When the Philadelphia Ceili Group was organized in 1958, it wasn’t a great time for Irish folk music. Very few people in America even knew what traditional Irish music was. If you went into a record store in 1958 and asked for the Irish music section, you were likely to get a blank stare followed by a vague direction towards perhaps two albums: Bing Crosby singing “Too-Rah-Loo-Rah-Loo-Rah” and Dennis Day’s American-written dreck like “If You’re Irish, Come Into the Parlor.”
And even though the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem popularized real Irish songs in the early 1960s, things didn’t change all that quickly. When Tipperary singer Robbie O’Connell arrived in the early 1970s, he was still pressured to sing “McNamara’s Band,” a situation he satirized later in his lively song, “You’re Not Irish.”
Robbie O’Connell will definitely not be singing “McNamara’s Band” this weekend, as he and Aoife Clancy highlight the five-day 33rd annual Irish Music and Dance Festival presented by the Philadelphia Ceili Group at the Irish Center, just under an hour away in Philadelphia. He will, however, be performing his own songs and traditional material as the organization kicks off an 18-month celebration of its 50th anniversary.
“Ceili” is an Irish word meaning an informal gathering of dance and music. The word actually comes from the Scots word for “visit,” and most ceilis were originally held in people’s houses.
According to Frank Malley, the festival chairman, the group was started by Eugene O’Donnell, a fiddler from Derry, who was living in the Philadelphia area. “It began primarily as a dance group in 1958, and they built up a performance dance group that went around to competitions. Around that time, the Irish Center came into possession of the building they have now, the Commodore Barry Club.”
Seventeen years later, O’Donnell and another Irish-born musician, Limerick’s Mick Moloney, pushed the Ceili Group in another direction. Moloney, equally well-known as a folklorist, music mentor, and collector of Irish-American music, settled in Philadelphia in 1973 and was studying at the University of Pennsylvania. He and O’Donnell began giving concerts and in 1975 decided to try a one-day outdoor festival. The experiment grew in size for the first 10 years.
“It was really the only place to go at the time to hear traditional music,” says Malley. “Soon after that it started to be heard in other venues.” Around this time, in the mid 80s, a younger crowd rediscovered Irish roots music. Alternative radio and college stations began to play more folk music, and groups like De Dannan, Cherish the Ladies, and Patrick Street began to attract college crowds and young marrieds. Attendance at the Ceili Group Festival has remained steady for years. “We are hoping for a thousand people over the five days,” Malley says.
Over the years, the festival has attracted some of the best talent in the Irish music scene. In addition to De Dannan and Cherish the Ladies, the list includes Mike Rafferty, the Egan Family, Tommy Sands, Maura O’Connell, Eileen Ivers, Cathal McConnell, and Andy Irvine.
This year the festival has added a new feature for its opening night on Wednesday, September 5 — an evening of spoken word featuring novelist John McNamee, playwrights Michael Toner and Joseph Boyce, and poets Lawrence Dugan and Mildred Collier. Malley expects the new event to be very popular, and says, “it’s an opportunity to pay homage to that aspect of Irish culture.”
On Thursday, September 6, “An Irish Circle of Song” showcases harpist Kathy D’Angelo and traditional and unaccompanied singers Catherine Crowe and Brian Hart, among others. Friday, September 7, brings the Irish traditional group Lunasa as well as a step-dancing workshop.
The festival peaks on Saturday, September 8, with events all day, including a “seisun” (an Irish jam session), and award-winning dancers and musicians, culminating in an afternoon and evening concerts by Robbie O’Connell and one of his cousins, Aoife Clancy, the former lead singer with Cherish the Ladies and an accomplished solo artist with three albums to her credit. A dance session takes place on Sunday, September 9, from 2 p.m. on.
O’Connell has been a mainstay of the Irish music scene since the ’70s, first with his uncles, the famed Clancy Brothers, and in Green Fields of America, a group he formed with Mick Moloney and Jimmy Keane. He has made several acclaimed solo albums, as well as two well-received albums with his uncle, Liam Clancy, and his cousin, Donal Clancy, formerly of the Philadelphia-based super group, Solas.
Like all Irish musicians O’Connell has played his share of festivals over the last 30 years, and the Ceili Group venue is one of his favorites. “I played it a couple of years ago,” he says, “And I played it years ago when I was with Green Fields of America. I like the small festivals a lot better now. I’m getting really tired of the big festivals, because they’ve gone so much into the Celtic Rock thing. Festivals like this one are very manageable, much more enjoyable. You don’t have to bang people over the head and get all hyped up. It’s intimate, more like a concert than the big festivals, which are like stadiums — you don’t make any connection with the audience. And how many other festivals are going to do something like spoken word? They’re bringing the cultural aspect back to it. That’s totally gotten lost in some festivals.”
33rd Annual Irish Music and Dance Festival, Wednesday through Sunday, September 5 to 9, the Philadelphia Irish Center at the Commodore Barry Club, Carpenter Lane & Emlen Street, Philadelphia. To order tickets, call 215-242-280 or go to www.philadelphiaceiligroup.org.
No-brainer directions: Take I-95 south to Center City Route 676. Take 676 to Route 76 (the Schuylkill Expressway). Take 76 to Lincoln Drive, exit 32. Take Lincoln Drive to the 9th traffic light, and turn right onto Carpenter Lane. Look for signs for parking.