'Gaelic Roots' Celebrates Celtic Culture

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

The trill of penny whistles and the tap of step dancers' heels echoed throughout the Heights the week of June 21-27 as Boston College hosted Gaelic Roots, an annual summer school and festival of Celtic music, song and dance.

The festival brought to campus some of the world's pre-eminent performers of Celtic music and dance, who taught classes and joined in a Masters Concert at sold-out Robsham Theater on June 27.

Helena Rowsome was among those who participated in the tin whistle class during the festival.
Classes in traditional Celtic music, dance and language attracted 300 students - one-third more than last year - from across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Finland.

"We believe this to be the best summer school of its kind in North America," said the festival's organizer, Irish Studies Music Programs Director Seamus Connolly, widely regarded as one of Ireland's greatest living fiddlers.

Artists on the teaching roster included Joe Burke on accordion; Tommy Hayes on the bodhran, or Irish drum; Noel Hill on concertina; Paddy Glackin on fiddle; Tony Cuffe on guitar and vocals, and Mick Moloney on banjo and mandolin.

Others lending their talents included harpists Kathleen Guilday and Maire Ni Chathasaigh; singer-songwriter Robbie O'Connell, and step dancing instructor Michael Smith, a part-time member of the Irish Studies faculty.

Phil Coulter, one of Ireland's premier singers and songwriters and a visiting professor on the BC Irish Studies faculty, led a song workshop and headlined a sold-out June 25 concert in Robsham Theater.

The festival atmosphere that prevailed on campus for the week was part Tanglewood, part Irish pub.

Inside Gasson Hall, the incessant clack of step dancers' shoes on the wooden floor resounded like exploding firecrackers. Outside, the lawn had the air of an orchestra pit, with bagpipers practicing under a tent here, and tin-whistlers under a tree there.

In a corner of the lawn one afternoon, Pat Whelan of Glastonbury, Conn., sat adjusting his uillean pipes. The Dublin native, an accomplished player of the Highland bagpipes, had come to take instruction from master Kevin Rowsome in the smaller Irish pipes. "This is the closest thing you can find to going to Ireland for a week," Whelan said.

On a bench in the Quad, Bob Dudney and his 11-year-old son, Jack, of McLean, Va., practiced their bodhrans while awaiting the start of their beginners' class.

"It's all in the wrist. It's hard to get - like throwing a baseball," said Dudney, who edits Air Force Magazine , as he thrummed his hand-held Irish drum. "I'm getting to where I can do 'triplets.' Hear that extra note in there? I couldn't do that yesterday."

The Dudney family had traveled en masse for the festival, with wife Gretchen enrolled in step dancing and penny whistle courses, and daughters Andrea, 4, and Jordan, 16, taking instruction in dance. "We're not even Irish," said Dudney.

That Celtic culture appeals not only to Celts was illustrated by the classes in beginning Gaelic taught by Donna Wong, a Chinese-American who came to love the Irish language as an undergraduate.

"Modern Irish is the most beautiful language I've heard," Wong said after a class in the Jenks Honors Library. "For one thing, it's hard. I like the sound. The vowels have the most gorgeous sounds."

Making sure the expanded festival ran without a hitch were Connolly, Irish Studies graduate student Theresa Hanley and a handful of volunteers.

"Seamus and his staff have created a very welcoming, traditionally Irish atmosphere," said banjo player and folklorist Moloney, of Limerick. "It's a very, very friendly atmosphere, one that is hospitable in the very best sense of the word."

Said fiddler Maire O'Keefe of Tralee, County Kerry: "It's brilliant. It has to be one of the best organized events I've ever been to."

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