Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann - Kingston Branch


Harp of Tara would gratefully wish to acknowledge the generous support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation, which provided us with a grant in 2009. This enabled us to purchase a sound system for our céilís, educational materials for our language and music programs, and has enabled us to engage in some much-needed long-term planning.

History of the Kingston Ceili Band

By Aralt Mac Giolla Chainnigh


During the late 1970's and early 1980's, Kingston was blessed by a hotel owned and operated by Brendan and Anne McConnell, who were originally from Dublin and Galway, respectively. They had taken a rundown establishment in what was then a grungy part of town and transformed it into a pleasant hostelry. It featured reasonably good food in its restaurant, and two bars, Muldoon’s and Finnegan’s, where one could find the best of Irish entertainment. This attracted many people interested in Irish music, and a convivial group was formed who spent evenings around the two bars, listening to the nightly entertainment. It soon became the meeting place for those interested in things Irish, be they music, culture, language or travel. Saturday sessions gave an opportunity for those with some ability to share their talent with other like-minded individuals from the stage in Muldoon”s. Included in this group were several who had a rudimentary knowledge of music, and several who had no knowledge but much enthusiasm for the genre.

About 1981, due largely to the efforts of the McConnells and other interested people, Kingston was visited by the Comhaltas North American concert tour. This event served to increase awareness in Irish traditional music in this community, and particularly among that select crowd who frequented Muldoons and Finnegan’s. Soon there were mutters of discontent, why didn’t we have some traditional music being produced in Kingston, other than that provided by travelling musicians.

At about the same time, inspired by the Comhaltas tour, the McConnells and others took the initiative to form a chapter of Comhaltas here in Kingston. Soon after, the mutterings of discontent transformed into an initiative to form a group of musicians dedicated to the objectives of Comhaltas, to promote the performance of traditional music. In an early meeting attended by potential musicians and some of the more prominent members of Comhaltas, it was agreed that the band, at that time still unnamed, would limit it’s repertoire to traditional and tasteful contemporary Irish music, and eschew the popular, “tin-pan alley” type of music. Under these conditions, it was agreed that the band would perform and be an integral part of the local branch of Comhaltas. It was also agreed that the band would not play for profit, but would donate our services to good causes, such as benefits, senior citizens and shut-ins, and whatever functions would be sponsored by Comhaltas. It was indicated that any reasonable expenses would be covered by the parent organization.

Initially, the group met in a classroom at St. Lawrence College. Instruments consisted of a fiddle, a flute, a bodhrán, several guitars. Some of the participants had versions of Soodlum’s song books, O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, and other resources, as well as cassette tapes and albums of Celtic music which was shared. Soon a small repertoire of traditional tunes and songs was accumulated. Some of the tunes learned at that time and perpetuated through the years are “Boys of Blue Hill”,”Cock o’ the North”, “Harvest Home”, “Drowsy Maggie”, and songs such as “Wild Rover”, “Wild Mountain Thyme”, “The Butcher Boy”, “Carrickfergus” and others.

Soon thereafter Comhaltas Kingston sponsored the Harp of Tara Pavilion during Folklore. Among the performers at this 1981 event were two well-established groups, the Toronto Ceili Band led by Kevin Finnegan, from the Toronto Branch of Comhaltas, and the Ottawa Ceili Band, under Tom McSwiggan from the Ottawa Branch. This inspired the local musicians to adopt the name “Kingston Ceili Band”, and the first public performance of the band under this name was at the 1981 Folklore.

So that’s how it all started. From that time on, the band attracted a number of musicians, some of whom were accomplished from the start, others who developed their talent for traditional music as they went along. The repertoire also increased, as individual members brought their favourite music to be performed with the band. Slowly the quality of performance increased until eventually the band started to receive invitations to perform outside the Irish community. Some of this was due to the association between Comhaltas and the Kingston Folk Arts Council. This latter organization kept the band informed of various opportunities to perform, and provided a small performance subsidy at the end of each year. 

