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Dance, Music

Kiss Me, I’m Sober

sstpdaySt. Patrick’s Day arrives, and it’s as if someone has uncorked a magic bottle, and the genie of booze appears in our midst, granting but one wish: the wish to become really, most sincerely drunk. Because that’s what the Irish do on St. Patrick’s Day do, right?

Well, there’s no escaping it—some do. But it’s pretty clear that you don’t need to be Irish to wander from bar to bar, wearing silly hats and draped with green beads. Many aren’t.

And it’s a big night for booze, as boozy nights go. According to the financial website The Motley Fool, St. Patrick’s Day accounts for up to 1 percent of annual beer sales in the United States.

The potential consequences of all that binge drinking are pretty serious. More than a third of all traffic fatalities on the saint’s day, especially into the evening and into the next morning—are associated with drunk driving.

Then, of course, there’s a problem near and dear to many Irish hearts—the perpetuation of a cultural stereotype that many find distasteful.

Well, Katherine Ball-Weir wants to shove that cork back into the bottle. So if you’re up for a party, and the thought of waking up the next morning with bed spins doesn’t appeal to you, she’d like to welcome you to Sober St. Patrick’s Day—an epic bash in the Hamilton Media Commons at WHYY studios on Independence Mall on Sunday, March 15. That’s the day of the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day parade and the focal point of the city’s celebration.

“We’re bringing in incredible entertainment,” says Ball-Weir, chairperson of the Delaware Valley Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, a worldwide Irish music, dance, language and cultural organization. “It’ll be a wonderful Irish party without any alcohol. There will be children’s activities. They can learn an Irish dance step or how to beat a bodhran (a traditional Irish frame drum) or how to say ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’ in Irish Gaelic. There will be activities for adults, too.”

A lot of those activities revolve around music and dance, with some truly world-class entertainment—including seven-time All-Ireland button accordion champ John Whelan, four-time fiddle champion Dylan Foley, Patrick Hutchinson, an All-Ireland uilleann pipe champ.

Some young local All-Ireland champs will be on hand as well: The Converse Crew, fiddlers Alex Weir (Ball-Weir’s son) and Haley Richardson, Keegan Loesel on pipes and whistle, and Dylan Richardson on guitar.

If you want a workout, there will be ceili dancing. If you want to replenish all the calories you’ve lost pounding the boards, there will be plenty of baked goods, snacks and drinks—non-alcoholic, of course. Look for special guest Maria Walsh, the International Rose of Tralee and Philly’s Rose, and performances by the Emerald Isle Academy Dancers.

All of this alcohol-free merry-making is not a new idea, says Ball-Weir.

“It’s been a sold-put event in New York City for three years, and it’s in other cities, too. There’s one in Richmond, Va., Casper, Wyoming, Northern Ohio, and Belfast (Northern Ireland) had a huge one. I knew about the event in New York because I also knew some of the musicians who performed in it, and as I learned more about it, I thought: This is a great idea! So I went to Maureen Donachie, who is the number 2 person with the New York Sober St. Patrick’s Day group, and I said, I really like this idea. How can we do this in Philadelphia?”

With some thoughts and encouragement from Donachie, Ball-Weir presented the idea to the Philadelphia Comhaltas (COAL-tuss) board, and they loved it, too.

Presenting a big event like this is exactly up the organization’s alley.

“Although we are a small group, in the last couple of years our branch has been hosting and co-hosting more and more music events,” says Ball-Weir. “We have co-sponsored or helped to support events of the Philadelphia Ceili (KAY-lee) Group or the Coatesville Traditional Irish Music Series with Frank Dalton, and some events at West Chester University. It’s exciting for me to think about doing things with other groups. The best way for us all to succeed is for us to work together.”

In this case, the partnership is with Frank Daly of American Paddy’s Productions. “They produce the Philadelphia Fleadh and an American Celtic Christmas, among other things. I asked him to partner with us—Frank, specifically, because he and I had teamed up previously to present some Irish concerts and workshops—and he agreed. I couldn’t do it without him.”

Philly’s Comhaltas branch hopes the event will attract families with children, says, Ball-Weir, along with “adults who want to celebrate but not in an overindulgent way, and the third is the recovery community.”

Just because you won’t find Guinness or Jameson at this particular party, Ball-Weir says, doesn’t mean Comhaltas is against drinking, but they are against the binge drinking rampant on St. Patrick’s Day.

As the mother of a one-time Irish dancer, she knows what she’s talking about.

