Augusta Heritage Center Irish Week Report, 1999
by Ryan Thomson
For over 20 years The Augusta Heritage Center at Davis Elkins College, in Elkins, West
Virginia, has been offering a week long program which immerses participants in Irish
culture, music, and dance. I've participated in this program many times, having studied
Irish fiddle variously with Kevin Burke, Willie Kelly, and Brian Conway, piano with Brendan
Dolan, and Irish dance with Jim Keenan and Mick Mulkerrin. In addition to these specialties,
the possible courses of instruction also include: pipes; accordion; Irish language and
culture; step dancing; harp; singing; percussion; flute, whistle; concertina; and more; with
well known performers and teachers from both Ireland and the USA. There are around 400
Each day is filled with classes, workshops, lectures, concerts, and dances, and a sleep
deficit develops for anyone who tries to take in even a little of every offered activity! Most
people sign up for a particular class which continues through the week. Classes start at 10
am in the morning, go to lunch hour, and continue in the afternoon. For those who like to
participate actively, there are informal groups of musicians and dancers of all skill levels
that form spontaneously in various nooks and crannys on campus. These sessions continue
all day long and often don't end until 4 or 5 am. I played till 3 am for several nights. I was
having such a good time playing fiddle at these sessions, that the time seemed to pass by
at double speed. The music was so lively that it was hard to pack up my fiddle and flute
and go to bed, but I felt a need to prepare for the 9 am breakfast deadline!
Last year I was on the general staff at the Augusta Heritage Center for 5 weeks. My official
duties prevented me from playing as much music as I would have liked, but I did manage to
attend a few hours of the piano class with Brendan Dolan, and learned quite a bit just from
that limited exposure. I've always admired the tasteful Irish piano playing of Felix Dolan,
his father, from whom he learned, and so I chose to enroll as a full time student in his
piano class for the 1999 program.
I have many years of experience playing piano as accompaniment for dancers, but I'm
always excited about the chance to learn more tricks of the trade. This class both met and
exceeded my expectations. Brendan was very willing and able to show me many specific
fingerings and playing techniques which best highlight Irish tunes.
At the end of the program was an afternoon "showcase" at which all students and classes
did a demonstration or performance of what they had learned during the week. Since the
piano class can't easily perform as a group, I was asked to play accompaniment for the
group performance of the tin whistle class. What fun!
In addition, I enrolled in a late afternoon ceili dance band class as the band piano player.
We practiced several hours a day, and performed as the official band at the end-of-the-
week grand finale ceili dance. We had 20 musicians in the band: fiddles, flutes, accordions,
etc, and had a blast. ("good crack," to use the Irish phrase). We played mostly high speed
jigs and reels for a wildly enthusiastic and overflowing crowd of set dancers. A highlight of
the dance for me, was having master piano player Bob Mcquillen yell out my name during
the middle of the ceili and then when he had my attention, gave me a thumbs up! Bob,
who can hold his own or better with any dance piano player known, is also on the Augusta
staff to help fill in whenever needed.
I highly recommend the Augusta program for anyone interested in Irish music, dance and
culture. Courses range in content and style to cover the full gamut from those with no
experience to folks with an advanced level of previous knowledge. For my own music
making needs I found it easy to maintain 6 to 8 hours a day of playing in addition to classes
and other activities. Another added bonus for players with eclectic interests is that there
are also opportunities to jam with others in many other types of folk music, including the
rich heritage of music and dance native to West Virginia itself.
Written by Ryan Thomson, 1999