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Irish Music With a German Accent

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Anyone who has ever traveled to Ireland knows that German tourists love the Emerald Isle as much as Americans do. (I can remember bumping into a tour bus full of Germans on holiday at the Poulnabrone Dolmen, an ancient tomb out in the middle of one of Ireland’s most remote places, the Burren.)

So from the perspective of Tina Eck, who hails from Travemünde, a seaside resort along the border with Denmark, it is not at all unusual that she plays Irish flute, and is part of a popular duo called Lilt. The traditional twosome, which also features Irish bouzouki and tenor banjo player Keith Carr, is scheduled to play Sunday, November 18, as part of the Coatesville Traditional Irish Music Series. (Note to readers: This concert has been canceled.)

Eck, who now lives in Cabin John, Maryland, works as a radio correspondent covering Washington. She moved to the United States to work for Voice of America in September 1992, around the time of Bill Clinton’s election to the presidency. She had traveled to Ireland several times over the years, so she was familiar with Celtic culture. The music, not so much.

Then, one night in the mid-1990s, Eck visited the well-known Connecticut Avenue watering hole Nanny O’Brien’s, where a traditional Irish music session was going full blast.

“Nanny O’Brien’s was a hangout for journalists. You’d sit and drink, and talk politics. It was the first time I had ever heard an Irish session. It was completely mesmerizing.”

Eck resolved to do whatever she needed to do to be a part of that session. She started to teach herself tin whistle, soaking up tunes at the feet of guitarist, session leader and Nanny O’Brien’s owner Brian Gaffney, and others.

“I hadn’t played a musical instrument since I was in 4th grade,” Eck recalls. “I learned a bit of recorder then. But with Irish music, it was unbelievable that you could just sit behind a piper, and pick it all up by ear. You didn’t need to read music. I still can read music a little, but Irish music is truly accessible. You learn the music from your friends. That’s part of the appeal … the whole social thing, you know?”

Eck never did have formal lessons, though she did pick up bits and pieces from other whistle players. At that point, she was content to just keep tootling along on her whistle. But it wasn’t all that long before some of the other players were suggesting that she just might like the Irish wooden flute.

“Everybody said I should, Eck says. “I didn’t want to as I was really happy with the whistle. Then, one night, one of the flute players brought an old Casey Burns flute to the session—it was in a long green woolen sock—and he said, ‘Hold onto it as long as you like, and learn this.'”

It wasn’t long before Eck found herself banging out tunes on the flute. She says she was highly influenced by one of the best Irish flute players on the planet. “I complete idolized Seamus Egan (of the band Solas). To be able to play like him would be so great. That really motivated me.”

As with whistle, Eck learned flute in dribs and drabs from other players. She recalls in particular an informal—really informal—lesson from the great Galway-born Mike Rafferty.

“I asked him, ‘How you play a roll?” and he said ‘You just wiggle your fingers.” End of lesson.

Eck followed up with frequent trips to Ireland to pick the brains of the best at the Willie Clancy, Frankie Kennedy and Sligo summer schools. All of that learning was having the desired effect. She was getting good, and becoming known.

Eck’s musical partnership with Keith Carr—which would lead to the formation of Lilt—began in 2009, and quite by accident. Eck had booked a funeral, lining up guitarist Zan McLeod to accompany her, but McLeod dropped out at the last minute. Eck knew Carr from the Nanny O’Brien session, so she asked him to accompany her, and she quickly discovered that she and this talented bouzouki player were a good musical fit for each other.

“I think it was in the fall of 2009 that we started playing together more,” Eck recalls. “And in 2010, we went into the studio to record a few things, just for fun. I remember, it was in the middle of a blizzard. We sat down for a few hours, and we played what we liked to play.”

Eck didn’t everything on the recording, but she says Capital-area Irish music aficionados had a different opinion. “I think we made 500 copies of that first demo. People loved it. They were just ripping the CDs from our fingers.”

At that point, it became clear that Eck and Carr should formalize their partnership. Then came the question of a name, but Eck had actually thought about that even before a band of any kind became a possibility.

