This article is from the July 2016 Issue of Forever Young

By John Kernaghan

2016 July Cape Breton

The estrangement ran for more than 45 years, but when a vagrant Irish heart landed on the shores of Cape Breton, love was restored.

The nine-day Celtic Colours International Festival fanned the embers of musical memories born in weekend trips around Ireland to hear traditional music in small towns and villages in the late 1960s. 

And the finest memory was the night, at a kitchen ceilidh in Portadown, Northern Ireland, when the late Tommy Makem, of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, toasted my Canadian roots with the folk song Four Strong Winds.

That was always going to be a tough act to follow, perhaps accounting for the near 50 fallow years that followed. It was fiddles, harps and spoons, fiddle-dee-dee, bring on the Stones and Zeppelin.

Until, that is, the night at Celtic Colours last October when a mass of musicians jammed at the Festival Club at The Gaelic College, the only institution teaching in the language in North America.

A clutch of fiddles expertly wielded and backed by guitars, pipes, and an organ created a wall of sound that washed across some 700 music fans. If this does not inspire one, one has no pulse.

The tiny dance floor throbbed and heaved as 10-minute jigs and reels thundered through the hall. Be warned, this can be a contact sport at times as whirling bodies careened around the small space.

In sweeter, less aggressive moments, octogenarians danced with teenagers and rural hipsters shared steps with matrons.

 

It was the distillation of Cape Breton culture, where fretwork is taught on the knees of elders and making music and dancing to it is as natural as talking and walking, in many ways speaking for itself.

It began at age four for Dawn Beaton, now artistic director of the festival, as a step dancer, then at six when she took up the fiddle. The Beatons are one of several sprawling Cape Breton families who form the backbone of the island’s music culture and industry.

Dawn step danced and played fiddle in the first festival in 1997, when there were 27 performances staged. This year there were 47 and that could expand in 2016 for the 20th anniversary festival.

“That means many more performers, of course, and the number of programs we run year-round has increased from about 50 to more than 160,” she said.

But Beaton says the quality has been stellar from the beginning.

“I think we had the Chieftains the first year and the Irish component has always been a big focus, including one year when Irish music and dancing was the main focus.”

The island bills itself as The Celtic Heart of North America, hard to dispute as you make your way through a music marathon. More than 20,000 tickets were snapped up at this festival, about 15 per cent by American visitors.

Most of the performers are local, playing at a half dozen spots around the island daily. And if you are so lucky to get blue skies and the peak of autumn colours, drives along the Cabot Trail and other rugged routes provide a magical backdrop.

The music, nurtured from roots imported from Ireland, Scotland and England, endured with the first generations to settle here simply because of the island’s isolation, says Heather Sparling, Canada research chair in Music Traditions at Cape Breton University.

Unhinged from the Nova Scotia mainland until a causeway was built, Cape Breton’s music remained pristine and the principal entertainment through harsh winters.

Even now, with instant Internet and social media, notes Sparling, young people are drawn to trad music, as it is called, and the dance steps that accompany it.

She attributes that to a continued “sense of community and belonging” that extends to folks who had to leave the economically-challenged island to find work. 

“Most of them come back when they can because there is comfort in the music and culture; it reinforces their sense of identity.”

First-time performers on Cape Breton pick up on that quickly. 

“There is such strong support for their own heritage,” noted David Kilgallon of Mec Lir, an Isle of Man band which delighted audiences with their music and banter over several days. “The festival is very community focused, with little over 150,000 living on Cape Breton Island it’s easy to see why. We were cooked dinner each day by volunteers and also caught (Canadian) Thanksgiving whilst we were there, so ate a lot of turkey dinners.”

Veteran performer Fergus O’Byrne, a former Dubliner who has made music in Canada for almost 50 years, called Celtic Colours “extraordinary, it’s just huge everywhere in the Celtic world.”

O’Byrne and Jim Payne played several venues over several days and Payne’s Waltz Around the Cape became the unofficial anthem of the visit even though it was penned about Newfoundland. It was fitting to see them perform it twice on one epic day of music and touring.

At noon, it was the Manx quartet Mec Lir at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, which honours the inventor of the telephone, who resided in Baddeck.

Mec Lir fiddler Tom Callister was also a comedian of stand-up quality, treating music fans to a hysterical take on Manx history, including the tale of the two surviving Manx Gaelic speakers. Due to a 50-year  feud, they never talked to one another.

Then it was on the road along the Cabot Trail, the scenic route that traces the rugged coast, for a two-hour drive that could have stretched to four there were so many majestic vantage points.

The destination, Keltic Lodge, is a dramatic resort perched on a rock in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. It was built by a Bell business associate and offers good food and fine views of the ocean.

After lunch it was back down Cabot Trail in the gloaming, so torturous at times it put in mind an Irish cousin’s take on a corner “so tight I could see the back of my neck.”

We were headed to Sydney Mines, a gritty precinct with the loveliest pale blue church, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, rising in its midst. There, in a sanctuary featuring a sweeping balcony, O’Byrne and Payne provided another rousing version of Waltz Around the Cape. Then it was off to the Festival Club, which opens at 11 p.m. and offers the artists who performed around the island that day jamming in concert until 3 a.m. 

The Festival Club is a petri dish for emerging musicians comparing licks with veteran performers.

Although the festival’s big final act was Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, something of a controversial choice amongst traditionalists, we wrapped it up with Men of the Deeps, the Cape Breton miners’ choir which enters the darkened hall with headlamps aglow, and another late night at the Festival Club.

A fairly large knot of music marathoners made it through to the 4 a.m. opening of The Gaelic College’s cafeteria for breakfast before boarding buses home.

