- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Stroll into the ceili at the Green Acres Community Center in Fairfax and the first thing that strikes you won’t be the swirling couples, the youngsters crammed along the wall decorating cupcakes, or even the large banner emblazoned with the name “Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann” tacked up next to the American flag against the wall.

It will be the size of the band, a 10-person powerhouse of a creature that will race through jigs, reels, hornpipes and even a waltz or two before the night is through.

That’s part of the reason why folks coming in to dance are grinning so broadly; they know what’s coming, and it won’t be “Toora Loora Loora.”

Thanks to bands like the Bog Wanderers, traditional Irish music is alive — and sometimes kicking — in the Greater Washington area. From pub sessions where musicians can trade a tune or 10, to group lessons that will hone your skills with the Irish drum or uilleann pipes, to ceilis like this one where all you really have to do is dance, the “pure drop” of traditional jigs and reels can leave your toes tapping, your body swaying and your heart hoping for just one more.

Far from the bog

“We have the biggest ceili band in the area,” says Marilyn Moore, who calls the dances at the Fairfax ceili.

Many would say it’s also among the best, numbering among its ranks some veterans of the Irish music scene, including Jesse Winch (drums, bodhran, percussion, mandola, guitar and harmonica), Danny Flynn (accordion), Tabby Finch (piano, harp, hammered dulcimer) and Joe DeZarn (fiddle).

They take their name from a tongue-in-cheek reference to the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Indian guru who dispensed controversial wisdom from an Oregon commune in the 1980s, but the moniker conjures up visions of a music suppressed for centuries and denigrated as “bog music,” the music of the illiterate, rural Irish poor.

Not that the dancers at the ceili (say “kay-lee”) seem to care either way.

“We really feed off each other,” says Kate Kane, a regular at the Saturday ceilis. “We’ll get high on the music and the music will get high on the dancers.”

Before the night is through, new friends will be made, fathers will dance with daughters, and the children will join in whenever they get the chance.

“It’s one of the few things that you can take your kids to that’s not a child-centered activity,” says Mr. Winch’s wife, Francesca, whose two children, ages 11 and 9, are somewhere in the hall. “That’s a rare thing in our society.”

The subtle distinctions

Just don’t ask for one more “song,” unless there’s someone there getting ready to sing. These are “tunes,” as any traditional musician will be quick to tell you.

“Songs always have words; tunes are played with instruments only,” says ethnomusicologist Philippe Varlet, a French-born fiddler and master of several other instruments who arrived on the Washington music scene in 1977 and has built a reputation as an expert in the history, forms and styles of Irish traditional music.

“If you’re playing a song, you have to think about the words, their poetry, and how they fit together. You can’t just play anything.”

Mr. Varlet, along with flutist Rob Greenway, hosts an Irish music session at Ri-Ra, the Irish pub in Bethesda. Music sessions are another way to get to know traditional Irish music, in a relaxed setting where musicians can check in or out of a particular tune at will.

“If you’re playing at a ceili you’re doing specific dances in a very straightforward way,” says Mr. Winch, who played the bodhran (the Irish drum, pronounced “bow-rawn”) with the band Celtic Thunder for many years.

“You can’t really play around with the rhythm. That’s different from playing in a concert hall.”

An American history

Irish songs and tunes have been part of the Greater Washington music scene for many years, ever since Irish workmen began arriving in the nation’s capital more than 200 years ago.

In fact, the music has been in this country since post-Colonial days, working its way so far into the fabric of life here that few people today even recognize the Irish origins of many songs they think of as American traditions.

Who would know, for instance, that “The Girl I Left Behind Me” began in Ireland as “An Spailpin Fanach,” or “The Rambling Laborer”? Who could guess that “The Streets of Laredo” came here as “The Bard of Armagh”?

By 1850, according to Margaret McAleer, writing in “Green Streets of Washington: The Experience of Irish Mechanics in Antebellum Washington,” the Irish constituted the largest ethnic group in the city. Ten years later, the Irish were 58 percent of the District’s foreign-born population and by the early 1900s, the city included five chapters of the Ancient Order of Hibernians among its many clubs and benevolent organizations.

