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Arts, Music

Outbid By a Princess, Mick Moloney to be Reunited With a Royal Collection of Irish Music

Irish musician and folklorist Mick Moloney recalls a time when he was still living in Philadelphia, and L.A.H. O’Donnell, who had retired from EMI Records and lived in Chestnut Hill, contacted him with an intriguing offer: a vast trove of Irish-American sheet music.

“He was offering the collection for $3,000,” Moloney says. “Well, at the time, I didn’t have $300.”

Scholar that he was and is, Moloney looked about for another suitable home for the music, which hearkened back to the Tin Pan Alley days and a little before. No one, including the Smithsonian, had the budget. That was the last he heard of the music, although he never forgot about the offer.

Ten years later, when his circumstances had improved, he called O’Donnell again.

“I asked, ‘Is that collection still for sale?’ He said, ‘Mick, you’re one week too late. Someone just bought it.’” Continue Reading


Nathan Carter: A Sneak Preview!

Here’s a good reason to keep your night before Thanksgiving open.

On Wednesday, November 21, Irish Country mega-star Nathan Carter will be on stage at the Commodore Barry Arts & Cultural Center (The Irish Center). Take a look at this video, and you’ll see what all the fuss is about.

Tickets are currently available online here or by contacting the Irish Center at (215) 843-8051.

The Irish Center is at 6815 Emlen St., Philadelphia, PA, 19119, in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia.

Arts, Audio

Audio Podcast: Interview with Peggy Mecham, Director of the Irish Heritage Theatre’s Presentation of “The Plough and the Stars”

The 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, which ultimately led to the liberation of Ireland after centuries of British rule—in all but six counties, of course—has been celebrated proudly in Philadelphia with parades and speeches. That historic event is about to be observed again in another way, through the words of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey—and through the eyes of the Dublin underclass.

From May 26 through June 11 at Plays and Players Theatre, the Irish Heritage Theatre is presenting O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars,” the final episode in O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy.  (Details and tickets here.)

IHT presented “The Shadow of a Gunman” two years ago, and “Juno and the Paycock” last year. It’s no accident that “The Plough and the Stars” is being presented in this, the centennial year. According to director Peggy Mecham, that was always part of the plan. The last two acts of the four-act play take place during the Rising, as experienced by Dublin tenement dwellers.

Mecham took a break during rehearsal to have a chat about O’Casey in general and “The Plough and Stars” in particular.

Arts, Music

For Percussionist Sean Kennedy, the Beat Goes On

Most people wouldn’t take an encounter with a vicious predator and turn it into music—especially music of such a high quality that it merits exposure at Carnegie Hall.

Sean Kennedy isn’t most people.

An accomplished percussionist and Upper Dublin School District music teacher, Kennedy recalls the moment back in August 2001 when he was snorkeling off the coast of Maui and he noticed a barracuda swimming alongside him, just a few feet away. Continue Reading


Family Portrait

Cesar Viveros

Cesar Viveros

Margie Riccheza, a fine arts student at Temple’s Tyler School of Art, is sitting cross-legged on the floor in a wide open studio on Vine Street, carefully applying a ribbon of dark pink paint onto a five-foot-square sheet of parachute cloth. Thin lines of ink delineate the area where she applies the paint, and that particular area is marked with a number corresponding to the color of paint she is to use in that space.

The whole sheet is like that—streaks and squiggles and amoeba-shaped spots bounded by thin lines, each space marked with a roughly drawn number. This is paint-by-the-numbers on a huge scale. Many brightly colored panels line the wall. Some are completed, and others—like this one—are works in progress.

At a table nearby, Monica Matthieu sits, snipping small bits of colored glass into rough-edged shapes, gluing them onto large flower-shaped forms. “It’s like a puzzle, but with color,” she says, smiling, but not looking up from her work. “It’s very relaxing.” Continue Reading

Arts, Music, News, People

James Joyce, Set to Music

John Feeley, left, with Joyce's guitar, and Fran O'Rourke.

John Feeley, left, with Joyce’s guitar, and Fran O’Rourke.

Had they consulted a marketing wizard before naming their CD, “JoyceSong: The Irish Songs of James Joyce,” singer Fran O’Rourke and classical guitarist John Feeley might called it “James Joyce’s Greatest Hits: A Soundtrack from the Collected Works of Ireland’s Foremost Writer.”

