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Don Stiffe

How to Be Irish in Philly

How to Be Irish in Philly This Week

The Campbell’s Highland Dancers and the Washington Pipe Band at last year’s Midwinter Scottish and Irish Fest.

The really smart people have booked rooms for the weekend in the Valley Forge area because it’s that time again—the Philadelphia Mid-winter Scottish and Irish Festival.

It’s all about the music. Festival favorites Albannach, Barleyjuice, Brother, Hadrian’s Wall, and Seven Nations will be joining groups like Donegal’s own Screaming Orphans, a very hip sister act, and Searson, an equally hip sister act from Canada, both of which have a huge fan base in the Mid-Atlantic region. There’s dancing. We’re hoping for a dance-off between the Fitzpatrick Irish Dancers and the Campbell Highland Dancers. Bring it! And you can dance too—there’s plenty of dance music for rockers, ceili dancers, and step dancers. You can even sign up for a few lessons!

You can learn to speak Irish or Scottish Gaelic, taste some aged whiskey, buy some CDs, a kilt, a new sporran, a crazy t-shirt, or some stunning jewelry, and taste some Scottish ice cream, fish and chips, or meat pies. Seriously, this is the most fun you can have with your clothes on, and most people do keep their clothes on so you can bring the kiddies.

We’ll be there all weekend, hawking Ceili Drive: The Music of Irish Philadelphia, our newly minted CD featuring some of the region’s top Irish musicians which was crowd-funded, as they say on public radio, by listeners just like you. Any money we make from the sales of the CD, which we hope will become a piece of Irish Philadelphia history, will go to making a second featuring some of the musicians we didn’t capture the first time around. So, stop by and see us, and buy a CD (they’re only $15 and will also be available online).

There’s an incredible bounty for Irish music lovers this week. At the Irish Center on Sunday, and at the Coatesville Cultural Center on Sunday, you can hear Laura Byrne, Rose Flanagan (sister of noted fiddler Brian Conway), and Eamon O’Leary on flute, fiddle, and guitar. The three will be offering workshops at the Irish Center before their show, which starts at 8 PM.

The John Byrne Band will be appearing at the Winter Doldrums Folk Fest (we do love that name!) at World Café Live, along with many other local folkies.

On Sunday, Galway’s own Don Stiffe, fresh from “The All Ireland Talent Show,” will be making his second appearance at The Irish Center in Philadelphia. Go early for the traditional Irish meal prepared by Tullamore Crew at 5 PM.

The first parade of the region is always Burlington County, and they have the first fundraiser too—at the High Street Grill in Mt. Holly, NJ, on Wednesday, 7-10 PM, with Irish music provided by Slainte.

Philadelphia’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade will be holding its first fundraiser (of two) on February 24 at The Heroes Ballroom, FOP Lodge 5, in Philadelphia—appropriate since this year’s grand marshal is retired Philadelphia Police Officer Harry Marnie, who has been active for many years with the FOP and the Emerald Society, an organization of police and fire personnel of Irish descent.

Then, on Friday, February, 22, the fundraiser you’ve all been waiting for—the Delco Gael’s “Dancing Like a Star,” which pits 8 amateur couples against one another in a dance-off that last year drew more than 700 people to the Springfield Country Club. The event, which is fun personified, raises money to support the Gaels, who are helping keep Gaelic athletics in Philadelphia alive through youth teams.

There are loads of events on our calendar—more and more every day as we approach St. Patrick’s month. Keep checking back!


Return of the Voice You Can’t Forget

Singer-songwriter Don Stiffe

In 2010, we wrote about a then up-and-coming singer-songwriter from Galway. His, we wrote in a headline, is “a new voice you won’t forget.”

Since that time, Don Stiffe has become an arrived singer-songwriter from Galway and hundreds of thousands of people have not been able to forget his gift-from-God voice, thanks to his 2011 appearance on RTE’s “The All Ireland Talent Show,” one of Ireland’s most watched TV shows a la “America’s Got Talent,” on which he was a finalist.

