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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.


Summer Camp for Irish Dancers

Noreen Donohue McAleer offers a few pointers on toe pointing.

Noreen Donohue McAleer offers a few pointers on toe pointing.

When there were no jigs and reels playing, the Irish Center’s cavernous ballroom echoed with little girl giggles. Last week, the Cummins School dancers were having their summer camp—a lot of dancing, which also served last-minute cramming for the five Cummins dancers heading to the national championships in Montreal next week, and, for the littlest ones, crafts involving glue and glitter and tie-dyed socks. Oh, and ice cream sundaes, the only thing that brought dead silence to the room.

The Cummins School has been teaching kids to step dance in this ballroom for the last 12 years; a second class, mainly for the youngest, is held at the VFW post in Glenside.

“We’ve been so lucky,” says Frances Cummins Donohue, who runs the school with her daughter, Noreen Donohue McAleer. Donohue started dancing herself when she was an 11-year-old in Dublin and scored a second in the All-Irelands. “Dancing was my life and I loved it and when I came over here, I instilled that in my girls, Kerri and Noreen,” she says.

The Cummins students learn more than beats, cuts, lifts and sevens. “Because we’re in the Irish Center, we’re also exposing kids to the Irish culture,” says Donohue. “The bagpipers [The Emerald Society Pipe Band] are here on Wednesdays and they love that. Then John Shields is in here with his ceili dancers and they enjoy that too. This space is amazing. We’d miss it terrible, we really would.”

Donohue is talking about the current financial crisis facing the Irish Center, a combination of an increased tax burden brought on by Philadelphia’s citywide reassessment last year and kitchen upgrades required by the city’s board of health—expenses estimated to total $100,000 or more over the next two years.

Cummins dancers will be participating in a fundraiser on July 19 at Maloney’s Pub of Ardmore in an effort to save their home.

But this week, it was all fun and games—except for the extra dance instruction from Donohue, McAleer, and teachers Brittany Kelly and Theresa McElhill. We stopped by on Thursday and took some photos of the fun.

Dance, Music

Just Singing AFTER the Rain

Fiddler Maura Dwyer of the John Byrne Band ... surprise!

Fiddler Maura Dwyer of the John Byrne Band … surprise!

It was the Philadelphia Fleadh that almost didn’t happen.

Last Friday, Pennypack Park in the Northeast—the site of Philly’s huge festival of music, dance and culture, scheduled for the very next day—was a waterlogged mess. The Pennypack Creek, which winds through the park, had overflowed its banks after a week’s worth of heavy rain.

C.J. Mills is a partner, with Frank Daly, in American Paddy’s Productions, which put on the festival. It was the second. Mills summed up the situation in a nutshell:  “There was mud and water everywhere.

”At that point, Mills and Daly knew they had their work cut out for them.

“If this festival had been one day earlier,” said Daly, “I don’t know if we could have pulled it off.”

For one thing, he said, the stage surrounding the main stage—right on the banks of the Pennypack—was a sea of shoe-sucking mud. It’s hard to dance in mud.

City workers with heavy equipment—along with Mills, Daly, family and Fleadh volunteers—labored all day Friday in the muck, trying to get the park ready for the hundreds of visitors expected to flood into the festival, so to speak, on Saturday.

Through it all, Daly and Mills kept the faith.

“We put in a request about six months ago,” Mills said. “We had no doubt that it was going to be sunny and 73. Weather insurance is expensive, so we prayed a lot.”

All that praying worked. Saturday dawned sunny and clear, and you’d never have guessed that there’d ever been a problem. And the second Philadelphia Fleadh went on right on schedule. (Massive amount of photos, below.)

Walking down the winding path into the park, you could hear the music pounding out of the Ed Kelly Amphitheatre all day—The Mahones, The John Byrne Band, The Birmingham Six, Burning Bridget Cleary, The Shantys, and we could go on—14 bands in all, compared to nine last year.

And there were plenty of people strolling, and in some cases dancing, down that path. Daly and Mills weren’t sure precisely how many, but early afternoon they were certain that the second Fleadh was turning out to be a bigger draw than the first. “Attendance is definitely higher than last year at this time,” said Daly. “Last year, we had 3,000, and we think we’re going to do more this year. And we’re running on schedule—which is a shock.”

A new feature this year probably boosted attendance this year, Mills said. A Feis—an Irish dance competition hosted by the Celtic Flame School of Irish Dance—drew about 120 dancers, but also a host of family, friends and fans. Kids, mostly girls of all ages in curls and sparkly dresses, took to the stage in a sunlit meadow surrounded by tall trees. So much nicer than a musty hall somewhere.

More bands played in their very own sunlit meadow just across a wooden bridge from the Feis. No amphitheater in this case, just a stage, but that meadow was filled with folks in lawn chairs—and more than a few up on their feet, dancing away.

Traditional musicians churned out their own brand of Irish music in an overheated tent, but no one seemed to mind the temperature.

