It’s a sad but true fact of life, says Arlington resident Kevin Ferguson: Sometimes it takes a tragic event to spur you to start that project you’ve always been meaning to do.
For generations, Ferguson’s family was a fixture in the “Irish Catskills,” an enclave of inns, hotels, and bungalows in New York’s famed vacation spot that was a summer getaway for many New York City-area Irish. His aunt and uncle, Marie and Ed Mullan, ran the Mountain Spring Farm (later Hotel) in East Durham beginning in 1947 for almost four decades, his cousin for another 18 years. Then in 2010, the main building of the hotel – which under its subsequent owners, the Handel family, had become the Blackthorne Resort – burned down.
The Handels went on to build a new facility on the Mountain Spring’s old site, but Ferguson was devastated by the loss.
“It was heartbreaking,” says Ferguson. “The Mountain Spring was an icon of the Irish Catskills, of course, but for me there also was so much family and personal history wrapped up in the place: It was where my parents met; it was where I spent so many summers as a kid; it was where I proposed to my wife. And now it was gone.”
A journalist most of his adult life whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Forbes and Businessweek, among other publications, Ferguson had long tinkered with the thought of undertaking a historical project about the Irish Catskills, but had trouble finding a starting point. Now, more motivated than ever before to realize his ambition, he had an idea.
“I realized that, to really make this story come alive, it needed to be told visually,” he says. “Of course, there was one little issue: I’d never done a film before.”
Nonetheless, Ferguson – with the help of some experienced film professionals – is finishing up “The Irish Catskills: Dancing at the Crossroads,” a full-length documentary that traces the history and legacy of this beloved chapter of Irish-Americana. For the past few years, Ferguson has amassed photos, home movies and other memorabilia, and conducted dozens of interviews to tell the story on a personal and anecdotal scale.
For many in the Boston area – and elsewhere – the Catskills is synonymous with traditional Irish music, thanks notably to the popular Catskills Irish Arts Week (CIAW), which for the better part of two decades has offered classes, concerts and innumerable jam sessions, drawing some of the best Irish musicians from near and far. As “Dancing at the Crossroads” makes clear, through footage taken at recent CIAWs as well as recounted via clips and reminiscences from farther back in time, music and dance is in fact a major component of Irish Catskills lore.
Among those interviewed for the film were Boston accordion legend Joe Derrane and other prominent Irish musicians like Joe “Accordion” Burke, Billy McComiskey, Joanie Madden, Felix and Brendan Dolan, and Black 47 founder Larry Kirwan. Performances by luminaries such as Aoife Clancy, Msgr. Charlie Coen, Jerry O’Sullivan, Brian Conway, Dylan Foley and Rose Conway Flanagan, along with Felix Dolan, McComiskey, Conway and others were filmed for “Dancing at the Crossroads.”
But Ferguson wants to make it clear that his film is more than an exercise in ethnomusicology; it’s a chronicle of social and cultural changes accompanying the gradual arrival of the Irish – an often marginalized, even ostracized immigrant group – into the mainstream of American society.
“I struggled with the premise at first,” he says. “I knew music and dance would be a big part of what I was looking at, because obviously they are a big part of the Irish-American experience. But I was interested in the community, the interconnectedness, how people saw themselves back then and how that perception evolved over the years.
“It’s a simple story, yet complex. The Irish Catskills are different than they used to be, but they’ve lasted longer than the ‘other’ Catskills. For a long while, the Irish Catskills had a very specific purpose: It was a place where the Irish held onto their heritage, even as they were consciously assimilating, and where Americans went to if they wanted to be Irish.”
Whatever the intellectual/academic component to the film, however, it’s a story in which Ferguson has been a participant, and a subject matter that lies close to his heart. He can easily recall those sultry days of summer in the 1960s, piling into the family car to make the approximately two-hour trip from the New York City area up the New York State Thruway to Exit 21, finally arriving at a place “where everybody knew everybody; the neighbors you had there were usually the same ones you saw at home.” To be a young boy in those days was to be “outside constantly,” he says, where you could choose among recreational activities like softball and shuffleboard or Irish sports like hurling.
