Imagine you're a local musician who plays for fun and friendship around your hometown area. Now imagine you're invited to bring your instrument and your friends to the newest most beautiful pub in town and play with some of the finest bands in your favorite musical genre. You have CDs by these bands. You've seen them in viral videos and in concert. And now you get to sit down right next to them and make music together.
It seemed like a dream, but it was real for the members of Craobh Dugan on July 25, 2019. It was the eve of the Great American Irish Festival, and the members of The Colin Farrell Band, The Byrne Brothers, and We Banjo 3, arrived at Five Points Public House for an open session and graciously played many of our favorite tunes with us, even though they had traveled long distances that day.
These musicians were fun, friendly, and down-to-earth. They never showed off, but still we were dazzled by their excellent skills. And to experience this magical musical moment in the elegant surroundings of Five Points Public House was the icing on the cake.
That was an evening we won't ever forget. Here's a small video sample.
The Great American Irish Festival is heading into its 16th year at the end of July and it’s shaping up to be one of the best ones yet. There’s something to do, see, and listen to around every corner, but in this article I’ll focus on the Cultural Building, because for the first time ever, Craobh Dugan is in charge of organizing it.
We gathered a creative and ambitious bunch last winter and we’ve been meeting, emailing, and making things ever since. Here are some of the fun and fascinating things you’ll find in the Cultural Building this year:
The mini museum display boards will return, but even bigger and better this year. We’ve added interesting research about Gaelic sports, Irish poets, Irish tunes and instruments, and Irish people in Mohawk Valley history to the popular topics from last year - notable Irish women, Irish words in the English language, and political cartoons of the 18th and 19th centuries showing the cruel racist attitudes toward the Irish at that time.
A trivia quiz with a prize for the winner.
A photo contest where you can vote for your favorites with a $100 prize for the winner. And if you have a photo to enter, click this link to see the rules and registration form. The deadline is July 22.
A knitting display and hands-on demonstration of Aran and other Irish stitches.
Find out how to say and write your name in the Irish language and wear it proudly on your own name tag, presented by Two Rivers Gaelic League from Albany.
Professional genealogist Cindy Wood will give a talk and also be available for 30-minute appointments to help you with individual genealogical research.
Learn useful words and phrases in Irish at the Pop-up Gaeltacht.
Programs on the Schedule
Experience a bodhrán drum circle (on Friday evening). Drum circles have become a popular way to relax and relieve stress and lots of people have bodhráns as souvenirs from their trips to Ireland. Why not put the two together and create an Irish drum circle? Bring your bodhrán and tipper (or your djembe, cajon, or congas if you like) and join in this special session just for drummers. We’ll talk about the benefits of drumming in general and a little about the bodhrán. Then we’ll enjoy a relaxing bodhrán beat. We’ll have a few spare drums if you need one.
Create your own Celtic masterpiece at the Sip and Paint with Art & Vine (on Saturday afternoon). All art supplies and a drink are included with your $25 ticket. Find out more here.
We’ll be performing our Irish and the Erie program about the history of the Irish workers on the Erie Canal with songs and music. Find out more about this project here.
The traditional GAIF Open Session returns once again. All local and visiting musicians who play instruments usually associated with Irish traditional music are invited to join in the open session. We’ve also invited members of the professional bands to join us if they wish. So who knows? We may have some famous musicians joining in.
Performers in the Cultural Building
Along with all the great bands performing on the Contemporary and Traditional Stages (including Craobh Dugan on the Traditional Stage on Sunday at noon) there's even more music to listen to in the Cultural Building. The Mighty Craic, Deirdre and Jim McCarthy, Gerry Dixon, and Donal O'Shaughnessy.
And...we have a few secret surprises planned too. We’re not saying what they are, but you will be enchanted.
So hop over to the GAIF website for the full Entertainment Schedule, the Cultural Building Schedule and to buy your advance tickets at a discount price. It’s just incredible all the fun that’s packed into that ticket price.
On a sunny Saturday in June, a fresh summer breeze plays with the heavy maroon drapes hanging on the open windows behind the stage at the Oneida Community Mansion House. The curtains billow and dance behind the two musicians, Amanda Straney and Bill Fahy. They’re members of Craobh Dugan who have created an original program called Soldier’s Joy.
