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Music, People

Musical Duo Mines Century-Old Irish Traditional Recordings for Modern-Day Gold

You might call Philly-native fiddler Caitlin Finley and uilleann piper/flutist Will Woodson a little old-fashioned.

Well, maybe a lot old-fashioned.

Now residing in Portland, Maine, the traditional Irish music duo has a deep affection for the tunes of Irish traditional music pioneers—from a century ago—and they want to share their fondness with other Irish musicians.

It’s called the Phonograph Project, an effort to dissect the playing of musicians such as famed fiddlers Michael Coleman, John McKenna and James Morrison. Much of their music was released on 78 RPM albums for the first time in the 1920s—and it is highly distinctive, dating back to when they themselves learned the tunes decades before in Ireland.

Finley, a medical physics assistant in radiation oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, is—like so many of us—now working remotely.

She and Woodson first got to know each other when both were living in New York City and playing in local pubs. “We really enjoyed playing music together and then lost touch for a couple of years,” says Finley. “Will, in the meantime, had moved up to Portland and I had moved up to Boston, and then we just wound up reconnecting through the music scene and started playing a bunch of music together again.”

Finley, for one, first became interested in the old recordings when she took lessons from the famed Brian Conway in New York. She was about 15 at the time. Conway and his sister Rose introduced her to a lot of the old tunes. “At that point,” she says, “I was pretty much hooked.” Continue Reading

Dance, Music, People

Keeping the Tradition Alive: The (Virtual) Ceili Group Festival

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. Continue Reading

History, People

New Author Probes the Hidden Stories Behind “The Troubles”

Ryan Conner

Twentieth century Irish history is marked by political turmoil, starting with the birth of the Republic right on through to the long, violent period known simply as “The Troubles.”

Throughout his years at Council Rock High School, Ryan Conner, a recent graduate of William & Mary, absorbed a good deal of United States and world history—but the island’s turbulent recent history never showed up in the high school curriculum. So now, he is writing the book he wishes he had been given to study.

The book has a tentative title, subject to change to something more user-friendly before publication—“One Man, One Vote: Northern Ireland’s Civil Rights Movement 1963 to 1972”—and it is currently undergoing additional research and revisions.

Conner’s book traces its origins to an initiative called the Book Creators Program, run through the Creator Institute, and overseen by a professor at Georgetown University. He learned about it from a friend.

“It’s a very, very popular program,” Conner says. “I started the program and the first five or six months were dedicated to doing the research and creating a roughly 25,000-word draft. In my case, that required getting the first draft done by mid-June, which I did successfully. One of the benefits of the program is that the professor has a relationship with a publishing house called New Degree Press. Assuming the authors meet their checkpoints and deadlines, produce enough words of quality material, and take the standard amount of time for revision and editing, then there’s a path to publishing (through New Degree).” Continue Reading

News, People

For Irish Ex-Pats Unable to Return Home, the Next Best Thing to Being There

Above: chocolates from Marlene’s Chocolate Haven in Westport, County Mayo

Suppose for a moment that you are an Irish ex-pat living in Delaware County. Your mom and dad and all your other relatives and friends still live in Ireland. Because of coronavirus travel restrictions, you aren’t able to make it back home for a birthday, an anniversary, a wedding—or just your annual visit.

For all too many, it’s a heartbreak. Nothing completely makes up for that, but now you can let all those folks back home know you’re thinking of them—and you can help Irish businesses survive the pandemic as well.

It’s called the Ireland E-Commerce Diaspora Directory, put together by the Philadelphia-based consulting firm Littus—Latin for “seashore.”

“Littus is a company that developed out of work that I’d been doing in our accounting firm Maguire Hegarty, and another chap, Rob Rae, had been doing with his company, Columbus Business Partners,” says Paul Maguire, managing director of Littus. “The idea was to work with Irish companies that were looking to enter the U.S. marketplace. Our target companies are small- and medium-sized enterprises that we can provide ground coverage for in the United States. So we decided to formalize our informal arrangement into this company, Littus.” Continue Reading

Genealogy, History, People

In Memoriam: William Brennan

Above: William Brennan, left, and Sean McMenamin, point out some items of interest in the Irish Center’s library to Irish Ambassador Michael Collins.

Frank Hollingsworth, a board member of the Commodore Barry Arts and Cultural Center, recalls a time when William Brennan was a guest at Villanova for a ceremony celebrating the digitization of the Commodore John Barry papers.

About 25 people were there, including the chairman of the board of Ireland’s County Wexford, Lori Dillard Rech, president of Independence Seaport Museum, and Villanova President Father Peter M. Donohue.

One by one, guests were invited up to the dais to give a brief talk about the historic event. When Brennan was asked to say a few words, Hollingsworth recalls, he stood up and offered these comments: “I think just about everything that can be said has been said. I don’t have anything additional.”

And then, Hollingsworth recalls with a chuckle, Brennan sat down.

Ironically, there was probably no one in the room who knew more about Barry than William “Billy” Brennan. His knowledge of Irish history, and in particular, the story of the Irish in Philadelphia, was encyclopedic, rivaling that of the late Dennis Clark. He was a keeper of the flame.

Brennan passed away July 28 at the age of 83. Continue Reading

News, People

Remembering Muriel Prickitt

Irish dancers and musicians will have no trouble remembering Muriel Prickitt, who passed away at age 87 on June 7 at Samaritan Hospice in Voorhees, N.J ., following a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. She was simply everywhere and had a hand in virtually everything relating to Irish music and dance.