“My husband actually came up with the name ‘Lilt,” says Eck. “He said, if you ever have a group, why don’t you call yourselves ‘Lilt’?” That name stuck with Keith and me, and we began to play together more regularly.”

As to the question of what to play, the answer was obvious: dance music. As she had progressed, Eck had been invited to play in ceili bands. She remembers it being a challenge: “I could barely keep up.” But soon she settled in, and discovered a whole new reason to enjoy playing Irish music, and in particular, a preferred style of play for the then-new duo Lilt.

“I love playing for dances. The dancers fill in all the blanks. I think a hornpipe can sound a little dorky all by itself, but as soon as you have shoes pounding out the rhythm, that’s when the music has lift and energy. So Lilt now is the quintessential dance band. We still do play for dances, but sometimes in performances, we also have step dancers and sean nos (old style) dancers. Not in every tune, not in every piece, but when the dancers get going, it’s not only a crowd pleaser. I get goose bumps.”

You can get your own goose bumps by snagging a ticket for the Coatesville concert.


Are You As Competitive As a Fifth Grader?×300.jpg” alt=”Mary Kay Mann” width=”300″ height=”300″ />

Mary Kay Mann

If an 11-year-old could compete in the world championships of Irish traditional music, harpist Mary Kay Mann reasoned, then so could she.

In this case, the then-fifth grader was Keegan Loesel, who took up the tin whistle at about 5 years old, and Mann was his teacher. Keegan is one of a small posse of incredibly talented local kids who have competed at the Fleadh Cheoil (pronounced flah KEE-ohl) on one or more occasions. Keegan put his skills to the test last year in County Cavan, Ireland, where the Fleadh was held.

Keegan played well but didn’t place in the under-12 whistle event, but it takes incredible talent, discipline and determination to get even that far. Inspired by her student, Mann decided to give it a shot.

Give it a shot she did … and even better than that: She came in third in over-18 slow airs.

It wasn’t easy. Unlike the local Fleadh kids, Mann, who lives in Media, has grown-up responsibilities.

“I have a day job, and students, and gigs, and a lot of things going on,” she says. In order to compete and have a snowball’s chance in Ireland, Mann knew she would have to choose the event best suited to her talents.

“I chose slow airs. I would have to really work to compete with 16-year-olds on jigs. I thought that, as a person who is not exactly young, slow airs might be something I could do. Slow airs don’t take speed; they take maturity. They’re slow and emotional and not rhythmic, and they are ornamented. I could probably study them for the rest of my life. I like challenges like that.”

Even then, Mann says, it was tough going. In order to compete in Ireland, Mann needed to know eight slow airs, and her playing of those eight airs needed to be bulletproof. “It takes a lot of time,” Mann says. “Once you get there, you have to play three of them … except that you don’t know which three, so you have to prepare all of them.”

Unlike other Fleadh contests, which can attract large numbers of contestants, over-18 slow airs for harp drew only six contestants. Mann thinks that might have improved her odds, but all the same—all six players were world-class.

“I think I was the only American … and these girls were incredible. Really young and really good. They’re driven, they’re self-driven, they practice all the time, and they love it.”

To her surprise, Mann more than held her own. But that’s not to suggest her third place medal was some kind of fluke. Mann, who took up Celtic harp in the mid-1990s, has always been a deeply committed performer and teacher, with a bachelor’s degree in instrumental music education. She already played classical flute and piano before she added the Celtic harp to her repertoire. (She also plays tin whistle.)

As for how Mann got her start, she blames another well-known local harpist, Ellen Tepper. “”I was playing flute in a duo with her, and at one point she just handed me the harp and said, ‘Try this, it’s easy.'”

It wasn’t all that easy, but it wasn’t all that hard, either. Celtic harp is often taught “by ear,” without aid of sheet music.

For Mann, that was just fine.

“I already played piano by ear,” Mann says. “I had already learned how to do that before I transitioned to the harp. It’s fun without all the little dots on the page. And it really is nice to start when you are older because you sound decent right away. If you started on fiddle, you’d probably sound pretty bad, but a lot of people start learning harp in midlife because it’s gratifying right away.”

