Devotees of traditional Irish music and culture look forward to the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival every year. It’s an exhaustive three-day affair, with concerts by world-class musicians, workshops, dance, crafts, and much more.
The festival always falls in early September, filling the Commodore Barry Arts and Cultural Center (the Irish Center) in Mount Airy with eager and enthusiastic fans.
The coronavirus pandemic renders it impossible to converge on the Irish Center this year, of course. The center has been closed since March. All of which left the Ceili Group Festival in a state of flux. How could the festival possibly go on?
Easy—or perhaps not so easily—the festival will happen as planned, but virtually. And in some ways, this might be the biggest and most vibrant festival ever.
Regan Sweeney and Olivia Lisowski finish each other’s sentences. They’re a font of shared experiences, with a deep love of Irish dance, music and culture.
And one more thing: family.
“Our families are very close, ever since we were little,” says Regan. “We’ve done everything together—more siblings than cousins. And we’re lucky to have that because she (Olivia) lives in Havertown, I live in Malvern, and we just do a lot of the same things together. Since our moms (Sheila McGrory Sweeney and Maureen Heather Lisowski) are sisters, they’ve really instilled in us the idea that family is important.”
They also share each other’s victories. For Regan, a member of the McDade-Cara School of Irish Dance, it was a 1st place finish for her Loyola University Maryland Irish dance team at the Southern Region Oireachtas in the college ceili competition. The week before, she finished 17th in her solo competition at the Mid-Atlantic Oireachtas in Philadelphia.
For Olivia, a sophomore at West Chester University, it was being crowned Mary from Dungloe by the Donegal Association of Philadelphia. The college ceili competition and Mary from Dungloe happened on the same night in early December.
You might say Anna Mai Fitzpatrick’s role as a lead dancer in the U.S. touring company of Riverdance was preordained.
When Anna Mai was 3, her mother Sharon saw Riverdance on television in one of the show’s earlier incarnations and signed her up for Irish dance lessons in her local primary school.
Not everyone who begins Irish dance carries it much beyond adolescence, but for Fitzpatrick all those jigs and reels evolved into a passion that carries on today into her 20s.
Along the way, she won a third place in the under-19 category at the World Irish Dancing Championships—no mean feat—and came out on top in the Great Britain Championships and the British Nationals, among other honors.
Many were introduced to the Philadelphia Ceili Group and its festival through dance.
One of those was Marian McGill McFeeters. Over time, though, she says, the number of dancers drawn to the Ceili Group has dwindled.
After the last festival, Ceili Group board members decided it was time to do something about that. The answer: a Ceili Og, or young ceili, to be held December 8 at the Philadelphia Irish Center. Kids will be under the tutelage of longtime dance instructor Rosemarie Timoney.
“Bringing children to the festival doesn’t seem to be sparking any interest in the Irish culture,” McFeeters explains. “For them, the festival hasn’t been as exciting. It seemed to have been pushed to the wayside. And we asked ourselves … how can we bring it back?”
The 2019 Philadelphia Ceili Group Irish Traditional Music & Dance Festival is over, but what a packed, fun-filled festival it was.
We showed you the Thursday night singers night last week, but that was just the beginning of a long weekend of tunes, high stepping, and workshops on how to do everything from play tin whistle to learn a bit of the Irish language to plumb the depths of your Irish heritage.
There was a dance exhibition by the Temple University Dance Team (go Owls!), along with a small orchestra of musicians from the area’s many traditional Irish music sessions, and a superb, intimate concert by piper Ivan Goff and fiddler Katie Linnane. There was a children’s story time, St. Brigid’s cross making, face painting, a hall full of Celtic and Irish vendors, and the kitchen kept on cranking out chow that had people going back for more.
If you were up for a pint or two, that was there, too.
Then, of course, there was the Saturday night finale concert in the ballroom, featuring singer Donie Carroll and Tony DeMarco and his band, the Atlantic Wave.
We have plenty of pictures, courtesy of Denise Foley and Jeff Meade.
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.