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 at http://www.ibamchicago.com. Prepare to be amazed at the diversity and scope of traditional and contemporary expression of Irish culture.
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.
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).
One chilly March day in 1973, I wandered into the store and inquired where one could find Irish traditional music locally.
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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