Ten vendors peddled their T-shirts, hats, jewelry, kilts, glassware, gifts and more throughout the grounds, and if you wanted great food or, say, a cold brew—no problem. There was plenty to go around.

The whole show ended with an 8 p.m. show featuring lead fiddler Mills’ and lead singer Daly’s own band, Jamison.

Getting a good cross-section of the Irish community in on the act was a priority this year, says Mills.

“You have the Philadelphia Ceili Group, you have punk rock,” he said. “Every aspect of Philly Irish, we tried to hit it. We wanted to get all of those groups in here today, including parts of the Philly Irish-American world that I’m not a part of.”

It was a lot to manage, but the whole operation went off with clockwork efficiency. Calls over their walkie-talkies kept them running, but Daly and Mills actually seemed relaxed.

“We have a ton of volunteers. By the second year, it’s become a machine, already wound up,” said Daly. We learned everything last year. We felt then like we were making something out of nothing. We learned every part of it—dealing with bands, dealing with volunteers, dealing with public relations. Other people saw what we did, and they wanted to jump at it this year.00

“This is bigger than C.J. and me now. This year, other people are running us.”

Dance, Food & Drink, Music

2014 Mid-Winter Scottish & Irish Festival

Our pal Jamesie Johnston of Albannach

Our pal Jamesie Johnston of Albannach

Every year we say it was the best yet. Even that year when wind storms knocked out the lights, and the bands played on in the darkness. Actually, that was pretty cool.

But, OK, we’re going to say it again: This year’s Mid-Winter Scottish & Irish Festival out at the Valley Forge Casino and Resort was the best yet.

Large crowds flocked to the festival over the weekend.

If you were in the mood for tunes to make you forget all the snow and ice, you were in luck. Most of our favorite bands were there. We don’t want to accidentally leave anyone out, so we’ll leave it to you to peruse our huge photo essay. We guarantee you’ll see a lot of familiar faces there.

We renewed our acquaintance with John the Scottish Juggler, who’s always on hand to keep the kids entertained. The adults love him, too. The Washington Memorial Pipe Band stepped out from time to time, and they never fail to impress. The Campbell School Highland Dancers were there, and our Irish dance friend Rosemarie Timoney led ceili dancing.

We cruised the vendor area, and found one or two things we’d never seen before. And a thing or two we wish we had never seen at all. Extra Special Haggis Sauce comes to mind.

The air was filled with the aroma of cooking oil—which can only mean one thing: fish and chips. To be accompanied, of course, by bracing brews from those cold islands—and a wee bit of whiskey, perhaps.

And if you happened to be sporting a kilt, a sword—or even a pirate hat—no one would give you a second glance. What more could you ask?

So if you didn’t brave the wind and the snow this past weekend, pull up a chair and let our photos warm the cockles of your hearts.

Whatever cockles are.

Dance, Music

Tribute to the Wren

Little Timoney dancers entertained.

Little Timoney dancers entertained.

One of the critical parts of taking photographs for Irish Philadelphia is capturing the mood of the moment–when people are smiling, laughing, rapt, or sad. But at this year’s Comhaltas Wren Party, held at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Glenside, there was so much laughing, smiling, and s good cheer that it was a cinch.

Here, see for yourself, in our photo essay.


Dance, People

“Quite a Weekend” for Móira Cahill

Moira Cahill

Moira Cahill

On Saturday night at the Donegal Ball, Móira Cahill ended her one-year reign as the Philadelphia Donegal Association’s Mary from Dungloe, with grace and poise—and an infectious grin that never seemed to leave her face all evening. At the end of the night, when Kelly Devine, her good friend from the Coyle School of Irish Dance, became the 2014 Mary, there was cause for even more joy.

Still, a lot of people didn’t know—at least, not before the Donegal Ball—that Cahill had won the Ladies Under 20 competition Friday at the 2013 Mid-Atlantic Oireachtas. The Oireachtas (ERR-uhk-tuhss) is a major Irish dance championship, held each year over the Thanksgiving holiday in Center City.

“I danced hornpipes and reels, and if you’re recalled, you do a contemporary set dance. I performed ’The Blackthorn Stick’,” Cahill recalled as the evening’s festivities at the Philadelphia Irish Center wound down. “I danced hard shoe and soft shoe. My whole competition was on Friday.”

Cahill, 20, has been dancing for 15 years, and competing for 14. She has always been a very good dancer, as evidenced by her 4th place finish at the Oireachtas two years ago, and her second place last year. But none of her success has come easily. It has required seriously hard work and dedication.

“It takes a lot of practice. I was going to practice four to five times a week,” Cahill said, tiara and heels off, kicking back in a lounge off the Irish Center ballroom—finally taking a well-earned break. “It also takes a lot of mental preparation.”

As a result of her first-place finish, Cahill is qualified to compete at the 2014 North American Irish Dance Championships in Montréal in July, which she said she is likely to attend.

For now, though, it’s a time to briefly sit back and take it all in. And it’s a lot to take in, Cahill said, again with the smile. “It’s been quite a weekend.”