An exquisite set dancer and legendarily fast accordion player, this force of nature was known by all. She is mourned—and celebrated—by friends and relations almost past counting.

One of those who honors her memory is Gerry Buckley, of Ardagh in County Limerick, Ireland. Buckley was a founding member of the Delaware Valley chapter of Irish music, dance and cultural organization Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. In 1989, the newly wed Gerry and wife Fiona moved to Voorhees, N.J., where they met Muriel Prickitt through the set dance community.

“My wife was a set dancer before she moved over,” Buckley recalls. “She was looking for someplace where she could go set dancing, and she met Muriel and (Prickitt’s companion) Tom Quinn. I forget where they actually met, but they got to talking and Muriel mentioned that she was going for set dance lessons in Jenkintown. She said, ‘Why don’t you come along?’ and that was it.” Continue Reading

Music, People

Seamus Kelleher: Singing a New Song, and the Message is Hope

Hope, optimism and resilience can be rare commodities in the age of coronavirus.

You might not expect any of the above from an Irish musician whose last booking came just three days before St. Patrick’s Day.

Like so many Irish musicians, Seamus Kelleher—a Galway-born virtuoso guitarist-singer-songwriter and alum of the celebrated band Blackthorn—lost work when the pandemic triggered state-mandated shutdowns at all the pubs, taverns and clubs where musicians typically find work during St. Patrick’s month.

“I did the Green Parrot in Newtown, Bucks County, on the 14th of March,” Kelleher recalls. “That was the last. It was an afternoon show. And it was surreal because at that stage there wasn’t a definite decision made to close everything down. It was just drip, drip, drip. But the owner and staff could tell. There was a real sense of impending doom. It was a very strange gig, and we just barely made the best of it, as we always do, but there was the sense that things could be changing, and that was very sobering for me.”

Right up until that day, Kelleher had been extremely busy. In fact, he explains, he was on target to have the best year of his solo career. In January, he embarked on a cross-country tour that included Colorado, Indiana and Kansas City. After that, he finished a 23-day tour of Florida before returning to Philadelphia for March madness. “I had 200 shows on the books, all across the country,” he says. To then only get halfway through March before everything closed down, he says, “was like having the rug pulled out from under me … but I wasn’t alone.”

Other local Irish musicians have regular jobs—assuming they still have them—and music is a sideline. For about 15 years, that was the case with Kelleher, who was employed as a speech writer in the corporate world, penning addresses for the presidents of Lincoln Financial and Drexel University, among others. But for the past five years, Kelleher has been committed to music full-time. But now, as a musician with no conventional day job, losing work had an impact. He continues to perform “porch concerts” live to Facebook, and they’ve been helpful, but Kelleher has been unexpectedly fortunate in another way.

During the past five years, Kelleher has devoted roughly two-thirds of his time purely to the performance of music, a lifelong passion dating back to the days when he was opening for the likes of Thin Lizzy. The remaining third of his career he devotes to motivational speaking. And he has quite the inspirational story to tell.

“I suffer from depression and anxiety and I’m a recovering alcoholic,” Kelleher explains, matter-of-factly. “So my motivational speech really talks about my journey. I incorporate some music into it, but the idea is to give hope for those who struggle with mental health and addiction. I also talk about suicide prevention. That’s a big, big part of what I talk about. I’ve been doing that the past three years, doing more and more of it.”

On March 22, Kelleher received a call out of the blue from Texas A&M College of Medicine. “I had spoken there a few times,” he says. “The last time was two years ago. And they asked me if I would talk to faculty and staff because a lot of their people were just starting to really stress out—as you can imagine. So I did a Zoom meeting for several hundred of their faculty and staff, and some of the students. Then, I did a few more meetings for them. After that, they asked me whether I would consider teaching a two-week class for the med students on mental wellness because the topic that I talked about was mental health in times of crisis.” Continue Reading

News, People

A Major Development at Saint Joe’s: A Minor in Irish Studies

Kersti Powell, left

When Kersti Tarien Powell, D.Phil., an assistant professor in the English department at Saint Joseph’s University, first proposed a minor in Irish Studies back in the fall, some people wondered aloud: Don’t we already have one?

The answer at the time was no, but, she says, there was broad agreement: “Of course we should have Irish Studies.”

Powell formally submitted her proposal in January. Then, she says, it went to different governing bodies at the Catholic university on City Line, including the College of Arts and Sciences and the University Council. She got the go-ahead in February. “It was approved at every stage,” she says. “So that was really nice.”

Now comes the tricky part.

Under normal circumstances, Powell explains, a student would  express an interest in adding or changing a major or a minor and fill out and sign a paper form. But these are not normal times. As with most universities and colleges, the coronavirus pandemic has forced changes in Saint Joe’s academic way of life.

“Since classes went online in March, in a couple of weeks, the university had to develop new means to deal with students who want to sign up for majors or change their major or sign up for new minors,” Powell says. “So now we have an online portal where they can do that.” As soon as the portal went live, the first couple of students signed up for the Irish Studies minor. “I was able to approve them and that was very exciting. We were literally starting to recruit students as the pandemic hit. It was an amazing thing to see happening.” Continue Reading