“Alexander was an Irish dancer before he was an Irish fiddler. We went to a lot of pubs on St. Patrick’s Day, where the dance schools would dance, and it was just awful. The bars start serving drinks at the same time they put out breakfast, so a lot of people are totally out of it by the end of the day. These are stupid Americans who are looking for an excuse to get drunk. They hang their hat on St. Patrick’s Day.”

Ball-Weir and her organization want to open Irish eyes to a more authentic celebration, one that hangs its hat on only two things: Ireland and Irish culture.

“This event is basically for anyone who wants to celebrate Irish culture in an environment that will be respectful of Ireland and its culture. It’s a new way to reclaim the day.”

For details and tickets to the event, hosted by WHYY’s Ed Cunningham:

The event starts at 4 p.m., and ends at 7.


Dance, Food & Drink, People

A Holly, Jolly Christmas with The Rose of Tralee

Maria Walsh and Santa crack each other up.

Maria Walsh and Santa crack each other up.

When the Philadelphia Rose Centre was established in 2002, in order to give “young Irish American women from the Philadelphia region the chance to participate in one of Ireland’s most beloved traditions,” little did they know that in 2014 they would see one of their own become the International Rose. 

So this year’s Christmas party was an extra special holiday celebration. With Maria Walsh and Santa (who sometimes goes by the name Seamus Bonner) in attendance, the Saturday Club in Wayne was rocking the season’s spirit last Sunday. There was food, music provided by Karen Boyce McCollum and the Lads (Pat Close and Pat Kildea), dancing, face painting, crafts, raffles, Newbridge jewelry for sale by Kathleen Regan and just a whole lot of fun.

The Conaghan family—Tom, Mary and daughters Sarah, Mary and Karen Conaghan Race—are the driving force behind the phenomenal success of the Philadelphia Rose program, and are supported by a devoted committee (Margaret King, Beth Keeley and Elizabeth Spellman) and volunteers who work throughout the year to bring events and activities to the Rose community.

She’s already traveled all over the world as the 2014 Rose, but on Sunday, Maria belonged to Philadelphia. She posed for pictures, danced and made the room come alive. And as she thanked everyone for attending the party, especially those with young kids, she noted “If we didn’t have young rosebuds, petals, future escorts, we wouldn’t have a future. And it’s so important that parents and teachers and aunts and uncles and grandparents bring kids here. This is how the Irish have survived for so long—we always re-invest and keep the cycle sustainable and going.”

Go ahead and enjoy the photos from the day:


Watch the video created by Mary Conaghan:

To follow Maria’s journey as International Rose, follow her on the Maria Walsh 2014 International Rose of Tralee Facebook page

And for more information on the Philly Rose Centre, check out their website: Philadelphia Rose of Tralee


A Bit of Extracurricular Irish Dancing


Irish dancers from colleges and universities from several states got a chance to strut their stuff Saturday at Villanova University as Nova’s Irish dance team hosted its annual intercollegiate festival. The field house, more often host to basketball games and other athletic events—and, yes, I’ll admit, I saw Cozy Morley there once—instead echoed to the sound of clattering hard shoes as all the teams staked out a patch of gym floor to practice.

A competition it was, yes, but for these dancers it was really more of a chance to get together and have a good time with each other. That they all just happened to share an interest in Irish dance was icing on the cake. Each team that competed was treated to uproarious applause from dancers from all the other teams.

One particular hit was the Villanova dancers’ clever take on music from The Lion King, complete with animal masks. Some dance teams went more traditional, but one of the most interesting things about the intercollegiate competition is that anyone could dance to anything. I’m not sure klezmer has made an appearance yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did someday.

If you couldn’t be there, well, sorry we missed you, but here are some photos to tide you over ’til next year.

Dance, Music, People

Rambling House Night at the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival


Sean Og Graham, Mickey and Niamh Dunne

Sean Og Graham, Mickey and Niamh Dunne


The Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival may have ended last week, but there are still musical riches from the event that need to be shared.

In Ireland, a Rambling House is a long-held tradition, an evening where people gather to share music, songs and stories in an atmosphere based on community and good cheer. The Irish Center here in Philly was the setting for just such an event on the second night of the Festival.

