The Requisite Intro

L.E. McCullough’s Whistle Blog


I’ve been playing the tinwhistle since 1972. Started out learning Irish traditional music, but gradually absorbed other idioms as well.

LOVE this little instrument.

Finally got around to starting a blog about it. Which will be observations about playing the whistle and learning Irish music. Trying to organize thoughts on the inner essence of what mentally happens when I play the thing… and if you play the whistle, you well know things DO mentally happen.

Will try not to be too intellectual or ethnomusicologically intense… (do you realize the amount of caloric energy expended in just spelling “ethnomusicologically”? … probably an extra day of your life depleted…) Can’t promise, though — like the scorpion said when he stung the frog carrying him across the raging river knowing they would both drown, “Sorry, dude, it’s just my nature.” [Stith-Thompson International Folklore Motif-Index K815.6].

Not going to give reviews on whistles or whistle players. Just wanted a space where I can spin out some thoughts I’ve been having the last number of years about this crazy little pipe and the music rolling around my head.

Just stuff I think about the whistle that you might think about, too, if you play it.

And, yes, feel free to respond and even send in your own thoughts on whistlery or Irish music. Probably will publish them if they’re interesting. What have we got to lose?

This is the new landing place for – the Irish music part of it, anyway. If you’re looking for L.E.’s playwriting activities and book sales go here: … you’ll find his public policy/grantwriting/marketing etc. info at

LEMcCullough-2Fead on!

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See Trian This Thursday in Chicago!

SURE WISH I could be in Chicago this Thursday. Cause this:

Not yet skilled in the techniques of psychic bi-location, I will that night be in Burlington, NJ at Third State Brewery sitting in with an amazing singer/songwriter from Australia, Brien McVernon. Which will be pretty darn fun, as well.

But, I’m thrilled to know Trian is performing again, even if for a few shows. Their formation was a very exciting moment in the late 1980s’ Irish Traditional Music world; when I got a phone call from Liz Carroll in September, 1990 (how in the pre-internet days she tracked me down is a kind of wonder) asking if they could record my tune “Not Safe with a Razor” for their debut album on Flying Fish Records, I right away said, Absolutely Yes and Thank You.

The album appeared the next year … “Not Safe with a Razor” was the final tune in the final medley — and they totally rocked it.

Other musicians picked up the tune, and it’s been played and recorded here and there the last number of years … Lúnasa, Padraig Rynne, Noel Sweeney, Teyr, Jez Hellard Djukella Orchestra, Brian Finnegan, Cormac Breatnach & Deiseal, others.

The Irish Times has dubbed it “flippant”; Paste declared it as “triumphant”. It appeared as incidental music in a 2002 National Public Radio segment titled Rev. Moon in Brazil.

(Seriously. THAT Rev. Moon, go figure.)

But it was Trian’s superb recording and stellar reputation that first sent it rippling out among large numbers of ears. Returning the favor, I eventually composed tunes commemorating each of the players:  Liz Carroll’s Fancy, Billy McComiskey’s Reel, Sproule’s Rule.

I’ve always thought they could be played together in a medley – The Trian Trilogy … not sure what the order would be, but maybe this:


Liz Carroll’s own compositions are phenomenal, and if you’re very lucky, you’ll hear Trian do several. Not sure if Billy or Daithí compose, but probably they do. Ask them!

If Trian is in your area (or if they aren’t, but you have mastered the Art of Bi-Location), stop at nothing to hear them live, starting here this Thursday in Chicago.

They’re that good and likely even better than you can imagine.





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The Birthday Jig

PEOPLE AROUND the world keep having birthdays … seems to be built in to the whole life-mechanism thing happening to all of us existing in this current dimension.

For anyone celebrating their Earth Entrance Day, here’s an Irish Traditional Music tune in your honor — “The Birthday Jig” composed by master string player/dance caller Larry Edelman way-way-wayyyyy back in 1979 and released on the Devilish Merry album titled The Ghost of His Former Self (followed by “The Drumshambo Jig”).

I played whistle on the track and feel entirely confident in stating that this is Appropriate Music for the 21st Century.