It’s easy to picture a turn-of-the-20th-century dance at places like St. Patrick’s Church at 10th and G streets Northwest, which boasted a large Irish membership, or at St. Stephen’s Church in the West End.

Chances are, though, that they weren’t so socially constrained as they were in Ireland.

“Those parish hall dances were always closely supervised,” says Ms. Moore of the old country’s inhibitions. “The priests wanted to make sure no one was dancing too closely.”

In Ireland by the 1950s, traditional Irish music had largely fallen out of favor, due in part to the popularity of new music styles from across the Atlantic. That’s where Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann comes in.

Gaelic for “a gathering of Irish musicians” and pronounced “coal-tis kyol-tory air-in,” the Dublin-based organization was founded in 1952 to help preserve Irish music and culture worldwide. Mr. Winch chairs the local chapter, the O’Neill-Malcom Branch, one of 34 in the United States.

A world of tunes

Ceilis can be found all around the Washington area. Go to them all, and it’s likely you won’t hear the same tune twice. Most traditional musicians know thousands of tunes, and most are always ready to pick up a few more.

If you want to learn Irish music, you’re much better off listening to a reel, a jig or an air than trying to make your way through a song sheet.

“It’s impossible for anyone to know them all,” Mr. Varlet says. “You listen to recordings, and you listen to other musicians. What you hear changes all the time.”

Mr. Varlet runs Celtic Grooves Imports, which imports hard-to-find Irish music recordings to the States.

“People sometimes call me and play a tune over the phone,” he says. “They say, ‘Do you have a name for that one?’ ”

Sometimes he does. When he doesn’t, the curious musician can hire him to research a tune’s provenance.

Names for these traditional tunes can be a barrage of words. Does “Pigeon on the Gate” really have anything to do with the melodic line of this classic reel? How about “The Galtee Rangers?”

And while a traditional reel like “The Plough and Stars” may conjure up memories of the Easter Rising of 1916, when it was the name of a rebel flag, there’s nothing about the music that seems more rebellious than any other.

In fact, these snippets of speech are simply mnemonic devices, place settings to help musicians pour out what will follow. It would take a genealogist to tease out how the “Stack of Barley” originally picked up that title, or who Miss McLeod was and why she merited a reel — whose tune, originally from Scotland, is familiar to Americans who know the “Hoedown” movement from Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo.”

The tune as heard

Unlike classical musicians who rely on the printed page, Irish traditional artists see song sheets as a means rather than an end, if they see them at all. It’s the difference between playing the tune as read versus taking the tune as heard based on the arc of experience large and small.

“In any session of music, no one will hear the same thing,” writes Irish musician and poet Ciaran Carson in “Last Night’s Fun: In and Out of Tune with Irish Music.”

“It will depend on context, on placement, on experience — whether or not you’ve heard the tune before, whether or not the person next to you knows the tune that you only half-know.”

What a particular musician does with a particular tune makes all the difference. Even the same musician is hardly likely to play the same tune exactly the same way more than once.

Ornamentations like the roll, where musicians make use of a five-note rhythmical cluster above and below the main note, or the cut, where they separate two notes of the same pitch by inserting a higher note, allow for a little personal idiosyncrasy even in the midst of the tightly controlled beat of a dance tune.

The tunes themselves rarely stand alone, but are played in sets of associated melodies, sharing either form or rhythm. Initially, just one or two musicians would play for a neighborhood dance, but the ensembles and available instruments grew over time.

New tunes can be composed in traditional forms, and there is a certain flexibility of tradition that allows polkas, waltzes, guitars and even Greek bouzoukis to enter the picture and still be considered expressly Irish.

A trans-Atlantic beat

But those who hear the music may not always get the tune, as the old Gaelic proverb says. Irish music is integrally bound up in Irish history and the tales of oppression, suppression and migration that have characterized the Irish past.

