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It’s Irish Christmas in Philadelphia

Eileen Lavin playing one of Santa's elves at the Irish Center Senior Christmas lunch.

Eileen Lavin playing one of Santa’s elves at the Irish Center Senior Christmas lunch.

This was the week to get your Christmas spirit on, and we did. There were nine
Irish Christmas events on our calendar and we managed to get to four of them. Lori Lander Murphy spent Sunday with Maria Walsh, the Rose of Tralee, and Seamus Claus at the Saturday Club in Wayne. You can read her story here. And you can see my photos from the other three events below.

For the second year in a row, I took the family to “An American Celtic Christmas,” the magical show—with dancers and singers and Santa and snow (yes, I know I’m rhyming)—at Bensalem High School on Saturday. The annual production comes from those wonderful folks who also bring us the Philadelphia Fleadh in the spring, Frank Daly and CJ Mills of Jamison Celtic Rock and Slainte. Singers Raymond Coleman, John Byrne, Kim Killen and Bob Hurst of the Bogside Rogues joined a stellar band on stage with dancers from Ridgewood Irish Dance Academy from Ridgewood, NJ, Celtic Flame, as well as the Bucks County Dance Center. The Bucks dancers are currently without a home—their studio burned down a couple of months ago—so the show’s producers donated proceeds from a 50-50 drawing to help them out, as did the winner. It was beautiful to see the Christmas spirit in action.

It was out in full force on Sunday too at the holiday recital of the Divine Providence Village Rainbow Irish Dancers, a group of developmentally disabled women who have been part of the Irish dance scene for about three years. Since they were founded by Irish dancer Kathleen Madigan, former dietitian at the Catholic institution in Springfield, Delaware County, the “ladies” as she calls them have marched in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade (where they won an award their first year out) and appeared on the field at Irish Heritage Night at the Phillies. They’ll be dancing at Irish Heritage Night in Camden this spring.

They were joined on stage by the Irish Stars, Parker School of Irish Dance, from Hellertown, where Madigan is a student, and the Villanova University Irish Dance Team, which invited the women to participate at the intercollegiate Irish dance event for the last two years.

On Monday, the ballroom at the Irish Center was filled to capacity—and a sea of red sweaters–for the annual Seniors Christmas luncheon co-sponsored by the Irish Center and the Irish Immigration Center of Greater Philadelphia. The Vincent Gallagher Band performed and the lunch was donated and prepared by The Plough and the Stars Restaurant, 123 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. Co-owners Jerome Donovan and Marian Ryder were on hand to both prep and serve, along with a bevy of volunteers.

News, Photo Essays

The Top Photos of 2014


We started out thinking … how about choosing the top 25 photos of the year—our absolute favorites?

So much for that plan. We found too many favorites.

Also, we didn’t think you’d mind.

We covered parades until our camera batteries ran out of energy. Us, too.

We spent hours at our fair share of Irish and Celtic festivals, even at the beginning of the summer, when the Penn’s Landing Irish Festival drew hordes of pale-skinned Hibernians, desperately seeking music, dance, beer, shade and sun block.

Benefits like “Dancing With the Stars” and Irish boxing night are always great attractions. No one with a camera can resist.

We witnessed the crowning of several young women chosen to represent the absolute best of Philadelphia’s Irish culture—including Maria Walsh, the city’s first International Rose of Tralee.

One weekend last July pretty much sums up why this beat never gets boring. On Saturday down at the Irish Memorial on Front Street, we covered an Indian dance troupe doing their take on Irish dance. On Sunday, in the same place, we covered a protest by local Irish and Palestinians against the Israeli incursion into Gaza. This beat never gets boring.

Music and dance is always big for us. The Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival in particular is a photographic feast. It was a big year for several of our local under-18 musicians, who went on to kick butt at the Fleadh Cheoil in Ireland last summer, and they had their share of photo ops.

Wherever there’s somebody beatin’ a bodhran, we’ll be there.

The Philadelphia Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) marked a huge milestone, unveiling their new field in Limerick.

We have a lot of friends, and we’re always making new ones, and you’ll see a lot of them here.

Anyway, forget 25. It just doesn’t do you justice.

Here’s the direct link. And if you want, you can scan the slide show, below.


News, People, Photo Essays

New Mary from Dungloe Chosen

The new Mary from Dungloe, Shannon Alexander, serenaded by Vince Gallagher.

The new Mary from Dungloe, Shannon Alexander, serenaded by Vince Gallagher.

A 20-year-old chemical biology student at St. Joseph’s University and a capella singer was crowned the 2015 Mary from Dungloe at the Donegal Association of Philadelphia Ball on Saturday, November 30, at the Irish Center in Philadelphia.

Shannon Alexander of Sellersville will compete in Dungloe (Dun-low), County Donegal, in July 2015 at the 48th annual pageant, part of a week=long festival, which draws women of Irish descent from all over the world. (The current Mary from Dungloe, Kate Lindsay, is from Sydney, Australia.)

It will be the first trip to Ireland for Shannon, who plans to work in disease and drug research after graduation. Her grandmother was born in Donegal, and her grandfather in Galway. She’s a member of City Belles, St. Joseph University’s only a capella group (think “Pitch Perfect”).

Shannon was crowned by outgoing Mary, Kelly Devine, a public relations and social media account coordinator for a PR firm in Philadelphia. She is a graduate of St. Joseph’s University with a degree in food marketing and is competitive Irish dancer and teacher with the Coyle School of Irish Dance.

It was a packed house for the annual Donegal Ball and dancing went on into the wee hours to the sounds of the John “Lefty Kelly Band. Mary Crossan, a past president of the Donegal Association, planned the ball and grand marshal was John Durning.

