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BCMFest: Remembering Gaelic Roots

By Sean Smith, special to the BIR, March 11, 2010

Ask just about anyone whoever experienced the Gaelic Roots festival at Boston College - "experienced" is really the most appropriate verb - and chances are you'll get an earful of fond memories and anecdotes, along with a sigh of regret that it didn't last longer.

Known officially as the Gaelic Roots Music, Song and Dance Festival and Summer School, the event was a veritable promised land for aficionados of Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, and other Gaelic traditions, who flocked to the Boston College campus each June to attend workshops, listen to concerts, and take part in sessions with some of the world's best-known Gaelic music performers.

Devotees of Gaelic Roots - which ran from 1993-2003 (it became a week-long summer event in 1997) - invariably lavish equal praise and affection for its creator and guiding spirit: Seamus Connolly, the legendary Clare fiddler who is director of Irish music programs and the Sullivan Artist in Residence at BC.

On March 8, BCMFest will present a tribute of its own to both the event and the man behind it as part of the Celtic Music Monday series at Club Passim in Harvard Square. The concert will feature six of the area's best-known musicians and singers, all with musical and personal ties to Connolly: singers Aoife Clancy and Kate Chadbourne; fiddlers Laurel Martin and Brendan Bulger; flute/whistle player Jimmy Noonan; and guitarist/fiddler Mark Simos.

"Gaelic Roots was such an inspiration to so many people, not just from Boston but around the world," says BCMFest board member Sean Smith, who is co-organizing the Passim event. "As big a crowd as Gaelic Roots would draw year after year, there was a certain smallness to it, especially in the classes and workshops. I mean, what a pleasure to sit in a room and have, say, Andy Irvine teach you his arrangement of 'Martinmas Time,' or Aoife Clancy share a song from her family tradition, or Paddy Keenan teach a pipe tune – just as if you were in somebody's parlor or kitchen. Even if you did nothing but go to the sessions at Gaelic Roots, you were richly rewarded.

"BCMFest is a very different festival than Gaelic Roots, of course, but the sense of community Gaelic Roots could inspire over the course of a week is something that rings true with BCMFest organizers and supporters," said Smith. "So it seems very appropriate for BCMFest to celebrate the legacy of Gaelic Roots and Seamus Connolly."

While Connolly will be unable to attend the March 8 Gaelic Roots tribute because of a family commitment, the concert's six performers say his presence is considerable throughout Irish music, and beyond Boston.

"His teaching and stylistic influence will be felt for generations to come in Boston," says Bulger, a former student of Connolly. "It is a testament to his great personal and musical presence that in an age when local, geographically delineated styles are eroded by ease of migration and the ability to share music electronically, he has left a clearly discernible and lasting impression on the community of Boston fiddle players who have known him.

"It is a rare accomplishment and an important one that a large, fundamental section of the definition of Boston-based Irish fiddle playing style in late 20th-early 21st century can be directly attributed to his influence," said Bulger. "He has steadily and unassumingly created an enormous, even worldwide profile for Boston Irish fiddle playing, in conjunction with many others, and should be recognized as a primary driver in that process over the course of the past 30-plus years. Those effects will not erode quickly."

Beyond such accomplishments, the performers say, Connolly's obvious love for the Irish music tradition, and care and regard for those who play it, has always been in evidence – and Gaelic Roots was a great showcase for those qualities, they note.

"When Seamus asked me to participate at Gaelic Roots, I was new to teaching at the time and was a nervous wreck!" recalls Clancy. "But I'm glad he had faith in me as it was a wonderful experience. Seamus was a delight to work for, and as always, had a knack of getting just the right combination of people together. I learned a lot in that one week of teaching, and I'm always grateful to Seamus for both the encouragement and great memories!"

Chadbourne knows very well about Connolly's quick wit – "I was introducing the song 'Mal Bhan Ni Chuilleanain,' about this amazing, beautiful, generous, irresistible woman, Seamus called out from the back, 'Give us her phone number! I'm dying to meet her!' – but also has born witness to his other aspects.

"At one of the Saturday morning Gaelic Roots student concerts, I saw Seamus become moved to tears as he watched a young boy stand up and play his first fiddle solo," she says. "You could see in his face all his deep care for the music and for the loving way it is passed on. And perhaps also the memory of that young boy he once was, falling in love with the fiddle and feeling fostered and helped by his family and the people around him."

Tickets for Celtic Music Monday are $12, $6 for members of Club Passim, WGBH, and WUMB. For reservations, go to clubpassim.org or call 617-492-7679.

For more information on BCMFest, see bcmfest.com; you can also sign up for the BCMFest e-mail list via the Web site.

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