'From Kerry Patch to the US Congress'

By Dr Gearóid O hAllmhuráin

Like a real-life character from lilliput, the young fiddler Sean McCarthy valiantly faces his audience and steadies his little fingers for the Mississippi Stop Stop and Larry O’Graff. The five-year-old wonder, whose Irish ancestors were once kings of Munster, marshals his cohorts - all of whom tower above him - and leads them into a magnificent display of traditional music. With each bowhand driving the rhythmic pulse, and each tune refueling the magic of the living tradition, the ensemble winds its way through a treasury of Irish music, song and dance. When the final reels strike their peak, the rotunda of the Sheldon Concert Hall, in the St Louis theater district, resounds with thunderous applause. As the sixty member troupe of traditional performers from the St Louis Irish Arts school, aged four to twenty, stand to take their final bow, their Limerick-born director Helen Cannon is beckoned to the stage by her charges. Their gift of roses is more than a mere show of gratitude for a year-end concert. It is a symbol of appreciation for an epic journey in cultural rejuvenation that has flourished among the Irish American community in St Louis for a quarter of a century. Above all, it is an affirmation of Irish ethnic identity that has been woven into the cultural tapestry of Missouri since the end of the eighteenth century.

`The Irish Crowd’: Two Centuries of Irish Settlement in St Louis

Named after the crusading king of France, St Louis was founded by French fur traders in 1764 in what was then a Spanish province. Its founding fathers, pioneers of the Rocky Mountain fur grade, were men of considerable wealth and standing. Shortly after its emergence as a trading post in what was then Upper Louisiana, the city attracted an influx of Irish merchants and professionals, some of them veterans of French military service. Spurning thoughts of returning home to Ireland (which was still feeling the aftershock of the Penal Laws), these Wild Geese soldiers, who had served in France’s Irish Brigade, chose instead to settle in Quebec, the capital of New France, or further south in Louisiana. Comprised mainly of Catholic immigrants, the Irish community in St Louis also included prominent Protestants in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Among the most successful of the `Irish Crowd’ - as they were dubbed by the local Creole community - were john Mullamphy from Fermanagh, the city’s first millionaire, who financed the city’s first hospital, Joseph Charles from Westmeath, who edited the city’s first newspaper, and Jeremiah Connor from Roscommon, who served as the city’s first sheriff.

The tragedy of the Great Famine (1845-50) brought a new influx of Irish immigrants up the Mississipi to St Louis. Arriving through the port of New Orleans, their passage along the river is still endorsed by place names like the Irish Channel and the Irish Bayou in southern Louisiana. Poor demoralised and hungry, these immigrants stood out in sharp contrast to their affluent predecessors. In St Louis, they huddled together in a dilapidated shanty town known as Kerry Patch, a commons near Fourteenth and O’Fallon streets in the northern part of the city. Straining the resources of charitable institutions, their bleak misfortune was exacerbated by nativist bigotry in the 1840s and 1850s. Despite the trauma of upheaval and displacement, these Famine Irish had little choice but to persevere in an urban culture that was radically different from the rural world they left behind them in Ireland. The outbreak of the American Civil War offered many of them an opportunity to prove their loyalty to their new homeland. As their material conditions improved in the wake of the Civil War, some Irish settled west of Kerry Patch, and gradually began to make inroads into the trades and minor professions. Others began to reap the benefits of the booming river and frontier economy which characterised St Louis in the closing decades of the last century.

By the early 1900’s, the Irish in St Louis began to enjoy the fruits of the American Dream, alongside other immigrant groups, not least the numerically superior German community. Like their contemporaries in San Francisco, they had learned to thrive in a rapidly changing multicultural environment, which was empathetic towards their Catholic faith and devoid of the WASP-style prejudices of the East Coast. By now, they were moving west of Grand Boulevard, creating religious and cultural societies, running city politics, promoting education, and patronizing the arts. Their ethnic confidence was obvious in their contribution to the World’s Fair held in St Louis in 1904. Previewing the fair in its April 1904 edition, the New York Gael reminded its readers that the Irish exhibit promises to be the most dignified and praiseworthy representation that Ireland has ever seen at any international exposition.' The paper proclaimed thatthe policy of the administration of the project is one that will find approval in the eyes of all seIf-respecting Irishmen. National ideals will not be sacrificed on the altar of catchpenny commercialism.’ Extolling the rise of `industrial Ireland from among her historic ruins’, the Gael was enthusiastic in its praise for the Irish musicians who were to perform at the fair. Among its featured artists were the vaudevillian piper Patsy Touhey from Chicago, the Ireland’s Own brass and reed band from St Louis, the tenor John McCormick and the poet W.B. Yeats, who had travelled from Ireland for the event, as well as a host of local harpers, pipers, fiddlers and dancers.

