In like Fionn

Jim MaGill and Family

Swannanoa Gathering Director Jim MaGill (with his family) warns that all Celtic jams are not created equal.

“St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in this country, for the most part, are American expressions,” claims Jim Magill, director of the Swannanoa Gathering. “It’s an excuse for a party.”

His idea of an authentic jam? Forget “Danny Boy.”

“At closing time in Ireland, in every pub in Ireland, every night, the last piece played is the Irish national anthem,” Magill instructs. “I doubt if anybody over here would recognize it.”

That’s because many Irish-Americans just want to rock out (to the Pogues, playing Nokia Theatre in Times Square this St. Patrick’s Day, or the Young Dubliners, who will headline the House of Blues in Hollywood). Others would rather feast on corned beef and cabbage and listen to traditional tunes (the Chieftains are slated for Carnegie Hall in New York, and Boys of the Lough, who recently appeared at Diana Wortham Theatre, will play the Leid Center for the Performing Arts in Lincoln, Neb.).

Not coincidentally, St. Patrick’s Day – a religious observance to some, a chance to celebrate Irish roots for others, and an excuse for the masses to guzzle vast quantities of green beer and wear “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” buttons – falls in the midst of Irish Appreciation Month, so proclaimed by the U.S. Congress in 1995. Area clubs offer various options for appreciating the Emerald Isle – but you’ll have to head to Savannah if you want to catch a St. Paddy’s Day parade.

Forty-three million Americans can’t be wrong …

“It’s a very big deal,” says guitarist Tom Swadley, whose band Sigean (pronounced she-gan) is booked at the Down Home in Johnson City, Tenn. “Usually they reserve Fridays for big bands, but we got lucky because St. Patrick’s Day is on a Friday this year.”

In fact, many local bands find this to be the case. Even if, for the other 364 days of the year, the fiddlers, guitarists, pipers and bodhran players are relegated to Irish sessions and living-room jams, on March 17 they’re in high demand. “There’s just not enough local bands to go around on St. Patrick’s Day,” Swadley says.

But there is a viable Celtic scene around here. How could there not be? A major portion of Western North Carolina natives are of Scots-Irish ancestry (clans from the English-Scottish border displaced to Northern Ireland before setting course for the new world) or Irish heritage, due to the mass immigration during the mid-19th century following Ireland’s potato famine. Not to mention the similarities in landscape between our area and regions of Ireland and Scotland.

An estimated 43 million Americans claim Irish descent, according to Irish History for Dummies (for comparison’s sake, the country of Ireland has a population of 4 million). Irish settlers gave American culture labor reform, the Kennedys, terms like “paddy wagon” and “shenanigans,” Guinness and more. And the exchange is far from over. For example, Dublin-born guitarist John Doyle, formerly of the band Solas, has settled in WNC, naming it the place that most reminds him of home.

Ghosts of the IRA

So important are St. Patrick’s Day celebrations to Irish descendants in the U.S. that Celtic acts now come at a premium, and popular Irish bands (the ones actually hailing from the mother country) warrant top booking in big cities. It used to be that Ireland exported many of its musical acts to the U.S. each March. However, recent years have seen a marked change in that trend.

“[Brian] McDonogh [of the Irish group Dervish] says one reason more Celtic bands do not tour [in the U.S.] is that it’s become increasingly difficult and costly since 9/11,” reported Globe Correspondent in 2004. “A stringent visa process requires scheduling personal interviews at a U.S. embassy months in advance. It’s also been much easier to tour continental Europe [instead], since the Euro was established.”

An officer Xpress contacted at the U.S. State Department explained that, though Ireland isn’t on the state-sponsored-terrorism list, Irish citizens may endure more checks because of the history of the Irish Republican Army (which officially disbanded late last year), mainly due to having the same surnames as former IRA members.

The officer reveals that musicians aren’t subject to the visa-waver program, which allows tourists a limited stay in the U.S. with only a passport. Instead, working bands apply for performance visas, which require an interview for the initial tour. He notes that this isn’t a big deal for legitimate musicians – and, indeed, Lake Eden Arts Festival Executive Director Jennifer Pickering and Magill both insist they’ve never encountered visa issues when booking Celtic groups for their respective events.

“I’m working with acts who tour over here enough to have a federal tax ID number,” notes Magill, who also selects acts for the Mainstage Celtic Series at Diana Wortham Theatre. “Generally, visa issues are dealt with by the artists’ agent.”

