Review: Catskill Irish Arts Week
July 10-16, 2016
One of upper New York State's best kept secrets, unless you happen to be an Irish music enthusiast, is Catskill Irish Arts Week.
As one enters East Durham, the roadsign announces 'The Emerald Isle of New York,' and this enclave of Irish resorts somewhat mirrors geographically the Jewish 'Alps' an hour or so to the south in the lower Catskills, which spawned most of America's comedians and many other singers and entertainers, in that both were settled by immigrants wishing to preserve a bit of the old country in the new.
Every Summer for 22 years Catskill Irish Arts Week has sponsored a week-long festival featuring many great Irish and other Celtic musicians and singers, some of whom have traveled from Ireland and other places overseas to lead workshops daily and perform on the evening stage and in nightly pubs after those concerts end. This year was dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. (See CatskillIrishArtsWeek.com for more info.)
I happened to be close enough teaching and performing myself at an adult camp in the northeastern Hudson Valley this year (and last year as well), and took the opportunity to play hooky a couple days from my camp an hour across the Hudson River. East Durham is a quick trip across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge (try not to fall asleep!) a few miles up the road from Catskill, NY. This year was special, though, as one of my favorite singers turned out to be Artist-in-Residence. Sean O' Se, one of Ireland's national treasures, has been known to me since my trip to Ireland in January of 2006, when a pub owner in southwest Cork, where I had just sung at a session, gave me one of his CD's. I was determined to tell Sean a story regarding one of the songs, 'Skibbereen,' I learned from his CD, and went to the 2016 Week with that in mind.
I had heard the song before when Liam Neeson sang it in the movie Michael Collins. It did not hit me to sing it myself until I heard the beautiful rendition on Sean O' Se's CD Songs of Cork and Kerry. Debbie and I had also visited that city, named in the song, on the southwest Cork coast earlier in the trip, so it made perfect sense for me to learn it, which I did upon returning to the States. It's a sad but defiant song about the British landlords chasing the native Irish out of their homes during the potato famine. (See the lyric below.)
Looking forward to a night of great music and sessions, my brain was also trying to connive a way of approaching Mr. O' Se in an unobtrusive way at an appropriate time and place. I must admit, I was a bit star-struck. I parked at the Shamrock Restaurant and Pub to have a bite before the music started at the festival grounds. No sooner had I ordered my fish and chips when in walks Sean himself. I am not going to disturb him during his meal, I think to myself. Wait for the right time.
After dinner, I headed over to the festival tent where the music would begin shortly. Was checking email on the laptop when I saw Sean arrive with his guitar accompanist and producer Matthew Allen. I nodded to him and he waved back, hardly an introduction. Since he was to sing at the concert, I didn't want to keep him from checking in with the stage manager and readying for the show. Wait for the right time.
A little while later, as I turned to put the laptop back in the car, as luck (or fate) would have it, he was walking right towards me from the outdoor rest room.
'Sean O'Se!' I stuck out my hand to one of County Cork's finest singers. 'Mark Levy. I have a quick story to tell you when you have a minute.' 'This is a good time, ' he said, so I proceeded with the following tale:
'Back in 2006 I sang at a session at the Tin Whistle in Ahakista, County Cork. The owner of the pub gave me a couple CD's, one of which was your Songs from Cork and Kerry. 'Ah, yes,' says Sean.
'Well, about three years later we made another trip to Ireland, this time to visit my wife's father's family. As we spoke to her father's first cousin Seamus in County Cavan, he recounted the story of Debbie's grandfather's departure from the island.
'Me father always said he had a younger brother Paul who went to America (it was 1928). In those days when someone was leaving for there, we would have an 'American wake,' because we might never see them again. It was customary to sing your way off the island at that time, and the morning after three days of wake, your grandfather stood at the crossroads and sang two songs, 'Pal of My Cradle Days' (1926), and 'Skibbereen,' which of course I told him I knew. He insisted that I sing it for him and his wife. Both were practically in tears, yelling out encouraging words as is often done in the Old Country. 'It's full circle', he finally said, 'Your grandfather left with that song, and you bring the granddaughter back with it.'
O' Se listened to my story attentively, smiling. 'You see, if I had not heard your singing of it, I would not have learned it to sing on such a special occasion. It was your singing that did that.' He nodded, and went on his way to the big tent, where later he would sing a set of many of the crowd's favorites: 'Kate Muldoon,' 'Wexford Rebel Song,' 'Carrickfergus' (which he sang in Gaelic as well as English - Click for the video), 'Banks of My Lovely Lee'… and many more. The crowd, including me sitting up front, ate it up and sang along. He spoke of his long friendship and collaboration with Sean O'Riada, also from County Cork, who almost single-handedly brought back the 'se nos' (old style) of singing ballads. It was a wonderful night that I hoped would never end.
And it did notend there-- it just got better. After the formal presentation in the big tent, with the best of Ireland's step dancers and players and Sean's set, the group breaks up to attend one of half a dozen or so open pub sessions. I headed to the singing session at Gavins, led by Roisin White-- another of Ireland's precious gems of traditional song. Sitting in the circle, I had decided to sing 'Skibbereen' and tell a bit of the story.
About an hour into the session, two course-changing things happened simultaneously: Sean O'Se himself walked in and sat across from me, so I quickly changed the tune I was about to sing not wanting to repeat the story nor sing a song I learned from him at that point. The second thing was, as I sat waiting for my turn, I gently strummed to see if my guitar was in tune, but I had forgotten that I had not played it since landing in New York, and it was completely detuned for the plane ride. I panicked, and ran outside to tune my 12-string in 30 seconds close as I could get it, and ran back in. 'What happened to ya?' asked Roisin. 'I was about to call on ya.' I told her, and everyone, about my near disaster, and after the laughter died down, proceeded to play 'Sliabh Gallion Braes,' another song about the landlords chasing the Irish out. Sean knew the song and, to my delight, sang along with me, smiling. I could not have been more thrilled.
(to be continued-- Another Night at the Festival)