The Birthday Jig-The Drumshambo Jig by Devilish Merry

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New Book on Irish Music by L.E. McCullough

It’s time … decades of articles, papers, dissertation copies rescued from the nether regions of my dusty file cabinets … now the entire motherlode of Irish Music Knowledge can reside in one comfortable package at 1 Literary Place, Your Bookshelf.

Kindly reprinted from New York Irish


L.E. McCullough started writing about Irish Traditional Music in 1974.

He hasn’t stopped yet.

What Whistle-Flyer 150dpi-trimA new publication titled “What Whistle Would You Play at Your Mother’s Funeral? — L.E. McCullough’s Writings on Irish Traditional Music, 1974-2016″ gathers in two volumes the more than 300,000 words on Irish music and culture the prolific musician/scholar has published in 43 years of teaching and research.

Published by Silver Spear Publications in PDF and paperback formats, Volume I contains Dr. McCullough’s three major academic works — his landmark Ph.D. dissertation (Irish Music in Chicago: An Ethnomusicological Study) and earlier M.A. and B.A. theses (The Rose in the Heather: Irish Music in Its American Cultural Milieu and Farewell to Erin: An Ethnomusicological Study of Irish Music in the U.S.).

Volume II, subtitled “Everything Else”, covers a wide range of Irish music performers, instrument-makers and music events — 122 essays and reviews, journal articles and concert reports, blog reflections, album notes, newspaper features, seminar presentations, whistle-playing tips … and a screenplay.

Though Dr. McCullough’s works have been widely cited by Irish music historians over the years, his 1970s dissertation and theses were never published outside of academia. The bulk of his copious newspaper and journal articles have also been long out-of-print.

“Having everything in a single collection lets readers see how Irish Traditional Music has become a greater part of American culture over the years,” he says.

Trained as a jazz and classical musician, L.E. McCullough took up the tinwhistle in 1972 after spending his sophomore college year in Dublin, Ireland. Returning to the U.S. he became immersed in studying Irish Traditional Music and spent the next few years interviewing scores of Irish musicians, singers and dancers en route to earning an ethnomusicology Ph.D. in 1978.

As a musical performer, Dr. McCullough has appeared on 48 recordings with Irish, French, Cajun, Latin, blues, jazz, country, bluegrass and rock ensembles for Angel/EMI, Sony Classical, RCA, Warner Brothers, Kicking Mule, Rounder, Bluezette and other labels — including five Ken Burns PBS soundtracks (The West, Lewis and Clark, The Dust Bowl, The Roosevelts, Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony) and the Neil Jordan film Michael Collins.

He has composed filmscores for three PBS specials produced by WQED-TV (Alone Together, A Place Just Right, John Kane) and three Celtic Ballets for Dance Kaleidoscope co-composed with T.H. Gillespie and Cathy Morris (Connlaoi’s Tale: The Woman Who Danced On Waves, The Healing Cup: Guinevere Seeks the Grail, Skin Walkers: The Incredible Voyage of Mal the Lotus Eater).

Says Dr. McCullough:  “When I started out, my goal was simple — describe what Irish Traditional Music was and where it came from and take the reader as deeply as possible inside this exciting yet hidden tradition. Everything I’ve ever written is about celebrating the unsung men and women who shaped this music over the centuries and who continue to make it thrive in our time.”

Traveling the country in the ensuing decades, L.E. McCullough continued to write about Irish music and culture for a variety of newspapers, magazines and online blogs.

“Irish music is an intensely intimate tradition,” he says. “As a writer, I’m always looking for vivid insights into the interaction between performer and audience, those fleeting snapshot moments that reveal the Essence of what this music, this culture, this moment is about … and why it matters to me, you, all of us.”

“What Whistle Would You Play at Your Mother’s Funeral?” is a far-ranging tour guide of the many unusual places scholar/performer L.E. McCullough has visited in search of the Irish music grail, and the hundreds of other performers, session-attenders and concert-goers met along the way.

“Somewhere in these 726 pages you’ll recognize yourself,” he says. “And be happy you did.”


