Updated September 16, 2021
I’ve been playing music at monthly ceilis in Hampstead, New Hampshire, at the home of the Neale’s: Cynthia; Tim; and their daughter Hannah. I first met them while playing fiddle at a public event in Fremont. I give the Neale’s great credit for their enthusiastic efforts in continuing the traditions of Irish music and dance at the ceilis in their home. As dancers and musicians themselves they create a friendly atmosphere charged with some great dancing and merry music making. Some of the attendees drive long distances just to take part in the lively proceedings.
On ceili nights they host an afternoon music session open to interested fiddlers, pipers, and other instrumentalists. A large room is cleared of all furniture save the piano. Following the session is high energy Irish social dancing that continues for many hours. I love to dance, but as a serious fiddler and dance piano player, I'm also a willing recruit as part of the set dance band.
At their last ceili I balanced my activities so that I got to dance at the beginning of the evening to recorded music, and then helped provide live dance music for much of the remainder. Playing fiddle or piano for dancers is a major passion of my life. I can attest to the extra special energy I find at the ceilis in Hampstead. At this last ceili I danced in a set with people who had traveled all the way from such diverse locations as Boston, Massachusetts, and Rochester, New York, just to take part in the festivities at the Neale’s.
As a musician, there's nothing like cranking out fast jigs and reels and feeling the floor move in time to the whirling dancers who keep a percussive beat with their shoes on the hardwood floor! As the dancers keep one end of the Neale’s house jumping till the wee hours, a room at the far end is where other musicians gather to play tunes together, in the way that traditional Irish music passes down from person to person.
Ceilis are a way for folks to visit with their friends, make new ones, and generally recharge the batteries after the stresses of everyday life. Some people bring dishes for the potluck supper, musicians bring instruments, dancers bring their feet, and everyone brings good cheer. The main thing we all have in common is a passion for participating in Irish cultural activities that have endured over the centuries.
A New England variation of the Irish ceili is what Yankees call the "Kitchen Junket," which is similar to a ceili, yet blends cultural traditions from the melting pot of immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, England, and France. I've been playing for these types of dances for over 25 years, and as a dance musician I find it easy to acommodate either ceilis or kitchen junkets, since the largest percentage of tunes in New England dancing are Irish tunes! The very first tune I learned on the fiddle was an Irish jig, and by the time I began playing for ceilis I found that I already knew much of the standard Irish repertoire.
Thanks to people like the Neale’s, Irish music and dance is alive and well in New Hampshire!
A Night at the Ceili
by Ryan Thomson
This article by Ryan J Thomson, 1999
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