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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

Music, People

Frank Daly of Jamison Celtic Rock: Making the Best of a Bad Situation

Frank Daly and his band Jamison Celtic Rock were on tour in Florida when the novel coronavirus first began to hit home.

“We had done the Cape Coral Festival the first weekend in March, and then a few of the guys flew back home,” Daly recalls. “Alice Marie (the band’s fiddler), Kyle Walter (drummer) and I stayed the week, and then we were going to play the St. Augustine festival the following weekend. The other three guys were going to fly back down for that weekend. And we were hearing stuff from people back in Philly that things were going to get bad and they might shut things down—and there might be a quarantine. And you know, we’re down there in Florida and on the beaches and playing gigs in Fort Lauderdale, where there was literally no mention of it at all.”

Then came word that the St. Augustine festival was off. That, Daly says, was a blow because it would have been the first time Jamison had performed there, and they were really looking forward to it. “It was kind of a smack in the face,” he says. “Like, this was real.” Continue Reading

News, People

Friendly Sons Covid-19 Relief Fund Comes to the Assistance of Local Irish, Irish-American Families

The coronavirus pandemic has cost a lot of people their jobs and, therefore, their income. That’s had an impact on everything from mortgage and rent payments, utilities and loans to one extremely essential item: food.

People who never before needed to take advantage of the help of others suddenly find themselves struggling to keep their families fed.

Locally, the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick has long been known for its charitable endeavors. Now, they’ve established a Covid-19 relief fund, available to local Irish and Irish-American families fighting to keep body and soul together.

Friendly Sons President Ryan M. Heenan explains.

“Typically, our benevolence budget includes a lot of scholarships to local universities to help students travel to Ireland and things like that,” Heenan says, “but it became pretty apparent that a lot of those travel plans are going to be pretty restricted or canceled this year. So we made a conscious effort to dedicate those funds and continue to fund-raise toward the goal of food assistance.” Continue Reading

News, People

Healthy First Aid for Hard-Working Nurses

Not to put too fine a point on it, but nurses and other health care professionals are working hard, often to the point of mental and physical exhaustion, putting their own health at risk, as they do battle on the front lines of a coronavirus war.

There’s probably not a person who doesn’t appreciate their sacrifice and professionalism, but Lorilee Stearn, events manager for Paddy Whacks in Northeast Philly, is putting her appreciation into action.

Together with her family members—her husband, brother and three kids—she is putting together care packages for area nurses. Stearn, a local representative for a national health and wellness products firm, Arbonne, is putting together the ingredients for a refreshing respite, including energy and electrolyte hydration powders, packaged in little tubes, along with protein powder packs and protein bars. They seal them up in gallon-sized plastic bags, and they make them available to nurses from the surrounding area. Institutions so far include Pennsylvania Hospital, Jefferson-Torresdale, Cooper Echo Lab, Jefferson-Bucks, and the Philadelphia Industrial Correction Center. Continue Reading

News, People

Irish Restaurant Owner Crafts Masks to Help Protect Health Care Workers

Health care providers everywhere face a shortage of personal protective equipment—including masks.

A lot of people are stepping in to fill the breach with homemade masks, including Laurie McGarrity of Havertown, owner of The Hearth, a popular Irish eatery opened only six months ago.

She became aware of the dire need through contacts on social media, including a lot of nurses. McGarrity is a longtime crafter, so responding to the need was right up her alley.

“A lot of my nurse friends said on social media that they are reusing their masks, or they were running low,” McGarrity says. “So for me it was one of those things where, if you’re able to do it and you’re home anyway, you might as well help. I had all the supplies here, so I just figured I’d chip in and do whatever I could.”

Using patterns she found on the internet, McGarrity began sewing the masks early this week in a variety of brightly colored cotton re-washable fabric. The patterns were published by a health organization. Some masks are big enough to cover the preferred N95 masks, and others are smaller to fit the faces of nurses and other providers who have no masks at all. Continue Reading

Audio, Music, People

Still Much to Celebrate: Celtic Woman’s Máiréad Carlin Reflects on New Album

Celtic Woman was scheduled to perform in Philadelphia toward the end of this month, but then—well, you know what happened. With the onset of the novel coronavirus, the tour was canceled, and so went our latest chance to take in one of the biggest and longest-lasting groups in world Irish entertainment.

Fortunately, we now have a new CW album: “Celebration: 15 Years of Music & Magic,” featuring the 15 performers who have comprised Celtic Woman over the years.

We recently interviewed Máiréad Carlin, a seven-year member of Celtic Woman from Northern Ireland, about the abrupt end to the tour, but—more to the point—the new album’s capacity for comfort in trying times.

Irish Philly: We were looking forward to seeing you in Philadelphia. Quite a disappointment, but understandable circumstances, I’m sure.

Máiréad: Absolutely. I mean, my goodness, I think it was a shock for everybody. The news trickled through the world. I think over the few weeks that we were out there and we genuinely didn’t realize the magnitude of what was about to come. And we really only find out ourselves the day before we announced that we were going to go home and have to postpone the tour. It was such a disappointment because for us, this is a celebration. Continue Reading

People

Behind the Bar: The Black Taxi’s Neil Mac Thiarnáin

There’s a lot to know.

First off, his last name is pronounced “McKernan,” and he’s from Ardboe, County Tyrone.

Second, he’s been working in the bar business for a long while.

“When I was 13, 14 years old, my dad had a bar, Duff’s Corner,” he says. “That was in Ardboe. I’m 30 now.”

He actually started tending bar when he was 15 or 16 years old. “Straight into the fire, man,” he says. “I was helping out at first, but I started pulling shifts on my own when I was maybe 16.”

Third, he’s an accomplished musician.

“I’ve been playing in bands since I was 14,” Mac Thiarnáin says. “I used to play drums with Ray Coleman. He was the singer. He and I used to play in bands with my two cousins, and we played in the student bar in Belfast, The Hatfield. We used to play there on a Wednesday night. Then he moved here (Philadelphia). I was at university in Belfast at the time, and I learned guitar. Then I formed a band with a friend of mine and three young girls. We had fiddle, tin whistle, guitar and bodhrán. We used to back some of the bigger bands at home. We played the student bars.” Continue Reading