Patricia Harty writes about Helen Gannon and the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Convention.
Storm clouds gather over St. Louis, but Helen Gannon is unfazed as the tornado warning siren blares and we move into the center of the hotel, away from the windows.
After many years of living here, she has made her peace with the weather patterns that in spring can range from heavy rain to severe storms. And right now, as chairperson of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Éireann (CCÉ) North America, Helen’s concern is for her guests, who have come to this city on the Mississippi from all over the U.S., Canada and Ireland for the annual convention.
“I didn’t like this place when I first arrived,” she admits, as we wait out the tornado. “It was so hot and humid, and I was pregnant. We arrived the day the final piece was being put in the Gateway Arch. It didn’t fit.”
Helen didn’t fit in either. The young nurse whose husband, P.J., a psychiatrist, had taken a job at the state mental hospital, wanted to go home to Ireland. And it wasn’t just the heat. St. Louis had little to offer in the way of Irish culture. But P.J. liked his job, and employment opportunities were few and far between in Ireland, so they stayed and made the best of things.
Meanwhile, back on the day of the Gannons’ arrival, Irish architect Kevin Roche was working on the Arch. (Designer Eero Saarinen died while the monument was still in the planning stages and Roche took over the project.) He too was also having trouble with the heat, which had caused thermal expansion of the metal. Fire Department hoses cooled down the metal, making it constrict as a hydraulic wrench pulled the south leg back and the top was dropped into place from above. Problem solved. “[The Arch] is a soaring curve in the sky that links the rich heritage of yesterday with the richer future of tomorrow,” Vice President Hubert Humphrey commented at the opening of the monument, which symbolizes the western expansion of the United States.
The Vice President’s words could just as easily have applied to Helen Gannon. It would take a little time, but she too would settle in, and become a master at expanding Irish culture into St. Louis and the Midwest region.
In 1972, inspired by the first CCÉ tour of Irish musicians, which stopped in St. Louis, Helen began offering weekly tin whistle lessons to adults and children. Her efforts evolved into a fully-fledged music and dance school. There dance students would also receive a lesson on the tin whistle, and were encouraged to take up a second instrument, such as the fiddle or Irish harp.
Forty years on, and many hundreds of students later, Helen’s school, St. Louis Irish Arts, is also the second largest of CCÉ North America’s 44 branches, and is charged with hosting the annual CCÉ North American convention, held during the last weekend in April.
Helen is doing double duty as hostess and chairperson, and in her own inimitable way, she brings the feel of a large family gathering to the four-day event. The lobby of the Hilton Ball Park Hotel (so named as it is directly opposite the St. Louis Cardinals’ ball park) is awash with Irish people who greet each other by name and huddle over drinks as they catch up. Chairs are moved into circles, musical instruments are brought out, and impromptu sessions spring up and carry on late into the evening.
The musicians are some of the best in their field. One, Seamus Connelly, is a master fiddler from Co. Clare, who came to America on the first CCÉ tour in 1972, and stayed on to teach music at Boston College. He had flown in from Maine, “because Helen asked me to.”
Katherine Irwin Thomas, who grew up playing old-style fiddle music in Tennessee, has her own school in Atlanta. “I have twenty-five students now,” she said. “Nothing like Helen’s school, but she inspired me to try.”
Eamonn O’Loughlin, a fine pianist who happens to publish Canada’s Irish Connections magazine, also has high praise for Helen. “When it comes to the arts, the school that she founded, St. Louis Irish Arts, is our equivalent to New York’s Juilliard School,” he says.
In addition to the musicians, there are set dancers – lots of them – and they come from all over the U.S., Canada and Ireland to take part in the ceilis. On the evening I stopped by to watch, a Chicago band named Broken Pledge is playing. The young flute player taps out the rhythm with his feet as the dancers maneuver into intricate formations on a floor flown in from Kansas City especially for the occasion.
On the final evening, the ballroom is laid out for the closing banquet (Helen baked 40 loaves of Irish bread for the occasion). The stage is filled with musicians, and the very youngest students, resplendent in their costumes, some clutching fiddles and tin whistles, line up in front of the stage.
This is St. Louis Irish Arts’ night to shine, and they don’t disappoint. Eimear Arkins, a musician, singer and dancer from Ruan, County Clare, is a law student at St. Louis University, and a teacher at Helen’s school. She sets the tone for the evening by singing the Canadian, Irish (as Gaeilge) and American national anthems.
The Irish language is emphasized at St. Louis Irish Arts, and the young students who sing along with Eimear flub not a word of the Gaeilge.
Irish poetry is also on the program. A young girl of maybe eight gives a flawless rendition of Arthur Shaughnessy’s “The Music Makers.” She has been coached by Helen’s husband, P.J., who has from the start been an integral part of the school, as have the couple’s children. Daughter Eileen teaches the Irish harp and son Niall the fiddle.
The dance segments are spectacular. Shannon Flecke, a St. Louis native who began taking dance lessons at Helen’s school at age four, and is now a teacher there, joins James Mounsey from Nenagh, Co. Tipperary in an extraordinary performance that is wholly traditional and yet has elements of Argentine tango. The two met when Shannon spent a summer at Bru Boru, the Comhaltas cultural center in Cashel, Co. Tipperary.
And there are speeches, of course. Earlier, as hail the size of golf balls pounded the windows of the hotel, Helen had handed out Comhaltas medallions to members whose work deserved special mention. And now it’s her turn to be feted.
After serving as chairperson of CCÉ North America for six years, she is stepping down and passing on the baton to Tom Vesey.
Labhárs O Murchú, head of CCÉ, has flown in from Ireland for the occasion with his wife Una. He praises Helen as a tireless campaigner in developing a love and a passion for traditional Irish music, song and dance across North America.
Meithal is the old Irish word for “team,” explains CCÉ president Seamus MacCormaic. For him, the word brings to mind how the neighbors back home in Sligo helped each other with the harvest. Helen would be part of a new Meithal committee set up to further help with the work of Comhaltas in North America.
As we drifted from the room, I spoke with Tom Krippene, who describes himself as Irish through his family. Tom had acted as the Master of Ceremonies for the evening. All four of his daughters attended Helen’s school and were enriched by the experience. Their oldest, though in college now, continues to play the Irish harp. “I can’t say enough about how St. Louis Irish Arts helped bring our family unit together,” Tom says.
It all looks natural now, this vibrant Irish scene in St. Louis. Hard to believe it wasn’t always so. Helen and P.J. have become the embodiment of the Arch, linking the old world with the new, and ensuring that Ireland’s rich culture, music and dance, will be enjoyed by generations of Americans to come.