If you’ve casually read  The Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Finnigan’s Wake, or Ulysses, you may have missed Joyce’s musical references, though they’re prominent symbols throughout his body of work.

But Dublin’s favorite son was a singer and guitarist, the son of a singer and guitarist, who was leaning toward a musical career before he was captured by the lyricism and harmonies of language. In fact, he once shared a stage with renowned Irish tenor John McCormack. And his wife Nora, the inspiration for many of his female characters, once bitingly remarked, “Jim should have stuck to singing.”

Though writing took primacy over a career on the stage, Joyce remained captive to song—from Wagnerian opera to the Irish traditional music he learned as a boy, what O’Rourke, professor of philosophy at University College, Dublin, calls “the music of the people.”

O’Rourke and Feeley, who is considered Ireland’s leading classical guitarist, will be performing Joyce’s greatest hits on Saturday at 4 PM at the Rosenbach Museum and Library at 2008-2010 Delancey Place in Philadelphia, as part of the Rosebach’s annual “Bloomsday” festivities, marking the fine June day (June 16) Leopold Bloom wandered the streets of Dublin in the 900 pages of Ulysses. The Rosenbach houses one of Joyce’s handwritten copies of the book.

O’Rourke, whose first “artistic connection” with Joyce came when he was 14 and sang a traditional song on Irish television, “a line of which occurs in Finnegan’s Wake,” revisited Joyce as a scholar because of their mutual interest in philosophy. He was delighted—and remains delighted—to also find the music there.

“The story, ‘The Dead,’ from The Dubliners, almost the entire tenor of that story, the ‘mood music’ of that story, comes from the Irish traditional song, ‘The Lass of Aughrim,’” said O’Rourke, whom I met, with Feeley, this week in the lobby of their hotel in Center City. “The story is so sparse, so beautiful, not a word out of place. The atmosphere of the story was inspired by that song.”

It is the recreation of an Irish family party attended by one of the main characters, Gabriel, and his wife who, listening to someone singing the lachrymose song about a lover’s death at the party, finds her mind wandering back to her teenaged sweetheart, Michael Furey, who died of a cold after coming to visit her. When the two return to their hotel after the party, Gabriel faces the truth that he is not his wife’s first—nor greatest—love. You can see and hear Feeley and O’Rourke performing “The Lass of Aughrim,” with Feeley playing Joyce’s own guitar, here. 

Ulysses is composed of 18 episodes and in each episode a different art dominates,” says O’Rourke. “The episode called ‘Sirens’ is the counterpart of the sirens who bewitched Homer’s sailors in ‘The Odyssey,’ [the Greek story of Ulysses’s travels]. The episode takes place in a hotel where people are singing two songs. One is “The Croppy Boy” and the other is “The Last Rose of Summer,” by Thomas Moore. Practically every word is quoted or parodied in that episode.’

Those songs are part of the program the two musicians are bringing to the Rosenbach on Saturday, then to the Irish Embassy in Washington and Solas Nua, a DC nonprofit dedicated to the promotion of Irish arts, next week to honor both Joyce and Irish poet William Butler Yeats, whose 150th birthday is Saturday, June 13. Their tour is sponsored by Culture Ireland (Cultur Eireann), which provides funding for the presentation of Irish arts internationally, and, in Philadelphia, by the Irish Immigration Center.

One treat you can hear on their CD but not in concert is Feeley’s rendition of “Carolan’s Farewell” on Joyce’s guitar, which is now owned by the Irish Tourist Board and housed in the Joyce Tower Museum since 1966. In 2012, O’Rourke helped fund the guitar’s restoration (along, he says, with a “generous donation” from New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon) by UK luthier Gary Southwell.

It went from playable to barely playable, but Feeley was able to coax out the tune. “It was in very bad shape to begin with,” says Feeley. “Gary Southwell dated it to 1830, which means it was an old guitar when Joyce got it. It’s not a top guitar which you can see the way the finger board is worn down. As a guitar, it’s not particularly great, and that’s being generous, but it’s actually a sweet instrument, with a small sound. It also has a small problem. The turning pegs are irregular. They’ve worn down quite a bit so it tunes in installments.”

But, he says, that didn’t diminish the thrill of playing it. “It’s amazing,” says Feeley. “You feel you’re playing a piece of history.”

Because they’re only scheduled to play for an hour on Saturday, you also may miss the highly entertaining banter between the two men. How did they meet, I asked them.

“I had John’s first album,” said O’Rourke.

