Dance, Music, People

Keeping the Tradition Alive: The (Virtual) Ceili Group Festival

Devotees of traditional Irish music and culture look forward to the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival every year. It’s an exhaustive three-day affair, with concerts by world-class musicians, workshops, dance, crafts, and much more.

The festival always falls in early September, filling the Commodore Barry Arts and Cultural Center (the Irish Center) in Mount Airy with eager and enthusiastic fans.

The coronavirus pandemic renders it impossible to converge on the Irish Center this year, of course. The center has been closed since March. All of which left the Ceili Group Festival in a state of flux. How could the festival possibly go on?

Easy—or perhaps not so easily—the festival will happen as planned, but virtually. And in some ways, this might be the biggest and most vibrant festival ever.

“It’s of utmost importance right now to make sure as bearers of our traditions, that the Ceili Group has been protecting for the last 50 years, continue to do this during what is probably a once-in-a-100-year event,” says Rosaleen McGill, Ceili Group spokesperson. “We know our community, and we know how important our artists and instructors and our dancers are to that community. That makes us as the Ceili Group what we are. We want to make sure that during this terrible pandemic, when we’re all starved for connection, that we remember who our friends are, who our community members are, and that we remember that our culture is something that holds us together. It’s something that keeps us rooted, and it’s constantly living and growing. We have to make sure we’re taking part in that and supporting that, as well as supporting those who make it their life’s mission to continue that tradition.”

McGill says her biggest fear is that the Ceili Group might miss this moment. Not only does the pandemic cost the lives of so many, she says, but it also poses the risk of wiping out some of the Irish community’s best-loved traditions. She wants to make sure that musicians, dancers and others continue to be able to create—and to earn what they deserve from their labors.

In some ways, this might be one of the most robust Ceili Group festivals ever. It’s a veritable old-home week of festival veterans, including a Ceili Group founder Mick Moloney and friends, Riverdance fiddler Haley Richardson, singer Mary Courtney, uilleann pipers Tim Britton and Tim Hill, singer-guitarist Donie Carroll, locals Gabriel Donohue and Marian Makins and Dennis Gormley and Kathy DeAngelo, as well as dancers Niall O’Leary and Shannon Dunne … and so much more.

The event is divided into three days—Thursday, September 10, through Saturday, September 12.

Thursday night will feature a singers’ session hosted by Terry Kane, a standard offering for the festival. Also part of the tradition is Friday night’s Rambling House, featuring Courtney, Carroll, Donohue and Makins, Hill, with his partner multi-instrumentalist Autumn Rhodes, accordionist Cory Purcell of Poor Man’s Gambit, Philly native Conal O’Kane of the Irish supergroup Goitse, plus a dancing workshop with Kieran Jordan, and more.

Saturday offerings include family-friendly workshops, including how to make St. Brigid’s crosses, Irish language, dance, singing, and various Irish musical instruments—including Altan fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh.

Wrapping up the festival is the traditional Saturday night concert, featuring multi-instrumentalist Isaac Alderson and All-Ireland fiddle champ Dylan Foley, singer-guitarist Eamon McElholm of the late, lamented group Solas, and his schoolmate Shane McAleer, formerly of Dervish, Richardson, Hambly and Jackson, Britton, Moloney and friends, accordion player Billy McComiskey, fiddler Athena Tergis and more. The headliner is the great Irish traditional fiddler Kevin Burke.

So how is the Ceili Group going to pull this off?

Says McGill, the Ceili Group will serve as a conduit to all of the above through its website, channeling viewers and participants off to online sources such as ZOOM rooms and Facebook.

Costs of admission vary. The singers’ session is free. The Friday night Rambling House is pay what you can (give generously!), workshops variable, and the Saturday night concert is $20. Five dollars from each Saturday night ticket sold will go to the Irish Center.

All the details are here:

Quite the full slate—but there was a time, McGill says, when no one was sure whether the festival would happen.

“We didn’t know how it was going to look,” she says. “It’s not as easy to switch gears and switch into a digital space when you’re used to hosting events the way we normally do, and conceptualizing that new world is one of the hardest things everybody’s struggling with now. Trying to conceptualize the future seems absolutely impossible. It seems like every day of the week, something giant happens, and can throw off everything you have planned. But I really wanted to take this on. It seemed like an opportunity.”

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