Sunday, July 29, 2012

To the Catskills and Back Again

Every summer since I was sixteen (that is, since 2001), I've headed to the hamlet of East Durham in the Catskill Mountains for Catskills Irish Arts Week.  It is incredibly good craic (that's "fun," for those not familiar with the term).  This year was no exception.

The format of the week is that there are morning and afternoon workshops, lectures in the late afternoon, a concert in the evening, and sessions galore all over town at night.  There is also a céilí (social dance with live music) every night.  A full-time student takes morning and afternoon workshops while a half-time student takes only one or the other (you take a workshop on the same subject with the same teacher all five days, for instance, you could take concertina Mon-Fri mornings, and beginning set dancing Mon-Fri afternoons). The student badge also gives free admission to the concert and céilí.  The lectures are free for anyone to attend, the nightly concert and céilí are $10 per person if you don't have a student badge.  The sessions are also open to the public with no cover charge, although it is suggested that you be generous in your drink purchases at the pub where the session is hosted.

A lot of people come and take workshops, and even more come just for the nightly concerts, sessions, and dancing.  The little town of 200 residents swells to over a 1000 for the week.  People come year after year, and you make friends that you might only see or have contact with during that one week.  It's like Brigadoon (only with better music--no offense to Messrs. Lerner and Loewe).  The week is crowned on Saturday by the Andy McGann Festival, and usually Saturday night features Mass said at the Lady of Knock Shrine by Msgr. Charlie Coen, who is pretty much a permanent feature at CIAW teaching concertina classes.

In past years I have been a full-time student, taking variously harp, singing, and step dancing workshops. Last year and again this year, I have eschewed full-time registration and been only a half-time student.  This is great, because I was always too tired before to go to the afternoon lectures.  This year I made two of them--one on basic Irish language pronunciation (part of a series that went on all week, but I got a lot out of just the first one), and one about the history of the bodhran, which was very enlightening (basically--it doesn't have a history before the mid-20th century).  I also eschewed the singing sessions, at which I have in the past been a faithful attendee, since although I've also taken harp classes I really hate dragging it to the instrumental sessions.  I would probably have enjoyed hearing more of some of the professional singers who were tasked with playing host at the singing sessions (notably Michael Black of the Black Family, and the Friel Sisters this year--I love Jimmy Crowley too but I've heard him sing quite a bit).

So what did I do?  I danced.  Almost five hours a day.  Seriously!  I took the advanced set dancing workshop (a type of social dancing a bit like square or contra), and went to a céilí every night for seven nights running.  CIAW ran the Mon-Fri dances, while the preceding Sunday night was hosted by the local East Durham Set Dancers (of which my mother is a part), and the following Saturday was courtesy of the Shamrock House pub/restaurant/resort which is the town's main set dancing venue.  Saturday's céilí was on-the-house (no cover charge).  By Saturday, I was more or less hobbling and only danced two sets, and on Wednesday the venue was hotter than hades and I danced three sets and went home to shower.  Every other night I danced almost every set (about 3 hours of dancing), besides having been to the 2.5-hour class in the morning.  I loved it, and I lost two pounds. My mom and I joked about starting an Irish-themed weight-loss camp with healthy food and hours and hours of dancing every day.  Pádraig McEneany taught the advanced sets this year and called at some of the céilis, and he's absolutely brilliant.  He teaches at a good pace, is patient but firm, and notices everything.  As a caller, he's really good about telling you the next move just far enough in advance, and giving lots of detail if the set has any unusual features ("House around with crossed hands!  Now swing in céilí hold..." etc.). He also made sure that we would do one of the sets that we'd done in class that morning.  I'd love to see him back in the Catskills in future years.

(Photo: Fiddle Class with Matt Cranitch, CIAW 2010, by Tim Raab,

It was a really great week.  If you are at all interested in Irish music or dance, you should give it a try.  There is also good music to be found in East Durham on Memorial Day weekend and at the weekend Banjo Burke Festival in October.

I must admit, though, that despite all the fun, I was pretty happy to get back to Anchorage, where it's been hovering around 68 degrees all week.  I don't miss 95F and 75% humidity!

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