Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Irish Golden Age in the Catskills

Interview with Kevin Ferguson at Catskill Irish Arts Week 2011:
Kevin Ferguson is producing and directing an independent documentary film about the Irish Catskills. Its title: ‘Dancing at the Crossroads: The Musical Birth and Near-Death of the Irish Catskills.’. In this first part of the interview, we learn about the Irish in the Catskills and Kevin’s experiences growing up in the middle of living history:

Coming to the Catskills since childhood, how did you become familiar with the Irish tradition in the Catskills?

My parents met here in 1955. My mother came over from County Cavan in 1950. The address on the manifest of the ship she came over on said she was bound for Mullan’s Mountain Spring Farm, which is now called the Blackthorne. That address was put on there because her sister Marie Mullan and her husband, Ed Mullan, also from County Cavan, bought what was a German boarding house run by a Mrs. Peters. They bought it in 1946 and opened in 1947 as Mullan’s Mountain Spring Farm.

They were not the first ones up here. The Irish had been coming up since the late 1800s, but it was really in the 1930s when it began to take the shape as an Irish enclave. They settled in Leeds, South Cairo, Oak Hill, and East Durham.

The Shamrock House, the Weldon House, the Fern Cliff, O’Neil’s Cozy Corner, later known as the O’Neill House or ‘O’Neill’s in the Woods – and which is now a religious retreat house, were already there. So, too, was the Haypress, later known as O’Neill’s Tavern and now called The Saloon. Most of them were opened up by Irish people who had been successful in opening up bars, dancehalls, and boarding houses in New York City, usually in the Bronx or in the Rockaways in Queens.

The Rockaways had become ghettoized into ethnic areas. There were Jewish bungalows, the Italian bungalows, and the Irish bungalows. By the time the 1960s came along, they knocked down many of the bungalows and put up high-rise buildings. That accelerated them up to East Durham for vacation experiences. Although the Irish had been coming there for decades, the Catskills hit their heydays in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. There’re still a few places in the Rockaways, like the Irish Circle, and in the Catskills, like the Shamrock House, Blackthorne, Gavin’s, and the Irish Center over in Leeds. And both areas have strong Irish communities, but they are not like they were, of course.

Were they doing Irish set dancing or American popular music?

In the Catskills, as well as in New York, they were doing both. They would play music somewhat dependent on the decade. The people who came were mostly Irish immigrants, and some Irish-Americans. That ratio shifted as time went on. Some places played the traditional Irish dance music on one floor and more American stuff on the next. They even had signs that said, “Irish Music,” “Irish-American Music,” or “American Music.”

After a while they began to blend them a bit.

I was just talking to Felix Dolan this afternoon and Felix was, and is, a great keyboard player. He had played the dance halls back in the day. He was telling me what they’d play. There was always “A Stack of Barley,” and there might be a “Siege of Ennis.”

The Irish who were coming over in the 50s started liking what they called “Irish country music.” There would be some country music with some Irish favorites, like a quick step or some waltzes.

Depending on the demographic, they’d shift it to get more popular music in. There would always be an orchestra, which might be three people or might be eight people. There would be someone who could play the waltzes, foxtrots, and other ballroom pieces. There would be others who could play the Irish as well. The dance halls in New York were crucial to what became the explosion of Irish culture, because they were crucial to assimilation and also to matchmaking. If you ask any person over the age of sixty who is Irish and living in America now, chances are they met their spouse at some place like the Jaeger House. Time and time again, they talk about how they met them there. Immigrants would come and someone on the bandstand would say, “Okay, we have new people here from County Cork. Anyone who wants to meet them, come over here.” They would match them up. If their parents were here, they’d encourage them to go to these dances, so they’d meet a nice Irish girl or boy.

It became this social dancing, which we don’t have so much anymore. We have set dancing and ceili dancing, which is well organized and not as spontaneous as it was back then.

That social scene was a huge thing up in the Catskills, as well.

You’d have Ralph Kelly who was a carpenter and an accordion player from Albany. He opened Kelly’s Brookside Inn sometime in the 50s. He built the dance floors at the Shamrock House, at McKenna’s Irish House, and the Tower View. Those were all built by the Kellys.

Dancing was massively important and is still going on.

Unfortunately, outside of the Catskill Irish Arts Week and some other special events, there isn't a lot of it.
The culture is surviving in the set dancing and step dancing, but it doesn't emphasize so much exploration as it used to.

What was it like for you growing up? Were you running around behind the scenes?