Hosted by Galway native Gabriel Donohue, whom we now claim as one of Philadelphia’s finest musicians, he brought his music and stories to the evening as well as introducing and joining in on the fun. The special guests of the evening were Niamh Dunne and Sean Og Graham, who are part of the super group Beoga, but have been touring recently as a duo, performing songs from Niamh’s solo album “Portraits.” And as an added bonus, Niamh’s father, Mickey Dunne, a talented Uillean pipe and whistle player, was along for the craic. The musical legacy of the Dunne Family is well-known in Ireland and includes the late Pecker Dunne.

Among the wealth of talent present for the evening were singer Briege Murphy who hails from County Armagh, Philadelphia’s Rosaleen McGill, Terry Kane and Ellen Tepper (who play together as the Jameson Sisters) and some outstanding younger musicians from Philadelphia: Uillean piper Keegan Loesel and fiddlers Alex Weir and Haley Richardson. Keegan, Alex and Haley recently returned from Sligo where they competed in the Fleadh Cheoil.  

So, if you were unlucky enough to have missed it, or if you were wise enough to have been present for the unforgettable evening and want to relive the experience, sit back and enjoy some of the videos from the Rambling House.

Dance, Music

Saturday Afternoon Fever



If you wanted to be Irish in Philadelphia, Saturday at the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival was a total immersion experience.

If you are a musician or just plain love Irish music, you could tune up your fiddle and sit in, or take workshops in Irish singing or bodhran playing. You could listen to the young musicians of the Converse Trio Plus One (named after the famous sneakers), the Jameson Sisters, the great Philadelphia Ceili Band, and more.

If you love Irish dance, you could dance until the soles of your shoes wore off at the enthusiastic prompting of John Shields. The Cummins School dancers were on their feet off and on throughout the day.

For the kids there was plenty to do. You could get your face painted—tiger faces were big—or lay your little mitts on a stretchy balloon sword, make St. Brigid’s cross (the adults were in on that, too), or just use the entire wide-open Irish Center as your personal running track.

We’re running out of energy just talking about it. Better to just show you. Here are the pictures.

Dance, Music

Get Set for the Ceili Group Festival

Put on your dancing shoes.

Put on your dancing shoes.

Rosie McGill has been attending the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival for 28 years.

She just turned 28 a few weeks ago.

Do the math.

She’s risen through the ranks of the Ceili Group, so to speak, doing all of the scut work, setting up stages, collecting garbage, being everybody’s runner.

McGill’s one of several dynamic people helping to run this year’s festival at the Philadelphia Irish Center. Probably the only thing that has changed is her definition of scut work.

“Me and the other committee members are working really hard to make sure nothing is forgotten. We have so many performers. I have to make sure our workshops start and end on time. I can never actually ‘attend’ the festival.”

There’s a pretty good chance she won’t see much of this year’s festival, either, the Ceili Group’s 40th. The festival begins Thursday at 8 p.m. with Singer’s Night, an assemblage of some of the finest singers of Irish music you’re ever going to hear, with the great Matt Ward serving as emcee. Local musicians will also perform to honor the memory of Frank Malley, longtime festival chairman.

Friday night is a Rambling House & Ceili Dance, also starting at 8 p.m., with Gabriel Donohue running the show as the evening begins. Look for special guests singer-fiddler Niamh Dunne and button accordion and guitar player Seán Óg Graham.

Later on, the McGillians & Friends Ceili Band take over, with Cass Tinney and John Shields as hosts.

Saturday is really big, with performances all day by so many groups it’s hard to keep track, including: The Converse Trio, a group of incredibly talented young people who came in third this year at the Fleadh Cheoil in Sligo; the Jameson Sisters; and Donegal sean-nós singer Doimnic Mac Giolla Bhríde. There are workshops all day, food and drink, and lots of activities.

That evening is the grand finale, featuring the critically acclaimed Sean Keane and His Band, and a marvelous group of young musicians, FullSet.

Landing FullSet was an important goal for the Ceili Group, and an online crowdfunding campaign made it possible—and the three-month campaign had an unexpected benefit.

“We really had an early start by booking Sean (Keane) around last year’s festival, and with getting FullSet in advance,” McGill says. “And I didn’t even mean to do it this way, but the crowdfunding campaign really promoted the festival way, way before people were thinking about it, back around March and April. Everybody came out of the woodwork to help us be more successful. Everybody donated for a different reason but they all came together to support us.”

All of which reinforces her belief that, after 40 years, the festival is still exactly the right thing to do. And she wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s like my sister or my baby. I don’t know where I would be without it. It shaped my life.”

You can get all the details—and tickets—right here.