After years of learning and trying to perfect her craft, competing and placing at the Fleadh is icing on the cake. For now, Mann is content to return to her teaching and performing life. She’s not sure the Fleadh experience she will repeat any time soon. “It costs a lot of money. I didn’t do benefit concerts; I had to pay for it. It’s a lot of money and time … and it’s exhausting.”

September 28, 2012 by
Music, People

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Emily Safko

Amy and Greg Safko knew early on that their daughter Emily had vision problems. When Emily was 2, doctors told the Medford, N.J., couple that their daughter was highly nearsighted.

“We knew something was off,” says Amy Safko. “She would pull everything right to her face.”

Then, three years ago, Emily’s vision declined dramatically. She was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder call Stickler Syndrome, which damages the eyes, along with the ears, and connective tissue throughout the body.

Emily’s vision problems came to a head late last year when she started noticing spots and flashes in her field of vision—floaters—and she suddenly couldn’t read the blackboard in school. What followed were multiple surgeries and, finally, the finding that Emily, now 10 years old, is legally blind.

All of which makes Emily’s fourth place finish in the under-12 Celtic harp competition at the Fleadh Cheoil last month—the annual “world series” of Irish music—that much more remarkable. Some might say it was miraculous.

“She’s remarkably better than we ever could have expected,” Amy says. “We are just so happy.”

Optimism apparently runs in the family. When she learned of her condition, Emily recalls, “I thought it was cool because not many other kids have it. It wasn’t getting me down.”

Stickler Syndrome also appears to run in the family. Testing showed that Amy Safko herself had Stickler, but had never been symptomatic. She had been born with a cleft palate, which is associated with Stickler Syndrome. Additionally, her joints had always been hyperflexible, which can also be a sign.

The family’s upbeat attitude was sorely tested in the months leading up to the Fleadh Cheoil (flah KEE-ole), held in August in County Cavan.

Following her surgeries, doctors told the Safkos that Emily had a long road ahead of her. “Her right eye has no lens,” says Amy. “The left eye is the better of the two. She still has a cataract they didn’t want to touch.”

Emily’s eyes are both filled with silicone, a temporary step to help promote healing, her mother explains. “The silicone was put in there as part of the retinal detachment repair. It usually comes out in three months, but she still has it in both eyes. If they work on the cataract, the oil can get in other parts of the eye. No one wants to touch that eye.”

Overall, Emily lost a month of practice time leading up to competition season, and when she was finally able to start playing again, nothing about it came easily.

“I had to re-learn harp, sort of,” says Emily. “At first, I lost some parts, but my teacher always talks about ‘muscle memory.’ My fingers remembered.

“It was really tricky with the strings. When I started to play the harp again in January, the strings were all weird. Some of the strings are see-through, and I couldn’t see them at all.”

Those difficulties held Emily back for just a week. “It doesn’t take long for me to remember things. Once I learn a tune, all I have to do is put my fingers in the starting position, and then I just go from there.”

Before her most recent Fleadh, Emily had competed in Ireland twice. This is the first year she finished so high up in the rankings. She almost finished in the top three in slow airs. She tied for third, but finished fourth after a callback.

One reason for Emily’s strong finish is her deeply competitive nature, Amy Safko says. But support from the Irish music community provided another big boost.

“One of the biggest things that was so amazing to us was just how supportive the Irish music community was to us,” says Amy Safko. “We got cards from harpists every day from around the world, people we didn’t even know. Some of them sent gifts, and we didn’t even know them. It was amazing to us.”

As for where she goes from here, Emily Safko has no doubt about it. She wants to go back to Ireland next August to try again.

“It’s a lot of fun going there. I’m looking forward to next year.”

September 15, 2012 by

Living a Dream Come True

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Mick Conneely (© 2011 Con Kelleher)

Fiddler Mick Conneely won’t forget the first time he saw the pioneering Irish folk group De Danann live, every last detail permanently etched into his memory.

“I was 15. It was Sunday the 23rd of May 1982. It was the first time I saw them live, a concert my teacher Brendan Mulkere had organized, in Slough, a town south of London. It was dinner time. Me and my dad went. It was the ‘Star Spangled Molly’ tour, my favorite album. It was the only time I was starstruck.”

