takes exile to strengthen ties (the old ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’)!”
And how did her three co-vocalists come to be involved in the project?
“The producer of this record, the lovely Joe Henry, suggested Tom Jones and Rosanne Cash and also Rhiannon Giddens—whose star is rising very fast; she is a member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops and the New Basement Tapes (a ‘supergroup’ that also includes Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford). He had worked with all three in the past and thought they would be a good fit for the project—I think he was right! These three singers, along with the band of brilliant players, gathered in a circle around Joe and me in a former stable (that is now the Grouse Lodge Recording Studio) and gave their individual and collective artistic responses to the tunes as I sang them, and together we made this beautiful music.”
Beautiful. Stunning. Sublime. It takes more than one adjective to describe “The Wexford Carols.”
Watch the video of “The Angell Said to Joseph Mild:”