The massive diaspora of Irish following the Great Hunger of the 1840s, when more than a million died and a million more emigrated, also affected the music, creating a trans-Atlantic exchange that had as many Irish musicians listening to the efforts of transplanted and Irish-American artists as the other way round.

“If I play with Irish musicians we can always find tunes in common,” says Mr. Winch, who grew up in New York City’s Bronx as the son of Irish immigrants.

“Everybody is familiar with names like Michael Coleman, James Morrison, and Paddy Killoran and what they played.”

Those three trans-Atlantic transplants of the early 20th century, all fiddlers, were responsible for creating New York City’s Sligo-based sound, with its bright, clear style of playing.

“Michael Coleman recorded a lot of tunes that made their way back to Ireland,” says Mr. Winch. “People there said, ‘Hey, this is really good,’ and that influenced what was happening there.”

The tunes came by way of early recordings, often issued on private labels, says Mr. Varlet, a collector of old recordings of Irish music.

“After 1920 you could just rent a cutting machine and make recordings,” he says. “In the early 1920s there were all sorts of little labels.”

In Chicago in the early 1900s, Irish music could often be heard at the headquarters of the police department, where Police Chief Francis O’Neill sought out — and hired — some of the best musicians around.

A Cork native and a one-time sailor who had been shipwrecked on a Pacific island, O’Neill eventually published several anthologies of Irish tunes, including the still-popular “Dance Music of Ireland” (1907), used by musicians on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dubliners themselves pay tribute to Chief O’Neill: One of the city’s newer hotels is named for him — and uses traditional music as its theme.

Realer than ‘real’

Today, regional stylistic differences remain in Irish music, from the kinds of sound produced to the actual music made, although the impact of the global village has blurred the lines a bit.

“It used to be you’d do polkas and slides in Kerry but not Clare,” says Mr. Winch. “But now you have dance teachers from different areas traveling around and teaching the different styles.”

Just don’t expect to hear “The Unicorn Song,” no matter how many folks may clamor for it.

“A lot of these are anthems for Irish-Americans,” says Mr. Varlet, who tends to take a hands-off approach to music of the Tin Pan Alley variety. “People are always asking us when we’re going to play some ‘real Irish music.’ ”

Music, dance at many locales

Looking to experience the “pure drop” of traditional Irish music on your own terms? There’s plenty going on in the Greater Washington area, and it’s happening well past St. Patrick’s Day.

Check out ceilidance.com for a good comprehensive look at Washington-area Irish musical activities. Meanwhile, here’s a selection:


• Blackthorn Ceili Dancers: McCathran Hall, Center and Chestnut streets, Washington Grove. March 17. Workshop 6-7 p.m, ceili 7-11 p.m. Soda bread and tea; bring a dish and desserts to share. Contribution requested to help pay for the band. See members.aol.com/irishGWCC/ NewsArticles.htm.

• Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann: Green Acres Center, 4401 Sideburn Road, Fairfax City. Ceilis every second Saturday night through May. Workshop 7-7:30 p.m. Ceili 7:30-11 p.m. Dances called by Marilyn Moore. Admission $6-$15 per person, $25-$35 per family. Refreshments provided. See ccepotomac.org.

• Glen Echo Irish Dance Class: Spanish Ballroom, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. Reunion and final ceili. March 21. 7:15-9:30 p.m. All welcome, especially all the Irish dancers who have taken classes in Glen Echo over the years. See ceilidance.com.

• Greater Washington Ceili Club: Frost Center, 4915 Aspen Hill Road, Rockville. St. Patrick’s Day Party March 15. Ceili with live music 8-10 p.m. See gwcc-online.org.

• Greater Washington Ceili Club:

Cherry Hill Park Conference Center, 9800 Cherry Hill Road, College Park. March 18. Set workshop 4 p.m., ceili 5-9 p.m. Admission $8-$15. See gwcc-online.org.