Dance, Music

Ragas Meet Airs at The Irish Memorial

Indian dance at The Irish Memorial

Indian dance at The Irish Memorial

Until the first chords of Burning Bridget Cleary’s “Saucy Sailor” began over the loud speaker at The Irish Memoral on Penn’s Landing on Saturday, the idea of marrying an 6,000-year-old form of Indian dance called Bharatanatym with Irish music seemed, well, like a stretch.

But it wasn’t. The rhythms of the Celtic folk song harkened to the ancient beat of Indian music. Ragas, as it turns out, are a lot like airs.

Shaily Dadaila, founder of Usiloquoy Dance Designs, saw her dream of performing her beloved Indian ballet to Celtic and Indo-Celtic tunes when she and her troupe of dancers performed twice at The Irish Memorial on Saturday afternoon and evening. Her dance production, Ragas and Airs, is partially funded by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and is still in development. But there was enough choreography to present a half-hour’s worth of the graceful and evocative dance, which tells its stories not only through footwork, but with hand movements and facial gestures.

This wasn’t the first time that music from both traditions came together. The troupe also performed to 17th century music that was British and Irish in origin, but with Sanskrit lyrics, and to tunes by modern-day Irish jazz musician Ronan Guilfoyle who wrote them to combine both Irish and Indian traditional music.

After an early morning rain, the weather broke into sunshine and heat—but with a breeze that kept the audience cool—as the troupe performed on a rented stage in front of the 60-ton bronze sculpture depicting Irish fleeing the famine and arriving in America.

In an interview before the performances, Dadiala said the monument resonated with her the moment she saw it a few years ago, just after arriving in the US from India to begin a master’s program in pharmacy.

“You see all the people descending from the ships, all leaving home and missing it for the rest of their lives. I understood that,” she said. Read more of that interview here.

View our photos of the performance of “Ragas and Airs.”


A Championship Irish Dancer Comes Home

Ali Doughty with her World Irish Dance Championship trophy.

Ali Doughty with her World Irish Dance Championship trophy.

Ali Doughty discovered in April that, despite the old saying, sometimes the seventh time is the charm.

The 20-year-old University of Dayton student had qualified for six other World Irish Dance Championships before finally, in London, carrying home the big silver trophy as the number one Irish dancer in the world in the ladies 20-21 category.

As she stood in the ballroom with the other contestants and her mother at the Hilton London Metropole Hotel, she saw the results flash on the screen and was, she admits, “in shock.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Ali, who, when she’s not at college studying for a degree in exercise physiology, lives with her family—Dad Bill, mother Cassandra, and siblings Bill, Luke, John, and Mary Cate—in Havertown.

She probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Last year, when the Worlds were held in Boston, she came in second. The year before, in Belfast, she came in third. Despite the near misses, going into the competition she had only one goal: “Well, just try not to mess up,” she says, laughing. “There’s a lot of work going into it, trying to balance dance and school so there was a lot of time management involved. I just tried not to think about the pressure.”

On Sunday, along with her family, her dance friends and her personal trainer Angela Mohan, Ali was celebrated at a party at The Plough and the Stars in Philadelphia that was arranged by Mohan, who brought champagne bearing custom labels with Ali’s name (though the dancer wasn’t planning to have any) to sit on either side of the Worlds trophy, which Ali keeps for a year.

Ali started Irish dancing when she was eight. “My mom wanted me to explore my Irish heritage so she signed me up for dance lessons at McDade Cara School of Irish Dance [in Delaware County],” she says. She was hooked from the first hornpipe.

“I loved it. I love the music, I love the rhythm and all the people,” she says. “All my friends in the Irish dance world are great. Some of my closest friends are from Irish dance.”

Since she’s living in Dayton most of the year, she joined a dance school there, The Academy, where her instructors are Ed Searle and Byron Puttle. She continues to rely on Mohan for fitness training, even from afar. “She’s so great and so funny,” says Ali of the former coach of the national champion Mairead Farrells Ladies Gaelic Football Club of Philadelphia. “She never lets you get away with anything.”

Despite being a world traveler—Ali has also competed in Glasgow, Scotland, and Dublin—Ali says she doesn’t really get to see much of the cities she’s visited. “It’s usually so hectic that I might only have a day to look around. Usually I’m in the venue the whole time.”

She has spent non-dance time with her grandmother’s family in Dun Laoghaire, near Dublin, and actually spent two weeks with Ireland visiting with a friend’s family. “But we still had to practice Irish dancing while we were there so I don’t know if that counts,” she laughs.

View more photos from Ali’s party.