What Whistle Would You Play at Your Mother’s Funeral?
L.E. McCullough’s Writings on Irish Traditional Music, 1974-2016

  • Edited by L.E. McCullough
  • 2 volumes, published January 2017
  • Silver Spear Publications, P.O. Box 352, Woodbridge NJ 07095 USA

Volume I: Dissertations & Theses

  • 8.5 x 11 format, 284 pages
  • ISBN 978-0-9970371-4-2 (pdf)
  • ISBN 978-0-9970371-3-5 (paperback)

Volume II: Everything Else

  • 8.5 x 11 format, 442 pages
  • ISBN 978-0-9970371-6-6 (pdf)
  • ISBN 978-0-9970371-5-9 (paperback)


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Three (now 9) New Happy Birthday Tunes

AS OF TODAY, July 2, 2016 Feb. 19, 2017 Mar. 18, 2017,  Apr. 18, 2017, I have composed 175 190 195 original instrumental compositions in (or derived from) the idiom of Irish traditional music.

Here’s the latest:  “Paul Keating’s Birthday”, a snappy double jig in G major.

You’ll notice it has a 3rd (additional) part to it because, of all the people I know in today’s Irish Traditional Music milieu, Paul Keating may well be the:

  • hardest-working
  • hardest-organizing
  • hardest-writing
  • hardest-marketing
  • hardest-dancing
  • hardest-volunteering person in Show Business.

And he calls a great céilí, too. If anyone deserves an extra tune part, it’s Paul Keating.


DURING A recent signing event for my new “What Whistle Would You Play at Your Mother’s Funeral?” book, the subject of composition in Irish Traditional Music came up, and an audience member shouted out:  “My birthday is in August!”

It was concertina stalwart Doug Barr … just 4 days later, he had his fondest-ever birthday wish granted:  a Personalized Commemorative Composition by L.E. McCullough.

It’s just that easy!

Would you like a commemorative tune of your own?  Perhaps for a special friend or family member?

For a small fee, immortality can be achieved!

Email with pertinent details … Operators are standing by!

Covering Any Notable Occasion including (but not limited to) birthday, wedding, wedding engagement, funeral tribute, Sweet 16, quinceañera, walkabout, ordination, graduation, enjoying a great meal, surviving rumspringa, reaching the unreachable star, getting a job, leaving a job, falling in and/or out of love, first body piercing, winning the Nobel Prize — and more!

    . . .     . . .     . . .

While you’re pondering, here’s Doug Barr’s Birthday, a delightful hornpipe:


Adding a birthday tune for Iris Nevins“The Marbling Harp of Iris”


It will sound much better on her harp, certainly. And if the “marbling” term seems odd, well, welcome to Irish Traditional Music naming norms — and go here to see the Marbling Mystery Revealed!


Here are 2 compositions from the last couple weeks, both also in the natalic commemoration genre and composed for Jane Kelton and Frank Curran,
who are 2 outstanding flute players:

“Jane Kelton’s Birthday”


“The Pride of Derradda” (“Frank Curran’s Reel”)


As far as topical areas of the 190 tunes:

  • 43 have been tributes to musicians and performers (Cuz from Castleisland, The Piper Joe Shannon, Fiddlin’ John McGreevy, Freeman’s Tweaking Bluebird, Harker’s House of Happiness, Ms. Traci Lamar, Greer’s on the Rocks …)
  • 19 have celebrated weddings (The Pastor & the Piper, Jason & Cassandra’s Vegas Nuptials, The PinSota Fusion, Acacian Harmony, Marriage on the Monocacy …)
  • 11 have marked family occasions (The Manions of Mt. Laurel,
    Sean Francis Horvay,  Olivia’s Welcome to Terra, The Bonnie Hills of Riverton …)
  • 24 have commemorated someone’s passing (Farewell to Mac McKinley, Birds Sleep Safer on Bellerock Street Tonight, The Wizard of Portobello, Spirit on the Move, Aunt Terry’s Angels …)
  • 16 were inspired by current events (Middletown Meltdown, Tea & Skittles, Humours of Hiroshima, Azadi A’alan, Farewell to Kandolhudhoo …)

And 38  were composed in relation to, hmmm, uhhh … let’s call them Romantic Episodes … Not Safe with a Razor, Last Tango in Tarrytown, Demasiado Corazón, The Catnip Lady from Lubbock, Shoulda Seen It Coming, The Immaculate Deception, Grits & Kool-aid, A Nickel’s Worth of Nothing, The Sporting Lass of Tel Aviv… etc/etc/etc/etc…

Here are three birthday tunes from 2016, and I’m thrilled because they were composed about people who are alive and still playing great music:

The Piper Pat Sky on youtube!

