Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fifteenth Night at the Ceilidh Palace

...and a glorious time was had by all.

Not to be confused with Caesars Palace (I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him), the Ceilidh Palace is the long-awaited addition to the home of our dear friends, F. and J. (For those still unfamiliar with the term, a ceilidh [pronounced "KAY-lee"] is a sort of musical pot-luck, where the entertainment tends toward the home-grown, free-range and organic.)

These two extraordinary musicians had long dreamed of building a splendid space for bardic gatherings. They poured the foundation years ago, but challenges all-too-common to the life of working artists made their plans go aft a-gley. This past year, though, they finally tackled the task's completion. We compared construction notes along the way. We merrily joked with them about our "competitive housebuilding," but many's the time we shared mutual congratulations over clever requisitions and creative use of cast-offs. We encouraged each other, commiserated over the "joys" of trimwork and drywall, and blessed each other's households with gifts of food, music, and friendship.

This weekend, they inaugurated the new space during their annual Twelfth Night Ceilidh & Conflagration. (Technically, counting from Christmas, it was Fifteenth Night, but the evening was too perfect to be bothered by technicalities.) In the past, this event has consisted of a fragrant, steamy elbow-to-elbow potluck in one room and a jam-packed music session in another, with scarcely room to butter one's bread or draw a fiddle bow. Folks took turns going out to gather around the snow-banked bonfire. They braved the frigid January night not just for the spectacle of the high-leaping flames, but also for the brief freedom to swing their arms and move easily about.

This year, the bonfire got off to a very good start with two crackly-branched Christmas trees. As in past years, many guests brought something to contribute to the fire, from tiny wish-enscribed slips to multiple file-folders of burdensome paperwork. (The year I graduated from seminary, I contributed a small papier-mache effigy I dubbed "the algebra monster." I gleefully threw it into the fire, thereby declaring my symbolic freedom from long years of abject algebraic failure in a host of mathematics classrooms. I felt cleansed by the act and willingly endured the bemused and befuddled looks of those standing near me.)

Inside the house, a new hearth was blessed and another fire kindled, this time in the chilly but welcoming space of their new greatroom: the ground floor of the soaring post-and-beam Ceilidh Palace. With a canvas hung to divide the space and trap the heat, a set of old church pews set around the edges, and a fire blazing merrily in the grate, the new room was beckoning. Our hosts called everyone in for the blessing. F. played a haunting tune on his flute. The blessing was pronounced, and all drank a toast to hosts, hearth, and house. Then J. cried out, "Let the wild rumpus begin!"

First came the Scottish smallpipes, then fiddles emerged from cases along with harp, whistle, bodhran and guitar. It was tentative at first. Someone led off with "Mairi's Wedding." Then it was "Atholl Highlanders" and "Calliope House." "Lark in the Morning" took wing. Fiddles and whistles wove around each other in "Jenny Dang the Weaver." After a few more tunes, a banjo appeared in the mix. Soon an accordion squeezed in. After years of dreaming, of hoping, of saving and striving, the room came to life and thrummed with rollicking, lilting, toe-tapping, spirit-lifting music. It was a realized vision, a creative conspiracy--literally, a breathing-together--and our hearts beat together to the rhythm of this shared creation.

The evening rolled on. The musicians became more venturesome. In a household full of musical inventions and oddities, someone emerged with one of the oddest: a double-chantered Tunisian bagpipe whose maker had made no effort to disguise the material: goatskin. Attempts to play it engendered uproarious laughter as the awful little goat-bag inflated to an alarming proportion, then emitted one tentative, goose-like *honk.* Although we could all plainly hear the air escaping from the loosely-tied bag, we all cried out for more, each squeak and squawk further incapacitating us with laughter.

Finally the poor creature was rescued and laid to rest, the gasping musicians wiped away tears of hilarity, and the session revved up again. More uncommon instruments were welcomed into the session and the tunes danced from one culture into another: Irish, Scottish, Quebecois, Breton... on into the dark winter night. Outside the sparks did their own wild dance, swirling and leaping high into the clear cold air. The Ceilidh Palace, work of common folk, bedecked with its faint tracery of plaster dust, was a treasure-trove heaped high. That night, we were all rich as kings and queens.

(All text, images, and video copyright Mainecelt 2010)


Sue said...

It was an honor to be in such fine company!

Noni said...

Thanks for sharing! IT was a pleasure to experience it even by the video clip! May there be many more wonderful gatherings at the Ceilidh Palace!

Fred Gosbee said...

Thanks be tae ye cowgals! 'Twas a fine nicht in sooth!

The more I look at the stones over the fireplace, the less I want to cover the edge. It's things like this that slow me down. "Contract growth", we used to call it. However, I'll be finishing off the window trim, electrification, heating system, etc, etc, this spring and summer.

Next year we'll see if we can have access to the whole space!

Mama Pea said...

Your posts almost always make me cry. (And, no, I haven't had a drop of inebriant in days.)

Simon G said...

Thanks for sharing, it was a bit of a surprise finding out what a Ceilidh was for people in Maine. In the UK it is a strictly a dance session with celtic music; what you are doing is a session.

Interestingly here in mainland Nova Scotia it is called a session as well. But in Cape Breton the ceilidhs. I wonder if they are music sessions or dance sessions.

Enjoyed the report, pics and especially the video

MaineCelt said...

Simon-- my understanding of ceilidhs was formed by my experience in the Hebrides, particularly the islands of South Uist and Eriskay, as well as my experience in the community of Scottish Gaelic learners in the Pacific Northwest.

It's true that a traditional house ceilidh bears little resemblance to the various formal or pre-planned events that bear the same title. In the ceilidhs I've attended, there's a just as strong an emphasis on singing and storytelling as there is on instrumental tune-swapping. (There was some fine storytelling at the Ceilidh Palace, but I didn't happen to train my camera on it.) A ceilidh dance is yet another permutation of the concept, and Cape Breton does indeed have some splendid ceilidhs for dancing. All forms of ceilidhs can be delightful, but it is the organic nature of the traditional house-ceilidh that most strongly appeals to me.

MaineCelt said...

Mama Pea-- Oh, dear. My writing is THAT bad? ;-)

Mama Pea said...

Yeah, that's it.

(You are such a door knob.)

Jan said...

How wonderful it all sounds!

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Auntie Knickers said...

It is not nice to engender envy in one's fellow people! I have been in only a few such gatherings in my life (since I am not a musician nor much of a singer) but I wish for them with all my heart. And I can do a little storytelling. (The verification word is sings!)