Life After Gaelic Roots? Yes, Indeed
The popular festival is no more, but Gaelic music still thrives at BC
By Sean Smith
Normally at this point in the year, Irish Studies Music Programs Director Seamus Connolly would be chained to phone, fax machine or computer, spending much of his days inquiring, encouraging, cajoling and doing everything else to help organize the Gaelic Roots Summer School and Festival, Boston College's annual week-long feast of Irish and Scottish traditional music and dance.
Connolly's days may still be full of activity this time around, but they are far more quiet. This year, and for the foreseeable future, there will be no Gaelic Roots, so for Connolly that means no ongoing series of phone conversations with American consulates, nor continual e-mail exchanges with musicians in far-flung locations.
But Connolly says the reluctant decision to ring down the curtain on Gaelic Roots after 10 years, despite its popularity among performers and public alike, does not mean the end of BC's efforts to promote and preserve traditional Irish music. Instead, Connolly will seek to recreate on a smaller scale Gaelic Roots' most appealing elements, namely the opportunity to interact with, and learn from, some of the most prominent Gaelic music performers.
Connolly said the difficulties Gaelic Roots faced in recent years, mainly because of increasingly stringent visa requirements for foreign performers, were well known. But there were other considerations, he added.
"We must not forget that we at BC have a primary responsibility toward our students, and holding Gaelic Roots in June meant that few, if any of them, had a chance to experience it. So, our thinking is, what if we take the concerts and workshops at the core of Gaelic Roots and instead hold them on weekends during the academic year, when students are on campus?
"At the same time, though, we feel an obligation to the larger community, because they were there for us during all the years of Gaelic Roots. We want to make sure they have an opportunity to enjoy these great performers and to learn from them as well."
The fall semester served as a test run of sorts for the programs Connolly hopes to organize. He cited the Oct. 7 concert by the Irish group Chulrua, whose accordionist Paddy O'Brien is a highly acclaimed scholar and collector of Irish music. Another successful event, Connolly says, was a visit to campus by Mickey Dunne, a piper who grew up in an Irish traveling family.
"Mickey went into some of the classes and talked about his life and traveling throughout Ireland and busking for money on the streets with his brothers," said Connolly, who plans to organize more such events in the future. "The students were fascinated. It was hardly the kind of life they were familiar with - and isn't part of our mission here to show our students the different ways people live?"
The arrival of Asst. Prof. Ann Morrison Spinney (Music) this past year is another encouraging development for Irish Studies' music endeavors, says Connolly, who is working with the ethnomusicologist on some potential events and projects.
"Ann has several areas of interest that involve Irish, Scottish and English music, from the great centuries-old ballad traditions to the contemporary 'Celtic punk' scene. We're very happy that she was offered an appointment here, because it reaffirms the University's support for our work."
Connolly also has been busy in the University's ever-growing Irish Music Archives housed in Burns Library, helping to digitize, analyze and catalogue the various recordings and other materials related to Celtic music donated to BC. He and the archive staff hope to make available over the World Wide Web excerpts from some recordings, with Connolly's commentary.
"Because we're a research university, it's important that we have this kind of information available," said Connolly, who praises the efforts of Irish Music Archives Director Elizabeth Sweeney and staff members Katie McCormick MA'02 and Jennifer Peter '04. "The people who give us their music collections don't want them sitting idle; they want them put to good use."
Connolly has played an active role in helping the archives add to its holdings, having recently collected rare recordings from Northern Ireland as well as a set of hard-to-find full-length albums totaling 100 songs by the legendary Irish singer John McCormack.
"We're hoping that more people will consider donating and housing their Irish music collections at BC," he said. "It's such a very important part of our effort to preserve and promote Irish music. We have great facilities and an equally great staff who can take care of these precious recordings."
More information on the Irish Music Archives is available at online.