Traditional Irish musicians and performing duo Kathy DeAngelo and Dennis Gormley say they — like other musicians — have seen cable TV and the Internet cutting into their audiences. But rather than cry in their beer, they’re persisting and persevering — as demonstrated in their monthly first Sunday Irish session at Tir na nOg on Hamilton Avenue where Trenton and Hamilton meet. The next is on March 5.
DeAngelo and Gormley started performing in the 1970s under the name McDermott’s Handy. The name comes from the late Ed McDermott, a respected traditional Irish fiddler who often performed at what at the time was the state’s longest continuously running coffeehouse, the Mine Street Coffeehouse on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick. That’s where DeAngelo was a student and a coffeehouse player and employee.
“I started playing Irish music because I met Ed McDermott when I was the original manager of the Mine Street Coffeehouse,” says DeAngelo, who would play backup violin or guitar behind the man who would eventually become her mentor.
“A couple of years later, Dennis and I met, became friends, and began performing together.”
While the two come from different regions — DeAngelo from Keyport in Monmouth County and Gormley from Philadelphia and South Jersey — and have different backgrounds — Italian and Irish — there was common ground for the couple, who live in Voorhees, Camden County.
“Both of our families were very musical,” says DeAngelo, the daughter of a Western Electric employee father and stay-at-home mother. “My dad played a lot of instruments, and we sang. There was always music in our house.”
She adds that Dennis’ father, a PSE&G employee, played a lot guitar and jazz music.
“Dennis and I were playing music before we got married and then played more together,” she says.
Says Gormley: “We’d perform at schools and folk festivals and finally started an Irish music seisun (jam session) when our daughter was very young. We invited people to come out and play.” Their daughter, Emma, is now 27.
Originally an accordion player, DeAngelo plays Irish harp, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and bodhran (an Irish drum). For many years DeAngelo, a private music instructor, was the music coordinator for the New Jersey Folk Festival, the largest and longest-running free folk festival in the state, held in New Brunswick each year the last Saturday in April.
Gormley, a computer technician and Irish music instructor, plays guitar and a variety of flutes and penny whistles, bouzouki, and mandolin. Together they have two self-produced albums, “Bound for Amerikay” (2013) and “Come Take the Byroads” (1985/2007).
Although Gormley says playing Irish music is like being “home,” it didn’t start there.
“My parents were from a generation where it was more important for them to be Americans than it was to be Irish. One time I asked my father, ‘Dad, where did the Gormleys come from?’ He said ‘Ireland’ and I said, ‘Yes, but where?’ And he just kind of shrugged his shoulders.”
“I never really played folk-rock, growing up as guitar player in the 1960s and ’70s,” Gormley says. “I played string bass for a time with Saul Brody, Steve Goodman, and others who would come through Philadelphia, but at a certain point, after I’d been playing Irish music for a while, it just seemed right.”
“Traditional Irish music seisuns are all instrumental music. But the music has such an aura about it that makes a person like me — who was not born in Ireland and did not have good contact with my Irish roots — feel right at home.”
The two also seem at home at Tir na Nog.
“Todd Faulkner, the owner, likes to have all kinds of music at the club,” DeAngelo says, calling the pub a mini Irish center in the middle of an ethnically diverse street on the edge of Trenton.
“There’s a real Irish community in that area and people who support it. These are not people that are once-a-year Irish. It’s their community and culture, so their appreciation and respect for Irish traditional music is there.”
The pub itself “is carved out of a house, and there’s a snug little area where the musicians sit. It’s small and tight, but the music is mighty, as they say,” says DeAngelo.
Both Gormley and DeAngelo say their first Sundays at Tir Na Nog are not performances but Irish jam sessions where “a lot of great musicians show up between 3 and 6 p.m.”
“For all intents and purposes, there is no audience,” says Gormley. “It’s a group of people making their own music at home. Musicians are playing for themselves, (but) if somebody else is listening, that’s fine.”
DeAngelo says that she and Gormley “happen to be the anchor musicians, so we’re there to make sure everyone who wants to play can sit in.” Others, she says, can sit back, have a drink, and listen.
Talking about the state of Irish music, Gormley and DeAngelo say in the 1970s when they began playing together, Irish traditional music and American folk music were both very healthy forms with lots of players and many festivals. Like the blues or traditional, blues-based jazz, Irish music will always be played in this country, with so many people of Irish descent. In other words, like the blues, it will never die.
“There are certainly enough musicians and people out there who appreciate traditional Irish music, and then we have stuff with a lot of pop and other kinds of music mixed in,” says DeAngelo.
“These days,” Gormley added, “Irish music is a river with many tributaries.”
“There was a certain period when Irish music was all the rage and there was a lot of crazy interest in it, but I don’t see that anymore. Interest in it has kind of diminished in the last 15 years, just as it has with a lot of other kinds of music,” says DeAngelo. “It has been undercut by the Internet and YouTube. People feel like they don’t have to show up. But for people who want to come out and listen to music that is really down home music, they’ll enjoy it. The first Sunday shows are about people playing the music for themselves, not for a million bucks. It’s people enjoying the music and having a few beers. What else is there in life, really?”
Irish Session with Kathy DeAngelo and Dennis Gormley, Tir na Nog, 1324 Hamilton Avenue, Trenton. Sunday, March 5, and every first Sunday, 3 to 6 p.m. 609-392-2554 or www.trentontirnanog.com.