For performers on the Irish/Celtic scene, lost gigs hurt, but the music doesn’t stop; social media gives some a way to play on

He didn't play anywhere near his usual number of St. Patrick's Day-related gigs, but Colm O'Brien isn't about to give up on being a full-time musician:  “Under no circumstances could this, or any other calamity visited on us, diminish my resolve to carry on the work I do. If anything, it has reinforced my belief that music is the great healer and is actually far more important in times of great stress."

Photo by Sean Smith

March was shaping up as a typically busy month for area musicians like Declan Houton, Kate McDermott, Stuart Peak, and Colm O’Brien, denizens of the Greater Boston Irish/Celtic scene – which, as everyone knows, is at high operating capacity during what is often called “St. Patrick’s Season,” with pubs, restaurants, and other venues, plus special events, clamoring for Irish-themed entertainment throughout the whole of March. 

 Houton, a member of the band Devri, ordinarily can figure on upwards of 20 gigs between March 1 and 31; McDermott (whose stage name is Katie McD) tends to cluster her gigs more around the 17th, and can get in a good 10 or so; Peak usually has at least 30, whether with the trio Boston’s Erin Og or in other collaborations; O’Brien’s 2020 St. Patrick’s schedule included 13 bookings in 15 days.

 Needless to say, things turned out differently this time around.

The rapid proliferation of the COVID-19 coronavirus over the past several weeks dramatically affected just about every segment of the population, and Irish/Celtic performers were among them. March is usually a welcome windfall, whether music is a full-time livelihood or a part-time enterprise. Instead, gig after gig went off the calendar, as the outbreak forced pubs, restaurants, and just about every other public place to shutter. 

As one local musician – who lost nine gigs the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day alone – put it, “This is 10,000 percent the worst I’ve seen, hands down.”  

National and international Irish/Celtic acts were not spared, either. The Chieftains had to cancel their appearance at Symphony Hall, and the 25th-anniversary tour of “Riverdance” slated for a one-week stint at the Wang Theatre was postponed. Scottish trio Talisk was due to play at Club Passim in Harvard Square on March 24 as part of its US tour; the group had been in the US only three days when it learned that 16 of the 20 tour dates had been cancelled (including the Passim concert), and had to turn to crowd-sourcing to offset expenses. 

Meanwhile, the annual “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” production began its run of six performances – including two scheduled at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge and another at The Cabot in Beverly – just as the COVID-19 crisis accelerated; they managed to get in only one show.

Musicians are very much aware of the hardships COVID-19 has created for many, not least the owners and employees of the pubs that had hired them to perform. Besides the financial consequences of this year’s curtailed St. Patrick’s Season, though, performers also felt disappointment in being unable to visit familiar places or enjoy the revelry they help create. 

One musician, who prefers not to be identified, plays in sessions or as part of bands for St. Patrick’s Season and loves the atmosphere. “The crowds are always electric and provide great entertainment and fuel to my music.”

McDermott’s favorite St. Patrick’s gig story at the moment is only a year old: She and her friend and frequent collaborator Martin Butler played at a senior center with a fiddler they had never met, and found out they were all booked at another gig taking place that evening. There, as she recounts, “I broke a nail, the fiddler broke a bow, and Martin broke into ‘Seven Drunken Nights.’” Other highlights of the evening included her leading some enthusiastic rhythm spoon players (“the cutlery ensemble”) and dancing a jig on the tables, sending a family scrambling for cover.

“It was St Patrick’s Day, their appetite was wet for a laugh, we gave them Ireland on a plate and they ate us up and savored every last morsel,” sums up McDermott.

Devri has had many memorable St. Patrick’s Season gigs, says Houton, such as when he and band member Chuck Parrish performed the national anthem in 2018 for the Boston Bruins’ annual Irish Heritage Night at TD Garden. This year promised one particularly special event: Devri was invited to perform on the lead float for the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade, in recognition of their fundraising efforts for many charitable causes. The band had planned to bring along two young brain cancer survivors, Quinn Waters and Ciara Connell, according to Houton: “We would have loved to see the reception the South Boston crowds would have given these superheroes.”

Cian Clifford and Simon Kennedy, who play as the duo For Folk Sake, tend to follow a light albeit concentrated St. Patrick’s Season schedule. This year, they managed to do three gigs, including two on the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day, but “pulled the plug” on the rest as social-distancing directives increased, says Clifford.

“We’ve never cancelled a gig before, so this was disappointing for us. Since we’re both from Ireland, the music allows us to keep in touch with the culture, so it’s more important to us from that perspective than anything else.”

