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THE JIG IS UP

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On its 10th anniversary, world events overtake Gaelic Roots festival

The Harney Set Dancers at the Saturday night Farewell Concert.

"I think it's great we're going out with a bang, not a whimper," emcee Earle Hitchner said at the June 21 concert that concluded the 10th annual Boston College Gaelic Roots Summer School and Festival. The Saturday show, performed by Celtic musicians who came from all over the world to teach at the weeklong event, has always been called the Farewell Concert. But this year, the farewell was final. A few weeks earlier, organizers had decided to retire the festival, primarily because of recent U.S. strictures on foreign visitors stemming from concerns about international terrorism.

Hitchner's remark captured the Robsham Theater crowd's mood of sadness, anger, and bewilderment. The festival seemed in such good health. All 540 student slots had been filled since early February. Every public performance was sold out. In total, more than 2,000 people visited the Boston College campus for this year's program.

Before the Farewell Concert began, Thomas Hachey, executive director of the Center for Irish Programs at Boston College, addressed the audience with assurances that "this is not a lessening of commitment to Irish music and dance on the part of Boston College." Séamus Connolly, the festival's organizer, he said, will remain in his position as director of Irish studies in music and dance.

Indeed, the decision to end the festival series was almost entirely Connolly's. Asked why, he said, "New visa and homeland security rules. Teachers from other countries can no longer send in their passports to embassies and have them approved for work visas. They have to make an appointment by phone, then travel to their country's U.S. Embassy and appear for an interview before they are approved. With all the demands that added, both in time and expense, I just decided the festival was no longer feasible." Irish singer Len Graham, for instance, who has toured the United States several times, had to travel to Belfast for three separate interviews before his visa was approved. Two other performers on this year's roster were unable to attend, because they could not get appointments at the Dublin embassy that fit their touring schedule.

Connolly worried that he would no longer be able to guarantee the attendance of all the scheduled performers. Students this year traveled from England, Ireland, Austria, 40 states in this country, and five provinces of Canada. Many came specifically to learn from particular artists, whose appearance remained uncertain until their visas were approved, often mere days before the festival was to start.

Flute player John Skelton (left) with guitarist Tony McManus.

The Farewell Concert this night displayed the festival's characteristic blend of seasoned traditional masters and young inventive performers. The banjo playing of Tipperary's Gerry O'Connor was so fast and fluid that emcee Hitchner heard guitarist Tony McManus whisper backstage, "Doesn't he know that's not possible?"

McManus, who hails from near Glasgow, had inspired the same reaction from others a few moments earlier, playing Irish dance tunes in ways they had never been played on the guitar. Young Shetland Islands fiddler Catriona Macdonald seemed a star on the rise, her playing at once timeless and bubbling with modern sass.

Among the venerable music legends honored was New England contra dance pianist Bob McQuillan, whose compositions have served as bridges between the music's past and future.

Hitchner, who writes about music for the Wall Street Journal and the Irish Echo, said it was that expansiveness, along with Connolly's reputation as an educator and 10-time All-Ireland Fiddle Champion, that had earned the festival respect. "In the Celtic community, everybody knows about Gaelic Roots," he said. "I watched the musicians this week, and they all had cameras with them, students and teachers alike, getting pictures of themselves with all the other musicians. It was like they were graduating from college, and wanted to remember everything about this week."

Elizabeth Sweeney, director of the Irish Music Center at BC's Burns Library, works closely with Connolly throughout the year, as she catalogues the largest academic repository of traditional Irish music in the United States, and while she shares the general sadness at the passing of the festival, she feels even more powerfully a sense of relief—especially for Connolly. "I see how hard he and his wife Sandy work to make this happen," she said. "They take their computer on vacation; he works on this day and night and all year long." And indeed, with visa problems mounting, Connolly had been growing increasingly concerned that the event was draining too much from his primary mission of educating Boston College students.

Séamus Connolly on the fiddle.Which leads to the good news. Gaelic Roots is only ending as a weeklong event. "What I want to do," Connolly says, "is incorporate Gaelic Roots into a series of weekend workshops, concerts, noontime performances on campus for the students, and events that bring these musicians into the classroom more."
So at the end of the Farewell Concert, folks got to hear what, after three hours of music, they most wanted to hear. "It's not the end of it, you know," Connolly said to the crowd. "It's just the beginning. We're going to have a long, long history of Celtic music and dance here at Boston College."

Scott Alarik


Scott Alarik writes about folk music for the Boston Globe and is the folk critic for public radio's "Here and Now." He is the author of Deep Community: Adventures in the Modern Folk Underground (2003).

Photos (from top):

The Harney Set Dancers at the Saturday night Farewell Concert. By Lee Pellegrini

Flute player John Skelton (left) with guitarist Tony McManus. By Lee Pellegrini

Séamus Connolly on the fiddle. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

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