Set and ceili dance classes

• City of Fairfax Parks and Recreation: Green Acres Center, 4401 Sideburn Road, Fairfax City. Tuesday night classes at 7:30 taught by Hugh Conway. New session of five weekly classes begins March 27. To register for classes call the Parks and Recreation staff at 703/385-7858. Walk-ins welcome. See ceili dance.com.

• Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann: Green Acres Center, 4401 Sideburn Road, Fairfax City. Saturday morning beginner and intermediate level classes taught by Marilyn Moore. 10:30 a.m.-noon. March 24 and 31, April 21, May 5 and 19. Visitors welcome. See ccepotomac.org and click on “Set and Ceili Dance Clubs and Classes.”

• Ring of Kerry Irish Dancers: Ridgeview Middle School, 16600 Raven Rock Drive, Gaithersburg. Tuesday lessons for beginners, 7 p.m.; for experienced dancers 8:15 p.m. $35 for a five-month group session. Current session runs through May 23. Students can still sign up. See geocities.com/ringofkerrydancers.

Music sessions

• O’Faolain’s Irish Pub and Restaurant: 20921 Davenport Drive (Regal Center Shopping Plaza), Sterling. Weekly traditional Irish music sessions with uilleann piper Jim Wade and banjoist Betsy O’Malley. 6:30-9:30 p.m. Sundays. Open to all musicians able to play at an advanced-beginner to intermediate level. Pub phone 703/444-9796.

• Ri-Ra Irish Pub: 4931 Elm St., Bethesda. Twice-weekly sessions with Philippe Varlet and Rob Greenway. 3-6 p.m. Sundays (slow jam 3-4 p.m.); 7-11p.m. Wednesdays (slow session 7-8 p.m.) Pub phone 301/657-1122.

Irish culture front and center

‘Tis a good year to be Irish, or at least an Irish aficionado. In addition to all the sessions, ceilis and classes around town, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in June and July will feature Northern Ireland and 160 of its best-known musicians, storytellers, cooks, craftsmen, entrepreneurs and sports figures.

To tie in to the event, Belfast will present a four-month-long Washington celebration, called Rediscover Northern Ireland, that showcases the region’s food, entertainment and culture through more than 40 cultural events.

For complete information see rediscoverni.com. Here are highlights coming soon:

• Camerata Ireland with Barry Douglas:

Coolidge Auditorium, Thomas Jefferson building, Library of Congress, First Street and Independence Avenue Southeast. 8-10 p.m. March 23.

The well-known pianist and composer and the chamber ensemble he founded play Mozart, Beethoven, Carter and a newly commissioned work by Dave Morris, a professor at the University of Ulster. Tickets required through Ticketmaster at 301/808-6900 or 410/752-1200. Information at 202/707-5502 or loc.gov/loc/events.

• Lannan Literary Symposium: Befitting Emblems of Adversity — Lyric and Crisis in Northern Irish Poetry 1966-2006:

Copley Lounge and the InterCultural Center Auditorium, Georgetown University, 37th and O streets Northwest. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. April 17, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. April 18.

Two days of readings, talks and discussions with writers and scholars on how Northern Irish poetry not only survived but flourished through the Troubles. See english.georgetown. edu/Lannan/symposiumfestival _bea.htm.

• ‘A Shower of Rhyming Couplets’:

Grosvenor Auditorium, National Geographic Society, 1600 M St. NW. 7:30-9 p.m. April 18.

To cap the Lannan symposium, the celebrated poets Ciaran Carson, Michael Longley, Medbh McGuckian and Paul Muldoon read from their work. Introduction by Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. $14-$17. Tickets at 202/857-7700 or online at nationalgeographic .com/nglive.

• ‘Resolutions: New Art from Northern Ireland’: Katzen Arts Center, American University, Massachusetts and Nebraska avenues Northwest. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, April 24-July 29.

The new North as reflected in the work of 18 contemporary artists, among them Willie Doherty, Paul Seawright, Susan MacWilliam, Ian Charlesworth, Dan Shipsides, Simon McWilliams, Gail Ritchie, Gary Shaw and Jennifer Trouton. Admission free. See american.edu/cas/katzen.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide