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Arts, Music

In a Dark Period, RUNA’s “Tide of Winter” Album Offers Hope, Love, Joy and Celebration

The bandmates of RUNA, one of the area’s best-known Irish musical ensembles, have toyed with the idea of a winter album for a very long time. It never happened because—fortuitously for the award-winning supergroup—they were always busy, frequently on the road as a band or pursuing their own independent projects.

Last year, the project finally got off the ground in a small way, with an EP (a mini-album) of about five songs, with every intention of finishing it off as a full-fledged album in 2020.

Along came the pandemic, putting an end to band members’ otherwise ambitious plans. Complicating things a bit more, all the members of RUNA live some distance from each other. So on the one hand, they had some time on their hands. But on the other hand, they couldn’t be together.

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Pausing to Refresh During the Pandemic, and Baking Up Some Creative Alternatives

Shannon Lambert-Ryan bustles about her home kitchen, her fixings for Finnish ribbon cookies—including a huge bag of Heckers flour—at the ready. The mixing bowl sits upon a table at just the right height for her tow-headed toddler son, Liam—which for some, might seem a recipe for disaster.

Not so. Welcome to Lambert-Ryan’s periodic Facebook show, one of a series called “Baking with Babies.”

Video camera duly focused in on the action, Liam helps out enthusiastically. Guided by Lambert-Ryan’s hand, he scoops a cup of flour into the bowl. “1-2-3,” he says.

He seems inordinately interested in adding vanilla, which the recipe calls for, but not yet. With a wee one’s level of patience, he holds and shakes a bottle kept in his little kitchen, waiting for the opportunity to add it.

At one point, he “cracks” some toy eggs from his kitchen into the mixture. A little later on, he scoops up some dough with his little fingers and helps Lambert-Ryan squish it unceremoniously onto the baking sheet.

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Music, News, People

RUNA Debuts Its New CD–and a Surprise

Karen and Jim: She said yes!

Karen and Jim: She said yes!

RUNA, winner of the top Irish group in the Irish Music Awards last year, debuted its brand new CD, “Current Affairs,” on Friday, June 20, at the Sellersville Theatre. Gene Shay, the grand old man of Philly folk, introduced the group along with opening act, singer-songwriter Michael Braunfeld.

And one audience member used the occasion—with the collusion of the group—to propose. Karen said yes to Jim!

We were there and caught it all on camera!



Runa: Providing a Little Night Music

Shannon Lambert Ryan, Fionan deBarra, and Cheryl Prasker of RUNA.

Shannon Lambert Ryan, Fionan deBarra, and Cheryl Prasker of RUNA.

The cicadas and the Chestnut Hill East commuter train provided a little extra percussion for RUNA, the contemporary Irish group that performed Wednesday night at Walk a Crooked Mile bookstore, housed in the old Devon Street train station in Mt. Airy.

There was a sultry breeze, enough kids and dogs to make it homey but not distracting, and more than a few people sipped glasses of wine and ate a home-packed dinner from their lawn chairs while listening to this talented group, fronted by Philly native Shannon Lambert-Ryan. Canadian percussionist Cheryl Prashker, who now lives in Mt. Airy and Lambert-Ryan’s husband, guitarist Fionan deBarra round out the trio.

Music, People

They’re Coming Home


Shannon Lambert-Ryan with RUNA.

For Shannon Lambert-Ryan, each scuff on the dance floor at Philadelphia’s Irish Center represents a happy memory. A few of them might be hers.

“I took step dancing classes there for years,” says the young singer-actress with the group, Runa. “My mom, Julie Lambert, started to go to the ceilis over there when she was 16 and 17, and when I was born we went to the festivals and music events. I took a hiatus for a while then wound up going back to the ballroom for the swing dancing. It’s one of those places where, when you’re there once or twice a week, feels like your second home.”

Karen Boyce McCollum thought it was her second home. The youngest of the six children of Carmel and Barney Boyce of County Donegal, longtime members of the Irish Center Board, Karen is a former singer with the group Causeway. “One of my first memories is of going up there with my mom and dad to the Donegal meetings. They were on a Sunday and we would go to church then head up there. While they were in their meeting, we had the full run of the place, and we’d usually meet up with some of the other kids and get into some fun and a little bit of trouble.”

So it seemed fitting that Shannon and her group and Karen and brothers Michael and John (of Blackthorn) will provide the music at Sunday’s Inspirational Irish Women Awards. The event honors 11 Delaware Valley Irish and Irish-American women who embody the Irish spirit and is a fundraiser for the Center, which, like many organizations, has experienced some recent financial difficulties.

“I had to do it,” says Shannon. “It’s important to keep it afloat. The Irish Center allows for quite a lot to happen. Just to coordinate it elsewhere would take quite a bit of effort.”

Along with ceilis, dance lessons, and concerts, the Center houses most of the county associations and hosts most of the annual county balls. “We went to all the Balls—Donegal, Mayo, Cavan,” recalls Karen, who eventually wore two crowns: Miss Mayo and the 2006 Rose of Tralee. “When I was little I remembering wishing I didn’t have a dress on so I could really spin around on the dance floor.” She laughs.

Later, she began taking fiddle lessons at the Center. Her family held her bridal shower there; her sister Colleen’s reception was held at the Center, as was her brother, Brian’s. She sang and danced in the ballroom and on the Fireside Room stage, most recently with her brothers at the Center’s Rambling House entertainment events, produced by Irish radio host Marianne MacDonald.


Karen Boyce McCollum and brothers Mike and John.

“As time went on I started to love it more,” says Karen. “I don’t think there’s a place that cozier than or more appealing on winter’s night than the Fireside Room with a fire going, having a beer. Some of the memories I have are of the people I met there—people who are gone now, like Tommy Moffit and Jim Kilgallen and a man who became like a grandfather to me, Tom Finnegan. He was a widower with no children and my parents met him through the Donegal Society. They would drive him here and there on weekends, and finally they said ‘Why don’t you stay here?’ So for 10 years, he stayed at our house Thursdays to Mondays. Every time I’m at the Irish Center I think of how Tom used to get up a dance. He had these moves he did.” She laughs. “One drink and he was kicking his feet up, cute as button.”

For Shannon, it was the dancers. “I think about Frank Malley, who just passed away about a year ago. He was somebody who my mom used to dance with at the ceili when she was much younger and they met later on. He became a friend of ours and his partner, Connie Koppe, is still a friend. He was always so gentle and warm. He would take you under his wing and my mom said he was one of the best dancers.”

She also remembers “waltzing with Eugene O’Donnell,” the legendary five-time All-Ireland step dancing champ and master fiddler from Derry who was a fixture at the Irish Center. “This is really where music became the love of my life forever,” she says.

For both singers, Sunday’s performances are a labor of love. “There are people who go to the Center and love it, and go back all the time. I think their spirits are there,” says Karen. “They say that the older a chair gets, the more comfortable is is. That’s the way I feel about the Irish Center. When the lights are low and there’s a good band playing, there’s nothing like it. It feels like home.”


An Irishman, an American, and a Canadian Walk Up on the Stage. . .

Shannon Lambert-Ryan and RUNA.

Shannon Lambert-Ryan and RUNA.

What happens when the Celtic music of three artists (Shannon Lambert-Ryan, Fionan de Barra and Cheryl Prashker) from three different countries (the United States, Ireland and Canada) comes together? RUNA happens.The trio, in the relatively short time they’ve been playing together, has found a way to take traditional, and non-traditional, songs that haven’t been played in awhile and “Celtic them up,” in the words of singer Lambert-Ryan.

Take the song “Jealousy,” the title track from their recently released CD. “Jealousy was the first song we worked on last summer. Our arrangement isn’t the same as everything that’s out there…it’s edgy, quirky, fresh. All three of us have our own influences that include classical, jazz and musical theater. We don’t want to re-perform what’s already been done; we want to recreate the music and give it our own kick.”

