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'It was like living with the cast of Riverdance'

Baltimore accordionist brings family's musical tradition to festival

Baltimore accordionist brings family's musical tradition to festival

October 16, 2008|By JULIE E. GREENE

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Maryland has become a hotbed of Irish traditional music and Billy McComiskey is largely responsible for that.

"For my own personal survival, I have to be around music, and the fact that it wasn't here when I got here was disturbing," McComiskey said during a recent phone interview. "When I moved to Baltimore (around 1980) to be with my wife, I couldn't help but notice the potential for an Irish scene."

McComiskey started the tradition of Thursday night Irish music sessions at Kavanaugh's - back when it was a popular Irish bar for police - for about three years after moving to Baltimore. Now there are Irish music sessions at various venues in the city, including J. Patrick's Irish Pub, just about every night of the week, he said.

He played with various groups in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, and taught many students Irish music, said Joanie Blanton with Shepherdstown Music and Dance.

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This weekend, McComiskey and his button accordion can be heard at Shepherdstown Music and Dance's Upper Potomac Irish Weekend performing as part of the Hedge Band. The band includes Laura Byrne on flute, Pat Egan on guitar and Donna Long, who plays piano and fiddle. All of them are prominent performers and teachers in their fields who live along a Baltimore area known as the Celtic Corridor.

Band members will perform and teach during the weekend event.

"It's an obsession, not just a job," McComiskey said.

Blanton has been trying to get McComiskey to the event for years, and, this time around, it fit his schedule.

"She kind of builds it around this Baltimore-Washington Irish music scene," McComiskey said. "It reflects directly back to Ireland."

McComiskey, 56, was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., to parents who emigrated from Ireland.

His mother's family was intensely interested in music. His grandmother step-danced, his uncles played accordion and flute, and his grandfather played fiddle.

"It was a madhouse. They refer to it now as Irish culture and the Irish just used to refer to it as having fun," McComiskey said. "It was like living with the cast of Riverdance."

McComiskey started playing the accordion when he was in second grade, inheriting his love for Irish accordion music from his Uncle Matt.

During the 1970s, McComiskey was part of The Irish Tradition, a trio that played at the Dubliner Restaurant on Capitol Hill and performed for Presidents Carter and Reagan. McComiskey met his wife, Annie, at a wedding and ended up living in Baltimore. They still live in Baltimore, where McComiskey is a maintenance mechanic, doing light plumbing and electrical work.

McComiskey plays an East Galway style of Irish music, which is to say if you followed a line from Mayo to Tipperary on a map of Ireland, that's where you'd hear this style. East Galway music consists of jigs, reels and hornpipes - "an elongated and round and rolling kind of music," he said.

"I play the East Galway style of accordion playing, which came into existence around the '40s and '50s," McComiskey said.

While the American accordion has piano keys on it, button accordions are more prevalent worldwide. In the 1940s, Italian Paola Soprani exported the button accordions he had built to Ireland. These featured two rows of buttons, as opposed to one row, and could play all sharps and flats so they fit the Irish culture better, McComiskey said.

"I play a Paolo Soprani built around 1948," McComiskey said.

In August, McComiskey's first solo album since 1981 was released. "Outside the Box" features a lot of original music.

"I'm fortunate in that I get to play with a lot of good musicians who approach the music in a lot of different ways," McComiskey said. "... I don't like being pigeon-holed."

If you go ...



WHAT: Hedge Band with Billy McComiskey on button accordion during Upper Potomac Irish Weekend

Irish Concert at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, at Reynolds Hall, Shepherd University, corner of King and German streets, Shepherdstown, W.Va. Tickets cost $8 to $15; free for Shepherd students with Rambler ID. Ceili Dance with Hedge Band at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, at War Memorial Building, corner of King and German streets, Shepherdstown. Tickets cost $10.

MORE: Upper Potomac Irish Weekend includes music and dance workshops with advance registration recommended. For more information about Billy McComiskey, go to compassrecords.com/billy-mccomiskey.

CONTACT: For more information, including class schedule and cost, call 304-263-2531, e-mail updf@earthlink.net, or go to www.irishmusicwknd.info.

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