Irish culture has been an indelible part of Boston, but the names on our red-brick buildings tell a different story: Adams, Lowell, Winthrop. It would be easy to assume that for Harvard students, Irish culture consists of little more than guzzling alcohol in Tommy Doyle’s Irish Pub or at St. Patrick’s Day Stein Club.
Recently, however, a small but lively Irish subculture, centered on Celtic music and language, has been developing at Harvard. But despite its vivacity, it remains largely unnoticed by the broader student body.
Efforts by groups like the Harvard College Celtic Club and by the producers of the upcoming Loeb mainstage of J.M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” may be just the sort of first step needed to finally make Harvard a place where Irish artistic culture lives. But in order to be successful, these groups will have to overcome years of disconnect with both the Harvard student body and the Irish community beyond its gates.
A SOCIAL GATHERING
If you had walked into Tommy Doyle’s around 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 7, you might not have noticed anything out of the ordinary. “Some of the best Irish musicians of Boston are going to be here,” Mary J. “Molly” Hester ’08 says, sitting at the bar. But at that early point in the evening, the scene seemed more Applebee’s than traditional Irish pub.
While the chalked sign next to the door advertises an evening “session”—a sort of informal, unrehearsed group performance of traditional Irish folk music—the sounds inside are wholly modern: non-threatening contemporary pop music, the clang of dishes and silverware, and the white noise of dinner chatter in a large restaurant.
Eventually, a few other musicians begin appearing, many of them Harvard students, but some adults from the Boston area. One, a wooden flutist, attends Boston College (BC).
The community is open, lively, and friendly. Hester, in fact, isn’t even Irish by birth; this is her adopted culture. She began playing the uilleann pipes—Irish bagpipes operated by the elbows and fingers—around the same time she became interested in Irish step-dancing, and she has since became infatuated. It is the reason she says she came to Harvard from California: to be near Boston and its Irish community.
Despite how easily this non-Celt assumed her place among the flute and pipe players, Harvard students are not lining up in droves to listen or perform these traditional jigs and reels.
Part of that might be due to the specialized nature of their music, which, while bright, energetic, and melodic, doesn’t so much fill the room as linger in the corner. The diners at Tommy Doyle’s treat it like any other background music. One middle-aged couple watches from the bar with great enjoyment, but they are already familiar with this music and are simply waiting for their daughter—a banjo player—to arrive.
But this casualness is the nature of the sessions. “It’s not a performance so much as it’s a social gathering,” Lindsay K. Turner ’07, the Celtic Club’s founder, says. And while members remain dedicated to these intimate gatherings of their club, they have also recently made efforts to play to a larger audience. But Harvard has seemed reluctant to listen.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Max A. Newman ’07 has played Irish music since his childhood, but when he arrived at Harvard, there wasn’t much of an Irish scene to speak of. Since 2004, when the Celtic Club was founded, he and Turner have been working, along with others, to build such a culture. They aren’t the first to try.
In the mid-’90s, there was the Irish Cultural Society; at the beginning of this decade, there was the Celtic Society; and now, there is the Celtic Club. The others have faded away, leaving Harvard without an established culture of Irish dance, music, or theater and forcing each subsequent generation of students to start from scratch.
“It’s something we’d like to work on, having a larger presence on campus,” Turner says. They have begun taking the first steps towards engaging the broader community—the club has performers in both Cultural Rhythms and ArtsFirst. But these Irish artists still seem far from achieving the popularity or unity of other cultural performance groups on campus like the Latino Candela dance troupes or the annually sold-out show of the South Asian Association, Ghungroo.
Additionally, “Irish culture” is a much more nebulous term to define than one might expect, one that extends far beyond bohdrans, fiddles and “Riverdance.”
“There really isn’t an Irish scene on campus, which is kind of frustrating,” M. Aidan Kelly ’08 says. “When I at least think of an Irish scene, I at least think of something more modern.”
Kelly, who is also a Crimson executive editor, grew up in Woodlawn, a part of the Bronx, New York that is home to a large Irish-American and Irish immigrant population. But he and his friends took a slightly different approach to their culture, turning to punk-influenced Irish groups like The Pogues and The Dropkick Murphys rather than traditional Celtic music. He also began sporting Irish clothing and reading Irish history and literature.
“It was a very American way to show your Irish roots,” he says. And although Harvard has talented Celtic musicians and an esteemed Celtic Languages and Literatures Department, it seems to lack a connection to popular Irish culture.
“When we say Irish culture, we’re really talking about Irish-American culture,” Kelly says. “There isn’t really a representation of the Irish diaspora at Harvard.”
A CELTIC SOJOURN
But just outside Harvard’s gates lies one of the most vibrant Irish communities in the nation—sort of. “I think the mistake that people make generally is that there is a contiguous, single-minded aspect to ‘the Irish community in Boston,’” Brian O’Donovan, the host of the WGBH radio program “A Celtic Sojourn” says. “It’s a very disparate community that does not speak with one voice or act with one set of legs.”
O’Donovan works closely with the Irish Cultural Centre of New England to coordinate the Irish Connections Festival, and does play Celtic music on his show. Based on his comments, part of what makes the Irish culture in Boston so vibrant, and continually growing, is that it includes traditional cultural elements while also promoting more modern, broadly accessible art forms.
Peter O’Reilly is one artist who presents Irish culture with a more modern aesthetic. O’Reilly is the Managing Director of the Súgán Theatre Company, which was founded 14 years ago to present contemporary Irish plays to the Boston audience. “We felt there was a real gap,” O’Reilly says. The Súgán’s plays often portray the diverse perspectives of modern Ireland and challenge more traditional notions—presenting Ireland as more than just the magical, cheerful Emerald Isle.