[Ceili Band and Friends at the 2005 Language Immersion Weekend]

During 1981 and 1982, as well as performing at Folklore, the band performed at such diverse venues as the Quinte Irish Festival in Belleville, the Rideau 150 celebrations at Chaffey’s Locks, the Sir John A Macdonald celebrations at City Hall in Kingston, and various other charitable and non-profit events

In 1983, the band performed for the Swamp Ward Festival at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Kingston. The band received a donation of $100 for this performance, the first revenue the band received. This event has been repeated during the years since then, and invariably the Ceili Band is invited to perform in a preferred spot during the proceedings.

In 1985, much to everyone’s surprise and delight, the Band received an invitation from the Ontario Folk Arts Council to represent Ontario in the Canadian Heritage Festival. This annual event was to be held in Prince Edward Island during June and July, and would showcase folk performers from every province and territory in Canada. 7 members of the Band flew to PEI, and over the ensuing ten days performed in small villages and communities throughout the Province, culminating in a grand finale performance in Confederation Place in Charlottetown. As well as testing the performing talents of the Band members, it gave us an opportunity for interaction with a wonderful group of entertainers, and exposure to a high-class production.

1986 saw the Band embark on an ambitious project. After first obtaining a commitment of financial support from Comhaltas, application was made to the Provincial Ministry of Culture and Recreation for a matching grant for the purpose of making a cassette. This was accomplished, and 500 copies were produced. These were offered for sale, and the bulk of the production was sold within the following year. The proceeds of the sale went to reimburse Comhaltas for their contribution.

The Band continued to perform as previously, often in support of Comhaltas activities, at the same time performing frequently in the community. Remuneration for these performances was small, and went into a fund used for the purchase of music materials. Some of these funds were also used to outfit the Band in distinctive garments, and a logo consisting of a ring of Celtic knotwork encircling a harp, and containing the Irish version of the Band’s name, Ceoltoiri Bailie an Ri, was designed by Mrs Heather Kemp. 

In 1987 the members of the Band decided to sever formal relationships with the Harp of Tara Branch, although they continued to be available to support the periodic activities of the Branch.

1988 saw the first invitation to perform at the “Watertown Goes Green” Festival, part of the St. Patrick’s Festival in Watertown, New York. the band performed annually at this event until 1995.

1990 was the first year of the Kingston Buskers’ Rendezvous, an event which attracted street performers from all over the world, and brought people to downtown Kingston by the thousands. The Kingston Ceili Band participated in the first Rendezvous, and continued to participate annually until 1998. On two occasions the band reached the finals, being judged as one of the best musical groups

This was also the first year of the All Folks Festival. This festival started out small, and the band was one of several local groups who performed in City Park. The festival continued for several years and grew in numbers, both of performers and spectators. It eventually outgrew the City Park, and the venue was moved to Lake Ontario Park. Again, we were pleased to have been invited to participate every year until 1998, the last year of the Festival.

In 1991, Fort Henry sponsored the first annual Celtic Festival, and the Ceili Band was one of many groups invited to perform. The band takes credit, deserved or otherwise, for saving the event one year, when the organizers were about to cancel the Festival because of heavy rain. Just as the band was leaving the venue, a busload of German tourists arrived, and the manager of the Fort asked if we could set up in the coffee shop and play a few tunes for the visitors. We did, the visitors enjoyed the music, and other people, hardy souls who refused to be scared off by a little rain, stayed. Two hours later, the Band was still playing, the sun came out, and the Festival went on. Maybe coincidentally to this occurrence, we have been invited back every year, and this past year, 2000, the Kingston Ceili Band was the only local musical group to play on stage. The band was in good company, the likes of Rawlins Cross, Slainte Mhaith, and for the second year, Natalie MacMaster. 

That same year, the band entertained at the first annual Chilifest, a fundraiser for local charities. This was repeated for several years afterward.