Fresh off the Joannie Madden (Cherish the Ladies) “Folk’n’Irish” Cruise, with a new CD in hand (“Life’s Journey”), and a tour with the Kilfenora Ceili Band on the resume, Stiffe is heading to Philadelphia for a return engagement at the Irish Center on Sunday, Feb. 17. The show is produced by Marianne MacDonald, host of the “Come West Along the Road” radio show on WTMR 800AM every Sunday at noon.

MacDonald forged a relationship with Stiffe after, one day, deciding to blow the dust off a CD someone had given her to hear this new guy’s version of a song she loves, “Shanagolden.” She had the same reaction most people do when they hear Don Stiffe sing. “Wow,” she said.

“So I did what you usually do these days when you want to reach someone—I found him on Facebook!” she says, laughing. They chatted and she lured him to his first Philly gig, introducing him to fellow Galway native and musician, Gabriel Donohue, who served as his one-man-band accompanist.

Stiffe entered “The All-Ireland Talent Show” on the urging of his wife Elaine and three children. He didn’t win, but as it goes in many of these star-making series, even the runners up reap the rewards.

“You get the publicity out of it and it’s fantastic,” Stiffe told me a couple of weeks ago from Miami, where he was about to board the Joanie Madden cruise ship. “People take a bit more notice of you. In fact, when I was coming through Shannon, on of the immigration officers said to me, ‘Are you that person who was on that talent show one time?’ God almighty,” Stiffe says, laughing, “when an immigration officers pulls you up and starts talking about the bloody thing. . .I thought people would be thinking I was on some murder list or something! And she just would not let me go. She knew about the three kids, the family. . . .”

The real reward isn’t recognition though, says Stiffe. “It’s the work. Getting the work is a great thing. I didn’t think things would happen so fast. I got a nice bit of work at home, in different parts of the country.” He toured with Cherish the Ladies last year (they made a stop at Philadelphia’s Annenberg Theater to soldout crowds) and is with them again right now in Texas. And he hooked up with the Kilfenora Ceili Band, the oldest and possibly most famous ceili band in Ireland, which regularly sells out the Irish National Concert Hall in Dublin.
“Touring with the Kilfenora Ceili Band was fantastic. We played all the big auditoriums in Ireland and people did recognize who I was. To get to a wider audience, to get steady work, that’s the name of the game. I’m not too concerned about the fame,” he says, laughing again. “It’s the work.”

But getting noticed is what’s bringing the work and Stiffe’s talent is drawing attention in many ways. In 2010, his version of Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” from his debut album, “Start of a Dream,” earned him the “Vocal Cut of the Year” award from the Live Ireland awards. This year, one of his songs, “Somebody Special,” performed by his friend and fellow Galway native Matt Keane, was named Live Ireland’s pick for “Song of the Year.”

But, perhaps more important, this touching (and to Stiffe, very personal) love song has become the song of the year—and possibly, for years to come—of young Irish couples. “A lot of people are singing it at weddings,” says Stiffe. “That must mean something, hmm?”

Listen to Matt Keane’s version and you’ll understand why.

Even better, come to the Irish Center on Sunday night at 7 PM and ask Don to sing it himself. Guaranteed, you’ll never forget it.


Don Stiffe in Concert

Don Stiffe

Don Stiffe in concert at the Philadelphia Irish Center.

He’d already sold dozens at the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, NY last week. Arts Week organizer, Paul Keating, writing about the “magical” week when the best and brightest of Irish trad come together, noted that “Galwegian singer Don Stiffe made a big impact right away with his booming voice that sent listeners scurrying to the CD booth to take away more of his music.”

Stiffe has that effect on his audiences. Nancy Pidliski of Warminster said she came to the Irish Center after many years’ absence to hear Stiffe, whose CD she’s been listening to since her sister met Stiffe in Ireland a year ago. “Even my 17-year-old nephew listens to it all the time,” she said. She bought one for herself to take on her trip back to Canada, where she has a summer home.

If you missed Don Stiffe’s concert, you can view the many videos—bad lighting makes them a little more like audio—and our photos of the concert, which also featured fellow Galwegian Gabriel Donohue as Stiffe’s one-man band accompanist.

