Cormac MacConnell: Where the Irish once had no value at all

A groundhog on the lawn was a nightmarish early morning eye-opener for Cormac last Friday, high up in the airy Catskills, above New York. He christened him John Thomas.
Cormac MacConnell: Where the Irish once had no value at all

I had a genuine Groundhog Day last Friday, high up in the airy Catskills, above New York.

I looked out the window behind which I had been sleeping, in the village of East Durham, and there was the bold John Thomas, happily grazing the lawn a few yards away.

He was as big as a small dog. He closely resembled the kind of frightening rodentines that one encounters in nightmares and, quite frankly, I had to pinch myself to check that I was really awake, after yet another mighty night of the Irish Arts Week in the Catskills, which is very special indeed.

The director of the event is the singer-songwriter-artist, Reidin O’Flynn of that flamboyantly gifted Cork family, sister to Diarmuid O’Flynn, for example, whose hurling book was being launched on this side of the Atlantic as his sister was putting the finishing organisational touches to the stimulating Celtic cultural programme of music, song, dance, Gaelic classes, and all the other elements prized and preserved by the generations of Irish who have made the Catskills their home from home in a dramatically successful way.

Especially for this Arts Week, it is like being at a good quality fleadh at home. Or at the fabled Willie Clancy or Merriman summer schools in Clare.

You could easily opine that it is even better entertainment and stimulation in many ways, because of the commitment of the entire attendance to the packed programme of music and singing sessions provided by the imported cream of the Irish crop — such as Jackie Daly and Mary Bergin and Conor O’Grada, Mai Hernon, Kathleen Loughnane, Eileen O’Brien, Larry Nugent, Edel Fox, and a host of others.

Folk travel from all over the USA to participate.

Concurrent to the sessions and the musical craic, there are dancing and Gaelic language classes and music classes for all the instruments for the rising generations of boys and girls.

And the performers are from every walk of life. For example, the Gaelic classes this year were given by Galwegian Michael O’Maille, a genuine genius of a scholar who, in his past, for business reasons, learned Mandarin in about six weeks and, two months ago, was actually teaching Mandarin to a class of Chinese-American children who, apparently, are more willing to listen to an Irish teacher than one of their own.

Big guitarist Josh Dukes, when not being recognised in the Catskills as a guitar maestro, has the day job of being a member of the elite security corps who protect President Obama and his family. The pure truth, yet again.

Up here in East Durham, the perennial impact of the Irish community, especially from New York State, has so imprinted the landscape that one of the leading bars for the week is Shamrock House.

Down the road are other packed Irish bars and restaurants, named Gavin’s and McGraths and The Blackthorne. And there is Nellie Gavin’s Tea Shop for those who relish a good old-fashioned cup of tea.

Donal Gallagher is one of the main organisers, along with Reidin O’Flynn.

One of the projects attracting attention this year was the construction of a traditional stone wall at the entrance to what was once a local big house when the coffin ships were bringing the first wave of starving broken Irish over from their misery here.

Donal met a local Green County historian walking over the 60-acre site which is now the throbbingly alive headquarters of the Quill Foundation who run the Arts Week. There are many stone walls threaded across the estate.

The historian, an African-American, told Donal that the walls were constructed by black and Irish labourers for the big English and Dutch farmers who then owned the lands.

The workers were appallingly maltreated and abused but, said the historian, the Irish were treated even worse than the black labourers.

This was because the black workers could be traded and sold between the gentry, and accordingly had a market value. The Irish could not be sold, and so had no value at all.

The team building the new stone wall was headed last week by a Collins stonemason whose family were related to Michael Collins.

It was not completed by the time I reluctantly had to leave for home.

I brought with me the thought that the Irish who came over on the coffin ships have come a long way in every sense since those first dry stone walls were built away up in the high Catskills.

The truth again, I think.

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