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Irish Christmas in America

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Podcast: Irish Christmas in America Comes to Sellersville

A bright, balanced blend of Irish music and dance drawing on seasonal inspirations, Irish Christmas in America arrives on stage at Sellersville Theater 1894 Tuesday, November 27. Fiddler Oisín Mac Diarmada, of the Irish traditional supergroup Téada, has been producing the show for 14 years, which never ceases to delight audiences from one end of the country to the other—regardless of whether their roots are Irish.

“We started in 2005, a few years into touring with Téada, he says. “We really enjoyed it, so we kept on doing it.”

March, of course, is perhaps the best time of year to acquaint people with Irish culture, but, he adds, Christmas is a great time, too.

Irish Christmas in America features some of the finest musicians and dancers you’re likely to find, including well-known singer, accordionist and story-teller Séamus Begley and harper Gráinne Hambly, who has performed frequently in the Philadelphia area over the years.

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How to Be Irish in Philly

How To Be Irish in Philly This Week

C.J. Mills with singer Kim Killen at American Celtic Christmas.

C.J. Mills with singer Kim Killen at American Celtic Christmas.

This is the week for Irish Christmas shows, so if you’re not in the spirit yet, you have multiple opportunities to get your holiday act together. By the end of this week, your “bah humbug” bad mood won’t have a chance.

For the third year, An American Celtic Christmas—an extravaganza of traditional and modern Irish music—will command the stage at Bensalem High School for two shows on Saturday, December 6.

The annual holiday show was started by two local musicians, Frank Daly and C.J. Mills of Jamison Celtic Rock and Slainte, and has quickly become a tradition for many families in the Philadelphia area. Through their production company, American Paddy’s, they also produce The Philadelphia Fleadh, a multi-stage festival held in the spring in Pennypack Park.

Along with Jamison, this year’s lineup includes John Bryne, Raymond Coleman, Bob Hurst of the Bogside Rogues, and more than 100 other performers, including three local dance troupes.

Also on Saturday, Irish fiddler Kevin Burke will be performing solo at the Coatesville Cultural Center in Coatesville, and the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar” continues at the Suzanne Robert’s Theater in Philadelphia.

On Sunday, bring the kids to meet both Santa and the International Rose of Tralee, Maria Walsh, for a Christmas themed afternoon at The Saturday Club in Wayne.

Also on Sunday, the Divine Providence Village Rainbow Step Dancers, a group of developmentally disabled women, will hold their Christmas show at the Masonic Lodge in Prospect Park.

And in Philadelphia, the top trad group, Lunasa, will be performing its Christmas show with vocalist Karan Casey, formerly of Solas, at the Zellerbach Theater on Sunday evening.

On Monday, the Irish Immigration Center and the Irish Center are hosting their annual Christmas luncheon for seniors at the Irish Center. Copies of the Immigration Center’s fundraising calendar—in which the seniors recreate scenes from 12 popular Irish movies—will be available for sale.

On Tuesday, December 9, two popular Irish musicians – Phil Coulter and Andy Cooney—join forces for an evening of Christmas music at the Keswick Theater in Glenside.

On Thursday, December 11, Oisin McDiarmada and his group, Teada, are bringing their popular “Irish Christmas in America” to the Sellersville Theater.

Also on Thursday, the Irish American Business Chamber and Network is having its 12th Night Before Christmas part at LeMeridien Philadelphia Hotel on Arch Street in Philadelphia.

And next Sunday, December 14, popular Irish performer Cahal Dunne brings his Christmas show—and likely some interesting outfits and lots of laughs—to the Irish Center.


We Had Ourselves a Merry Little Time

Tommy Martin and Séamus Begley.

Tommy Martin and Séamus Begley.

“Irish Christmas in America,” Sunday night at the Philadelphia Irish Center, was a great show. So great that we wanted to share plenty of videos with you so that you could see precisely how great it was. Really, really great.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Web site. Our camera walked—and with it went all our videos. We blame the wiki-hackers.

We can tell you about it, of course. With members of the Irish band Teada at its core and led by fiddler Oisín Mac Diarmada, the ensemble was aided and abetted by uilleann piper Tommy Martin, County Mayo harper Gráinne Hambly and singer-box player-part time comedian Séamus Begley. Sean-nos dancer Brian Cunningham took to the stage frequently throughout the night, threatening to slam through the Irish Center stage. (The crowd—and it was a pretty good crowd—loved him.)