Amanda takes up her fiddle and Bill holds his banjo. Without any electronic amplification they play their first tune, Year of Jubilo. The notes fill this large room built in 1862 by members of the Oneida Community, a religious commune with an appreciation for music and art. The walls and ceiling are decorated with paintings of swirling scrolls and the acoustics amplify better than microphones and speakers.
These tunes of the Civil War era were new when this room was new and I feel myself transported back in time 16 decades.
Between tunes and songs, Bill and Amanda tell us stories about music during the Civil War, including quotes gleaned from well over 100 hours of research into letters written by the people who lived through that time. We hear their own voices over the many years from the letters they wrote to the editors of newspapers in Rome and Utica, and personal notes they sent to friends, sweethearts, and relatives.
Some found humor in their circumstances. In the summer of 1863, one Oneida 4th soldier stationed in Virginia wrote a letter published in the Rome Sentinel that began, “With all the labor, suffering and anxiety we as soldiers have to endure, we often have our fun, and well and right heartily do we enjoy it.” He went on to relate the story of a young sentry, intent on following orders, who shot a farmer’s pig that failed to respond with the right countersign when challenged.
Some wrote heart-wrenching pleas. A member of the 117th New York Volunteers wrote a letter to the Utica Observer begging the residents of Oneida County to aid the wives and children left behind by fighting soldiers as they struggled to survive without their breadwinners. “I ask in the name of all that is good, remember our families at home are in need, in distress. The winter is at hand, or soon will be. Do something for them, for I tell you, my dear sir, on the lonely picket post, in darkest night, our thoughts go home; and oh, the agonizing thought comes to him, "oh, God! what will become of my wife and family?"
And many mentioned music and its profound effects in their letters. Before recorded music, most people learned how to play an instrument. Of course they took their skills with them when they went to war. There were more than 600 regimental bands in the Union Army, which they used for communication, movement coordination, entertainment and morale. Music was a part of the soldiers’ daily life and led to many significant moments like the night the Union and Confederate armies were camped on either side of the Rappahannock River after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. One band began to play Home Sweet Home and then other bands on both sides joined in. Soon men on both sides were moved to shout and cheer and one solider wrote that he thought the war may have ended there if the two sides hadn’t been separated by the river.
A member of the 97th New York captured the sounds of the battlefield when he wrote, “As I sit writing about 2 miles in front, the pickets are firing & I hear the bang bang constantly. There goes a cannon Boom. So it goes day and night. As it is toward evening brass bands are filling the air with very sweet music. At almost every head Qtrs. sometimes half a dozen are heard at once. A strange commingling of sounds, last night we could hear the singing & playing from camps …a mile away.”
We’re familiar with what the Civil War looked like thanks to the work of early photographers like Matthew Brady, but Bill and Amanda were able to bring to life the sounds of this historic period by reading the words of the people who lived it and by playing the music they listened to. It’s a vivid and touching way to connect with history and appreciate what people lived through and how they felt.
Bill and Amanda have upcoming performances of Soldier’s Joy at the Woodgate Library on July 10 and at the Earlville Library on July 17th. You can also check out the Soldier's Joy Facebook page to find out about future presentations, which will, in a few months, include their new programs revealing their ongoing research into the Southern and Irish perspectives on the war.
There’s a treasure trove of Irish traditional music scattered across the internet and hidden deep in the rooms of the Library of Congress, and a researcher from Ireland is working on making it easier for us to find it and hear it. Patrick Egan (Pádraig Mac Aodhgáin) recently sent emails to Comhaltas groups in the US asking for our help. Intrigued by his project, I called him at the Library of Congress (LOC) to find out more.
Patrick, a concertina player who grew up in Co. Wicklow hearing plenty of tunes and stories at the Saturday sessions in his father’s pub, is now an ethnomusicologist and a fellow in digital studies at the Kluge Center at the LOC studying the impact of the digital turn on Irish culture in the US. Since January he’s been going through collections in the LOC’s American Folklife Center. The center’s archive was established in 1928 to document and preserve every kind of traditional culture and now contains millions of items collected from the 19th century to now - things like films of traditional arts, oral histories, and music recordings on everything from wax cylinders to CDs.
