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?


  1. Rod, I just want to share with your readers that despite the subtitle of the film, "Dancing at the Crossroads: the musical birth and near-death of the Irish Catskills," is still very much a celebration of the Irish Catskills. I make no bones about the decline of the Irish Catskills over decades past. Likewise, I recognize that Catskills Irish Arts Week has been a huge success, a God-send really, over its nearly 20-year history. I look forward to seeing everyone again this summer. --kevin ferguson