Two Sundays ago, I walked into the final event of the Irish music fleadh at Molly Malone’s. It was a jam session with four fiddles, three banjos, three flutes, two concertinas, a guitar, drums, a tin whistle and one piano.
They were playing Irish standards that everyone knew by heart. It was much like what many of us who played guitar used to do in the ’60s. We’d sit down in a circle, get tuned up and play “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had a Hammer,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane” – one after another ’til midnight. Back then, we called it a hootenany.
If I say the word today, younger folk get a puzzled look on their faces. They don’t know what I mean. And when I explain, they have no desire to experience one. The phenomenon has pretty much faded away, except for a few diehards who meet at places like the Old Town School of Folk Music.
But at Molly’s that Sunday, a 16-year-old, red-headed concertina player was sitting next to one of his mentors who was four times his age. When I asked him if he could keep up with the veterans, he smiled shyly and said he could. More than 50 young people younger than 18 will be moving on from the competition held here to the all-Ireland fleadh next month, which will be held in a little Irish town.
Although few will win, all will be immersed in Irish culture one more time. I say one more time, because many of these kids have been getting strong regular doses of their culture for years when they join like-minded young people weekly in such places as the Murphy Roche School in Burr Ridge or the St. Louis Irish Arts School.
These places are ghettos, if you will. That is, they are homogeneous cultural enclaves where people talk, think, play and eat Irish. Helen Ganon, who is president St. Louis Irish Arts, and Tony O’Connell, who plays piano in the Murphy Roche caeli band, have lived in this country for over 20 years, but they haven’t lost their delightful Irish brogue. That’s because they spend a lot of their time in what I am choosing to call Irish ghettos.
They are voluntary ghettos and, of course, that makes all the difference. Like Jewish kids who go to Hebrew school on Sunday mornings at the shul or Moslem youth who memorize the whole Koran or a neighbor of mine who as a kid was sent to Poland every year to spend summers with her grandparents, these people are choosing to root their identities in what some people might call foreign soil. And, they don’t see any contradiction in saying that they are 100 percent American.
The young people moving on to compete in Ireland had surnames like O’Brien, Willis, O’Donnell, McCoy and Borely. You get the picture? This was not a multicultural gathering. Can you imagine a 15-year-old practicing for hours every week on the tin whistle instead of on an electric guitar?
The session at Molly’s morphed into a caeli dance as eight men and women cleared away tables to make room for what looked to me like aerobic square dancing. Their feet were flying as they moved through the sets. Some of the dancers had towels stuffed in their back pockets to wipe the sweat from their brows.
One 60-year-old wore a beautiful pleated kilt, a ratty bright green T-shirt with the words West Side Irish on the front, and socks covered with little shamrocks. It was the ugliest fashion statement I had ever seen, and he knew it. It was an expression of that confident, self-deprecating humor I’ve seen in Norwegian ghettos in northern Minnesota.
A 70-year-old in the set was leaping and stomping and spinning in a way that made me worry he’d have a heart attack. But every time he would leap high into the air, the other dancers would just grin.
And the 16-year-old concertina player was taking this all in, not as a bored teenage spectator but as an enthusiastic participant. I thought, “This kid isn’t going to have self-worth issues as he moves into adulthood.”
Three cheers for ghettos like the Murphy Roche School, where he can learn who he is, and for jam sessions, like the ones at Molly Malone’s.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.