Irish ambassador expresses fascination with Sir John A

Having 60 years of tradition is enough reason to celebrate, but the traditions of the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann go back far longer then its 60 years in operation.

Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann is an international organization aimed at promoting and preserving traditional Irish culture. The 415 branches in 15 countries gather to uphold traditional Irish music and promote and foster the Irish language.

Here in Kingston, the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann Harp of Tara Branch has been operating for 31 years. For the 60th anniversary of the organization, the Kingston branch hosted representatives from branches throughout the Canada East region, which covers Ontario and all provinces east of it.

It was for that reason that the Irish Ambassador to Canada, Ray Bassett, made a stop in Kingston this past weekend, where he presented awards of recognition to members of each branch in Canada East.

"Comhalts is a very important organization, keeping alive the traditional music and general tradition. It's spread all over the world now, and it's a great organization," Bassett said, leaning over a table in Dox restaurant of the Holiday Inn where he stayed Saturday night.

"I felt when they asked me that I had to come for that reason, and because it's very important to the community here, both for the Irish-born and those of Irish decent."

However, there was another reason Bassett found Kingston a point of interest.

"I also wanted to come to Kingston because I'm quite interested in John A. Macdonald and I'm interested in some of the history here," he said.

"John A. Macdonald was such a telling figure in Canada and the more you read about him the more you realize this guy had so much ability.

"And he had a very Irish and Scottish weakness, which is of course for the drink," he added with a laugh.

Around 100 people gathered in Kingston for the 60th anniversary celebration, organized by members of the Harp of Tara branch. With live traditional Irish music, step dancers and culinary delights, the event was one that meant a lot to the founder of the Kingston branch, Anne McConnell.

McConnell began the Kingston branch in 1978 after travelling to Ottawa with a friend to take in a traditional Irish concert put on by Comhaltas based out of Ireland.

"At that time there wasn't much (Irish) dancing and music in Kingston," McConnell explained.

"But these were like the cream of the crop of performers in Ireland."

The lack of Irish music and dancing in Kingston all ended there. McConnell arranged to the Irish Comhaltas Music Tour to come to Kingston the next year, and in 1979, the concert took place at the KCVI auditorium.

"It was a huge success," McConnell recalled.

"As a result of that, then we started a branch of Comhaltas."

The group grew gradually, but it didn't have one of the pillars of the organizations objectives: Irish musicians.

That's when the Kingston Ceili Band changed everything.

The Ceili Band, which is now independent of the Comhaltas, celebrated 25 years together in 2006. The band has been a driving force of promoting and developing Irish music in Kingston — as has McConnell.

With no Irish pubs in Kingston at the time, McConnell knew that too had to change if the Comhaltas of the Limestone City were going to properly foster the preservation of Irish culture. After all, the growing Irish music scene needed a venue to entertain in.

So McConnell and her husband opened up Finnegan's and Muldoon's, two side-by-side Irish pubs on Ontario Street where Irish music brought passers-by off the street and into the open arms of Kingston's Irish community.

Now, about 30 years later, McConnell is still active with the Kingston Comhaltas, who host monthly ceilis and have Irish dancing and music workshops, as well as Irish language classes and a conversational group. The Harp of Tara branch even hosted the world's first wheelchair ceili at Providence Manor, when one of the dancers with the organization who works there invited the group to come in with some musicians and dancers. Stephen Rayner, chairman of the Kingston branch, choreographed a dance routine that was wheelchair-friendly. The participants enjoyed the event so much they've held three or four more wheelchair ceilis since.

"It's something that we really do appreciate, I mean, it's a lot of fun, and it's preserving our culture," Rayner said of why the Comhaltas Harp of Tara branch has continued thriving all these years. Rayner was one of the Kingston Branch members honoured with an Achievement Award at Saturday's event.

"But mostly it's enjoyable. We wouldn't do it if it wasn't fun."

So for the 60th anniversary of Comhaltas internationally, the Kingston branch brought together members from the seven branches in Canada East, who represented some 430 members. The key focus, apart from the music and dancing, was the 2011 Achievement Awards being handed out Saturday night by Ambassador Bassett. Two couples from the Kingston branch were honoured with the awards: the aforementioned Rayner, and his wife, Julie Bowes, and Bob MacDiarmid and Angeles Garcia, who dedicate much of their free time to hosting weekly language classes and organizing the monthly ceilis.

Bassett, who has been serving as Ambassador to Canada for just over a year, said he was very glad to be giving out the awards, which recognized members from each branch in Canada East who'd worked tirelessly and selflessly, volunteering to promote Irish culture in their communities.

On his first trip to Kingston, Bassett said that Irish natives feel very strongly about the Comhaltas organizations, and that the organizations are a big part of Irish culture in Ireland itself. The CEO of Comhaltas of Ireland, he said, was in fact an Irish senator he noted.

"I'm actually really quite excited to do it," Bassett said of handing out the awards. He noted that the standards of the musicians in Comhaltas organizations are very high, and it's always fun to see them perform.

"I think every artist, in any kind of area, likes to be rewarded," he said.

"The awards tends to reinforce the commitment and also it's a recognition of excellence."

Bassett said another reason he wanted to be in Kingston to present the awards was down to wanting Canada East Comhaltas to know the Irish appreciate their efforts.

"I hope people feel that the Irish government are recognizing what these organizations are doing and their talent," he said.

"What Comhaltas is doing is very, very worthwhile, and I just want to show strong support of that."

For the members of the Comhalts Harp of Tara branch, having Ambassador Bassett at the 60th anniversary event embodied what their organization stands for.

"It means an awful lot. Really, it's a great honour to have him come," said McConnell, who is now the chairperson for the Canada East regional board of Canada for the Comhaltas.

"I think it's nice to have that stamp of approval from the Irish, that's what it is really," Rayner agreed.

Irish ambassador expresses fascination with Sir John A. - The Whig Standard - Ontario, CA


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