A Night at the Ceili
By Ryan Thomson
I've been playing music at monthly ceilis in Hampstead, New Hampshire, at the home of
the Neales: Cynthia; Tim; and their daughter Hannah. I first met them while playing fiddle
at a public event in Fremont. I give the Neales 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 Neales.
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 Neales 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 accomodate 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 Neales, Irish music and dance is alive and well in New Hampshire!
This article by Ryan J Thomson, 1999