Harvard praises the Bard of Ballinasloe

By © Michael P. Quinlin

The scene might have come right from old Irish saga.

On a cold winter’s night in last December Gaelic scholars and Irish leaders gathered at the Leab House at Harvard University, in a lavish dining hall seeped in tradition. With fireplace blazing and chandeliers turned low, forty invited guests sat down to a formal dinner of pheasant and an evening of toasts, stories, laughter and few tears of honour of local fiddler and traditional music impresario Larry Reynolds and his wife Phyllis.

Reynolds was selected to recieve the prestigious honour bestowed each year by Harvard due to his generous and unflinching devotion to traditional Irish music in Boston, a devotion that covers half a century. He follows in the footsteps of other prominent men and women to recieve the honour, including poet Seamus Heaney, politician William M Bulger, former Consul General Orla O’Hanrahan and University of Ulster President Gerry McKenna.

‘Larry got two standing ovations during the evening, putting him on a par with Seamus Heaney, Whom we honoured back in 1997,’ said Philip C Haughey, chairman of Harvard’s Friends of Celtic Studies, which hosted the event.

The group raises funds to help graduate students carry out research on ancient Gaelic texts.

Joining Haughey and the Reynolds at the soiree was Dr Patrick K Ford head od Harvard’s Celtic department, Tomas O Cathasaigh professor of Irish Studies, and Friends committee members Gene Haley, Mary McMillan and Elizabeth Gray.

Representing Boston’s Irish community were Isolde Moylan Consul General of Ireland, David and Pat Burke and Roberts Collins of the Irish Foundation, Mike and Liz O’Connor and Brian O’Donovan of the Irish Cultural Centre, and Seamus Connolly head of the Gaelic Roots program at Boston College. Comhaltas officials Barbara Davis, Jimmy Roche and Tom Concannon also attended.

Connolly, considered one of Ireland’s finest fiddlers, praised the work that Reynolds and his family has put into Irish music over the last fifty years.

‘I don’t know of anyone outside of Ireland who has done more to promote Irish traditional music than Larry Reynolds,’ Connolly said. ‘He has helped scores of young musicians fresh off the boat, giving them money out of his own pocket and setting them up with gigs. When I first came here in 1975, he gave me my start.’

Connolly also credited Reynolds for helping to make Conhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann such a vibrant group with chapters all over the US of which Boston’s is among the largest.

‘The Irish government should give Larry and award for the way he’s represented Ireland in America. He is one of Ireland’s best living ambassadors,’ Connolly said.

That Reynolds is held in such high regard comes as no suprise to anyone who has lived in the Boston area. He moved here from Ballinasloe in 1953, bringing with him the great musical traditiona of East Galway that other musicians like Patsy Touhey, the great piper from Loughrea brought to Boston starting back in the 19th century.

Reynolds arrived in Boston at the height of the Dudley Street era in the Roxbury neighbourhood, when numerous Irish dance halls created a vibrant dance scene that lasted into the early 1960’s. He played with Paddy, Johnny and Mick Cronin from Kerry, Brendan Tonra from Mayo, and a host of American born players like Joe Derrane, Joe Joyce and Jimmy and Sally Kelly. He later formed his own groups, the Tara Ceili Band and the Connacht Ceili Band devoting himself soley to Comhaltas starting in 1975, when he helped form the Boston chapter.

Ironically, the Harvard award reminded Reynolds of his early days in Boston, when he played at several gatherings of Harvard’s Folk Dance Society. The Irish- Harvard music connection had been established by Galway accordion player Tom Senier, who often travelled across the Charles River with fellow musicians like Dessie O’Reagan and dancer Mike Cummings of Ballygar, Galway. Reynolds played at several of those gigs, never imagining he woukd be back in Harvard a full half century later, this time as a guest of honour,

‘I was very proud to be honoured by Harvard as a proponent of Irish music,’ Reynolds says modestly. ‘For me, it’s a sign that Irish traditional music is now on a platrau where it belongs.’

Harvard’s Irish Connections

Harvard’s Connections to Irish community date back to 1896, when Chaucer scholar Fred Norris Robinson taught the first Gaelic course in America at the college.

Robinson grew up in Lawrence, a mill city north of Boston that was so heavily Irish it had its own Irish language newspaper, notes Dave Burke of the Irish Foundation. An active member of the Irish community, Robinson welcomed Dr Douglas Hyde to Boston in December 1905, and took part in numerous activities hosted by the Gaelic League. He taught Irish and Welsh courses at Harvard for forty years before the school formally created a Celtic Studies department, thanks to a donation of $51,000 from philanthropist Henry Lee Shattuck on behalf of the Charitable Irish Society.

Under the leadership of Dr Ford and Phil Haughey, Havard’s Celtic Studies Department today remains active in the Irish community at large. It has partnered with Boston College’s Irish Studies Programs, and supports local cultural groups like Sugan Theatre. Each October it hosts an annual colloquium that features the latest research of Celtic scholars and graduate students from across the world.

The Department has recently initiated as effort to endow a lecture series in honour of the late Professor John V Kelleher, who was department chairman from 1962 to 1984. Kelleher is credited, along with Eoin McKiernan and others, of helping to establish Irish Studies as a legitimate discipline in American colleges.

Reynolds, meanwhile, continues his role as Ireland’s ambassador of Irish music, a duty he has also passed along to his sons Larry, Michael and Sean. Boston’s Comhaltas Chapter hosted the annual convention in Boston in April 2003, regarded as one of the best Irish gatherings ever held in a city long accustomed to successful Irish occasions. The calibre of music at the three-day convention impressed Senator Labras O Murchu, Director General of CCE in Dublin.

‘The status of Irish Music in Boston is exceptional, thanks to Larry Reynolds and his family,’ O Murchu said, echoing a sentiment shared by everyone in Boston who loves Irish traditional music, dance and culture.

As comfortable on a college campus as he is in a dance hall or pub session, Reynolds and his good friend Seamus Connollly have become regular attendees at the gatherings hosted by the Friends of Harvard Celtic Studies. The evening always begins with convivial conversation about the language and various academic and scholarly issues. When Larry and Seamus take out their fiddles and start up a few tunes, it brings a smiles and nods of approval from the Celtic scholars in their midst. The music reminds everyone present that the Gaelic literature they’re studying in ancient manuscripts is part of a vibrant expression of Irish culture that has survived the ages.