In 1993, the band played for the first time at the Festival of Trees, and this was repeated annually up to the present. Also in 1993, and again in 1994 the band performed for the Live Music Lovers’ Concert.

Over the next several years, the band developed a rapport with various organizations who repeatedly offer the opportunity to perform. Chief among these are:

Waterside Summer Festival. 

This event takes place at St. Alban’s Anglican Church on Amherst Island during the latter part of August. The Band was first invited in 1994, and have been back every year since. We have been told that our performance is the most popular of all the groups appearing, and furthermore we are the only group to have been invited back more than twice. The venue is invariably sold out for our performances.

Nantucket Clipper

This luxury cruise ship travels the St. Lawrence River and the Gulf of St. Lawrence several time during the season between June and August. The cruise includes an overnight stop in Prescott, Ontario. In 1995, the band was first invited to board the ship and perform for the passengers during this layover. The band’s performances have been well received by both passengers and crew, and 

the invitation to perform has been repeated each year to the present. It is anticipated that the band will again be performing aboard the ship during the 2001 season.

First Nights Celebration:

The first event of this nature took place on December 31, 1997, to welcome in the New Year and to celebrate the founding of the New City of Kingston. The band gave two performances on this first occasion, and has been invited back each subsequent year, including the welcoming in of the new Millennium. These events are gaining popularity throughout North America, providing a family-oriented alternative to the traditional New Year’s Eve celebration, and it is hoped they will be a regular item on the annual activity calendar for the City of Kingston.

Mayor’s Levée - January 1999.

The Mayor’s Levée is an annual tradition, held in City Hall during the early part of January each year. In 1999, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Hilary Weston, was present to join in the occasion. Partly due to her Irish background, the organizers invited the Band to perform during the afternoon in her presence. The band shared the stage with Quartessence, a local classical string quartette, and from all accounts, both groups were well received.

THE KINGSTON CEILI BAND IN 2000.

The Kingston Ceili Band today is a far different organization than the rag-tag group of musicians who first came together in 1981 because of a love for the Irish tradition of music and song. Over the ensuing 19 years scores of musicians have passed through the ranks of the Band, and one need only look at the personnel of the bands currently playing the local circuit to see the degree some have progressed in their musical careers. Many musicians have developed their talents through exposure to the discipline and performance standards encountered in the Ceili Band. In some respects, the personnel could be termed transient, involving in its ranks a cross-section of the community. Included have been professors, public servants, teachers, soldiers, and professionals and tradespeople of various types. A worthwhile project for a historian would be to compile a roster of band alumni. It would no doubt take up many hours of research.

The band still conforms to the original concept, in that the members are committed to playing a high calibre of traditional music. It could be said without fear of contradiction that the Band currently is the foremost proponent of traditional Celtic music in the Kingston area. One change is that instead of playing traditional Irish music, the group has evolved into the performance of “Celtic” music, including both traditional and contemporary material. The music of Carolan from the 17th century as well as that of Pete St. John, Paddy Moloney, Tommy Makem and other 20th century composers share equally in the Band’s repertoire.

The band has become a highly-motivated, semi-professional organization. Although much of its activity involves around performances for charitable and cultural organizations, we also play upon request for wakes or weddings, house parties, festivals, conferences and all types of events. Members of the band participate in functions of the Kingston Irish Folk Club, and are regular participants of the monthly ceili held by the Brockville Irish Cultural Society.

A recent evolution of the band’s activities is an effort to become proficient in playing for Irish ceili and set dancing, in recognition of the increasing interest in this activity among the Irish community in Kingston. Regular workshops are held at which the Band is invited to provide the music.

The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls

by Thomas Moore (1779-1852)


The harp that once through Tara's halls 
The soul of music shed,
Now hangs as mute on Tara's walls
As if that soul were fled.
So sleeps the pride of former days,
So glory's thrill is o'er,
And hearts that once beat high for praise,
Now feel that pulse no more!

