Banishing Misfortune

Kevin Burke and Ged Foley.

Ian Warpole, Contibutor
October / November 2005

Ian Warpole’s report on Irish Arts Week in the Catskills

Ian Warpole and fiddler John Carty.

Monday’s work done, I throw my instruments into the car, head out of Woodstock and north on Route 32 towards Greene County, heart of the Catskills.

Past the peeling stockade that was Carson City East (20 years of gunfights, high noon), past motel shells, on past the rolling hills and mountains and finally north past Cairo onto Route 145, a road so straight the Romans would be proud. A few miles along, then the first stab of recognition: “Stack’s Motel &Driving Range.”

I carry on a couple of miles past McGrath’s (full Irish breakfast), McKenna’s on its own small hill, the Blackthorn, Erin’s Melody, the Ferncliff, Darbys, Furlongs, the Shamrock House. I swing around, stop by the General Store for Hobnobs, Cream Crackers and Golden Syrup, then head up to the festival grounds for the evening concert.

Inside a huge barn some 200 people are sitting, strolling, chatting, and catching up. I greet old friends and soon the music begins. For two hours, seemingly random collectives of musicians take their turn to pour forth jigs, reels, airs and songs. The amazing thing is the quality, and the evening culminates in a tour de force known as Bohola, the only group of the evening with an actual name.

After thunderous applause and an encore, we break into small groups, scanning our schedules of the evening’s events yet to come. It’s only 9:30 and the night is young. The dancers amongst us choose the Ceili, others pick the session that most suits their taste: songs, songs and tunes, tunes only, advanced tunes only, listening to maestros only.

It’s a long list, and I opt for a session at the Ferncliff. About 30 others pick the same and we sit in a huge circle swapping tunes. It’s a great sound, from players of supreme quality to the merely competent. I find myself somewhere in the middle, and even get to lead a set at one point.

Around 1 a.m. I head over to Darbys to check out the songs. In the main bar a large group of young fiddlers are getting into stride. The singers in the next room are a much quieter bunch, but it seems like they’ve been having a great time — Robbie O’Connell and Tim Dennehy are in fine form. Around 2 a.m. I head outside for some fresh air. A group of pipers on the deck have just launched into “Banish Misfortune.” So it goes, until I call it a night around 3 a.m., head down the deserted highways and home. One night down, four to go.

Welcome to the East Durham Irish Arts Week, now in its 11th and biggest year. Sixty, count ’em, sixty world-class musicians come to teach, play and share the craic. They’ve flown or driven in from Ireland, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and New York, settled into their motels and guesthouses, and first thing this Monday morning commenced their workshops for eager students who have traveled similar distances.

The choices of classes are staggering — there are ten fiddle workshops alone. Six flute, four song, four accordion, three pipes, three dance, guitar, whistle, concertina, bodhran, bouzouki, crafts and children’s workshops. There are lectures, forums &slide shows.

Morning and afternoon, the classes assemble in all those bars and restaurants. The instructors over the years are a Who’s Who of Irish music: Kevin Burke, Tommy Peoples, Joannie Madden, Robbie O’Connell, Tony Cuffe, Daithi Sproule, Jerry O’Sullivan, Liz Carroll, Billy McCominsky, Paddy O’Brien, Karen Casey, Mike McHale, Jackie Daly, Tony DeMarco, the Coen brothers, Jack and Fr. Charlie, Brian Conway, Mary Bergin…the list is endless.

The Coen brothers: Jack and Fr. Charlie

Modeled on the Willie Clancy Summer School in Milton Malbay, County Clare, from humble beginnings the Arts Week has grown into the biggest annual traditional Irish music school in the United States.

I first stumbled onto the scene about eight years ago whilst camping nearby. As a devout folkie, I enjoyed Irish music, but had never thought about playing it. After hearing one of the barn concerts I signed up for a guitar workshop. Every day eight or nine of us huddled in the darker recesses of Erin’s Melody bar, our instructor Ged Foley of the Battlefield Band &Patrick Street leading us through open tunings and picking a simple jig.

By the end of the first day I was hooked. We all had portable tape recorders (recommended), and at the end of the week headed home clutching armfuls of tapes — so much to learn!