Bent but reborn, I was among that number.

 

 

The estrangement ran for more than 45 years, but when a vagrant Irish heart landed on the shores of Cape Breton, love was restored.The nine-day Celtic Colours International Festival fanned the embers of musical memories born in weekend trips around Ireland to hear traditional music in small towns and villages in the late 1960s. And the finest memory was the night, at a kitchen ceilidh in Portadown, Northern Ireland, when the late Tommy Makem, of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, toasted my Canadian roots with the folk song Four Strong Winds.That was always going to be a tough act to follow, perhaps accounting for the near 50 fallow years that followed. It was fiddles, harps and spoons, fiddle-dee-dee, bring on the Stones and Zeppelin.Until, that is, the night at Celtic Colours last October when a mass of musicians jammed at the Festival Club at The Gaelic College, the only institution teaching in the language in North America.A clutch of fiddles expertly wielded and backed by guitars, pipes, and an organ created a wall of sound that washed across some 700 music fans. If this does not inspire one, one has no pulse.The tiny dance floor throbbed and heaved as 10-minute jigs and reels thundered through the hall. Be warned, this can be a contact sport at times as whirling bodies careened around the small space.In sweeter, less aggressive moments, octogenarians danced with teenagers and rural hipsters shared steps with matrons.It was the distillation of Cape Breton culture, where fretwork is taught on the knees of elders and making music and dancing to it is as natural as talking and walking, in many ways speaking for itself.It began at age four for Dawn Beaton, now artistic director of the festival, as a step dancer, then at six when she took up the fiddle. The Beatons are one of several sprawling Cape Breton families who form the backbone of the island’s music culture and industry.Dawn step danced and played fiddle in the first festival in 1997, when there were 27 performances staged. This year there were 47 and that could expand in 2016 for the 20th anniversary festival.“That means many more performers, of course, and the number of programs we run year-round has increased from about 50 to more than 160,” she said.But Beaton says the quality has been stellar from the beginning.“I think we had the Chieftains the first year and the Irish component has always been a big focus, including one year when Irish music and dancing was the main focus.”The island bills itself as The Celtic Heart of North America, hard to dispute as you make your way through a music marathon. More than 20,000 tickets were snapped up at this festival, about 15 per cent by American visitors.Most of the performers are local, playing at a half dozen spots around the island daily. And if you are so lucky to get blue skies and the peak of autumn colours, drives along the Cabot Trail and other rugged routes provide a magical backdrop.The music, nurtured from roots imported from Ireland, Scotland and England, endured with the first generations to settle here simply because of the island’s isolation, says Heather Sparling, Canada research chair in Music Traditions at Cape Breton University.Unhinged from the Nova Scotia mainland until a causeway was built, Cape Breton’s music remained pristine and the principal entertainment through harsh winters.Even now, with instant Internet and social media, notes Sparling, young people are drawn to trad music, as it is called, and the dance steps that accompany it.She attributes that to a continued “sense of community and belonging” that extends to folks who had to leave the economically-challenged island to find work. “Most of them come back when they can because there is comfort in the music and culture; it reinforces their sense of identity.”First-time performers on Cape Breton pick up on that quickly. “There is such strong support for their own heritage,” noted David Kilgallon of Mec Lir, an Isle of Man band which delighted audiences with their music and banter over several days. “The festival is very community focused, with little over 150,000 living on Cape Breton Island it’s easy to see why. We were cooked dinner each day by volunteers and also caught (Canadian) Thanksgiving whilst we were there, so ate a lot of turkey dinners.”Veteran performer Fergus O’Byrne, a former Dubliner who has made music in Canada for almost 50 years, called Celtic Colours “extraordinary, it’s just huge everywhere in the Celtic world.”O’Byrne and Jim Payne played several venues over several days and Payne’s Waltz Around the Cape became the unofficial anthem of the visit even though it was penned about Newfoundland. It was fitting to see them perform it twice on one epic day of music and touring.At noon, it was the Manx quartet Mec Lir at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, which honours the inventor of the telephone, who resided in Baddeck.Mec Lir fiddler Tom Callister was also a comedian of stand-up quality, treating music fans to a hysterical take on Manx history, including the tale of the two surviving Manx Gaelic speakers. Due to a 50-year  feud, they never talked to one another.Then it was on the road along the Cabot Trail, the scenic route that traces the rugged coast, for a two-hour drive that could have stretched to four there were so many majestic vantage points.The destination, Keltic Lodge, is a dramatic resort perched on a rock in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. It was built by a Bell business associate and offers good food and fine views of the ocean.After lunch it was back down Cabot Trail in the gloaming, so torturous at times it put in mind an Irish cousin’s take on a corner “so tight I could see the back of my neck.”We were headed to Sydney Mines, a gritty precinct with the loveliest pale blue church, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, rising in its midst. There, in a sanctuary featuring a sweeping balcony, O’Byrne and Payne provided another rousing version of Waltz Around the Cape. Then it was off to the Festival Club, which opens at 11 p.m. and offers the artists who performed around the island that day jamming in concert until 3 a.m. The Festival Club is a petri dish for emerging musicians comparing licks with veteran performers.Although the festival’s big final act was Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, something of a controversial choice amongst traditionalists, we wrapped it up with Men of the Deeps, the Cape Breton miners’ choir which enters the darkened hall with headlamps aglow, and another late night at the Festival Club.A fairly large knot of music marathoners made it through to the 4 a.m. opening of The Gaelic College’s cafeteria for breakfast before boarding buses home.Bent but reborn, I was among that number.