It was fabulous here. It was as busy here as it is now during Catskill Irish Arts Week but every day of the whole summer, say from July 1st to Labor Day. Places were packed. You’d walk around at night completely untethered from your parents, but you were safe because all the parents knew each other. It was one big community and everybody watched out for each other. You could walk around without any fear of harm and that was great. I loved it because my aunt and uncle owned what is now the Blackthorn. We thought we were royalty; whether anyone else thought so or not, we thought we were royalty. We’d get together and sneak in the back ways. Of course, we also had to work from the time we could walk.
At five or six, you were out collecting bottles, doing other small tasks. When I was a teenager, I worked up here six days a week. Six days, eighty dollars a week in the mid-70s. But we were teenagers and we enjoyed getting away from our parents.

The music was the center of everything. As the pubs served as a meeting ground elsewhere, the bars up here did, too. It was very common to be in the pub at 10 o’clock at night when you were 8 years old sitting around a table with people of all ages. You’d hear traditional music. By the late 60s and the 70s, there would start to get the show bands in. In the 70s, I heard more Neil Diamond, such as Sweet Caroline. A typical night in the mid-70s here, you’d go and you’d hear the Mason’s Apron play Sweet Caroline, the Stack of Barley, the Siege of Ennis, some soft rock, with lots of waltzes interspersed.

We danced them all, even if we couldn't dance. I couldn't dance. You looked forward to dancing the Siege of Ennis because you’d be pushed around because you didn't know which way to go or if you were like me and had two left feet. But you’d get out there and they’d shove you to the next part. 

It was a wonderful time to be here between the music, the dancing, the community, and the community meals.


Next blog: What happened to the Irish culture in the Catskills after the peak?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Part 3: Northern Irish Scientist Works to Prove Higgs Boson Exists

Steve Myers was born in West Belfast, Northern Ireland and was taught mathematics and physics by priests, one of whom was the younger brother of the Cardinal of Ireland.

He more or less stumbled into electrical engineering at Queen’s University Belfast. He and four other friends were applying to the University. Only one of them had an idea of what to study. That young man’s father was an engineer who said electrical engineering was a profession under demand. All five of the young men, including Steve, put electrical engineering on the top of their applications.

This was a fortuitous choice for Steve as he eventually received a PhD from Queen’s University in Belfast.

He had another brush with synchronicity when his invitation to CERN was delayed by a long postal strike until the day before he was due in Geneva. He rushed to the interview and while waiting to be invited before the interviewers, he picked up a paper lying on the waiting room table. He noticed the term and concept of the "head tail instability" which has to do with electrons hitting the walls of the particle accelerator causing more electrons to leave the wall, creating an electron cloud that reduces the quality of the beam. Unknown to Steve at the time, this was a prime concern of his interviewers.

The resulting job, which he started in 1972, was Engineer-in-Charge of the operation of the Intersecting Storage Rings Collider (ISR). In 1979 he started working on the Large Electron–Positron Collider (LEP) which was the most ambitious collider to be built in its day. The design, approval, and construction took 10 years. A 27 km tunnel was excavated about 100 m underground with four large underground expansions of the cavern to house the detectors.

In the 1990s, he was chosen to be the Deputy Leader of the SPS (Super Proton Synchrotron)-LEP (SL) Division in charge of preparing the LEP Collider for physics. From 1996 until 2000, he was Project Leader of the LEP upgrade (LEP2). In 2000 Myers became Leader of the SPS-LHC (Large Hadron Collider)(SL) Division and in 2003 he rose to be Head of the Accelerator and Beams (AB) Department.

In 2009, he was appointed to be in charge of all the accelerator and technology activities at CERN as Director of Accelerators and Technology. Thus, he is in charge of the organization that has produced these groundbreaking results while it simultaneously uses all its colliders and develops new projects.

Through all these changes and challenges within the organizational hierarchy, he has stayed intimately familiar with how to coax the particles successfully around all the rings at CERN. Not bad for a young man from West Belfast who barely knew what electrical engineering was when he launched onto that career path.


If you want to learn more about West Belfast and the efforts to achieve peace, click here.

Did you miss earlier posts in this series? Click here to go to the first post.
                                                                 Click here to go to the second post.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Part 2: Northern Irish Scientist Works to Prove Higgs Boson Exists

In the last blog post, I discussed how Steve Myers is a physicist from Northern Ireland who is part of the team which is accumulating evidence of the Higgs boson. Then we found out some things about elementary particles that are smaller than electrons, protons, and neutrons, those old standbys of the particle world.

At the end, I said we ought to look at why we should care about finding the Higgs boson and while we are at it, see if the technologies on Star Trek are really possible.

As to why we should try to find the Higgs boson, let's look at the contributions of looking at small particles and elementary forces have produced in the past.