* Larry Edelman’s Birthday Polka

* Knockin’ a Squeeze Out of It (Pete Farley’s March)


“Tones sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes.”

– Ludwig van Beethoven

“Irish music . . . it’s the only music that brings people to their senses, I think.”
– Joe Cooley          


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The Blues Have Found Gary Fortine

VERY SAD to learn of the passing of blues musician/78 record collector/longtime friend Gary Fortine in Cincinnati this week …

He possessed a massive collection of pre-WW2 recordings (including several choice Irish/Irish-American rarities) and was a literal “walking encyclopedia” of knowledge concerning American Roots Music …

He played a great blues guitar and harmonica (once gigged with Big Walter Horton!) and was an outstanding human with an indomitable sense of humor …

Made a tune for him just now, “Gary Fortine” … a moderately slow Slow Air – works as a sort of pegleg strathspey, too.

* Gary Fortine – L.E. McCullough, piano

I’ve got rocks in my bed, and I just can’t lay down there no more, no more.
I’ve got rocks in my bed, and I just can’t lay down there no more, no more.
Old rockin’ chair’s got me, and the blues is knockin’ on my door.
— Lonnie Johnson

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Happy Birthday, Pete Ford! (and All of Us in the Magical Mystery 1-in-400 Trillion Club)

beatles-birthdayTODAY, 18th of September, is the day marking the celebratory entrance into this Temporal Planetary Dimension of New Jersey ceoltóir Pete Ford …  in other words, it’s his birthday.

Happy Birthday, Pete!

Here’s a tune to jam on — “The Birthday Jig” composed by master string player/dance caller Larry Edelman way-way-wayyyyy back in 1979 and released on the Devilish Merry LP The Ghost of His Former Self (followed by “The Drumshambo Jig”).

I played whistle on the track and feel entirely confident in stating that this is Appropriate Music for the 21st Century.

SCIENTISTS have calculated the odds of each of us being born at the exact moment and time we were born … to the unique pair of parents to whom we were born … with the precise DNA structure that we and only we possess … as 1 in 400 trillion.

In round zero-type numbers, the odds of us actually being us is 1 in 400,000,000,000,000.

I’m not a mathematician, but I believe that represents far more than a bazillian.

So, for all of us in the 1-in-400 Trillion Club, let’s take time out today to make or hear or think some music.

The Birthday Jig-The Drumshambo Jig by Devilish Merry

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Apocalypse Maybe — One Nite Only!

Here’s a new tune for shutting off the lights … or celebrating the Winter Solstice.

Depends on whether you’re a Glass Half-full or Glass Half-empty type of person … (or a Glass Half-full but with a Leak in the Bottom).

Apocalypse Reel

New York actor/comedian Booth Daniels has sagely pointed out that — if the Mayan calendar has 260 days in a year — the End of the World has already in fact come and gone … and humanity clearly isn’t as important as we think we are, since nobody bothered to send us the memo through proper channels.

Anyhow, enjoy the tune and see you on the Other Side of Wherever.


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Get Your Stocking Stuffed by The 4 Kings of Kelt

Who’s ready for some Yuletide Music with a Celtic Flair?

Just re-issued — our 1997 A Celtic Christmas album featuring a sweet yet zesty blend of Scots pipes, Irish whistle, Blues guitar, Gospel keyboard – check it out here.

~~~  ~~~   ~~~   ~~~   ~~~  ~~~   ~~~   ~~~   

featuring The 4 Kings of Kelt
29 Yuletide Favorites from Ireland and Scotland

12 Plays about the Origins of Classic Holiday Songs

12 Stories about the Origins of Classic Holiday Songs

~~~  ~~~   ~~~   ~~~   ~~~  ~~~   ~~~   ~~~   ~~~   ~~~   

OF ALL THE CREATIVE PROJECTS I’VE worked on over the years, I think these three may be the closest to my heart.