Videos by Lori Lander Murphy:


A New Voice You Won’t Forget

Don Stiffe

Don Stiffe

A few months ago, a friend gave me a stack of Irish CDs she liked. “You have to listen to Don Stiffe,” she said as she handed them over. “You’ve never heard a voice like his.”

It was a busy time so I stuck the CDs in a cabinet and didn’t pull them out till a few weeks ago when I was taking a car trip. I unwrapped Don Stiffe’s solo CD, “Start of a Dream,” and popped it in the CD player. Stiffe, a singer-songwriter from County Galway, was barely through the first few bars of the first track– Richard Thompson’s “Waltzing for Dreamers”– when I realized I had goosebumps. And it wasn’t the air conditioning.

Virtually unknown in the US, Stiffe is an up and coming folk singer in Ireland where he’s worked with the likes of Frankie Gavin (who produced and played on his CD), Sharon Shannon, and Lunasa’s Kevin Crawford. He’s poised to join the Keane family (Dolores and Sean), Dessy O’Halloran, and Sean Tyrell as Galway’s gift to Irish music.

Stiffe will be sharing that gift with Philadelphia audiences for the first time on Tuesday, July 20, at the Irish Center, accompanied by Gabriel Donohue, another of Galway’s finest.

“Dolores Keane was a big influence on me growing up,” he told me a few weeks ago on the phone from Ireland. “I don’t live far from the Keanes—maybe 15 miles. I also loved Luke Kelly [one of Ireland’s greatest folk artists] though I would never try his approach to the music.”

Yet, like Keane and Kelly, Stiffe’s voice has that same complex mix of smooth and rough, like an Aran sweater. Like them, no matter what he’s singing—there are a couple of Richard Thompson tracks on his CD, four of his own songs, and even his take on Nat King Cole’s classic “Mona Lisa”—it becomes an irresistible siren song, rich with emotion, stirring, soul-satisfying.

Unlike many Irish singers, Stiffe does not come from a family of musicians. “Oh, my Mum and Dad will sing a song if they’re out at function, but I’m not from a musical family,” he says. “My Dad bought me a guitar when 7-8 years old. I had two lessons. I kept thinking, how am I going to get around all the stringy things on the guitar? After a few years came together. But I was always singing. I played in a local brass band in Galway City and I was always listening to an abundance of music.”

I asked Stiffe about the songs he chose for “Start of a Dream.”

“Most of them are diaspora songs—songs about longing for home,” I said.

“I lived in the States in the 90s,” he told me. “I was in Boston for two years and in St. Louis for a few months. I worked for a few different companies, doing landscaping, doing contruction as we all do.” He laughed. “But while I was there I was playing the circuit around the Boston area and in St. Louis.” While in St. Louis, he played with legendary accordian player Joe Burke who dubbed him “The Bard of Bohermore,” acknowledging the poetry of Stiffe’s lyrics.

Take, for example, “Grosse Isle,” which tells the story of the Irish immigrants, fleeing Ireland’s An gorta mor—the Great Hunger–who landed on this little island (Grosse-Ile) 30 miles east of Quebec City that was designated a quarantine station to prevent the spread of cholera. Today, a tall Celtic cross greets visitors to the island where an estimated 6,000 Irish are buried.

“In their thousands they died on the island of sorrow
Not from the under, but the feverish course
They left pillage behind them, in the land they loved dearest
But to land is Gross Isle, to die in the dirt.”

“I had been reading about the people who left Ireland in the coffin ships, only to land in Gross Isle and die there,” he explained. “I was really moved by it. . . I could go months without writing a song because it can’t be fictitious. It has to be the truth of the story.”

It’s my favorite track on the CD—that and Stiffe’s take on Richard Thompson’s poignant, “Dimming of the Day.” I first heard the song on a Bonnie Raitt album and loved it. Stiffe’s version is just as good. He’s joined on the track by singer Fionnuaula Deacy.

“That one got an award from Irish Music Magazine,” he acknowledges. “It’s a tricky slope doing a cover song. People listen to it and they want it to sound like the version they heard.”

Even if it’s your favorite song, Stiffe—who promised to sing it on Tuesday—you won’t be disappointed. And even if it’s 98 degrees and steamy, don’t forget your sweater. For the goosebumps.