Conneely, born in Bedford, England, to Irish dad and fiddle player Mick and mum Lizzi, in a home where Irish music was ever present, had been playing fiddle under Mulkere’s tutelage since he was 11. Mulkere must have thought pretty highly of the young man’s abilities, because, Conneely recalls, “didn’t Mr. Mulkere drag me by the scruff of my neck up to the stage to play solo during the intermission?”

Conneely nearly passed out from fear, but the terror quickly passed as he started to play sets from the 1977 duet album, “Frankie Gavin & Alec Finn.”

Looking back, he says, “it was a brilliant exposure. For the first five minutes I was afraid for my life, but then the butterflies turned into something else.”

Gavin, he recalls, was mightily impressed that his young friend had chosen to play tunes from that album, which Conneely describes as his favorite, both then and now. “When I met the lads afterward, Frankie gave me a hug,” he recalls, still sounding like that starstruck kid. “I was on a high from it for years afterward.”

Conneely kept on plugging away devotedly at his fiddle, playing at sessions, ceilis and house parties, in time maturing into a young virtuoso. Then, in 1984, when Conneely was 17, his parents allowed him to accompany some other young musicians to the Willie Clancy Summer School Festival in the West Clare Irish traditional music hotbed of Miltown Malbay. He suddenly found himself surrounded by the royalty of Irish music.

“You’d hear music in a pub, with the likes of Frankie and Mary Bergin and Jackie Daly. It was just unbelieveable. You couldn’t dream it. I’d never been exposed to that level of music. It changed my whole life. 1987 was the year I knew I would be playing till the day I die. What I experienced in Miltown Malbay would never leave me.”

The members of De Danann didn’t forget about Conneely either, as he found out in 1991, when he was 24 years old. What happened then was musical kismet.

“I toured America with the band,” he says, a note of awe still in his voice. “Frankie had broken his arm or his wrist just before the tour, and I got a call from the tour coordinator.” At first he thought it was his childhood friend, now Lunasa frontman Kevin Crawford, playing a joke on him, but it soon became clear: This was no joke.

“That was unbelievable. I knew the tunes, there was no learning curve at all. Why I was thought of, I have no idea to this day, really. I was totally honored and blown away. Imagine being a guitarist and getting a call from Mick Jagger. I went over a boy and came home a man, musically speaking.”

So began a relationship with De Danann that has lasted years, as Conneely became established as Frankie Gavin’s stand-in. He did a couple of tours after that, and a couple of one-off concerts.

Conneely is on the tour that will take De Danann through Philadelphia on Saturday, September 8, for the grand finale concert of the 38th Annual Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival at the Philadelphia Irish Center in Mount Airy. He’ll join De Danann originals, bouzouki wizard Alec Finn and bodhran player Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh, together with the great singer Eleanor Shanley, accordion player Derek Hickey, and Brian McGrath on piano and banjo.

Of course, this incarnation of De Danann is absent Frankie Gavin. The band split up in 2003. Conneely says he doesn’t harbor any illusions that he can take Gavin’s place. “No one can really replace Frankie. He’s still my favorite fiddle player. He’d lift anyone’s soul.”

For now, though, Mick Conneely is happy to share the stage with the band that most inspired him as a kid. “Looking back now,” he says, “I realize I’m the luckiest guy on earth. I’ve realized many of my ambitions, which is rare. Some dreams do come true.”

Learn more about the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival.


August 24, 2012 by

With a Banjo On His Knee

Finbar Furey

Finbar Furey, performing a couple of years back at the Shanachie Pub in Ambler.

If you want a review of Finbar Furey’s brilliant new banjo-centric recording, “Colours,” you might start with a very enthusiastic Finbar Furey.

“Its the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m flying again,” says Furey, who is also renowned as one of the foremost practitioners or uilleann pipes in the world. “I haven’t played Appalachian banjo since my mother died. I found out I was playing the wrong instrument all me life. I have notes in me head that the pipes don’t play, but the banjo has it. It’s like second nature to me.”

Of course, it’s hardly as if Furey has never played banjo before, but this time around it just feels different to him, and it takes him back to the days when he learned the instrument from his mother Nora.