“My area looks at different ways the American Folklife Center could link with archives in order to reach out to people,” Patrick said. He plans to link his work with a similar archive in Dublin called the Irish Traditional Music Archive, where researchers are creating a state-of-the-art digital structure to allow them to link sound files and metadata.
“So for example if a musician like John Kelly was playing a tune, and he said he got that tune off someone like Willy Clancy, and maybe Willy Clancy got it from someone else, there’s a way to link up those three people so that it’s easier to find them on the internet,” he said.
The goal is to create a standardized structure to make it easy for musicians to look up performers' names or tune names, and access all versions in many archives around the world, unlike the current situation where files are scattered on YouTube and other websites.
As part of his project, Patrick needs to know how members of the Irish traditional music community are interfacing with the internet. “Do they actually use the internet a lot to access sound files and how important are sound files to them?” he said. “What do they know about what’s in the archives and what resources do they use?” He’s asking how the internet is changing the ways in which musicians work with sound files and how the world of the Irish musician is changing in Ireland, America, and other countries. “I’m looking at a broad analysis of how this is all changing in the Irish traditional music community.”
To that end, Patrick has developed a survey for Irish traditional musicians in North America. About 300 people took the survey during the first week he started circulating it by word of mouth among friends, but he’d like to have as many musicians as possible fill it out. I took the survey myself. It’s not long and I discovered some interesting resources in it. Click this link if you’d like to take the survey too.
While he’s been working in the LOC’s American Folklife Center, Patrick has found some treasures among the more than 2,000 recordings in the 12 collections he’s listened to so far. And this is just the beginning. The reference librarians have suggested 36 collections to him.
Patrick made this chart to show what he’s found.
The Philadelphia Ceili Group’s collection has been especially rich. Beginning in 1977 they hosted a festival that attracted local and internationally known Irish traditional musicians. At these festivals they made recordings of workshops, tunes, songs, and stories about the origins of the music and the musicians’ own lives.
One of Patrick’s favorite finds featured Joe Heaney singing and lilting in the sean-nos tradition, telling stories of the songs and where he got them, and stories about his hometown in Western Connemara.
“I think that these musicians in the Philadelphia Ceili Group brought a lot to Irish culture that has yet to be tapped into,” Patrick said. “There are six boxes of about 30 tapes each just packed full of gems all the way through. Things like this are just sitting in the archives, waiting for musicians such as yourself up in New York. I’m documenting what’s in the collections to let musicians know what’s in there, to bring the music from the archives to the musicians playing now in a meaningful way.”
He said there are so many recordings that it’s unlikely they will ever all be digitized, but he hopes to point to what can be done. “Fortunately the Library of Congress is committed to getting as much as possible cleared of copyright and available to the public to the benefit of the audience,” Patrick said.
In the meantime, to get an idea of the recordings of Irish American music held in archives, you can check out these websites:
Don't forget to take the Survey on Irish Traditional Music, Song and Dance in North America.
For the past few months, I've been listening to a fascinating podcast produced by Fin Dwyer, an Irish historian based in Kilkenny, Ireland. We're getting no ad fees by telling you about his show. It's just something I wanted to share because I've heard so many interesting stories on the Irish History Podcast.
Fin has that quintessentially Irish talent for storytelling, keeping you in suspense as much as possible. But he's also a skilled researcher, able to dig into a story and unearth the most in-depth facts. I've learned about a Kilkenny witch hunt in the 1300s, a strong close-knit community that survived on the Blasket Islands, and a lot about the horrors and heroes of the Great Famine.
The podcast makes it easy to carry the show around on my phone and listen to it in any room of the house as well as in the car, my favorite way to make use of driving time. No matter what kind of smartphone you have, you can get an app that will play the Irish History Podcast. And if you don't have a smartphone, you can still listen to the shows on your computer using Fin's website here.
I hope you get to hear it, and please let me know what you think of it when you do. ~Sue
On May 4, you’ll have a chance to see in concert the son of a legendary Irish musician. But this son is not just coasting on his father’s reputation.
Dónal Clancy surely inherited a talent for music from his father, Liam Clancy, one of the famed Clancy Brothers. But he has earned his own fame as a musician himself. He was a founding member of Danú and a member of Solas. He toured and recorded with Eileen Ivers and was a guest with The Chieftains on their Tears of Stone Tours in Japan and the US.
