Irish on their minds

Music weekend elevates Irish culture in Harpers ferry, W.Va., area

Music weekend elevates Irish culture in Harpers ferry, W.Va., area

October 20, 2005|by JULIE E. GREENE

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - Paddy O'Brien was about 8 years old when he heard Irish music on the radio and some local musicians, including a button accordion player, came to his home in the Midlands of Ireland.

"The melodies stay in my mind and I would be playing them in my head," recalls O'Brien, who now lives in St. Paul, Minn.

Now 60, O'Brien says his memory harbors close to 4,000 tunes that he can play on his button accordion.

Tri-State area residents have a chance to hear O'Brien play this weekend at the second annual Upper Potomac Irish Music Weekend in the Harpers Ferry area.


The event is co-sponsored by the nonprofit groups Shepherdstown Music & Dance and Upper Potomac, which organizes the Upper Potomac Dulcimer Festival, says Joanie Blanton, executive director for Upper Potomac. Upper Potomac organizes residential music programs in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and Harpers Ferry.

O'Brien is a member of Chulrua, which plays traditional Irish music. The band's other members are Patrick Ourceau, who plays the fiddle, and guitarist and vocalist Pat Egan.

Other entertainers scheduled to perform include Grey Larsen, whose repertoire includes the Irish flute; Paddy League, who plays the bodhran, a shallow, hand-held drum; Karen Ashbrook, who plays hammered dulcimer and flute; and Betsy O'Malley, who plays tenor banjo and mandolin.

The performers can be heard during the Showcase Concert at 8 p.m. Saturday at Harpers Ferry Middle School in Bolivar Heights, W.Va.

They also will be teaching classes during the three-day festival.

The Irish Ceili - a type of dance - will be the focus of a dance held at 8 p.m. Friday at Hilltop House Hotel. Marilyn Moore, from Washington, D.C., will hold a Ceili dance workshop from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. that is included in the $5 admission price for the dance and jam sessions.

The dance is lively and fairly easy to pick up, Blanton says.

O'Brien will teach beginner to advanced classes for the button accordion during Irish Music Weekend.

The button accordion is the same as any instrument in that it takes a while to learn, O'Brien says. His accordion has eight buttons on the left for bass and two rows - 23 buttons - on the right for melody.

O'Brien says he concentrates on the melody to get the music's feeling.

"Most of all I like to get good energy to rouse people up, make them feel good about themselves and dance if they want to," he says.

The melodic structure of Irish tunes drew him to it - "the life and energy in the jigs and reels," he says.

O'Brien says it's difficult to explain what makes the quality or melody of traditional Irish music so engaging. "A lot of it has to do with being so old," he says of the music.

The music has a pure melodic makeup that hasn't been contaminated by any influences, he says.

Chulrua's performance is about the music, not showmanship.

"We're interested in the music as an art form, an honest reflection of how we are as Irish people," O'Brien says.

If you go ...

WHAT: Upper Potomac Irish Music Weekend

WHEN: Friday, Oct. 21, to Sunday, Oct. 23

WHERE: Hilltop House Hotel, 400 E. Ridge St., Harpers Ferry, W.Va., except for Saturday night's Showcase Concert at Harpers Ferry Middle School, 1710 W. Washington St., Bolivar Heights, W.Va.

COST: $5 admission fee to Friday's Irish Ceili. Admission to Saturday's Showcase Concert is $15, adults; $12, seniors; $10, Shepherdstown Music & Dance members; and $6, children and students.

DIRECTIONS: To get to Hilltop House Hotel, take Alternate U.S. 40 east past Boonsboro. Turn right on Md. 67 south. Take Md. 67 south to U.S. 340, heading west toward Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Turn right on Union Street. Turn right on Washington Street. Turn left on Jackson Street. Turn right on Ridge Street to Hilltop House Hotel, which is on the left. To get to Harpers Ferry Middle School, take U.S. 340 to the traffic light at the top of the hill, by Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and turn right on Washington Street. The school is two blocks down on the left. (Sign says Harpers Ferry Junior High.)

MORE: For tickets or more information, call 1-304-263-2531 or go to

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