Some local performers turned to social media as an alternative venue. O’Brien played on Facebook Live, as did Devri, which also recorded videos and posted them on St. Patrick’s Day. Irish dancer Kieran Jordan took a break from cleaning and disinfecting her Hyde Park studio to livestream herself dancing to pre-recorded music. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Matt and Shannon Heaton demonstrated Irish music by video chat to a “virtual class” of more than 400 Concord elementary school students. Others participated in sessions via teleconferencing technology.

McDermott is a stranger to Internet performances, but was inspired by musician friends and acquaintances to give it a try.  

“The magic is that there’s been an intimate sharing by Irish artists that is both authentic and heartfelt, as they are broadcasting from places where they are most comfortable: their own homes. Little did I think online would be very personable and begin to understand the many lonely people touched and removed from isolation by the kind words and songs of the Irish artist community.”

Area municipal, civic and nonprofit organizations, including the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture and Passim, established relief programs to aid musicians and other artists facing severe financial difficulty. Some Celtic musicians went the DIY route: A three-day “Stay at Home Festival” benefit livestreamed through Instagram and other platforms included area performers Hanneke Cassel and Mike Block, Eamon Sefton, Jenna Moynihan, and Maura Shawn Scanlin and Conor Hearn; a link on the festival website enabled viewers to make donations.  

Although the COVID-19 outbreak is unprecedented in its societal and economic impact, it has nonetheless raised questions about the risk in being a full- or even part-time, self-employed musician. Of course, many musicians – of all genres, not just Irish/Celtic – have heard such questions before, usually expressed through unsolicited advice that they should perhaps seek a dependable “day job.”

Peak, who’s been a full-time musician for 10 years – and last year opened for the Dropkick Murphys at the House of Blues St. Patrick’s Day bash – approaches the matter from a practical standpoint.

“No matter what your business, you need a cushion. I'm essentially out of work until April, but I always keep a certain amount for emergencies. Everyone should. It's all about managing your finances. I treat [playing music] like a business, but that doesn't mean we don't have fun along the way. It's a social job. I'll keep doing the gigs as long as they keep coming in.”

For O’Brien, music is a calling, not just an occupation, and he is fiercely devoted to its place in his life. 

“Under no circumstances could this, or any other calamity visited on us, diminish my resolve to carry on the work I do. If anything, it has reinforced my belief that music is the great healer and is actually far more important in times of great stress. I am extremely grateful that I have this ability to connect with people through the music, but I am also very aware of the responsibility I have to use that ability in positive ways to help alleviate stressful situations. I have been heartened, encouraged and inspired by my fellow musicians taking to the airwaves to bring a bit of light into these dark days.”

Most of Devri’s members have day jobs, and the band – in addition to a goodly number of weddings, festivals,,and charitable events in coming months – already has been invited to perform at gigs that were postponed and subsequently rescheduled as “halfway to St. Patrick’s Day”-type events later in the year; they’re also on the bill again for the Southie parade. However, says Houton, the coronavirus crisis has affected them in other ways.

“Gigs can be taken for granted,” he explains, “but that’s something that won’t happen again. We are so used to playing music that already we are itching to get back out and play again. So many pubs, festivals, corporate events, and others have offered to pay us for the gigs that were cancelled, but we refuse to take a penny as this is no one’s fault. Right now, the best thing is to support social distancing, try to push local businesses and charities, and get back to normal as soon as possible.”

Clifford and Kennedy are not full-time musicians, either, although it’s something to which they’ve aspired. Their occasional gigs have provided a measure of financial support that will be gone for the immediate, foreseeable future. But much like Houton and O’Brien, Clifford is philosophical about the COVID-19 impact.

“It’s a cause for worry, sure, but it’s a reality check in a lot of ways. It puts things in perspective and reminds you of what’s really important in life – friends, family, home – and that, no matter how much money you have, you’re no safer from a virus than anyone else. Our music keeps us connected to our homes in Ireland so not being able to go out and play is difficult. We’ll appreciate the music a lot more when things get back to normal.”

McDermott is buoyed by the generosity and compassion she’s witnessed, noting how the organizer for one postponed gig paid half of her fee ahead of the rescheduled date. She also feels a strengthened bond with her fellow musicians.

“I am urged by the necessity to support my fellow artists – a total unconditional commitment to them but also to myself. I can do this.  I am supporting them online now and vowed I am going to make a concerted effort to see them live for real when this is over.” 

The anonymous musician quoted earlier believes normality will be quite some time in returning for the Irish music community, but is optimistic. “I have had a great experience with fellow musicians in Boston, both those from Ireland and the US. We are a great community and unite in tricky times. We are a strong force and do everything we can, from charity work to fundraisers to festivals and cultural outings, to keep our culture alive and strong in Boston. I’ve no doubt we will come back very strong, if not bigger and better than before.”