And there was no getting away from the music and dance: If the call went out for, say, “The Siege of Ennis” or “The Stack of Barley,” Ferguson recalls, “you’d get shoved into it, whether you wanted to or not. Everyone participated. I actually looked forward to it.” There were, he says, “17 different places where you’d hear live Irish music, seven nights a week, and with some of the best Irish musicians, not just from New York but all over. You would go pub-hopping down all those dark roads – it was almost impossible to drive through East Durham, because there were mobs of people.”
It was just like the sign advertising his aunt and uncle’s hotel said: the nearest thing to Ireland.
A drive down Route 145 through East Durham nowadays yields very few such sightings, says Ferguson. “You might notice a few shamrocks on the odd sign, but you’d have no idea what the place was like.”
To tell the story of the Irish Catskills, Ferguson enlisted three key people on the technical side of the project: director of photography and editor Michael Rossi, an Emmy-winning filmmaker; cinematographer Doug Gordon, with experience in both documentary and feature film work; and consultant James Rutenbeck, whose editing credits include more than 50 films for PBS, BBC, Channel Four (UK), Discovery Channel and Showtime.
For the actual content, Ferguson had to seek out people who could offer not only personal recollections, but also a certain perspective on the period – the 1930s until present day – he wanted to explore in the film. Fortunately, he knew Brendan Dolan, son of the legendary pianist Felix Dolan and a respected musician in his own right, from whom he had taken lessons at CIAW. Dolan had been doing research for a thesis on Irish music in the Catskills, and collected valuable details, such as names of various inn and hotel owners over the years.
“It was like detective work, trying to track people down, finding out who was still alive and where they were living,” Ferguson says. “One thing led to another – somebody would say, ‘Oh, you should talk to this person’ – and we ended up filming 40 interviews.”
But Ferguson didn’t just want talking heads. He sought out photos, home movies, recordings, anything that might help recapture the look and sounds of the past decades. “The first year of the project, it was frustrating: People were happy to talk, but they said they had little in the way of keepsakes or other evidence from the era. But then, the second or third time we spoke, they’d say, ‘You know, come to think of it, we do have some photos.’
“Social media was helpful: I’d post photos on Facebook, and people would send family albums or packets of photos.”
One of the best turns of fortune came when East Durham resident Jimmy Carmody offered Ferguson access to his home movies from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. “That was a great find; all these missing pieces started coming together, and we were able to move forward.”
There were other instances of serendipity. Ferguson came across an Irish musician and singer-songwriter named Jim Meehan, a hospice worker who had written a song in honor of one of his patients, a habitué of the Irish Catskills. “He used to play music for her while she would reminisce about her days in the US dancing in the Catskills to the sounds of her brother-in-law Noel Kingston, and Joe Nellany and the Sligo Aces,” says Ferguson, who hopes to use the song in the film. “Her doctor would ask her why she looked tired in the morning and she replied that she was up all night dancing. She was in her mind,” noted Ferguson; she was using a wheelchair at that point.
Ferguson recently hired Sabrina Zanella-Foresi, whose credits include editing documentaries on Penn Station and Henry Ford that appeared on PBS’ “American Experience,” to do final edits on “Dancing at the Crossroads.” As a companion to the documentary, Ferguson plans to make available an iPad version, “100 Years of the Irish Catskills,” comprising some 275 pages with more than 200 photos, as well as video and audio clips, some of them dating to the 1950s.
Although there is still a ways to go before he finishes “Dancing at the Crossroads,” Ferguson – who lauds the patience of his wife and children during his years of toil on the project – says he has already found the experience rewarding. “I’d been around the Catskills my whole life, but I never knew enough about the whole story to grasp what it meant. What I’ve found over these past few years has given me a whole new understanding, and appreciation, of that time and place.”
The heyday of the Irish Catskills may have gone, but in one “Dancing at the Crossroads” interview clip Leitrim native Ann Duffy Downey points to the continuing popularity of places such as the Blackthorne, Shamrock House, and Gavin’s, and offers a coda that is undoubtedly shared by many: “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, the Catskills is fading, the Catskills is fading.’ Well, I don’t think the Catskills is fading one bit.”
For more information on “The Irish Catskills: Dancing at the Crossroads,” see narrowbackfilms.com.