Adds Pickering: “Of all the bands I work with, [Irish bands are] probably the ones I worry least about getting here. It might have to do with the quality of the musicians … that they work with well-known agencies.”

Tradition in context


Established acts like Bohola, who will play this spring’s LEAF, encounter less visa troubles than newer Irish bands (especially those formed since 9/11). Photo © bohola music, LLC

However, visas do fall through. Recently, Celtic act the Peelers missed a date at downtown Irish-themed pub Jack of the Wood for exactly that reason. Ironically, the group comes from Glengarry County in Canada. Go figure.

“Occasionally, I’m asked to write a support letter,” Magill says. “This letter has to include a statement that these artists can provide something American artists can’t.”

Of course, you can find plenty of Asheville musicians strumming bouzoukis, thumping bodhrans, bowing fiddles, finessing penny whistles, and otherwise interpreting the Irish tradition. But local talent won’t do for Magill.

“Unless you’ve grown up in one of the big Irish centers like New York or Boston, you’ve never heard real Celtic music: Music that is the glue that holds the community together.”

He continues, “All the music we hear is professional music by professional groups. Generally, the artists want it slick, because otherwise they wouldn’t make a living.”

According to Magill, the week-long Celtic section of the Swannanoa Gathering provides a truer experience for aspiring musicians. “If you want a sense of the tradition, you need context,” he maintains.

Pickering, who’s arranged for Irish groups Bohola and Lúnasa to play this year’s spring and fall LEAF, respectively, names Celtic groups as “extraordinarily talented and professional. They love playing music; it’s in their bones.”

Feeding the party vibe

Pickering goes on to confirm that WNC is a solid match for touring Irish bands. “The crowd [at LEAF] really embraces Celtic music,” she says. “This town embraces Celtic music. It’s going on in this area and I think it has a lot to do with places like Jack of the Wood” (the pub features regular Celtic jam sessions as well as touring acts).

“The more we’re into it, the more people I find playing Celtic music,” guitarist Swadley attests. Since Sigean formed in Bristol, Tenn., in 1997, the musician has witnessed a growing scene in the Tri-Cities area. “We have a fairly new tradition in Elizabethton, Tennessee – the Sycamore Shoals Celtic Festival,” he says. “A lot of the people behind it are non-music types who are members of [Celtic] clans and societies.

“I think our band was at the forefront of Celtic happenings in the area.”

Beanie O’Dell, who’s played individually with the members of low-key group the Red Wellies for a number of years, claims that gigging in the U.S. isn’t so different from playing in Ireland. “Some people here are like, ‘Where’s the Irish rock?’, which feeds more of a party vibe,” she says. “But others are really interested [in the traditional sound], especially if they’ve been to Ireland, because what we play is a lot like what you’ll find there.

“It’s important to keep it alive,” she insists.

The famine all over again?

As Irish luck would have it, March 17 falls on a Friday this year. Still, we found the local St. Patrick’s Day pickins fairly slim, Celtically speaking. Here are the likeliest gigs:

• Bagpiper Timmy Hendrix plays at Hannah Flanagan’s in Asheville (27 Biltmore Ave., 252-1922).

• Celtic-fusion act Gypsy Bandwagon sets the mood at Jack of the Wood (95 Patton Ave., 252-5445).

• Celtic Knot and Bucket Heads head up the celebration at O’Malley’s Irish Pub in Waynesville (172 N. Main St., 452-4228).

• St. Patrick’s Day party at Chasers promises green Kamikazis and a Sexy

Irish Girl contest (info at 684-3780).

• Mellow Mushroom (50 Broadway, 236-9800) hosts a St. Patrick’s Day party with Kung-Fu Dynamite and drink specials (Irish Car Bomb, anyone?).

• For green-beer lovers only: Wild Wing Café (161 Biltmore Ave., 253-3066) has a St. Patrick’s Day Party with Hootie & The Cover Band, as well as a celebration for STAR 104.3’s first birthday.


About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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2 thoughts on “In like Fionn

  1. brian joseph o'keefe

    in haven’t seen o’keeffe’s pub yet, but just as soon as i travel to ireland one of the several pubs i’ll visit will be the
    ” O’KEEFFE’S PUB ” cause i’m an o’keefe
    folks !

    like i’m in hawaii i’ll just say aloha aloha to you all very fine folks !

  2. brian jopseph o'keefe

    very soon i’d like to go to ireland and to some of dublin’s pubs to eat and drink at of course folks !

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