According to O’Reilly, even though “people have realized that it’s not the Ireland of their grandmothers and grandfathers,” the vulgar, rougher language of the plays and the contemporary issues they tackle have created a negative reaction in some audience members. “Sometimes they come with their own perceptions of what is Irish,” he says.
Making Irish culture in Boston more prominent does not depend on just appealing to people of Irish descent. Both O’Donovan and O’Reilly draw audiences from outside the Irish community. O’Donovan says that some 50 to 60 percent of his audience is of a non-Irish ethnicity, and O’Reilly claims that, in surveys done of his audience, about 70 to 75 percent identify themselves as something other than Irish or Irish-American.
At Harvard, on the contrary, exploration of Irish culture remains confined to small-group interaction, which has yet to make an impact on the wider Boston Irish community.
Harvard’s Celtic department enjoys support from members of the Irish and Welsh communities in the greater Boston area, maintains a close relationship with a variety of organizations, including the Irish Consulate, and offers classes to members of the Irish community through the Harvard Extension School.
There is, however, a difference between interaction on an individual level and a close connection between an institution like Harvard and a significant nearby community.
“It’s completely disconnected as far as I can see,” O’Donovan says. The strength of the link between Harvard’s Celtic department and the surrounding Irish community is, in his estimation, “somewhere between minus five and plus one” on a scale of one to ten.
“A lot of people probably don’t even know Harvard has a Celtic department,” he says.
Likewise, O’Reilly says that his theater company lacks any strong connection to Harvard, even though it has some interaction with the Celtic department, whose members attend O’Reilly’s plays on an individual—rather than a group—basis.
In a way, this disconnect might be due to the focus of the Celtic department, which has tended to emphasize medieval more than modern Ireland and Irish.
“Harvard, I think, is looked upon...as far as I can see, other than the occasional personal contact, completely disconnected from the scene. Much more so than Boston College,” O’Donovan says.
Preceptor in Expository Writing Kate A. Chadbourne has lived and worked at both institutions. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard, but did her undergraduate work at BC, and recognizes BC’s success: “Boston College has great arms out into the Irish community,” she says.
BC’s history is deeply intertwined with that of the Irish-American community in Boston—and of our own college. BC was founded in part as a response to discriminatory policies against Irish immigrants and Catholics at Harvard in the nineteentth century. According to the college’s website, when BC moved to Chestnut Hill in 1913, “the University celebrated this connection [with the Irish] by naming the largest and most important room on campus the Irish Hall.” But Harvard’s Turner believes that “if you talked to the average BC undergraduate I’m not so sure he or she would turn out to be any more involved in Irish music or culture than your average Harvard undergraduate.”
BC’s academics, on the other hand, explicitly aim to “encourage a better understanding of contemporary Ireland,” according to Robert Savage, a BC History professor and co-director of their Irish Studies program (which works very closely with Harvard’s Celtic department).
Large public events have prominently welcomed the Irish community to BC. O’Donovan cites their Gaelic Roots festival—which is now expanded as a series of concerts throughout the year—as an example of the university bringing the Irish community to the campus. And while there is an Irish language emphasis at BC, they also have more events with popular appeal, including, for the past six years, a film series that showcases the best of contemporary Irish cinema.
Such large-scale interaction with the Irish community in a modern, accessible way is something that Harvard has lacked. But Harvard’s production of “The Playboy of the Western World,” offers an opportunity to narrow this distance.
“The Playboy”—which will run from April 28 through May 6—revolves around the disruption of life in a provincial Irish village when an outsider arrives with an extravagant story. All points converge at this play’s production: members of the Celtic Club coordinated and will perform the play’s music, the producers hope to draw Boston’s Irish community, and the production will present Harvard’s students with a script deeply entrenched in Irish history, but that boasts a universal appeal.
As Kelly points out, the Irish roots of “The Playboy” are clearer than in the plays of the nominally Irish, but Francophone, absurdist writer Samuel Beckett. And unlike the plays of Sean O’Casey, which are extremely rooted in Irish culture, “The Playboy” boasts a visceral appeal that will be accessible to Harvard students.
Drawing a non-Harvard audience may be a harder sell. “Going to Harvard for an event is a difficult thing for people to get their heads around because they don’t feel like it’s a public space to begin with,” O’Donovan says.
It’s something “The Playboy”’s producers recognize. “I think we’d be naive or foolish to say, ‘It’s Irish,’ and expect half a million people to come,” Executive Producer Zoe M. Savitsky ’07 says. What they aren’t trying to do, according to director Aoife E. Spillane-Hinks ’06, is condescend. “The way we plan on talking to people is as artists, artists to audience,” she says.
Opening up Harvard to Boston’s Irish is no easy task. “We are battling against a history of Harvard not being a place that’s open to the Irish community,” Spillane-Hinks says with an eye to Harvard’s past.
At the same time, the play could welcome Irish art forms to Harvard on a larger scale. “We’re opening up our venue to performances related to Irish culture,” Spillane-Hinks says.
“This production...is one of the first real Irish plays that students have done in a long time,” says Lecturer in Dramatic Arts J. Michael Griggs, who is also the Loeb Drama Center’s technical director.
If successful, “The Playboy” will present Irish culture—including the Celtic Club’s music—to a large Harvard audience and begin bridging the gap with Boston’s Irish.
It is a move that’s eagerly awaited on both sides of the divide: Harvard students aspire to increase awareness of an artistic culture so prominent in the areas that surround their campus, while some members of the Irish community express a desire to give their culture a greater presence within the gates.
Immediately after acknowledging that his theater company has few ties with the University, O’Reilly sounds a hopeful note: “We’d like to have a strong connection with Harvard.” Now is as good a time as ever.
—Staff writer Patrick R. Chesnut can be reached at email@example.com.