There was absolutely no space in The Burren Backroom, certainly not on the stage: Twenty children in two rows occupied most of the platform, and a third row of eight sat along its front edge. The 28 kids – ranging in age from pre- to mid-teens – also held an assortment of instruments, including fiddles, concertinas, flutes, tin whistles, bodhrans, and the odd banjo, guitar and set of uilleann pipes. The audience in the Backroom, meanwhile, filled every seat and just about every spot on the floor.
What packed the Backroom to full capacity had been billed as a concert, yet that worad seemed somehow an insufficient description. This had all the earmarks of a landmark event that spoke to the continuing legacy of Irish traditional music, and the spirit of community and fellowship it inspires, across great distances and generations.
Those three-and-then-some hours in The Burren on the afternoon of Nov. 9 represented a critical step in the progress of the Trad Youth Exchange (TYE), the brainchild of Melrose’s Lisa Coyne, executive director of the Boston Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Music School, and Mary MacNamara, a concertina player from Tulla in County Clare who teaches Irish music to young people. TYE is an effort to build friendship and understanding between Irish and American children through traditional Irish music; a group of kids from or near Tulla in County Clare were matched up with an equal number of their peers, most from Greater Boston and also the New York City and Philadelphia areas, and learned some tunes from one another’s repertoire.
Early last month, MacNamara and several parents led the Tulla contingent to Boston for a nearly weeklong visit, which culminated in The Burren performance; the two groups of musicians also played a sold-out concert in Melrose two nights before, and made an appearance at the Irish consulate in Boston. This coming February, the second leg of the exchange takes place, and the American kids will head off to Tulla.
TYE is meant to be fun for the participants, but its organizers and supporters hope the project imparts some deeper lessons. A musician herself, as is her husband John, and the mother of two TYE members, Coyne knows first-hand how music can be a centerpiece of family life. But she also knows that many young Irish musicians can find it difficult to build a community the way she and other adult musicians do.
“There’s more to Irish music than lessons, practice, competitions and performances,” she explains. “The music has a social component, and that’s how it becomes a part of who you are. We want these kids, who work so hard at being musicians, to have the space and the opportunity to simply enjoy the music with one another, just like adults do. That’s how the music keeps going.
“When I was with Mary in Clare, you could see how the music knit together children, families and adults. There was a hall in Tulla where everyone would gather for concerts or ceilidhs or other events, and in this way the music became a shared history for everyone, no matter their age. I thought that was a very worthwhile goal for us to pursue here, and Mary and I worked with other parents to try and make it happen.”
Over a period of many months, the American and Irish groups held fundraising events and gratefully received donations from assorted friends and benefactors. Meanwhile, the TYE musicians kept practicing, and got to know each other a little better via social media before the Tulla group came to Boston.
“We felt that assigning ‘buddies’ was a good way to set the table, and allow everyone to start building a rapport before the visit,” says Coyne.
Their Boston hosts took the Clare visitors around town for various activities, including a duck boat ride and a trip to the Museum of Science, Fenway Park, and the Boston Tea Party, among other sites (and here’s something to cheer the hearts of MBTA administrators – the Tulla kids loved riding the subway, even at rush hour). Naturally, the youngsters did plenty of rehearsing and jamming, too.
Inevitably, for all the involvement of the adults, it was up to the kids to make it happen, and perhaps the biggest test was how well they would interact with each other in person. Any concerns about that, according to Coyne, vanished quickly.
“They got along just fine. There was a lot of bonding that went on, and they were very gracious to one another and full of laughter.”
As she warmed up prior to the Nov. 9 Burren show, 13-year-old Tulla concertina player Lilly O’Connor confirmed Coyne’s observations. “The sessions were great, and it was lovely when everybody had a chance to play together. Sometimes, we’d give people the names of tunes, or they’d give us names; we exchanged styles – ‘This is how I play it’ – or showed different ornamentations. It’s a fun way to learn.”
Another visitor, 12-year-old fiddler Aine Murphy, said that – in addition to riding the subway – she liked learning some of the “Boston tunes,” like “Cooley’s Reel” and “The Wise Maid,” and sharing popular tunes from Tulla.
The Tulla chaperones were equally happy about the exchange. “The ultimate, hugely important goal is not about improving standards or techniques,” said Frances Custy, mother of Lilly and her 11-year-old sister Eve, another TYE participant, and herself part of a distinguished musical family. “We want the kids to be happy about playing, to love to play music. The fact they’re improving is a bonus.”