For instance, when radio waves were discovered, one of their discoverers thought they had no useful purpose. Now of course we have cell phones, microwave ovens, broadcast receptive radios and TVs, weather radar, wireless computing, and radar enabled speed traps! Or have they totally moved on to lasers?

Also, I joked/implied that Higgs boson might make some of the technologies in Star Trek possible.

I don't really know that, but imaginations and technology development have a habit of leap frogging off each other's backs.

Today's cell phones look suspiciously like the communicators on Star Trek. I've often said into my cell, "Scottie, beam me out of here."

The other side of the physics of elementary particle research is the implications beyond our confined lives.

I find spiritual comfort in the fact that each time we press the curtain to one side, we discover the creator of the universe has another exquisite wonderous layer which was working to make this universe the way it is.

Next post: who is this Northern Irish bloke, Steve Myers, who is in search of the Higgs Boson?

Did you miss the first post? Click here to go back to the first post.

Click here to see an interesting lecture by Lisa Randall on Extra Dimensional Particle Resonance at the Large Hadron Collider.

Northern Irish Scientist Works to Prove Higgs Boson Exists

Steve Myers is a physicist from Northern Ireland who is part of the team which is accumulating evidence of the Higgs boson.

What is the Higgs boson?

It's an elementary particle.

It is really, really small. It's smaller than atoms, electrons, protons, and neutrons.

If you took science classes in the late 60s or early 70s, you probably remember the pictures of atoms as little balls called electrons circling a cluster of protons and neutrons. The cluster was the nucleus of the atom. The idea was much like planets going around the sun.

Then when you took chemistry in college, the professor and textbooks told you electrons traveled in orbitals. Some orbitals were spheres around the nucleus which seemed like the old model of electrons but the orbits could be anywhere at a set distance from the nucleus so you got a sphere the electron moved in, instead of a flat circular orbit.

But some of the orbitals looked like water balloons oriented around the central nucleus. Those looked odd, but then you really got your mind stretched because the professor told you the electrons weren't really particles and the orbitals were sort of clouds of positions of where the electron might be.  The electron was a cloud? You probably thought, "Where did my particles go?"

To make matters worse, scientists continued to call electrons particles, even though they really meant they were clouds of where the electron might be if you forced it to become a particle for an instant.

But the clouds were really useful because if you brought two atoms together and their electrons could share the orbital clouds and satisfy the maximum number of electrons which that orbital liked to have, then you would have a really strong chemical bond. Also, if you excited the electrons to higher orbitals and then they electrons would fall back to their lower original orbitals and release energy in the form of light.

So it was tough to argue with clouds because they explained all the bond strengths and energy states so well. And the artists could show me the shaped clouds called orbitals, so I eventually got comfortable with them.
Fast forward to today, and all these particles have been determined to be made of smaller particles that again are not really tiny balls at all, at least no one thinks they are.

From Wikipedia, here are some particles that appear to make up the things we see or otherwise perceive:

"The 12 fundamental fermionic flavours are divided into three generations of four particles each. Six of the particles are quarks. The remaining six are leptons, three of which are neutrinos, and the remaining three of which have an electric charge of −1: the electron and its two cousins, the muon and the tau."

Stay with me.

These particles have properties called things like charge (like the property assigned to electrons, and protons), spin, and color.  Spin isn't really what you are thinking of and color is definitely an odd term used to describe the nearly unexplainable. I haven't seen an artistic rendition of all these things yet. Do you have one?

Just a little more and we'll get to the Higgs Boson.

All 24 elementary particles are either fermions or antiparticles (depending on their spin). Don't ask. Just accept it.

The bosons either mediate forces or are the Higgs Boson.

If the Higgs boson exists, it has a spin of 0 and is responsible for the intrinsic mass of particles.

If it exists, the Higgs boson would most likely explain the existence of the Higgs Field. 

The Higgs Field is suspected to exist everywhere, including in a perfect vacuum.

Here is what blows my mind:

My high school physics textbook was innovative for its time. It taught about the history of physics as well as the theories then present.  In the 1800s there was this theory of aether (or 'ether' was another spelling) being a field that penetrated all space as a transmission medium for the propagation of electromagnetic or gravitational forces.  It was an invisible lattice that allowed all elements and forces to work.  In 1905, Albert Einstein himself shot down the whole theory of aether with his special theory of relativity.

Most physicists concluded that this theory of an aether was not a useful concept.

What amazes me is that after more than 100 years, the theory of physics has returned back to a field that exist everywhere, even in a vacuum!
Next Post: Why we should care about the Higgs boson and are the technologies on Star Trek really possible? Click here.

Here is a good, easily understood presentation on the Higgs boson.

And this one goes deeper still.