An album of 55 minutes of beautiful Christmas music and two books of plays and stories about how classic Christmas songs came to be.

~~~   ~~~   ~~~   ~~~   ~~~   ~~~   ~~~   

Meet The 4 Kings of Kelt: 

* Scots bagpipe virtuoso George Balderose
* Blues/ragtime guitar legend Ernie Hawkins
* Jazz/gospel keyboard ace T.H. Gillespie

 … and yours truly on tinwhistle, harmonica, bodhran and bones.

The result — a warm, gentle garland of Yuletide and Irish & Scots tunes guaranteed to drive the winter chill from your door!

Check the CD out here … and the books of plays and stories here.

Beannachtaí an tSéasúir!

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Pearl River: Where Culture Creates Community

AMERICA’S SUBURBS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN designed as transitory places — stepping-stone communities for a mobile population whose tentative social networks can be dislodged by the slightest economic hiccup or technology shift.

Suburbs are all about newer and faster, tomorrow not yesterday. Pretty much the last location one would expect to find a flourishing enclave of centuries-old music and dance traditions rooted in a distant immigrant past.

Pearl River Student Session

Yet over the last fifteen years, the Rockland County town of Pearl River, New York, has become a cultural epicenter, home to nearly 400 hundred performers of Irish Traditional Music and more than 1,000 active exponents of Irish Traditional Dance.

And that’s just counting kids under 18.

In pure population density, it breaks down to a statistical average of 220 human beings fiddling or jigging within each of Pearl River’s 6.80 square miles … a magical, mysterious Irish Culture Vortex twenty miles northwest of Manhattan containing the most concentrated mass of Irish musicians and dancers in the U.S. today.

It’s partly the result of demographic happenstance. The 2010 U.S. Census cites 46.7% of Pearl River’s 15,876 residents as possessing some degree of Irish ancestry, so right from the get-go almost half the citizenry are inclined to nod heads and tap feet when they hear the opening strains of Garryowen or She Moved through the Fair.

But heritage alone is no guarantee that the current generation will keep the tradition moving forward. There are numerous localities around the country with large Irish-American populations that have minimal representations of Irish music and dance.

In Pearl River, it’s been a collection of dedicated Arts activists who have taken responsibility for making sure the tradition stays alive and healthy — a handful of performers-turned-teachers passing on their knowledge one student, one lesson, one tune at a time.

Margie Mulvihill, Rose Flanagan, Patty Furlong

A prime example is the Pearl River School of Irish Music with around 100 students taught by flute and tinwhistle player Margie Mulvihill, fiddler Rose Flanagan and accordionist/pianist Patty Furlong.

The three first-generation Irish-Americans first met as youngsters attending the celebrated Irish music school operated in New York City by fiddler Martin Mulvihill, an older cousin of Margie’s from Limerick, Ireland. In the mid-1990s, the women re-kindled their personal and musical friendship after each moved to Pearl River with their spouse and children.

Flanagan and Furlong began hosting monthly sessions in their homes, informal parties where friends and family mingled with local Irish traditional musicians, singers and dancers. “It was a way to have something fun to do on a Friday night,” recalls Furlong. “Before long, people started to ask us if we would teach Irish music to their child.”

Despite the profusion in recent years of pedagogical products that include CDs, DVDs, instruction books and online tutorials, Irish music is still largely transmitted to beginners using time-honored methods that are thoroughly and unapologetically “old school”.

A teacher and a student sit down together, and the teacher plays the simplest version of a tune that the student learns and memorizes note-for-note. Once the student has the basic melody down, the teacher introduces variations and embellishments. Then the process starts anew with teacher and student tackling another of the more than 20,000 individual tunes that constitute the Irish traditional music repertoire.

It’s a labor-intensive process; for Flanagan, Furlong and Mulvihill, teaching Irish music morphed into second careers. A few years back, they merged their individual efforts into one school. “Our students had progressed to the point where they wanted to play in a band with other kids,” says Mulvihill. “Organizing the music in a group context gave them the chance to extend their musicianship beyond their normal competitions.”

Ann Paige Turilli

That would be the numerous competitions during the year which are an important part of the development process for aspiring Irish musicians (fleadh cheoil) and dancers (feis).

In the dance realm, Pearl River-based Inishfree School of Irish Dance sent 26 qualifying dancers to the Irish World Dancing Championships this past spring, including 16-year-old Ann Paige Turilli, a two-time World Championship winner.