“I learned to play the banjo and sing from my mother. My mother played the melodeon and the concertina, and she could sing with it, but the banjo was her instrument. She taught me that music was like a wheel—there’s no end to it, and no beginning.”

There is one other notable influence, as well. Furey plays a five-string Framus banjo given him by Derroll Adams. Adams taught him a classic Appalachian style of play—thumb and forefinger. Furey blends his mother’s upbeat “breakdown” style with Adams’s “frailing” style, tosses in a bit of bluegrass … and that’s his sound. “It’s a whole new beautiful mixture,” he explains. “Its Irish music and pure soul.”

You’ll hear Furey’s distinctive banjo playing all through “Colours,” from the opening track, “After Sunday Mass,” to “The Ballad for George Best.” It also pops up in two classic folk numbers, “Blowing in the Wind” and “Waltzing Matilda.”

It’s not all banjo plucking of course. There are two delicious duets, the touching “Walking With My Love,” with Mary Black, and a bittersweet ballad “Rivers of Steel,” in which he pairs up with English X Factor winner Shayne Ward.

And fear not … Furey dusts off the pipes for the final tune, “Up By Christchurch And Down By St Patrick’s And Home,” inspired by the legendary piper Johnny Doran. Doran was crippled when a factory wall fell on him near Christchurch in Dublin.

“Doran was probably the greatest exponent of uilleann pipes ever. I went down to Clare a few weeks ago, and they still talk about him like he’s still alive.”

The tune never would have been written written, were it not for the timely intervention of Furey’s son Martin (of the High Kings).

“I was in my son’s house, and I turned the tape deck on and just played. I just played it as I wrote it, thinking of Johnny. I wanted to create a Mass for Johnny. Martin taped it as I played it, or I would have lost it.”

“Colours” reflects Furey’s lifelong interest in many kinds of music, an interest about which he feels not one bit proprietary, a point of view advanced by his father Ted.

“He used to say, ‘You wrote the music, but you don’t own it. I gave my music to you, and you moved the music forward. It just becomes part of the wheel.’

“You never put that heritage in a box and claim that it belongs to you on stage.”

You’ll get a chance to hear the tunes from “Colours” when Furey appears Thursday, May 31, at World Cafe Live. Also on the bill is Philly’s very own John Byrne.

For tickets:

May 18, 2012 by

The Last Dance

Caterina Coyne

Caterina Coyne

Can it really be so? Will the toe-tapping spectacle that is Riverdance never again play in a Philadelphia theatre?

True. And Philadelphia isn’t alone. When the lights go out at the Wolftrap Center outside Washington, D.C., the North American show’s last stop, on June 17, Riverdance will never again tour the United States.

For Caterina Coyne, the female lead dancer of the show’s Shannon company which will perform Friday through Sunday at the Merriam Theatre, curtain call on that final Wolftrap show is likely to be a bittersweet moment.

“I’ve been doing Riverdance for eight years, five of them in North America,” says the London-born Coyne, who moved with her family to Galway when she was a small child. “I suppose I spend so much time over here, I see North America as being as much my home as Ireland. It’ll be very sad not to be touring here anymore. United States audiences are probably the best anywhere. They love the show, and they are really vocal about it. You can see how much they enjoy it. Throughout the rest of the world, they are more reserved.”

This final North American tour began in Dallas in February. The troupe sets a grueling pace, performing eight shows a week, on average. (They get Mondays off.)

Coyne, 29, has been dancing since age 4, dancing competitively and racking up prizes as she went along. When Riverdance first made a big splash, back in February of 1995, she was still in high school. Coyne loved Irish dance as it was, but Riverdance was another thing entirely.

“I suppose you can say that before Riverdance, the pinnacle of Irish dancing was to be world champion, or top 10 in the world. But then Riverdance came about, and the show gave Irish dancers an opportunity to become professionals. It’s done a lot for Irish dancing.

“I loved dancing. It’s my first love, really. I remember watching it (the show), and seeing the line of dancers. I just wanted to be in that show, and thats all I wanted to do.”