The World’s Fair had a dramatic impact on the social and cultural life of St Louis in the opening years of the century. Extolled as an affluent metropolis, the city’s modernism coincided with the emergence of the US as a world power in the wake of the Spanish American War. From ragtime to classical music, ethnic dance to modern literature, artistic creativity continued to flourish in St Louis throughout the twentieth century. Now on the threshold of another new century, the old gateway to the Oregon Trail continues to showcase its creative wealth in the musical as well as the literary arts. Among its legions of ethnic artists are the award-winning music makers of the St Louis Irish Arts School, who have taken Irish traditional music, song and dance across the cultural abyss from Kerry Patch to the stately portals of the United States Congress.

‘Sustaining an Ethnic Tradition’: St Louis Irish Arts

While no longer in the mainstream of Irish emigtation today, St Louis maintains a lively agenda of Irish cultural activities. Renowned for McGurk’s pub, which hosts Irish musicians touring the professional circuit in the US, the city is home to a host of Irish and Irish-American associations, among them the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Young Ireland society. Augmenting the cultural philosophy of these cohorts, the St Louis Irish Arts school has taught Irish music, song and dance in St Louis for over twenty five years. As well as creating an educational and civic forum for the local Irish-American community, the school has developed a cultural highway between Ireland and North America which allows young musicians from St Louis to interact regularly with their counterparts in Ireland. In attending international competitions and music festivals in Ireland, and sponsoring out-reach educational programmes and summer schools in America, St Louis Irish Arts has helped reverse the flow of cultural traffic between Ireand and its expatriate communities in the Mid West. Since 1993, the association has invited teachers from Ireland to participate in its summer school which convenes every July at South East Missouri State University at Cape Girardeau and attracts students from as far north as Chicago and Detroit.

Above all, St Louis Irish Arts has helped quell the overwhelming sense of isolation from the homeland which so often characterised Irish immigrant communities in the mid western states. St Louis Irish Arts association was set up in 1971. Inspired by a Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann tour performance in the city, the nascent body was guided through its inaugural stages by Bill and Janet Boyer, whose Folk Music Society hosted CCE concerts in 1971 and 1972. Within a year of the second CCE visit, St Louis Irish Arts had formed a branch of Comhaltas. Its first president was Peter Hazelton, whose Derry-born wife Valerie Smith was a well-known step dancer. This new branch was also fortunate to draw on the organisational expertise of Dr Richard Usher. (His son Scott is remembered in the Scott McNutt Usher room at Comhaltas headquarters in Dublin. A young college student in 1972, Scott died tragically in a road accident after a CCE concert in St Luois). By 1973, Dr PJ Gannon and his wife Helen had emerged as prominent figures within the fledgling association. Both were expatriate Irish who had arrived in St Louis a decade earlier to work in the medical profession. PJ, a professor of psychiatry at St Louis University, was a native of Dunmore, Co. Galway, an area steeped in traditional music. His wife Helen, a nurse, grew up in Limerick, a city with an established reputation for Irish step dancing, and a proven pedigree of world-class dancing schools. During the next twenty years, the Gannons would become pivotal figures in the cultural development of St Louis Irish Arts.

While Irish instrumental music was at a low ebb in St Louis during the 1970s, the city boasted two dancing schools which had been active there since the 1950s. These were ran by dancing masters Pete Sullivan and Con O’Sullivan, both of whom were natives of Kerry. As well as teaching step dancing, these old-style masters organised ceili gatherings and feiseanna. Attracted by the prospect of becoming a dance teacher, Helen Gannon began to work with Con O’Sullivan, who became her dance colleague and mentor. She went on the inherit his school when he died.

