In the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia, known for its diversity, a group of citizens have organized an annual festival conserving one culture in particular. The Irish Traditional Music and Dance Festival is held annually by the nonprofit Philadelphia Ceili Group to preserve Irish music, dance and culture. Just like the centuries old Irish heritage, the history of the festival runs quite deep itself.
A few of the group founders had been doing cultural events around the Philadelphia area but wanted to create something concrete.
Among the founders was Jim McGill, who is a former president and a current member. When McGill became president in 1972, the Philadelphia Ceili Group was very affiliated with the Philadelphia Folksong Society. Seeing the success of the Folksong Society’s festival, McGill aimed to replicate it with Irish culture.
For the first 13 years, the Irish festival was held outside and was quite the success. Picking up local musicians and popular musicians, such as Mick Moloney, the annual festival became a hit.
“It turned out to be a fantastic festival,” said McGill.
After moving the festival’s location around for years, they settled at the Commodore Barry Club in 1958, which is a historic indoor venue. The space is now known as The Irish Center.
The individual who many members believe is responsible for bringing the Philadelphia Ceili Group together is the late John Kelly. He taught Irish music and led the Ceili groups’ performances for over 20 years. The festival’s last day held a John Kelly Memorial Session in honor of all he did for the Ceili group.
The festival, in it’s 39th year, has been able to have such a successful longevity because it’s become very special to The Philadelphia Ceili Group’s members.
“I’ve been coming since I was about 1-year-old,” said Ceili group musician Danny Flynn. “My parents were a part of the founders of this Commodore Barry Club, so I’ve shown up. We’ve had weddings here. I got married here. We’ve had birthday parties here, all since 1961, ’62.”
Since Kelly’s death in 1990, many of the founders have dispersed but families return for the festival.
“This is one time of year we get together, play music, get caught up, besides being on Facebook,” said Flynn.
The charming four-day long festival hosts Irish performances, workshops, vendors and activities for all ages.
When it’s not festival time, The Philadelphia Ceili Group keeps busy yearlong with concerts, workshops, and lessons to continue preserving and celebrating Irish culture.
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