Preserving Irish traditions has nothing to do with the green clothes and tinted beer that are seen and soiled, respectively, every March 17th. Not in the least, said Jack Hickman, a first-generation Canadian whose parents came from the Emerald Isle.
“Wearing silly green ties and hats and drinking green beer on St. Patrick’s Day – that’s not our thing,” said the local branch vice president of Harp of Tara.
The latter is affiliated with Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (CCE), the global association dedicated to safeguarding and promoting Irish culture in all its forms, including traditional music, dance and, in particular, language.
“We need to move away from the drunken Irish stigma,” founding member Hickman added. “We try to instill or keep alive the Irish traditions of language, music, drama, dance.”
Harp of Tara is the backbone of maintaining the traditional Irish language known as Gaeilge. To this end, the branch, formed in 1978, sponsors a local ceili (dance party), a weekly seisun (music sessions) as well as informal language sessions. In the spring (April 22-24 at the Seniors Center on Francis Street), an Irish-language weekend attracts speakers ranging from novice to Gaelgoiri (fluent).
At last weekend’s St. Patrick’s Day ceili at Cathedral School, around 100 people gathered to listen to Irish songs and instruments and watch members of the McGrath School of Irish Dance hit their heels together in jigs and Irish coils.
In Ireland there are a number of districts known as Gaeltacht, where Irish is the first language of the inhabitants.
The only recognized Gaeltacht outside of Ireland sits on 60 acres of land on the outskirts of Tamworth. There is a campsite, sanitary facilities and a pavilion. Plans for a future community building are underway. Every August, the place comes alive with a week of traditional speeches, songs and dances. At its sharpest, as the old Crosby standard implied, “in the rhythm of Irish laughter you can hear the angels singing”.
Declan Kelly, former Irish Ambassador to Canada, officially opened the Gaeltacht in 2007. Hickman, tasked with directing the Ambassador’s limousine to the preferred parking lot near the stage that day in ’07, laughed as he recalled how the unrecognized diplomat arrived in an old Volvo and was pointed to a parking spot a mile from the podium.
At the end of June, also at the Tamworth Gaeltacht, the competitors gather for the Orieachtas, a cultural festival in the Gaeilge language. Judges are brought in from the old country to judge the Orieachtas, which offer competitions in poetry, drama, dance and music.
But all is not rosy at the club. A threatening cloud hangs over Harp of Tara, which has around 50 members but only around 20 who are “active”.
“It’s largely apathy,” Hickman said of declining membership numbers that also grew in the tooth.
He suggested that the future of the branch may lie with the youngsters who performed at the ceili last weekend. Little clogs such as Stella Bowie and Abigail Boag, five-year-old members of the McGrath School of Irish Dance, who skillfully demonstrated two-handed reels and slip jigs in both soft and stiff shoes.
“If young people are interested, they are our best hope,” noted Hickman, a retired RCMP officer who, at 83, still plays a wicked Bodhran, the Celtic frame drum. (In 1982 he founded the Kingston Ceili Band.)
Added school owner Jessica McGrath, who started dancing at the age of six and has never lost interest. “It’s like going to church,” she said. “You participate, you learn to enjoy it and you keep it alive. “
Finny McConnell, lead singer of The Mahones, called Tara’s harp “essential for the artistic community and for keeping Irish history alive.”
“I went to one of their shows recently,” said the Toronto-based musician whose parents once owned the old Frontenac Hotel on Ontario Street. “It was fantastic, especially the way they involve the young people, which is so important.”
Harp of Tara president Stephen Rayner, who lives next to the Gaeltacht site outside of Tamworth, said a small but enthusiastic group of students from Queen’s University were regulars at ceili.
“We have always been lucky to attract students from the university,” said the 15-year-old member. “They are very enthusiastic and they even help clean and tidy the tables and chairs afterwards.
“It only takes one or two [students] to attend, then word is circulating, ”he said. A typical ceili might attract around 20 Queen’s children, “but it’s transitory,” he added. “The leaders are graduates.”
Cupid and His Bow is no stranger to Tara Ceili’s Harp, whose matchmaking success rate puts the ubiquitous online dating sites to shame. The local ceilis served as the introductory scene for no less than five Queen’s couples who later married.
“They all met in a ceili,” Rayner said of couples like Rebecca and Stephen, who met five years ago in a Harp of Tara ceili and were married three years later. The happy couple even called on the president to call Irish dance numbers on their nuptials.