As well as pursuing her own dance ambitions, Helen Gannon encouraged her sons Sean, Niall and Liam, and later on, their sister Eileen, to learn Irish traditional music. She also sent them to learn suzuki violin from Marian Williams. Later on, they attended the St Louis Conservatory of Music. By the late 1 970s, the Gannons were organising traditional music classes in their own home. Encouraged by concerts given by visiting CCE tour groups, as well as musical vacations spent in Ireland, these aspiring music makers began honing their technical skills and expanding their traditional repertoires from a very young age. In Chicago in 1975, the three Gannon lads (playing in the under-twelve fiddle competition) became the first set of brothers to qualify for the All Ireland Fleadh Cheoil from the Mid West. Hungry for authentic sources outside the competitive arena, the Gannons got to know traditional masters like Johnny McGreevy and Terence ‘Cuz’ Teehan, who taught them the finer points of the tradition, as well as its social history and folklore. Throughout his teenage years, Niall Gannon travelled frequently to Chicago to take fiddle lessons from Johnny McGreevy. During this same period, Teehan, a folk composer and melodeon player from Sliabh Luachra, made frequent visits to the Gannon household in St Louis. ‘Cuz’, whose nickname was derived from abundant family connections with Kerry immigrants in Chicago, was to remember these musical visits in his tune `The Gannon Boys’.

By 1981, the educational and cultural groundwork of the previous decade bagan to reach fruition. The St Louis Irish Arts school had moved to Gardenville Community Centre and began to teach Irish traditional music to scores of young children, teenagers and adults. By now, Helen Gannon realised that she could not keep her students involved on a long-term basis without an Irish dancing school to complement their enthusiasm for the music. Within a short time, the St Louis Irish Arts’ portfolio expanded to include step and figure dancing. Now when the kids came to dancing, Helen handed them a tin whistle and her husband PJ began to teach them basic dance tunes. To guarantee the quality of her programme, Helen invited the Cork dancing master Maureen Hall to teach dance workshops in St Louis. Following Maureen’s advice, Helen decided to sit her TCRG exams which she passed in 1987 - at the age of forty five.

A vocation among siblings: Niall and Eileen Gannon

It was evident from the onset that St Louis Irish Arts would become a long-term hobby for all the Gannon siblings. For fiddler Niall Gannon, however, it has remained an educational and administrative challenge for over two decades. He first stepped into the bureaucratic breach at the sprightly age of fifteen, when the seventy members of St Louis Irish Arts elected him president of their organisation. This adult role, with its bustling agenda of decision making and convention meetings, made him a well-known figure in Comhaltas circles throughout North America. Apart from high-profile bureaucratic duties, he was also teaching weekly music classes at Gardenville Community Centre, and, at the same time, tackling the academic workload of high school. In the midst of this busy lifestyle, Niall still found time to concentrate on his fiddling. During the mid 1980s, he was awarded a ‘Traditional Artists Apprenticeship Program’ by the Missouri Arts Council and the Missouri Folk Arts Programme to study with Irish Fiddler James Kelly. This programme, which is affiliated with the National Endowment for the Arts, recognises the need for master artists to pass on their skills to aspiring apprentices. In the past decade, both Helen and Dr PJ Gannon, as well as St Louis based accordionist Larry McNally, have all been awarded the ‘Traditional Artists’ Apprenticeship Programme by the Missouri Arts Council. (McNally, a native of Co. Offaly, has been a faculty member with St Louis Irish Arts since the late 1980s). The pedagogical benefits of these prestigious awards had an immediate impact on the quality of traditional music being taught within the curriculum of the St Louis Irish Arts school. During the past decade, its students have won no less than eighteen Congressional Awards. This accounts for over one third of all Congressional Awards granted within the state of Missouri.

Niall Gannon’s contact with masters like James Kely, Johnny McGreevy, and `Cuz’ Teehan led to stylistic progress and an expanded repertoire of tunes both of which he shared with his students. Similarlly, his annual visit to Ireland to attend CCE’s Scoil Eigse (traditional music school) and the All-Ireland Fleadh reinforced his appreciation for the wellspring of the music. While these musical ‘pilgrimages’ led to renewed liaison with traditional master in Ireland, it also motivated younger members of St Louis Irish Arts to follow in the footsteps of their mentor. A decade afterwards, it has become customary for fiddlers and flute players, harpers and singers from St Louis to apprentice themselves with older masters in Ireland.

Eileen Gannon’s musical journey has followed the same trans-Atlantic itinerary as her brother. Well before her teenage years, she embarked on a career as an Irish harper, an avocation which would take her from St Louis to the most prestigious music shcools in Ireland as well as in North America. In 1997, at the age of nineteen, she was placed second in the senior harp competition at Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann in Ballina, Co Mayo, against a distinguished cohort of world-class performers.