No more to chiefs and ladies bright
The harp of Tara swells;
The chord alone that breaks at night,
Its tale of ruin tells.
Thus Freedom now so seldom wakes,
The only throb she gives
Is when some heart indignant breaks,
To show that still she lives.

Tara is the mysterious hilltop castle that was home to Irish high kings. It actually existed somewhere in what is now County Meath from very ancient times well before the time of Saint Patrick (432) until its destruction probably in the sixth century, but in any case well before the death of High King Brian Boru on the battlefields of Clontarf (1014). In the poem, written while Ireland was still under an unwelcome British rule, Thomas Moore lets Tara symbolize the seat of Irish government and the rule of Ireland.

The harp, the traditional musical instrument of Ireland, symbolizes the Irish people, culture and spirit

COMHALTAS HALL OF FAME NOMINATION: JACK HICKMAN

Submitted by the Harp of Tara Branch. January 2005

Kingston, Ontario is a musical town with deep Irish roots. Of all the people who have made critical contributions in nurturing this tradition in the past twenty five years, few have been so committed, persistent, and influential as Jack Hickman.

Jack was born in Winnipeg. and spent his teenage years in British Columbia. After a number of further years in lumber camps on Vancouver Island, he joined the RCMP, serving a full and distinguished career in Ontario. He moved to Kingston in 1975, and eventually took a position as Chief of Correctional Security for the Region of Ontario.

Although Jack has been an Irish music enthusiast all his life, it was not until moving to Kingston that he began to make music himself. He recalls how in the late I 970s, the best of Irish entertainment was available at Muldoon's and Finnegan's, and what a large impact this music had on the local community. When the Comhaltas tour came to Kingston in 1981, it provided the final impetus to establish a local band. Jack, along with Nancy Ossenberg, Monica Gubbins, Sue Callan-Balkey, Frank Blakey, and Allen Anderson, founded a group dedicated to playing both traditional and tasteful contemporary Irish music. In its conception, the band was closely linked to the Kingston Comhaltas branch that was founded in the same year by Anne McConnell. The band remained nameless until the Multi-cultural Festival that summer, at which the Ottawa Céilí Band and the Toronto Céilí Band performed. It seemed natural that the Kingston group should be called the Kingston Céilí Band, and so it was.

Although Jack is himself a musician, playing the bodhrán, tin whistle and harmonica, his key contribution to the band has always been his visionary outlook and leadership. It is an understatement to say that there would be no Céilí Band without Jack. Jack not only founded the group, and remained its leader for 21 years, he has provided continuous inspiration and motivation to the group throughout its existence. The band's long-term success is largely due to Jack's efforts, as all band members, past and present, will agree. The Céilí Band is currently celebrating its 24th year and still going strong. It is an appropriate time to recognize the group's founder.

The band has played all over Eastern Ontario, and into New York State. In 1985, it was selected to represent Ontario in the Canadian Heritage Festival on Prince Edward Island - a tour of folk performers from every province and territory in Canada, culminating in a grand finale performance in Confederation Place in Charlottetown. The success of this tour led the band to the recording studio and an album.

The band has continued, over the years, to play at various high profile festivals and events, including Kingston's Celtic Festival which features such bands as Rawlin's Cross, the Irish Descendents, the Barra McNeils, Slainte Mhath, and Natalie MeMaster. The band is a well known symbol of Kingston, representing the city at prestigious conferences, and being called upon when local politicians wish to cast Kingston's image in a favourable light. Examples include: the "First Nights Celebration" when the newly amalgamated City of Kingston was inaugurated in 1997; the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario's Levee in 1999; and Kingston's civic celebration of the new millennium in 2000.