Irish Christmas in America crosses an ocean and cultural boundaries to share the traditions of the Irish—both at home and in their adopted country. So there were stories of the Wren Boys, Little Christmas and the bittersweet “wake” that became the tradition of those who parted from friends and family as they departed for the distant shores of America.

These poignant stories were accompanied by brilliant slides that set the mood and served as a counterpoint to the reels, jigs, airs and songs served up all night by the band. When he wasn’t regaling the audience with off-topic but hilarious stories of his own, Begley held the audience in rapt attention as he sang tunes like “Silent Night”—first in Irish, then in English—and “The Parting Glass.” One minute, you were laughing so hard you almost fell out of your seat, the next moment you were a puddle of tears.

As we’ve pointed out: No videos. But we do have a few photos to help you get into a seasonal mood.


Irish Christmas in Philadelphia

If you missed either “Once Upon a Winter’s Night” or “An Irish Christmas in America…” well, you shouldn’t have. But you’re lucky—we were there and have some videos to prove it.

“Once Upon a Winter’s Night’s” Gabriel Donohue, Caitlin Warbelow and Marian Makins have developed a lovely chemistry among their trio, both musically and as they interact with the audience. Their selection of songs for the Christmas holiday included the sublime ( “Christmas in the Trenches”) and humorous (“Miss Fogerty’s Christmas Cake), and their December 6 concert at The Irish Center set the mood for the season beautifully.

And then pair that with Teada’s “Irish Christmas in America” at The Annenberg Center 5 days later, and you have a feast of riches. Oisin MacDiarmada returned with Tristan Rosenstock on the bodhran and performing the role of master of ceremonies to great audience delight; Tommy Martin on the pipes and whistle, Grainne Hambly on the harp, with special guest Seamus Begley on the accordion and vocals. The extra special guest was guitarist Sean Earnest, who hails from Bethlehem and has made the transition to the big time.

Oh, and lest we forget, sean nos dancer Brian Cunningham with some wicked dance steps. Not for nothing that among the comments overheard at intermission were: “Oh, my…the ENERGY!!!” and “the funniest concert ever” (that was a nod to Seamus Begley who could entertain an audience with stories and limericks alone).

Watch Brian Cunningham’s dancing feet.

Two great evenings, two great reasons to be Irish in Philly at Christmas time!


And For All, a Very Good Night Indeed

Guitarist Seán McElwain, in "wren boy" guise.

Guitarist Seán McElwain, in "wren boy" guise.

If you weren’t in the holiday mood before the Irish Christmas in America concert Saturday night at the Irish Center, then you would have to have been made of stone not to be full of the yuletide spirit afterward.

Holiday or not, it would have to have been a deeply satisfying experience for lovers of Irish traditional music. The core of the band consisted of three members of the supergroup Téada: fiddler and producer Oisín Mac Diarmada, Seán McElwain on guitar and Tristan Rosenstock on bodhrán and serving as the show’s narrator. Singing and playing flute and whistle was Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, lead singer of yet another supergroup, Danú. Rounding out the ensemble was local favorite, harper Gráinne Hambly and the superb uilleann piper Tommy Martin.

Joining the band from time to time on stage were two fine dancers from the great Irish state of Texas, Abbey Magill and Siena Hickey.

Surely, all that A-list Irish entertainment on one stage would have to be enough to melt even the iciest of hearts on this, the iciest of nights.

The show, presented by the Philadelphia Ceili Group, artfully blended the Christmas traditions of Ireland and America—including one all-too-brief appearance by the “wren boys” (Oisín, Seán and Tristan in the guise of the costumed merry-makers who hit up their friends and neighbors for food and drink on December 26, the feast of St. Stephen, an age-old Irish tradition.

The musicians also blended some familiar tunes and sets from their own work, such as a set of jigs from Martin’s “Shady Woods” CD (“Wallop The Spot,” ”The Leg of the Duck” and “Temple Hill,” accompanied by McElwain) and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh’s latest release, “Fainne An Lae : Daybreak” (“The Emigrant’s Farewell,” accompanied beautifully by Martin) and “An Spealadóir,” accompanied by everybody). Nic Amhlaoibh and Martin also paired up later on for a memorable whistle duet.

The regular performance closed out with Nic Amhlaoibh singing “Silent Night” in Irish, and then leading the audience in a verse in English. The band had time for precisely one killer encore before packing up the minivans and driving down to Charleston, West Virginia, in the freezing rain for a 3 p.m. performance on Sunday. (Anyone who thinks this sounds like fun is nuts. For all that, they stuck around and graciously spent time chatting with members of the audience, posing for pictures and signing autographs.)

Still, I could just swear I heard them exclaim, ere they drove out of sight, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”

If you missed it, don’t worry—we shot some photos.


It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Irish Christmas in America

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh joins the show this year.

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh joins the show this year.

Take Oisín Mac Diarmada, Seán McElwain and Tristan Rosenstock of the brilliant Irish traditional folk band Téada. Add , the highly acclaimed singer from Danú, along with the gifted harpist Gráinne Hambly and Riverdance piper Tommy Martin. Mix in champion Irish step-dancers Abbey Magill and Sienna Hickey. Wrap it all up in a big green bow, and what you have is “Irish Christmas in America.”

Now in its third year, the show swings into the Philadelphia Irish Center/Commodore Barry Club on Saturday, December 15, starting at 8:30. The event is presented by the Commodore Barry Club in association with the Philadelphia Ceili Group.

Quite the Christmas present, eh? Lots nicer than a Chia Pet. Heaps classier than that “Snowy the Singing Snowman” voice-activated Christmas tree ornament from QVC. (Will that damnable thing never shut up?)

Seriously? This is a chance to see some of the finest musicians Ireland has to offer, all in one show. And, just like Christmas, it comes but once a year.

You get the sense that producer and all-Ireland fiddle champ Oisín Mac Diarmada (pronounced O-shin Mac Der-metta) himself appreciates just how cool this is.

Speaking by scratchy cell phone from a car hurtling down a highway somewhere in Georgia—I could hear the talking GPS squawking in the background—Oisín said he was eager to begin the 15-city tour. For one thing, there’s the ensemble itself, which is kind of like the Irish traditional version of the Supremes, the Temps and the Four Tops all rolled into one. In particular, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh (pronounced MWI-ren Nick OWL-eve), with a voice like honeyed whiskey and major talent on flute and whistle, adds a major new dimension.

“This will be the first time we’ve done the show with Muireann. It’s great to get the opportunity to have her in the show, she’s such a good fit,” says Oisín. He notes that Nic Amhlaoibh is well known and highly regarded, not just for her singing, but for her singing in the irish language. ”She’ll be doing quite a few Irish language songs,” he says. “And she may have a couple of good stories to tell during the show.”

Working with Hambly, too, is a great pleasure, he says. Hambly has played the show before, and she has toured throughout the United States many times. “Gráinne is amazing on the harp,” he says. I’ve known her for many, many years. I’ve done plenty of shows with her in Ireland. She’s a very natural fit for the show.”

Oisín also find travel through the United States during the Christmas holidays to be fascinating, as well, and having the opportunity to experience all the seasonal variations from one coast to the other. (The tour begins Friday night in Peoria, Arizona.) He also appreciates the opportunity to do something different. “It’s a bit of a break,” he says. “It’s different from the regular Teada concerts we do the rest of the year. We’re bringing in two dancers this year, and some photographic images as well. It’s a varied show.”

What makes “Irish Christmas in America” different from any other holiday show, obvously, is that it blends traditions from the two countries—including some traditions, like the Wren Boys, that some may find a bit strange. It’s a holdover from pagan times, in all likelihood, but the more current legend (one of several) has it that a wren betrayed St. Stephen’s hiding place. And you know what happened to poor St. Stephen. So on December 26, the feast of St. Stephen, boys would dress up in rags, blacken their faces and hunt down one of the poor birds. Then they’d tie it to a pole and go from door to door begging for money and eats. (And you thought Festivus was silly.) In modern times, no one kills birds any more. But the day is still celebrated with music, dance, food, drink … and maybe some funny outfits.

“It all probably seems a bit bizarre to onlookers, but it goes back many generations, ” says Oisín. “It’s sort of a well-known observance in Ireland. We’ll have a bit of fun on stage of trying to capture the Wren Boys tradition.”

At the heart of it all, though, will be good, solid Irish traditional music. Oisín says the band doesn’t try to force Irish traditional music and standard American Christmas music to blend into a weird hybrid that, in the end, turns out to be neither. “The approach we take in the show,” he says, “is that the music itself is all traditional. We don’t play any of the well-known Christmas songs or crossover stuff. We do stuff that has musical ties to Christmas in their titles and such.”

You can see and hear for yourself. (Please do.)

Tickets are $20 in advance, $23 at the door. Call (215) 843-8051 to order.