The name RUNA means “mystery” or “secret lore,” and when the three are onstage together, there is truly a mystical quality to their playing. Prashker’s percussion, de Barra’s guitar and Lambert-Ryan’s vocals create a lyrical sound that is at once unique as well as seamless. Frequently joined by Isaac Alderson on the flute, whistle and uileann pipes, there’s a sense that the music is coming from one source instead of three different musicians.

Offstage, RUNA members share a similarly close connection with each other. Lambert-Ryan and de Barra were married in April of 2009. They met at the 2006 Philadelphia Folk Fest where de Barra was playing with the Scottish band Fiddler’s Bid.

“There was a performer’s party Saturday night and I bought her a lemonade. We met again on Sunday, and spent the day hanging out. We were friends for a long time, then when Shannon said she wanted to record a CD [her 2008 album ‘Across the Pond’], I said, ‘You have to come here [to Dublin] to record it,’” explained de Barra.

That could be arranged because de Barra, who has been Moya Brennan’s guitarist for over 10 years, had merged his own recording equipment with Brennan’s to form Mo Studios in Dublin.
“My first professional gig was with Moya and Riverdance, at Radio City Music Hall…it was purely by chance. I got asked to fill in for the guy doing it, and then got invited to play more afterwards.”

The Dublin-born de Barra claims a family full of musicians. Four out of the seven offspring make a professional living at it: brother Cormac plays the harp; Eamonn plays flute, whistle and piano and is part of the band Slide; and brother Ruairi plays guitar and whistle.

Lambert-Ryan is a Philadelphia native who spent a lot of time at The Irish Center growing up. “I took step dancing there, and then I studied voice and theater at Muhlenberg College. I fell in love with music and performing at an early age.”

It was while performing with Guy Mendilow that Shannon met up with percussionist Cheryl Prashker.

“Shannon and I both were a part of the Folk Alliance, and had met up a lot of times. I sat in with the Guy Mendilow Band, and I sometimes put together a little show where I invite other musicians to sit in. I asked Shannon to play because of her Celtic music,” explained Prashker.

Prashker, the Canadian native of the group, now calls Philadelphia home. She and husband Charles Nolan collaborated on songs that she performed while she was with the group CC Railroad. Prashker has an acclaimed background as a drummer with groups like Full Frontal Folk and Jonathan Edwards. Her CD, “It’s All About the Drums,” is a compilation of songs she’s performed with a multitude of artists over the years.
But it’s the three of them united as they play together that has created the RUNA sound.

“It’s how we play off one another, how Cheryl and Fionan play together,” Lambert-Ryan said. “Sometimes it’s changing the chord progression, or the rhythm. We’ll take something we like, and hasn’t been done too much, and change the arrangement to make it our own.”

Like, for instance, the song “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”
“I came home one day and Fionan said, ‘We’re going to do a Cher song,‘” Lambert-Ryan laughed. “It’s on the ‘Jealousy’ album.” And, as unexpected as it might sound, the song works completely, fitting in with the band’s repertoire and begging to be listened to on repeat.

One of RUNA’s most engaging and addictive songs can only be experienced live, it’s not on their album…a version of the traditional song “The House Carpenter” interspersed with the chorus of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”

“We were playing around with the ‘The House Carpenter,’ working through the verses. There are many versions of the song, and a lot of verses…we wanted to craft the song to fit our style without changing the song. At the same time, we were listening to ‘Jolene.’ One day Fionan and I were in the car and started chatting about what to do with them, and I started humming. I realized I could sing both of them in the same key, and Cheryl could add something percussive underneath,” explained Lambert-Ryan.

Fortunately, there are opportunities for the Philly audience to experience not only this version of “The House Carpenter/Jolene” but all of RUNA’s songs beginning Saturday, February 13th 8:00PM at Concerts at the Crossing, Titusville, PA. Tickets are $20, for further information call 609-406-1424.

And on Sunday, February 28th 7:30PM, RUNA will be opening for Maura O’Connell at the Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, PA. For tickets and other information, call 215-257-5808.