The Pearl River School of Irish Music regularly has dozens of winners at American competitions; this year at the annual Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann (All-Ireland Music Competition) held in Cavan, Ireland, the school’s céilí band in the Under 12 Division won 1st place — an honor rarely achieved by non-Irish competitors.

Sarah Buteux

The school also scored with the All-Ireland Under-18 Fiddle Championship won bySarah Buteux, a student of Rose Flanagan. Altogether, seven other area musicians captured prizes at the 2012 Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann.

To date, the school’s greatest musical export has been Girsa, an 8-piece band that came together as the first crop of students entered their late teens and tried their luck at organizing an ensemble geared to perform at festivals, clubs and concert halls. Since 2009, Girsa has released two albums and toured North America and Europe, winning lavish praise for their professionalism and musical vision.

However, teacher knowledge and student talent are only two of the building blocksresponsible for the town’s extraordinary blossoming of Irish music and dance. The Pearl River School of Irish Music interacts with churches, schools, community festivals and the Rockland Center for the Arts in nearby West Nyack; for years the school regularly took part in cultural programs arranged by a librarian at a local elementary school.

“We try to be part of the community year-round, not just on St. Patrick’s Day,” says Rose Flanagan. “It’s important that students see their music is appreciated outside of recitals and competitions.”

Another critical component:  student parents, for whom the lessons, competitions and excursions create an ever-broadening extended family spanning generations. “Traditionally, Irish music and dance was nurtured in private homes,” says Patty Furlong. “Our parents don’t view this as just another kid activity but as something they’ll invest in learning about as well. It makes the experience much more enriching for everyone.”

Here’s a formula explaining The How … How 18th-century Old World performing arts can thrive in a 21st-century American suburb:

Skilled Teachers + Curious Kids x

(Supportive Parents + Community Interest) =

SUCCESSFUL Culture Preservation in Today’s World

But then there’s The Why … certainly these youngsters could learn ballet or “modern music” and have just as much fun acquiring the same basic performance skills … in today’s fast-changing American culturescape, why does it matter at all if there is a heritage haven like Pearl River?

The simple answer is that a young performer acquiring command of a second expressive language via feet, fingers or voice gains a vocational asset as valuable as knowing two or more spoken languages.

In the inter-connected global future that’s already arrived, those who are knowledgeable about and comfortable with different customs and belief systems will be better equipped to navigate the volatile currents of social and business change.

And because fortune favors the bold, and the bold of tomorrow will be energized and empowered by their arsenal of creative skills.

When the world’s performing arts emigrated to America over the last couple of hundred years, they inevitably looked backward, intent on resisting influences from other cultures that would negate the essence of the traditional forms.

Irish traditional music and dance are exceptions; their basic structures have allowed for a sizeable degree of repertoire fusion and stylistic innovation that never substantially altered the tradition’s fundamental “character”. They’ve absorbed change for centuries, and they’re still thriving — educating and entertaining in ways no one could have imagined even a generation ago.

The teachers and performers and appreciators of Irish traditional music and dance in Pearl River aren’t looking backwards. They’re looking ahead.

And having a grand time getting there.

*** An original version of this article appeared at ***


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iBAM! Chicago, Nov. 2011

AN INCREDIBLE IRISH-AMERICAN cultural event took place in Chicago last month that too many people outside the Windy City don’t know about yet but should.

It’s called iBAM!Irish Books Art Music! — and it convenes close to 100 authors, actors, visual artists and musicians for a public festival in the spacious halls of the Irish American Heritage Center on the city’s northwestside.

The program and participant list is still up a Prepare to be amazed at the diversity and scope of traditional and contemporary expression of Irish culture.

I was, and I’ve been on this Hibernian beat for a good long time.

A book fair, plays, panels, lectures, literary readings, live music, dance, photography, poetry, cooking, folklore, spirituality, award-winning exhibits like The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats” direct from National Library in Dublin — iBAM! is a non-stop two days of activity.