Custy said the TYE has been a means to broaden the children’s horizons, sometimes in unexpected ways: “In just the few days we’ve been in Boston, I’ve seen different sides to my girls. They’re used to being out in the country, where it’s not so hectic, but they’ve been walking around Boston as if they’d been doing it all their lives. I could definitely visualize either or both of them living in a city when they get older.”
Although Lilly, Aine and the other TYE participants were clearly enjoying themselves, the excitement and activity of the previous days – and, in the case of the Irish children, the effects of jet lag – seemed to settle on them as they sat on the Backroom stage during their pre-show sound check, and as MacNamara and other adults went over the set list and logistics, made sure instruments were in tune, and did some trouble-shooting where necessary. Some youthful faces showed traces of weariness, several yawns were in evidence, and now and then a musician seemed lost in thought.
But when emcees Brian O’Donovan of WGBH and ClareFM “West Wind” host Paula Carroll formally announced the start of the show, the switch went on and the youngsters rose to the occasion: Their playing sounded crisp, focused, and spirited (as did the occasional keyboard accompaniment by TYE supporter Sean Clohessy, sitting almost out of view off to the side of the stage). Just as impressively, the children did a fine job serving as their own roadies, rearranging the stage as necessary to spotlight solos, duets, trios, and other featured performances.
The concert quickly found its rhythm, with O’Donovan – who at the outset predicted the show to be “wonderfully magical and chaotic” – and Carroll introducing each piece, or providing insights and background on this tune or that, or commenting on some general aspects of Irish music (remarking on the relative sizes of the US and Ireland, Carroll quipped, “It’s amazing the lengths American musicians have to go to in order to play together”).
In various combinations and settings, the TYE gang delivered some memorable moments: a pair of fiddle-concertina duets, one by Coyne’s daughter Josie with her cousin (“My aunt,” Josie joked during the introduction) Alanna Wamsley, the other by Carroll’s daughter Rosa with Lilly O’Connor; a tin whistle ensemble by the Bostonians; a set of reels by fiddle-playing sisters Mary and Lizzy Kozachek and bodhran player Maeve O’Brien (the group’s nicknames for them, Carroll noted, were “The Angels and the Fireball”); step, sean-nos, and broom dance showcases, with Aisling MacMahon, Callum Beirne, Stephen Kennedy, Maeve and the Kozacheks valiantly maneuvering in the tight space; a fedora-adorned Naoise O’Sullivan (drawing inspiration from her storytelling grandfather), reciting a comic piece written by “Bard of Armagh” Jimmy Rafferty about his gastronomic misadventures; and a spellbinding rendition by fiddler Clodagh O’Farrell of the slow air, “Were You at the Rock?” a favorite of her late grandmother.
The middle of the concert’s “three halves” (as Carroll called them) saw adults take the stage, notably among them MacNamara, who has just released her new CD, “Note for Note”; she performed a few sets with John Coyne and piper Pat Hutchinson. A veritable “who’s who” of Boston-area Irish music denizens also appeared during this portion: Jon Gannon, Kathleen Conneely, Tina Lech, John, Lisa and Josie Coyne, and a distinguished quartet of Clohessy, John Coyne, flutist Jimmy Noonan, and fiddler Tommy McCarthy, co-founder and owner of The Burren.
These accomplished musicians supplied a valuable and heartfelt perspective to the whole affair, representing “a passing of the torch,” as O’Donovan put it. This was an occasion for remembrance and fond nostalgia, not without a little emotion: Introducing one set of tunes, Noonan choked up as he reminisced about his stint 30 years ago with the famous Tulla Ceili Band – “probably the greatest summer of my life.” The message was unmistakable: This is the tradition we’ve preserved and loved, kids – take it and make it your own.
“I saw the Boston community pull together in so many ways I hadn’t before,” says Lisa Coyne. “What you had that afternoon was one of those moments that link the past to the present, and to people and places, whether it was Jimmy remembering the Tulla Ceili Band, or when Lilly was playing a tune that made me think, ‘Oh, Jack Coen taught me that tune!’ This is part of what makes Irish music so special.
“What we want is for these kids to someday have their own experiences and memories to look back on, which they will accumulate through the music. And hopefully, this week of the Trad Youth Exchange will be one of them.”
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The Trad Youth Exchange concert at The Burren will be broadcast on WGBH’s “A Celtic Sojourn” and the ClareFM “West Wind” show at a later date. For updates, see wghb.org/celtic.
More information about the Trad Youth Exchange Project is available at tradyouthexchange.weebly.com. Donations, which are tax-deductible, in support of the project may be sent to Mike Hickey, 100 Woodpecker Road, Stoughton, MA 02072.