‘Irish Christmas in America’ brings a touch of Emerald Isle holiday spirit to Chicago
By MARY HOULIHAN For Sun-Times Media December 11, 2013 6:20PM
Pauline Scanlon (left) and Eilis Kennedy of Lumiere | PHOTO BY VANESSA ELLIS
‘Irish Christmas in America,’ 8 p.m. Dec. 18, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln. $25. (773) 728-6000; oldtownschool.org
Irish traditions are not only for St. Patrick’s Day; they’re also for Christmas.
“Irish Christmas in America” is a distinctively Irish journey into a holiday season filled with stories, music, song and dance. Now in its ninth season, it features some of Ireland’s finest traditional musicians, singers and one pretty amazing dancer.
Oisin Mac Diarmada, a fiddler with the Irish group Teada, produces the show. About a decade ago, he was participating in a similar holiday show in Europe and thought it “would be nice to being it to the States.”
Among the performers are the vocal duo Lumiere, featuring Eilis Kennedy and Pauline Scanlon, along with renowned guitarist Donogh Hennessy (a founding member of Lunasa).
“We’ll perform some old Irish language carols, as well as a couple in Gaelic,” says Kennedy, who hails from Dingle in County Kerry. “Plus some familiar songs like ‘Silent Night.’ ”
Returning for his sixth tour is 28-year-old dancer Brian Cunningham, a native of Connemara, Ireland, who now lives in Green Bay, Wis. He has mastered the centuries-old dance style “sean-nos,” a predecessor of soft-shoe and tap that is very different from the more familiar Irish step dancing.
“There’s a lot of improvisation in the style; it’s very linked to the music,” explains Cunningham, who learned the steps from his father. “You are almost telling a story through rhythm and music.”
Ireland’s 2013 Traditional Singer of the Year Seamus Begley brings his stunning vocals and sweet-toned accordion. “Seamus has a very unique vocal style,” Mac Diarmada says. “Plus he’s a jokester and a great storyteller.”
The all-star band features Grainne Hambly on harp, Chicago resident Sean Gavin on flute and uilleann pipes and Mac Diarmada on fiddle.
The harp, an instrument we don’t see much of in this country, is a symbol of Ireland and has a beautiful sound, Mac Diarmada says: “It’s a unique Irish sound and conveys a message of beauty and stillness at Christmas time.”
Stories of the many Irish holiday traditions also are center stage during the performance. Each performer comes with memories of their own.
Kennedy remembers the tradition of lighting a candle in every window. “That always reminds me of being up late on Christmas Eve and going to midnight mass with my family,” she recalls. “Then we would do a ‘tour of the parish’ as my father would call it to see all the lights.”
Of course, music always plays a part in any Irish tradition and Cunningham says it was “the big thing” in his family during the holidays: “Every Christmas we would have a great session [an informal gathering of musicians] in the house that would go on for hours with all our family and friends.”
For Mac Diarmada, an old tradition — the Wren Boys — brings back memories that he shares during the show. In Ireland, Wren Day is Dec. 26, which is also St. Stephen’s Day, when people dress in disguise and go from home to home and collect money for a charity.
“It’s well-known in Ireland,” says Mac Diarmada. “We have a bit of fun on stage trying to capture the atmosphere of the Wren Boys tradition.”