Just in case you have any doubt what Mary Kay Mann’s musical interests might be, your first clue might be the tiny wooden figure of Mann playing a Celtic harp on the mailbox outside her home, down a narrow tree-lined street in Media.
Step inside the house and you’re greeted by Celtic harps in the living room, which she uses for teaching.
You’re also greeted by her cats, Muffin and Bob. Muffin isn’t allowed on the table, but she leaps up to greet me, anyway.
Mann teaches Celtic harp, but she also teaches tin whistle and Irish flute, both traditional instruments. She also sings. And hailing back to her musical origins, she also teaches classical flute. Mann also performs.
“I always wanted to play music since I was 2 years old or something,” says Mann. “When we moved to the public school district, I was around 10 and they had classical flute lessons for free so I started with that.”
Maggie’s Boots is one of the many music groups gearing up for a summer of events after not being able to play live music very much over the past year. They are a traditional Irish music ensemble made up of Hollis Payer on the fiddle, Rob Curto on the button accordion and Melissa Brun on cello.
Payer has been playing music from a very young age and played violin, piano and guitar throughout her youth. Her interest in Irish music came after hearing The Chieftains.
“I certainly played folk music, but I didn’t know Irish traditional music until I heard what The Chieftains were doing and I just thought, ‘What is this?’ and I immediately gathered up all the money I could and went to Ireland with my fiddle and just traveled around for three months,” Payer explains.
She spent those months hitchhiking and going to music sessions and began learning traditional music. Back in America, she started learning under musicians like Kevin Burke and James Kelly. “I tell people that Kevin Burke was my first fiddle teacher because when I came back from Ireland, I moved to Portland, Oregon, and that’s where he lives,” says Payer. “I didn’t even know he was famous. I just started going to him to learn more about playing the fiddle.”
She notes that there is a deep history of Irish music in Philadelphia, but there are pockets of people playing the music everywhere now. Payer also teaches tune and fiddle classes which led her to meeting one of her bandmates.
It’s been six or seven years since Raymond Coleman, one of the Philadelphia area’s most popular Irish musicians, has recorded an album. The first was “Trouble (with a Capital T.)”
Now, he’s getting ready to work on the next one—as yet unnamed—and it promises to be a real crowd-pleaser. Best of all, proceeds benefit autism awareness.
The long pandemic-imposed break in live performances gave Coleman time to think about the sorts of tunes he wants to put on the CD, which he’ll be recording at Cove Island Productions, with multitalented local musician Gabriel Donohue producing.
“I’m just trying to get things organized,” he says. “People have been asking when I’d be doing the next recording, and every year I’ve said, ‘It’s coming’.”
It’s where to go when Derek Warfield & The Young Wolfe Tones host a live online concert, where local Irish musicians publicize upcoming gigs—or post their availability for new ones—and where you can hear a vintage recording of the Chieftains playing “The Foggy Dew.”
And a whole lot more.
It’s The Great Irish Songbook, a group page on Facebook, and if you want to join in the fun, you can.
The page is the brainchild of Bill Donahue, Jr., front man for The Shantys—and who better? He’s been playing Irish music since 1999. He grew up in a household heavily influenced by the musical preferences of his Derry-born grandfather and his mother, from Dublin. He’s been hearing rebel tunes practically from the cradle.
He’s been a musician since 1999, starting in a Pogues cover band. At an early age, he started taking tin whistle lessons. They didn’t take at the time—he wasn’t very good at it, he admits—but later on in life he picked it up again, and now it’s one of his principal musical instruments.
Twenty years ago, seven of Philly’s top Irish rock musicians and bands helped raise money for the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Philadelphia by contributing tunes to a benefit CD called “Up the Celts.”
Now, a new CD is on the streets—Up the Celts Volume 2—with 15 contributors this time around, including Jamison, Raymond Coleman, The Shantys, the Birmingham Six, the Bogside Rogues, the John Byrne Band, and more.
As with so many projects and initiatives, this one was held up by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We started off this project in February,” says Brian Coleman, AOH Philadelphia County Board president. “We had all the bands on board right at the beginning of March—and then, you know what happened.”
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.
You might call Philly-native fiddler Caitlin Finley and uilleann piper/flutist Will Woodson a little old-fashioned.
Well, maybe a lot old-fashioned.
Now residing in Portland, Maine, the traditional Irish music duo has a deep affection for the tunes of Irish traditional music pioneers—from a century ago—and they want to share their fondness with other Irish musicians.
It’s called the Phonograph Project, an effort to dissect the playing of musicians such as famed fiddlers Michael Coleman, John McKenna and James Morrison. Much of their music was released on 78 RPM albums for the first time in the 1920s—and it is highly distinctive, dating back to when they themselves learned the tunes decades before in Ireland.
Finley, a medical physics assistant in radiation oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, is—like so many of us—now working remotely.
She and Woodson first got to know each other when both were living in New York City and playing in local pubs. “We really enjoyed playing music together and then lost touch for a couple of years,” says Finley. “Will, in the meantime, had moved up to Portland and I had moved up to Boston, and then we just wound up reconnecting through the music scene and started playing a bunch of music together again.”
Finley, for one, first became interested in the old recordings when she took lessons from the famed Brian Conway in New York. She was about 15 at the time. Conway and his sister Rose introduced her to a lot of the old tunes. “At that point,” she says, “I was pretty much hooked.”
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.