We were there and took lots of photos so you can feel like you were there too.

News, People, Photo Essays

Happy Redhead Days!

Courtney Vincent of Upper Dublin.

Courtney Vincent of Upper Dublin.

This weekend in the Dutch city of Breda, redheads from 80 countries will gather for Redhead Days, now an annual congruence of natural redheads that started unintentionally in 2005 when an artist, looking for models for paintings of redheads inspired by the redhead paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Gustav Klimt, put an ad in the local newspaper.

From 150 gingers (he only needed 15), the festival has grown to more than 7,000 redheads of every hue, from strawberry blond to carrot red to copper to auburn. This weekend the international gingers will party, compare hair color, consult with hair and fashion experts, have their photos taken, and enjoy the exhibit called “Red Hot,” photographs of sexy red-haired men shot by British photographer Thomas Knight. (It’s in New York this week. Here’s a preview.)

I had my own redhead festival of sorts over the last six weeks, photographing redheads like Courtney Vincent, above, all over the Delaware Valley. You can see our Ginger Snaps here or below. (There’s text and more photos on our flickr site.)

Why such an interest in a hair color that occurs in just about two percent of the world population? Well, it’s just that. Red is rare. If you’re Irish or Scottish, you may find that hard to believe since there are more redheads in the Celtic population than most others. The statistics are conflicting and confusing, but in general about 12 percent of the Irish and 15 percent of Scots have red hair. By one estimate, as many as 80 percent of people carry the recessive gene for red hair, even if there are no redheads in their families. So that Internet rumor that circulates every few years that redheads are going to become extinct? Unlikely.

Redheads are like the original X-men—mutants. The hair color is caused by a series of mutations of the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) gene, which acts as a switch between red and yellow pigments and black and brown pigment. (If you’re looking for yours, it’s on chromosome 16.) Because it’s a recessive gene, both parents need to carry it for you to have red hair.

But the trait isn’t limited to the Celts. Two of the earliest known redheads were a 43,000-year-old Neanderthal from Spain and a 50,000-year-old Neanderthal from Italy. There were redheads among the ancient Greeks, and the Romans encountered plenty of redheads when they were conquering southern and western Germany, where they still abound.

While largely a European phenomenon, random redheads are found in the Middle East, Central Asia, and in China. A tribe called the Udmurts, living in the Volga Basin in Russia, are the only non-western Europeans to have a high incidence of red hair (10 percent of the population).

No matter where they think they come from, all redheads share a common ancestry that can be traced back to a single Y-chromosomal haplogroupL R1b. What’s a haplogroup? Glad you asked. Think of it as like a big clan. And if you have red
hair, you’re part of it. Because it’s linked to a Y chromosome, the ancestor you all share is a man. (Possibly those Neanderthals mentioned above, but more recenly a Norwegian: recent studies suggest that Vikings may have been involved in the spread of red.)

There are a few other things you redhead share, besides the pale skin and freckles.

About those freckles. They’re just nature’s way of saying you’re at risk for skin cancer. Even worse, that MC1R gene predisposes you to melanoma, the most lethal of all the skin cancers. Harvard researchers found that along with red hair, the gene may make redheads more susceptible to the damaging effects of ultraviolet rays of the sun, in part by getting in the way of the cancer-protective effects of a tumor-suppressor gene called PTEN.

One thing that may protect you is your pain tolerance. You don’t have much. You may avoid getting a sunburn because studies show that redheads feel pain more acutely than people with other hair colors. You’re especially sensitive to the cold. Scientists believe that the ginger gene causes another gene that determines cold sensitivity to become overactive.

Anecdotal evidence—that’s just unconfirmed reports from the field—suggests that redheads may need more anesthetic when undergoing surgical or dental procedures. In one small study, a researcher gave electric shocks to women of many different hair colors (yes, that’s how they do it) and found that the redheads needed about 20 percent more anesthetic to dull the pain. Redheads also bruise more easily.

Do cold-sensitive redheads nevertheless have fiery tempers? That one’s just myth. So if you’ve been trying to pass off your frequent outbursts as “my redhead coming out,” you are now officially busted.

News, People, Photo Essays

A Kid-Friendly Fundraiser for Kids

Kids pose for fun photos at the fundraiser.

Kids pose for fun photos at the fundraiser.

At a fundraiser last Sunday in Philadelphia for Amigos de Jesus Orphanage in Honduras, Meg Ryan was manning the table packed with brochures about the orphanage and artwork by the kids–and she came from Boston to do it.

That isn’t as far as she’ll go to help out the orphanage in the Santa Barbara region of this impoverished Central American country. In fact, the St. Anselm’s College graduate is just back from an 18-month stint there where she taught preschool, helped in the office, and found a new path in life. She’s planning to enroll in nursing school, “practice my Spanish and save money for more trips.”

Instead of looking for a job after college, Ryan, who grew up on Cape Cod, decided to volunteer at Amigos de Jesus, which was cofounded by a local Catholic priest, Father Dennis O’Donnell, the past rector at Malvern Retreat House, and Anthony and Christine Granese. “I did a lot of service in high school and really loved it,” she said. “After college, I wanted to do service, something that wasn’t all about me.”

That’s also what drew Aisling Travers, a 21-year-old Malvern resident and student at West Chester University, to Amigos de Jesus. Last year, she spent a week working with the children, most of whom aren’t orphans, but come from poor families who can’t care for them. Travers planned Sunday’s fundraiser, held at St. Declan’s Well Pub in Philadelphia, which is co-owned by her uncle, Aidan Travers.

Travers is returning in June and bringing her sister, Ciara, and boyfriend, Joe Smith to spend another week at the place where, she says, she left her heart.

View our photos of the fundraiser.