After Coyne left school, she had an opportunity to audition for the show. It wasn’t long before she got the news: she was in. “I waited for a position to open for me, and then, I got the call. I was over the moon. I’ve been touring ever since.”

You can see Riverdance as it passed through Philly for the last time. For details, visit the box office website.

May 4, 2012 by
Music, People

Five Questions For WRTI’s Maureen Malloy

Maureen Malloy

Maureen Malloy (Photo copyright 2011 David Hinton Photography)

When Maureen Malloy was a kid growing up in East Falls and attending Central, WPEN was on all the time, which meant countless airings of “Fridays With Frank” and “Sundays With Sinatra,” along with the music of the big bands, and standards of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. So you might say she had a head start on what would ultimately become her job and her passion: jazz program director and on-air personality at WRTI, Temple’s hybrid classical-jazz station.

Malloy (family roots: Mayo) started hosting jazz shows at the station in 1999, when she was still a student, and she was hooked from the start. She found that she was already well-versed in the Great American Songbook, so it really wasn’t a stretch at all.

We caught up with Malloy this week, in the depths of a pledge drive. Every time we tuned in, it seemed like she was on the air, so we’re grateful for her time.

Here’s what she had to say about her life, her career on radio, and her love of jazz.

Q. Who were your mentors? I assume the great Bob Perkins is one of them. How did they take to you? What did they teach you?

A. Of course B.P. is my mentor! He always would invite the students at WRTI to sit in during his air shifts. Bob is so easy to learn from, because he was able to meet and host for so many of the jazz greats. He just tells me stories about them, and they are good stories, so they stick. He is also a genuine person. When you meet him, it dispels the misconception that jazz deejays always try to act “cool.” Being knowledgeable is cool.

I also must mention Tony Harris and Andre Gardner from WMGK. I worked there a few years back, and those guys taught me so much about the radio industry. Their knowledge of music is borderline ridiculous.

Q. There are so many different jazz genres. Do you have a favorite, and if so, why?

A. When it comes to jazz, it is so hard for me to pick a favorite anything! Being a programmer, I am always more concerned with what the listeners want to hear. If I listed my favorite piece/artist from every genre, you would run of space on this page. I can tell you that my favorite standard is “It’s Only A Paper Moon.” I’m not sure why … I just always like it. I am also a huge sucker for big bands. It doesn’t matter what they are playing. Whatever it is, I’ll listen.

Q. You’ve done many different things in broadcast, but let’s talk about WRTI. What’s special about ‘RTI to you? What do you love about going into the studio?

A. Every so often I will pull a vintage recording out of the library that I know has not been played in a long while. Halfway through the piece of music, the phone will ring, and it might be a listener who is extremely excited because they haven’t heard that tune in 20-plus years. You must understand, a large percentage of our audience are true jazz-heads, so a call like that means that I am doing my job well.

Now, take that same piece of music, but this time the phone call is a listener telling you about an important moment of their life for which that song was the soundtrack. We are very connected with our listeners at WRTI because there aren’t too many of us around with such a huge passion for this art form.

Q. And as a follow-up … if you had a desert island disk, what’s the one tune that would have to be on it, the one you just couldn’t live without? Or maybe it would be easier for you to answer: which record?

A. The one tune I would need to have on that island disc (other than the one I have already named) is Coltrane’s “Equinox.”

Q. Are you a musician? Do you have a musical background?

A. I played piano as a kid. Like many kids, I decided to quit once I entered the teenage years. I wanted to play basketball with my friends. Then, I topped out a 5 foot 6 inches, so the basketball career went right down the drain. I should’ve stuck with the piano!

May 4, 2012 by
Food & Drink, People

Smells Like Victory

Deborah Streeter-DavittInside the Paoli Presbyterian Church kitchen, the air is heavy with the sweet scent of vanilla, orange and chocolate. Easy listening music blares from a boom box in one corner of the room, and in another corner, the industrial-sized twin Blodgett convection ovens emit a low roar.

