The world of Irish music and dance is mourning the passing of the supremely gifted fiddler Eugene O’Donnell. News of his death came Friday, June 28, from his longtime musical partner, multi-instrumentalist and folklorist Mick Moloney.
In the Philadelphia area, he is best known for that partnership. He was also a founding member of the Philadelphia Ceili Group.
As a fiddler, he was renowned for his mastery of slow airs—although he certainly had a broad repertoire—but for many in this region, he was also known as one of the greatest step dancers ever to have taken to the floor.
According to Compass Records, for which he recorded, O’Donnell “began Irish dancing at the age of three and was the first Irish dancer ever to dance on television in London at the age of 12, all the while playing and perfecting Derry-style Irish fiddling. As a teen, O’Donnell won an unprecedented five consecutive All-Ireland dancing championships.”
O’Donnell arrived in Philadelphia from Derry in 1957. From there, it didn’t take long for him to begin sharing his many gifts.
Many recall him for his superb musical skills, but they also remember him as one of the finest, most inventive, and occasionally the most exacting of dance instructors.
People have been celebrating their Irish heritage by taking in The Philadelphia Irish Festival at Penns Landing for more than 20 years. That translates to thousands of Irish or those who just want to be Irish for the day. You can add to those impressive stats. The festival is coming up again on June 2. Best of all—it’s free.
Part of the PECO Multicultural Series, the festival offers a day of great Irish tunes, dance, food and drink, vendors, and plenty of activities for the kiddies.
“It’s a family-friendly event,” says organizer Michael Bradley. “It attracts everybody from newborns to people in their 90s. Everybody’s welcome. It’s a nice way to get your family out and to keep the Irish tradition alive, at a beautiful location along the river. It’s just a really neat place to be.”
Free admission means people who might be struggling financially can come out and enjoy the music, the vendors and all the rest. “It’s not a price-conscious thing,” Bradley says. “You don’t see free admission too much anymore.”
When Michael Londra and the Celtic Fire light up the stage at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia on March 16, the singing sensation will have with him some world-class talent, including Downingtown native, World Champion Irish dancer, and recently crowned 2019 All-Ireland Irish Dancing Champion Owen Luebbers.
“Owen is a brilliant dancer, and he’s absolutely the sweetest kid. I’m thrilled to have him in the show. It’ll be so nice to see him perform for a hometown audience and to show the locals how great he is,” Londra said.
The 20-year-old Luebbers, a third-year Media Studies and Production major at Temple University, is thrilled to be performing at home, too. He expects his family to be in the audience, as well as some of his friends from Temple. “I’m so excited to be performing in Philadelphia because my friends seldom get the opportunity to see me dance on stage,” he said.
He began touring with Londra in 2017. “That wasn’t my first time dancing on stage, but it was the first time it felt real,” he explained. “I knew I wanted to do something with Irish dance for the rest of my life by the time I was 12 or 13. After that tour I remember thinking, ‘Wow! I can do this forever.’ There’s just something so incredibly special about working with Michael and the incredible band and the other amazing dancers,” he added.
Legend has it that it was the chattering of a wren who gave away St. Stephen’s hiding place in a bush, leading to his murder and martyrdom.
Fast forward several centuries to the Emerald Isle, where the so-called “wren boys” commemorated the feast day of St. Stephen—December 26—singing, playing music and dancing in exchange for applause and money to be collected for a party or dance for their village. They performed in colorful clothing and masks.
In the early days, they actually hunted for a wren, killed it and mounted it atop a stick. Thankfully, these days, the tradition continues, but with no avian casualties—a fake wren will do.
Mary Poppins and Bert the Chimney Sweep took top honors in the Delco Gaels’ “Dancing Like a Star” fundraiser last week.
In their real lives, the winners are really Letterkenny, County Donegal, native Brendan Bradley (as Bert), a Gaels’ coach and brother of last year’s winner Louie Bradley, Gaels’ chairman, and his dance partner, Miriam Gallagher, a pre-school teacher from Glenties, also in County Donegal. The two did a rollicking dance number to a song from the Disney movie, “Mary Poppins” that took them into the audience and, in the case of Gallagher, into the lap of someone in the audience.
More than 700 people crowded into the spacious Springfield Country Club Ballroom to watch four couples—many of whom didn’t know each other until January, when rehearsals began—perform three ballroom dances for a panel of judges and, like the TV show on which it’s based, for audience votes.
A funny thing happened this year to Wayne’s Mary Lou Sterge. The guy who came to remodel her house asked her to dance.
But no, it’s not what you think. The guy was Louie Bradley, chairperson of the board of the Delco Gaels, youth Gaelic sports club in Delaware County. Last year, Bradley was the winner of the silver mirrored trophy, along with dance partner Michelle Quinn, for the Delco Gaels’ “Dancing Like a Star” fundraiser, in which eight couples compete in various dance styles that they’ve learned over several months of intense rehearsals.
“Louie recently remodeled my house. My house looks great, and now I’m dancing,” said Sterge, a fundraiser, after rehearsal last Sunday at the McDade-Cara Irish Dance School studio in Newtown Square. She and her partner, Tom Gregory, were sharing some pizza after an hour of dancing to Ike and Tina Turner’s Proud Mary, he in silver platform shoes he bought from the internet.
We got your Christmas.
This past week saw more than a few Irish holiday-oriented events, and we have souvenirs from three.
On Sunday, the Divine Providence Village Rainbow Irish Step Dancers joined the Tara Gael Dancers at the Irish Center for a memorable Christmas show. The Rainbow dancers are a group of developmentally disabled women taught by local Irish step dancer Kathy Madigan. They live at the archdiocesan home in Delaware County.
They never fail to inspire, and their most recent holiday performance was no exception.
Marcie McComb of Broomall had her three young daughters in tow at the grand opening last Saturday of the brand new home of the McDade Cara School of Irish Dance in Edgmont. Her middle daughter, Riley, five, was signing up. “She and her sister Morgan (7) went to the dance camps in April and Riley wanted to do it. And she’s good too. Riley really gets it.”
In fact, Riley seemed ready to go right then, swinging her hips and arms as the first reel played in one of several vast studios that are replacing the school’s two previous locations. A few lessons and those arms will be as still as tree trunks.