Paddy O’Brien is reputed to know over 4,000 tunes; while this may well be apocryphal (imagine trying to prove it) it is indicative of the art. There is no magic Sorting Hat for students — at sign-up one is expected to grade oneself, Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced. Too much modesty and you may have a boring week. Too much hubris and you may be eaten by sharks.

The literature suggests that an advanced player should know a couple of hundred tunes. To the layman who thinks this absurd, remember there is no sheet music involved, at least not once a session commences, and as the refrain goes, they all sound the same anyway. But to discover the nuance and subtleties of ancient and modern tunes is to learn a new language, one that can be shared at sessions around the world, and we tuck those tunes under our belts as fast as we can.

Two months after that first heady week, my wife was diagnosed with lung cancer. In the seven months remaining to her, the only escape from the black hole I had fallen into was to play one of the tapes from Ged’s class and lose myself in the learning; it was, as Kevin Burke says, a release from the tyranny of conscious thought.

East Durham was big in the sixties. Known as the “Emerald Isle of the Catskills,” it was the weekend destination for hard-working Irish, and resorts and motel bars thrived. The local judge and two police officers would hold court, literally, outside the General Store on a Saturday evening, adjudicating all manner of infractions and meting out fines on the spot, so the party could go on. But as airfares to the real Emerald Isle became cheaper, East Durham fell into something of a slump.

Today the bars and restaurants cater mostly to the retirement community that may well include many of the youngsters from the ’60s. They range from bare basics to genteel chintz and lace; a drive around the back lanes reveals neat cottages and lawns nestled in the rolling hills — one could easily imagine being back in County Clare.

At the Michael J. Quill Cultural Centre plans are under way to re-create an authentic Irish village; the first cottage is finished and stands gleaming white under a thatched roof, high on a hill. There is a 9/11 Memorial with commemorative flags and a summer dance school run by Tony and Sheila Davoren.

This is a community with deep roots. The one oddity I have found over the years I’ve been visiting is there are few, if any, local traditional musicians, and no regular sessions during the rest of the year. I guess the Arts Week brings in a festival so concentrated it’s enough to echo the year round.

And so my week continues. I stopped taking workshops after the first three years — as the evening sessions went later and later, it was becoming a 16-hour day, which was okay with me, but the household got restless. So I settled on the evenings, and I drink responsibly — on my way out of town late one night I was stopped and breathalized. I passed fine, but it was a scare, so be warned — pub crawling by designated driver only. (By the way, most people come from far further afield than myself, and book into rooms for the week. I’ve found a 40-minute drive each way to be in my own bed well worthwhile).

The music this year is, as always, superlative, one night Liz Carroll teaming up with Maeve Donnelly and bringing the house down, another night Joannie Madden, as always, stealing the show. One evening I walked into McGrath’s just as a circle of young men and women launched into a 20-minute set of sublime pieces arranged for fiddles, cellos, flutes and bodhran. The Noel Rice Academy from Chicago was just warming up, to an audience of the barman, myself, and a couple of others.

Another night, another session, Jackie Daly plonked down next to me, and for two glorious hours I got an earful of left-hand chords only a genius could dream up.

On any given night after the concert there are half a dozen simultaneous sessions and dances around town, and I haven’t even mentioned the afternoon gatherings, so you could talk to any one person and find they had a completely different experience of the week.

On the final Saturday there is a concert from 12 noon to 8 p.m. in the Festival Barn, and people come from far and wide. Strangely though, many that had been there all week, myself included, pass on this one — I feel I’ve been privy to something much more personal. But I sure was sorry to miss Joannie Madden and fourteen “Cherished Ladies” lined across the stage for the grand finale. I hear it was a classic. Each year brings tributes to musicians lost along the way, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the music might be dying out, but every year brings ever more, ever younger, virtuosi players to swell the ranks.

An old-timer mentioned that 30 years ago you would be lucky to get a new recording, any recording, once every six months. Today, dozens of CDs, and good ones at that, come out every week. Irish, or to use the more current, all-embracing heading, Celtic music is alive and flourishing, and nowhere more so than in East Durham, New York, for one week every July ♦

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