Another measure of the Jack's success as leader of the Kingston Céilí Band is its record of fostering local musicians. It is a common-place among Kingston folk musicians that no one's credentials are complete unless they include past (or present) membership in the Céilí Band. The most recent success story is that of Bonnie Dawson. who, following her apprenticeship with the Céilí Band, has gone on to become a rising young composer and accordion player with the group “Night Sun”. popular on CBC.

When the Celtic Studies program was initiated in 1999 at the local high school - Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute - Jack would often visit with his whistle and bodhrán. His teaching has continued through Valerie Hamilton whom he also assisted in mastering the tin whistle, and the subtleties of Irish music.

But Jack was always conscious that he was promoting more than individual performers, or a single band. He has always been driven primarily by a love of the music, and the desire to make that music available to all those of kindred spirit. He has done just that in Kingston, and has thereby ensured that Kingston remains a stronghold of Irish traditional music. For this, if nothing else, Jack deserves induction into the Comhaltas Hall of Fame.

Céilí Bands have arisen in various places in Canada, and each has its own story to tell. In one respect. however, Jack has done something different in creating and nurturing the Kingston Céilí Band. In other locations, bands have generally arisen from a nucleus of musicians directly from Ireland. Kingston did not have the benefit of such a nucleus, and yet Jack was able to assemble a group of musicians, direct their interests, and reassemble the components of Irish traditional music on native Canadian soil. Jack's task was therefore fundamentally different, and more difficult, than that of other founders. Jack's example will be increasingly important in the absence of immigration from Ireland,

Jack has served as in many capacities with the Harp of Tan Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, including chairman for three years in the mid 1980s. and again in 2002/3.

A Brief History of the Kingston HARP of TARA
Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann


"Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann" is a cultural organization with headquarters in Dublin, Ireland, with branches throughout the world. Founded in 1951, the organization is non-political, non-sectarian, and its stated objectives are the preservation and promotion of Irish heritage, including traditional music in all its forms, and the Irish language. The title of the organization translates into English as “Society of Irish Musicians.” It is referred to as “Comhaltas” or “CCE” for simplicity. In Kingston, Comhaltas is represented by the Harp of Tara Branch. Founded in 1978, the local Branch sponsors an active program of Irish language, dance and music.

Until the founding of a CCE Branch in Kingston, there were no visible signs of Irish Culture in Kingston - no sessions or Céilí's of any type, no workshops, nor language classes.

That unfortunate situation changed for good in 1978. Two years before, a few people from Kingston went to hear the Comhaltas Music Tour in Ottawa, and came away inspired. Those few people then set about bringing the Concert tour to Kingston, which was a huge public success, and served to bring together people in Kingston with a strong interest in one or another facet of Irish Culture. 

The next step was the founding of the Comhaltas Harp of Tara Branch in 1978, dedicated to the CCE goals of promoting traditional Irish Language, Music and Dance. One of the early successes of the branch was the founding of the Kingston Céilí Band as the branch music band. Now independent from the branch, the Céilí Band - whose 25th Anniversary Celebration was held in 2006 - has been at the heart of the development of Irish music in Kingston - performing, participating in sessions, and giving workshops.

With the variety of music options in Kingston and the area today, it's hard to imagine that so recently, there were no such options. That the music is safe in any number of good hands, owes at least something to long-term dedication of the branch and its members.

Language Classes were started in 1994, annual internationa irish Language Immersion weekends in 1996, and Harp of Tara was a principal partner in the launching of a permanent North American Gaeltacht (Language speaking area) officially launched in 2007, but Annual Irish Language Immersion Weeks have been held in prior temporary sites since 2004 Weekly Irish Social Dancing classes have been running continuously since 1998, and we have sponsored monthly Ceili's since 2002 Finally a weekly slow session, started in 2001, filled out the program 

Although few are probably aware of the sponsorship, the branch currently offers a weekly language, music, and dance program; monthly events - a Céilí which is the primary event in Kingston for bringing the music and dance together, and a Siamsa; an annual Irish Language immersion weekend in the winter and a week-long immersion in the summer .