Perched on cooling racks near an open screen door rest close to two dozen four-inch bundt cakes, a big 10-inch granddaddy bundt, and a coffee table-sized sheet cake. These tantalizing golden-brown confections are the result of a couple of hours’ labor by the exceptionally well organized Deborah Streeter-Davitt, the self-described “head caketress” behind MacDougall’s Irish Victory Cakes. She has help from her father, the Rev. Richard Streeter. (A former pastor of the church, he describes his role in the enterprise as “chief orange squeezer.”)

You might have seen, and tasted, Streeter-Davitt’s handiwork at a local Celtic festival. Her cakes are also available in more than a dozen small markets and farmers’ markets throughout the Delaware Valley. They’re also available online.

The success of MacDougall’s Irish Victory Cakes marks a kind of victory for Streeter-Davitt, who pursued a dream and became a baker following a layoff about three years ago from her longtime job in the financial services industry.

“Necessity breeds creativity,” laughs Streeter-Davitt, who seems not to break a sweat in the 80 degree-plus commercial kitchen, which she rents on Tuesdays and Thursdays from the church. (A local biscotti maker also leases the space.) Her green apron bears the imprint of floury hands. and she tucks her dark, wavy hair into a little heart-decorated painter’s cap, from which an uncooperative loose tendril escapes. Whisking flour and sugar into eggs, melting and stirring chocolate, scooping yellowy batter into heavyweight Nordic Ware pans, manhandling sheet cake pans into the oven, Streeter-Davitt seems the very picture of contentment.

The work consumes many more hours than she was used to devoting to her previous profession, but for Streeter-Davitt, it’s all worthwhile.

The layoff coincided with another imminent turning point in her life. “I was turning 50 in a few years, and I thought … hmmmmmmm. That was two and a half years ago. Up to that point, there was always something missing. Salary and travel all over the United States couldn’t fill that hole. I didn’t realize how fulfilling this would be. Now, I feel like I’m doing something I’m meant to be doing.”

Streeter-Davitt has been baking since the ‘80s. She says that’s when she came into possession of a recipe for a simple but rich, dense, buttery cake. The recipe belonged to her great-grandfather James MacDowell (of the MacDougall Clan) from Belfast. Before World War I, MacDowell had gained no small measure of fame for his delicious, lavishly decorated cakes. He baked for kings and queens. Just after the war, he left his fame behind and moved to the Syracuse, N.Y. area, where he toiled away in a tiny, neighborhood bakery. MacDowell decorated cakes for all the local wealthy households—all so his grandkids would have the opportunity for an education.

MacDowell’s story is the “victory” in the victory cake, says Streeter-Davitt. “It was his victory to bring the family here to the United States. He was a famous champion baker back home, but he gave it all up for his children and grandchildren.”

Streeter-Davitt, for her part, has taken some liberties with the basic butter cake recipe. She adapted the base recipe to create several distinctive, and distinctively named, flavors, from Dassie’s Traditional (with Wilbur chocolate and butterscotch chips) to Skeeter’s Grand Slam (chocolate, butterscotch, peanut butter and marshmallow) to Albie’s Loopy Leprechaun (chocolate, butterscotch and “two cheers of whiskey”). Many of the ingredients are local, and all cakes include at least a kiss of whiskey.

When the local appetite for Victory Cakes is at its greatest, it’s all hands on deck—mostly meaning “relatives, and friends of relatives.” It’s a huge amount of work, baking cakes in large quantities. For a batch, think in terms of two dozen eggs, a pound of butter, a pound of sour cream, five pounds of flour, and six cups of sugar. (And there are a few secret ingredients in the mix that make the cake deliciously different.)

St. Patrick’s Day, of course, is a major undertaking. “We probably made close to 800 minis (the four-inch individual cakes), 150 petites (the two-pound cake), and 20 mighties (the five-pounder),” Streeter-Davitt says.

Baking, she adds, is only half of the job. There’s frosting and decorating, wrapping and labeling, transporting, marketing and more. Yeoman’s labor, but all infinitely worthwhile to MacDougall’s energetic head caketress, both on a professional and a personal level.

“What’s fun about this job is that I get to work with my dad, and carry on his granddad’s legacy. You can’t put a price tag on that.”

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PO Box 563 Malvern, PA 19355

April 12, 2012 by