The theme of iBAM! 2011 was “Handing Down the Tradition” and that’s where my contribution came in.

I was booked to give a presentation titled “Irish Traditional Music:  Where It’s Been, Where It’s Going” and also moderated a panel looking at trends in preservation and collection of Irish traditional music with Dr. Matt Cranitch and Paul deGrae (we got accordionist Jackie Daly to chime in on Chief O’Neill’s Hornpipe for a musical coda).

Among the local musicians, Handing Down the Tradition was evidenced by a host of family-based units — The Dooleys; Patrick and Karen Canady; Gerry and Kevin Carey; Joe O’Shea and Mike O’Shea; Sheila Doorly-Bracken, Frank Quinn and Pat Quinn; the ensemble led by Noel Rice, Cathleen Rice-Halliburton and Kevin Rice; the world renowned sean-nos dancers The Cunninghams — along with local stalwarts Pat Finnegan, Aislinn Gagliardi, Cormac McCarthy, Chicago Reel, Broken Pledge Ceili Band, Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill and more.

However, iBAM! isn’t an academic event but more of a focused ongoing discussion exploring the evolving nature of Irish culture and its place in today’s world. And that covers a lot of territory.

I ended up hanging out a lot with the authors, who seemed to be in the majority, as befitting Ireland’s centuries-long love of The Word spoken, written, acted and sung — which pretty much describes the totality of Castlebar, Mayo’s  John Hoban, who combines music, tales, song, poetry and more.

Anyone who thinks the “Golden Age” of Irish and Irish-American literature has passed should re-consider.

Another highlight was a panel chaired by American Public Radio host Bill Margeson that included Chicago musicians Liz Carroll, Jimmy Keane and Sean Cleland and Milwaukee Irish Fest founder Ed Ward chatting about Irish music in Chicago over the last few decades.

Jimmy shared a newly rediscovered wire cylinder recording of 19th-century Tipperary/Chicago fiddler Edward Cronin – a major source of repertoire for the vital Francis O’Neill tune collections.

Hearing the sound of pure drop fiddling summoned into our present from its brief flickering long ago was a striking reminder of the music’s power to persevere across the decades.

The weekend kicked off with a Friday night awards dinner honoring five distinguished exponents of Irish and Irish-American culture:  Leitrim fiddler Maurice Lennon, Dublin fiction writer Maeve Binchy and three Chicagoans — choreographer Mark Howard, sculptor John David Mooney and author/sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley. All five have spent a lifetime not just passing on their art but redefining it to include ever more inventive ways to express that cultural core.

At the dinner I was reminded of the many forms the handing-down can take. Up through the 1970s, when Irish traditional music in America was confined to Irish-only enclaves in a few cities, the Irish import store was a key source of information about local musicians, upcoming music events, new recordings from Ireland (along with the occasional longlost trad disc from the 1950s or beyond).

My initial gateway into the wonderland of Chicago Irish music was Shamrock Irish Imports on North Laramie Street operated by Maureen O’Looney.

One chilly March day in 1973, I wandered into the store and inquired where one could find Irish traditional music locally.

She told me that a fiddler named John McGreevy and a piper/flute player named Kevin Henry would be performing at a St. Patrick’s event that very afternoon at Ford City Mall on Cicero Avenue.

The rest, as they say, is history. To my delight, Mrs. O’Looney was at the awards dinner where I was able to again express my gratitude in person for that “good steer”. Her shop is moving into the Irish American Heritage Center this month.

Another prime Irish music knowledge base in the Paleo-Internet Era of Human Existence was the physical, hand-held, press-printed newspaper. In tracing Chicago Irish music history, I found papers from the 1800s like the Irish Republic, Chicago Citizen and Irish News invaluable for details about the Irish cultural milieu of the time.


Today that community chronicling task is ably filled by Chicago’s Irish American News, which co-produced iBAM! with the Irish American Heritage Center.

I still have an issue from the paper’s inaugural year of 1977 with the headline “August 15 Named ‘Irish Day’ by Mayor”.

The bottom of Page 1 features an editorial titled “Why Support an Irish American Center”, and the pages are filled with features on local Irish music, theatre, fine arts and dance (with results of the summer’s Chicago Feis including mention of a young Mark Howard in the Boys Junior category).

I recall a remark I heard flutist Noel Rice make nearly 40 years ago:  “To help Irish culture survive in the future, we have to make sure it grows by design, not accident.”

iBAM! is a fundamental part of that design. 

For anyone seeking blissful immersion in the Past-Present-Future of Irish culture, iBAM! 2011 had it all.

# # #

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