“At least he had some taste,” Feeley remarked with a glint in his eye.

“That first album was fabulous. Happily one day we met on the street  and said hello,” O’Rourke continued. “What was your first album anyway?” he asked, turning to Feeley.

“It was just called ‘John Feeley,’ actually,” said Feeley, returning the gaze. “It came out in 1985. I was two years of age.”

And so, I asked, are you two friends?

“Oh no. No, no,” said Feeley, barely surpressing a laugh.

“Intermittently,” deadpanned O’Rourke. “We have a lot in common.”

“Yes,” said Feeley. “We live in the same country.”

You don’t need to be a Joyce scholar—or even a fan—to enjoy the JoyceSong concert, but a love of Irish traditional music helps. Purists may be thrilled to hear O’Rourke’s and Feeley’s rendition of “Down by the Salley Gardens”—one of Yeats’ compositions– which is historically accurate. That is, it may not be the tune you’ve heard or played—it’s been done by everyone from John McCormack to the Everly Brothers, the Clancys and Black 47. But it’s probably the one Joyce sang in his sweet though thin tenor voice.

You have a second chance to hear John Feeley this weekend. He’ll be playing classical guitar the the Settlement Music School, 416 Queen Street in Philadelphia, at 3 PM Sunday, a concert sponsored by the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society. 


“Shadow of a Gunman” Comes to Philly

Josephine Patane and Dexter Anderson

Josephine Patane and Dexter Anderson

That’s the Irish People all over—they treat a serious thing as a joke and a joke as a serious thing.
Seumas Shields

People make assumptions about poet Donal Davoren. When he takes up lodging in the flat of friend Seumas Shields in the Dublin slums, the other tenants make a rash assumption. They assume he is a gunman for the Irish Republican Army, and at a particularly turbulent time—1920, during the War of Independence. It’s a charade Davoren is happy to play out, especially since it helps him woo and win another tenant, the winsome Minnie Powell.

Plays about mistaken identity are often played for laughs. Sometimes this one is. But Irish playwright Sean O’Casey doesn’t let the audience off that easily.

“Shadow of a Gunman” is the first play in O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy. It makes its debut courtesy of Philadelphia’s Irish Heritage Theatre Dexter April 10-26 at the Skybox at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street in Center City. Dexter Anderson plays the title character. Peggy Mechum and John Gallagher direct.

All of the action takes place in Shields’s tenement flat. On a practical level, this makes the play easier to present, says producer Armen Pandola.

“It’s easier for the set designer,” he explains. “There’s not a lot of set changing going on.”

On another level, concentrating the action to one room was part of O’Casey’s modus operandi. “O’Casey was a big believer in time and place. It all takes place in one time and in one place.”

That one place, a room in a tenement, happens to be situated amid a sea of violence and discord. It was a time of revolution, a time when nationalists struggled to regain their own country by force of arms—and a time when almost anyone who was Irish, regardless of their loyalties, could be stopped, humiliated, brutalized, put away and possibly killed by paramilitaries acting on behalf of the British government.

“Shadow of a Gunman” focuses on those caught in the crossfire. “O’Casey had a very different view of the revolution,” Pandola says. “It was the people who suffered for it.” In this sense, everything that transpires in that one room encapsulates all of the suffering into one place and one time.

As with any play featuring Irish characters, American-born actors face a difficult challenge—how to actually sound Irish without crossing the line into territory. PR Director Kirsten Quinn has a lot of useful tips as she coaches the actors, but one in particular is particularly interesting: “If you imagine putting a cork in your mouth and talking around the cork … that’s Irish. “You don’t want to sound like a leprechaun. This is a standard Dublin dialect.”

Listening to the actors rehearse one night last week in a long, mirrored room cluttered with chairs, it’s clear that they’re “getting it.”

You’ll hear more Irish accents as the months go on. The next two plays of the trilogy are yet to come: “Juno and the Paycock” in the fall, and “The Plough and the Stars” next spring, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

“Shadow of a Gunman” wasn’t exactly “The Sound of Music” when it debuted at the Abbey Theatre in 1923. “It was a huge risk for him (O’Casey) to put up this material,” notes Pandola. And ”The Plough and the Stars” touched off something of a riot.

This is gritty stuff, and it does a pretty fair job of playing with your emotions. For all of its gentle humor, “Shadow of a Gunman” grabs you by the throat toward the end. Don’t miss it.