Gaelic Roots III

Irish Festival Draws World-Class Talent

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

A week-long festival of Gaelic music and dance at Boston College last month was capped by a rousing show at Robsham Theater that starred some of the world's finest Celtic performing artists.

The Masters Concert drew a who's who of Irish musicians and dancers that included pianist and fiddler Charlie Lennon, one of Ireland's most sought-after musical accompanists; "Riverdance" percussionist Tommy Hayes on the bodhran, or Irish drum, and Boston-area dance teacher Michael Smith's Scoil Rince na nOg company performing their 1995 World Dance Drama Championship Dance.

Step dancing teacher Tony Nolan leads a class in Carney Hall during the festival. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
A capacity crowd filled Robsham Theater for the show, which put an exclamation point on a week-long Gaelic Roots III festival that organizer Seamus Connolly termed "a success beyond our wildest dreams."

The June 22-28 festival at Boston College brought together Irish music and dance enthusiasts from Alaska to County Cork for intensive classroom workshops, recitals and convivial off-campus practice sessions at Irish pubs.

Two hundred students registered for the summer school and festival, which filled Gasson Hall with the sounds of tin whistles and harps, and the corridors of Carney Hall with the staccato rap of step-dancers' heels.

Classes were led by a sterling roster of master musicians and dancers, many of them brought specially from Ireland by Connolly, an acclaimed fiddler who is a part-time member of the music and Irish Studies faculties at Boston College.

Music instructors included Hayes, Lennon, Antoinette McKenna on harp, Jackie Daly on accordion, Paul Groff on concertina, Jimmy Noonan and Mary Bergin on whistle, Joe McKenna on pipes, Ben Lennon, Laurel Martin and Buddy MacMaster on fiddle, Zan McLeod on guitar, Mary Elizabeth MacMaster on piano, Gerry O'Connor on banjo, and traditional Irish singer Mairin Ui Cheide.

Classes in step dancing were led by Irish standout Donncha O Muineachain, Tony Nolan and the husband-and-wife team of Michael and Noreen Smith.

All performed at the Masters Concert, joining en masse for a spirited finale.

The festival won rave reviews from participants, many of whom traveled long distances for unmatched instruction in Irish music or dance.

Miriam Dean, who came from Anchorage, Alaska, with her two children for the festival, welcomed the chance to brush up her own skills as a step dancing teacher by observing some of the best.

"I'm able to make connections with people direct from Ireland," she said. "In Alaska, I'm the only one up there who teaches Irish dance."

Step dancer Jordan Dudney, of Washington, DC, a serious student of Irish dance for 11 of her 15 years, marveled at the job done by Connolly in staging the festival, which she said offered "everything you could want.

"All the other Irish festivals I've been to have been so disorganized," said Dudney. "Seamus has been great. Everything is on time, and there are such great musicians and dancers."

Sally Summers-Smith, of Burlington, who took a fiddle workshop with Lennon, said the festival gave American students exposure to Irish masters that geography normally does not allow.

"Seamus has gone out of his way to bring instructors from Ireland," she said. "They're wonderful."

Connolly said he was struck by the joyful sense of camaraderie that marked the festival. "I haven't experienced this at any summer school I've ever taught," he said.

A high point of the festival for Connolly was the special afternoon recital on Saturday by beginner students who showed their new talents at fiddle, penny whistle and Irish dance. "It was amazing to see men and women 50 and 60 years old dancing," he said.

A lasting souvenir of the festival is a newly released two-CD set containing two hours of songs by the Celtic musicians who taught and played at this year's event. The CD, "Boston College Irish Studies Program Celebrates Gaelic Roots," is available at the BC Bookstore. All proceeds benefit the Irish Studies Program.

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