Comhaltas in the Hudson Valley Keeping the Tradition Alive

Irish sessions draw aficionados to various locales in Philipstown

By Jeanne Tao

Every first Thursday of the month, musicians gather at the North Highlands Firehouse to play traditional Irish tunes in a slow session (so that beginners to the instruments and/or genre can participate) starting at 8 p.m., followed by a fast session. The music usually lasts until about 10 p.m., everyone sitting around in a large circle, playing or listening to tunes started or called out by individuals.

Susie Parks and Denis Dillon with bodhrans and Pat Lyons with accordion at a firehouse session. Photo by J. Tao

Before these sessions, as well as on the third Thursday of the month throughout this fall, there has been a series of Irish music classes, beginning at 6 p.m. Various groups of children and adults have been meeting for 30- or 45-minute lessons for beginning or intermediate tin whistle, fiddle, or bodhrán (pronounced BOW-ran) — an Irish frame drum. Local fiddler Andy Kuntz teaches the fiddle classes, Alice Olwell the bodhrán classes, and Philipstown resident Ann Dillon heads the whistle classes.

The classes and sessions are offered through an organization called Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (pronounced co-WAL-tis col-TO-ry AIR-in), which means “gathering of Irish musicians.” Founded in Ireland in 1951 by a group of musicians who wanted to revive Irish musical traditions, Comhaltas promotes the music, song, dance, language and culture ofIreland. With more than 400 branches in Ireland and the Irish diaspora, it now has a branch in the Hudson Valley, started in November of 2011.

Dillon, Hudson Valley Comhaltas chair and delegate, said the first branch started in her hometown of Mullingar, County Westmeath, Ireland. There’s one in every town in Ireland, she said. “The tradition was passed from generation to generation.”

Dylan Foley, 2nd-place fiddle winner of the All-Ireland, and Frank Kolarek play at a firehouse session. Photo by J. Tao

Having lived in New York for the past 25 years, and in Philipstown for the past 15, she has been involved with Irish music groups in the area for about seven years. As an adult, she picked up the concertina and also plays the accordion and whistle.

She participates in Irish sessions in New York City as well as in Cold Spring, meeting once a month with other musicians at Whistling Willie’s, the Depot Restaurant, and the Silver Spoon. Dillon also recently started a monthly session at Sheeran’s, whose owner is from Ireland, in Tomkins Cove, Rockland County.

While at Whistling Willie’s the group appears more formally under the name of the Celtic Notes, they play in a traditional session format. “We still sit in a circle,” Dillon noted. Such seating encourages everyone to join in. At a recent Sheeran’s session, Dillon noticed a man sitting in the back of the restaurant tapping his foot along with the music, and she asked him if he wanted to sing.

She said the audience was amazed when his voice filled the restaurant for a couple of songs. That’s the kind of atmosphere and tradition that she wants to perpetuate at all the Irish sessions. The musicians aren’t just playing for an audience but “playing for one another” as well, Dillon said.

There are many families of Irish descent in the Hudson Valley who are “keeping the tradition alive,” said Dillon. For example, the Fee triplets, who attend Haldane School, play at the North Highlands Firehouse sessions. (They have an uncle on their father’s side who plays accordion and an aunt on their mother’s side who plays the fiddle.) Catriona plays the concertina, Mairead the flute, and Angela the fiddle. All three are also learning traditional Irish dance along with Mairead O’Hara, who is in the beginning fiddle class this fall.

At the October firehouse session, the group was treated with a surprise visit from Dylan Foley, originally from Poughkeepsie, who won second place in the over-18 fiddle competition of the All-Ireland Fleadh (known as the All-Ireland), the annual Irish traditional music competition run by Comhaltas and started in Mullingar in 1951. Foley’s fiddle expertise joined the fiddles, whistles, flutes, bodhráns, concertinas, accordions and guitars that were already there.

Claire Finnegan and Mairead O’Hara take beginning fiddle from Andy Kuntz at the firehouse. Photo by J. Tao

Students in the music classes and musicians come from all over the area, from as far as New Jersey, Poughkeepsie, and across the Hudson. Not all participants are of Irish descent, however. Anyone interested in Irish music and culture is encouraged to sign up for classes or attend the sessions.

The next series of classes will start in January 2013, but Hudson Valley Comhaltas may opt to take a break from some or all of the music classes during the winter and offer Gaelic (Irish language) classes as a way to promote Irish culture. Because they do not hold dancing classes at the firehouse, they are looking into other spaces to start Irish dancing in the future.

Having just started in the past year, Hudson Valley Comhaltas is still looking for people interested in Irish culture to get involved. The committee consists of Dillon, president and delegate; Rita O’Neill, vice president; Maggie Mulvihill, treasurer and delegate; Susie Parks, secretary; Noreen Fee, auditor; and Kathleen Parks, youth delegate.

The Comhaltas session takes place at the North Highlands Firehouse, 504 Fishkill Road, every first Thursday of the month from 8 – 10 p.m., and all are welcome. Parking and entrance are in the rear of the firehouse. Tea and coffee, and sometimes baked goods, are available. The last firehouse session of the year will take place on Thursday, Dec. 6.

Individual membership is $35 per year, and family membership is $45 per year. Class prices vary according to duration and level but are discounted for members. For more information about membership, sessions and classes, visit the Hudson Valley Comhaltas Facebook page or contact them at [email protected].

Many of the same musicians also play other sessions in Cold Spring: on the last Sunday of the month at Whistling Willie’s (Nov. 25 at 5 p.m.), the first Friday of the month at the Silver Spoon (Dec. 7 at 8 p.m.), and the first Wednesday of/after the full moon at the Depot Restaurant (Nov. 28 at 7 p.m.). The Sheeran’s session in Tomkins Cove takes place on the third Sunday of the month (Dec. 16 at 6 p.m.).

Videos of the October session:

Hudson Valley Comhaltas Slow Session

Hudson Valley Comhaltas: Dylan Foley

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