When not performing, studying, or arranging music, Eileen Gannon can be found working on recording projects with her brother Niall. Their most ambitious projects to date include two CD recordings which they produced for the St Louis Irish Arts school in 1997 and 1999. The first disc, eponymous titled `St Louis Irish Arts: Ceol agus Rince’, is a rare paragon of traditional music recording. Featuring a cast of preteen and teenage performers, the recording has few precedents in Irish music history. By far the most dynamic branch of Comhaltas west of the Mississippi, St Louis Irish Arts boasts more younger performers than most Comhaltas chapters in North America. It is this youthful energy which gives this disc its unique quality. On this recording, which contains an amalgam of dance tunes, O’Carolan pieces, recent compositions, and Irish language songs, these teenagers perform with all the deft experience of well-seasoned adult musicians. What is particularly striking about the CD is its all-too-rare mix of traditional dance music and Irish language singing, the latter, which one does not usually expect from American- born kids. While Niall and Eileen had exceptional production input from Longford harper Tracy Fleming and Dublin accordionist Caitríona O’Neill, the concrete evidence of their own teaching is confirmend by the exemplary fiddling of Ian Walsh and Kevin Buckley. Likewise, the accordion playing of Kelly Winter and Linda Herndon, the flute and whistle playing of Sarah Hale, Shannon Spellman, Kerry Moran, Katie Degreeff and Amber Nelson, nunctuated by the subtle bodhrán playing of Chris Weddle, create a sensitive blend of ensemble music - an attribute which is frequently absent in the frenetic synergy of today’s commercial marketplace.

The system comes full circle: The next generation takes over

Despite their years of devoted teaching, and the accolades won by their students, the Gannons remain conspicuously modest about their success. Marvelling at the traditional process at work among his students, Niall delights in the fact that his twelve year old fiddlers now play rolls and cuts, crans and triplets that are often the hallmark of advanced players. "Our kids are now playing rolls, and some of them were never shown how to play rolls, but they can do it anyway". Seeing his students as sources to learn tunes from as well as peers to play with, Gannon no longer feels isolated as a traditional musician.Unlike the old days in the 1970s and 1980s when a young lad had to wait to go to Ireland once a year to get all fired up about the music, we now have a generation of kids playing Irish music in St Louis. For them, Irish traditional music is simply a natural part of their social lives. This for me is the ultimate reward for passing on the music here in St Louis’. It is not surprising that his students are now becoming teachers in their own right, and are passing on their music at summer schools and festivals throughout the state of Missouri and Ohio.

For Helen Gannon, one of her proudest achievements was to present her students at the United States Congress in April of this year. They were invited to Washington to give a recital of Irish traditional music, song and dance at the awards ceremony for General Cohn Powell, who was recognised by Congress for his contribution to youth of America. The honour of playing at this event was as much a validation of two decades of cultural renaissance in St Louis, as an affirmation of the high status which is now bestowed on Irish traditional culture in North America. Once applauded by the Irish writer Bryan MacMahon as ‘the Queen of St Louis’, Helen Gannon is acutely aware of the long cutlural road she and her husband PJ have travelled since 1973. While she may be preoccupied with music schools and feiseanna in the US, and concert performances and artistic forums in Ireland, she remains indubitably loyal to the cultural life of her adopted city. Vigilant of its potential as a nucleus of Irish culture in North America, she is confident that the educational and artistic credo of her St Louis Irish Arts school will continue to thrive in the future. She is also excited about the recent establishment of the Jefferson Smurfit Corporation Chair of Irish Studies at the University of Missouri in St Louis, which will complement the ethnic philosophy of St Louis Irish Arts and its sister associations with in the Irish-American community. Not alone does this new chair validate the commitment of the University of Missouri to Irish Studies, but is also bodes well for the posterity of Irish and Irish-American culture in the new century. In many respects, the Jefferson Smurfit endowment confirms the wisdom of the ancient Gaels who taught their educators to mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí (praise youth and it will thrive). There is no doubt that this unambiguous maxim has informed the work of the St Louis Irish Arts, or appreciate its cultural contribution to the unbroken journey of the Irish in America?

Dr Gearóid O hAllmburáin is an Irish music historian, anthropologist and journalist. A native of Co. Clare, he has lived in San Francisco since 1993. An All-Ireland champion concertina player and piper, he performs all over the US and Canada. His Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music was published by the O’Brien Press, Dublin in 1998. His most recent recording Tracin’ with French fiddler Patrick Ourceau, was issued by Celtic Crossigns in 1999.