The birthday boy.
With a gentle shove from his son Jimmy, Kevin McGillian passed through the doorway curtains and into the Commodore Barry Club’s Fireside Room.
The few hundred friends and family members waiting inside burst into warm and enthusiastic applause. Kevin’s face lit up with a bright, broad grin. It was the kind of smile that looks like you have been saving up smiles from all of the happy things that have ever happened to you, and you unleash them all at once in one enormous outpouring of joy.
As Kevin began at last to wade into the throng of well-wishers, contemporaries and fresh-faced kids alike, the surprise 80th birthday celebration for this gentle, self-effacing accordion player from Legfordrum, County Tyrone began in earnest.
It was a party that seamlessly transitioned to a rollicking session, with many of Kevin’s friends—including his mononymous long-time ceili partner Pancho on piano accordion, Kathy DeAngelo and Dennis Gormley, Hollis Payer, Chris Brennan Hagy, Caitlin Finley, and so many others I can’t remember them all.
And after the session, the fiddlers and pipers and banjo pickers hurriedly collected their chairs and their beers, and the dancers took over. Soon the Fireside Room rocked to the sound of slamming heels, and a thumping great ceili broke out.
Soon Kevin McGillian himself joined the ceili band, picking up the two-row button accordion and getting down to business.
It was on the pretense of playing for a ceili that Kevin was lured to the Barry Club in the first place. (Teacher John Shields did his best to reel him in, leading a handful of dancers and calling out steps until just before Kevin entered the room.)
Several of Kevin’s longtime friends had hatched the scheme many weeks before.
“A few months back at the Shanachie (Pub) session, Judy Brennan asked me if I thought we should do something for Kevin’s 80th birthday,” says Marianne MacDonald, host of the local radio show “Come West along the Road” and set dancer. “After a lot of back and forth with the Irish Center being booked for the dates around his birthday (which was June 7th), we were able to settle on the last Friday of June. Lots of people had a hand in organizing it and getting the word out and trying to make sure Kevin wouldn’t hear about it. But I guess Jimmy (McGillian) and I were the main organizers. Kevin’s family made the arrangements for the food.”
When they first started to organize the party, Marianne says, she and her co-conspirators expected perhaps a hundred guests. Those expectations changed fast.
“Once the RSVP’s started coming in,” Marianne says, “we knew it would be at least 200. I don’t know what the actual count was, but judging by the number of seats that I know we put out and the people sitting and standing I would say it was about 250. I think it was a fine tribute that all of those people came out to wish Kevin a happy birthday.”
But perhaps it shouldn’t have been so surprising that so many people chose to honor Kevin McGillian. Marianne calls Kevin her “absolute favorite musician.” Anyone who watches him play would have to agree. He seems to have forgotten more tunes than most session musicians know. (And I wouldn’t really bet on him forgetting many, though I’ve seen him draw a blank on a few.)
But what most people remember about Kevin, other than being wowed by his talent, is how conspicuously unassuming he is about it all. He is a truly gentle and generous man. Marianne sums it up: “He is amazingly humble, modest and down-to-earth, and I think that’s why everyone loves him so much.”