Radio host and singer/songwriter Archie Fisher said, "Dónal Clancy is a consummate Celtic guitarist with a voice sympathetic to a range of different song cultures and with a sense of musical arrangement true to the great classical Irish tradition."
Clancy released his first solo guitar album Close To Home in 2006, which The Boston Globe dubbed "a sweet masterpiece of melodic grace and riveting groove".
The Irish Post awarded his next album, Songs of a Roving Blade, five stars, calling it “folk singing at its best” and “a smashing album that should help to ensure these songs will never be lost.”
Clancy's latest album, On the Lonesome Plain, features traditional songs and two of his own compositions, A Strike for Victory commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising and an instrumental piece entitled Máirseáil na Conrach.
Reviews can help us form an idea of a musician’s sound, but there’s no substitute for hearing it yourself. So, here’s a recent recording of Dónal Clancy singing his original song The Duke’s Line:
Clancy will perform at the Rome Art and Community Center on May 4 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $15.00 in advance, $20 at the door, and $12.00 for Craobh Dugan members current in their dues. You can buy tickets on Eventbrite or from Chris Hoke at either of our sessions.
Thinking of joining the musicians at one of our sessions? Here are some helpful tips to get you started.
Do you dream of playing in an Irish session? Maybe you went to Ireland and spent some happy evenings sipping a pint and listening to a gathering of musicians playing rollicking tunes. Or maybe you’ve watched YouTube videos filmed at sessions. Or you may have caught your excitement for Irish music after hearing Craobh Dugan perform at a local festival. Either way, it sure looks like fun. So how do you get involved in one of our local sessions if you’ve never played in one before?
The first thing you’d need to do is choose your instrument. If you already have experience playing flute, guitar, or violin from your school days, you have a leg up. These are also instruments accepted at a session, though the style of playing them is different from bands or orchestras. Irish music is known for adopting instruments from many cultures, but there are some that would be frowned upon if they showed up at a session. You wouldn’t want to bring your saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, or trombone.
Generally, the instruments associated with Irish music are:
Of course, you’ll need to get familiar with your instrument by practicing at home at first. If you’re starting from scratch with a new instrument, there are lots of free videos on YouTube where you can learn the basics and get started with a few Irish tunes. Several people offer online courses for a fee. One of the best of these is The Online Academy of Irish Music where some of the best-known traditional musicians teach.
When you’re ready to build your repertoire for playing locally, check out our Tune Book. It’s 180 pages long, but you don’t have to learn them all at once. To get you started, here are a few sets we often play:
Once you can play through a tune, practice it with a recording of a group of musicians. If you’re only used to playing it alone, the first time you play it with a group at a session, you can really get thrown off. You can find recordings on YouTube or CDs, but better yet, you can visit one or more of our sessions and make your own recordings. We’ll be happy to share the titles with you.
We have two musician practice sessions each month at members’ homes, where you can get used to playing with others in a safe, welcoming environment without an audience. For this, you’ll need to officially join Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann by paying the annual dues, but that’s very inexpensive and you get lots of other perks for it too. You can find out all about that on our Membership Page.
A Few Tips for Your First Session
When you come out to a session it’s good to know that each set is made up of three tunes and each tune is played three times before going on to the next tune. If you’re just starting out and only know one or two of the tunes in a set, it’s OK to play along with just the one you know and listen to the rest.
If your chosen instrument is a bodhrán, the rule is “one at a time.” Bodhrán players take turns because everyone plays a little differently, and more than one going at once can throw the other musicians out of sync. Someone could join a bodhrán with spoons or bones, but only one of those should be playing at a time too.
Also, before you spend time memorizing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” it helps to know that older, more traditional songs are favored. If you can sing a sean-nós song in the Irish language, you’ll be a rare treasure, but there are many traditional songs in English too. The Session is a good resource for finding songs to learn and recommendations of recordings to learn them from.
Remember, you don’t have to learn everything at once. Part of the fun is enjoying the journey of learning with friends. So come out to a session, even just to listen at first. Feel free to ask questions. We love to share what we know about Irish music.
We’re looking forward to seeing you at a session soon. We have two every month, one at Nail Creek Pub in Utica every first Tuesday and the other at Stockdale's Bar and Grill in Oriskany every third Tuesday. (We recommend you double check on our calendar page in case anything has changed.)