“A céilí (pronounced Kay-lee) band is a group of musicians organized together on an permanent, professional, or ad hoc basis in order to provide music for céilí (Irish) social dancing, and/or (today) set dancing.”
Pretty simple, right? Well, there’s a lot more, and I’ll try to give those unfamiliar some background.
The 1897 Gaelic League Féile Samhain Céilí in Bloomsbury Hall, London is thought to have been the first formal céilí with a band. As dances throughout Ireland, England and the US moved from kitchens and school halls to larger commercial and parochial halls, the bands changed in composition and style to produce more volume. They got bigger (now 10 members is the norm) and included drum and woodblock and piano along with fiddles, flutes, banjo, accordions and concertinas.
Starting in the 1920’s, there was an effort to promote traditional Irish music and culture, and to provide a venue for young people to gather in an atmosphere free of the negative influences of popular music; most notably jazz. Céilí dances became the approved place where young people could go to meet and dance with members of the opposite sex. The Ballinakill Céilí Band formed then and remained influential in the effort from the ‘20s to the ‘60s.
The years 1955 - 1970 were considered the golden age of céilí band music, in Ireland as well as New York, Boston, Chicago or anywhere there was a large urban population of Irish. The bands attracted such crowds of dancers as to fill the largest halls in Ireland. Places like City Hall in Cork and the Mansion House in Dublin, were packed to capacity on a weekly basis. Similarly, in cities like Boston and New York you could find a céilí dance happening nearly every night of the week. Céilí bands were broadcast daily on Irish radio, starting with Irish station 2RN in 1926 and continuing through WWII and on to today. In fact, Keiran Hanrahan, All-Ireland tenor banjo player and member of the Templehouse Céilí Band, has hosted the radio program, Céilí House, for the Irish national broadcaster RTÉ since 1991. Of the hundreds of bands playing all over Ireland at that time, some came to the US, with the Tulla Céilí band even making it to Carnegie Hall in New York.
Instruments Used in Céilí Bands
Instruments typically used include the fiddle, flute, button accordion, concertina, tenor banjo, bass drum and snare drum with woodblock, and piano. Other instruments used more occasionally include the double bass, uilleann pipes (Tulla Band), piccolo (McCuskers) and saxophone (Gallowglass) . the bodhrán (Irish frame drum) and guitar are generally not used as they are not loud enough for packed dance halls.
In the céilí band all the melody instruments play in unison, for volume. The snare drum provides a backbeat. The piano adds a bass line and harmony. It also helps keep the very steady rhythm needed for dancing.
Céilí Bands Today
Despite not replicating the level of popularity enjoyed by céilí bands in the 1950s/60s, céilí bands remain busy. Dancing is always at the focus. Comhaltas Ceolteoirí Éireann have ensured this. Competitions, such as the Fleadh Cheoil and festivals, such as Temple Bar Tradfest, help promote céilí bands. Many céilí bands have long histories and rivalries with each other. These include the Kilfenora Céilí band (celebrating their 100th year in existence), the Tulla Céilí band (70 years) and the Shaskeen Céilí band.
Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann is the largest group involved in the preservation and promotion of Irish traditional music. They organize many educational and competitive events (Fleadhanna) for instrumentalists, singers, and dancers. In the US, they organize regional events. The Indianapolis Céilí Band has competed for last 5 years at the Midwest Fleadh Ceoil, held variously in Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis.
Good natured, but sometimes fierce competition between bands has always been a component of the tradition, with local pride, musicianship, style, and access to the venues being constantly on everyone’s mind. In order to compete, a céilí band must adhere to a set of written rules, and be cognizant of a less strict set of unwritten conventions. All music is played from memory, never from sheet music. The goal is precision both melodically and rhythmically, such that the entire ensemble sounds like a single instrument.
Irish Music in Indianapolis
Nothing can be said about Irish music in Indianapolis without starting with McGinley's Golden Ace Inn. As the oldest family owned Irish pub in Indianapolis, establish in 1934, it has been an anchor for the Irish community, and now hosts the longest running traditional Irish music session every Tuesday night.
Since the session started at the pub, nearly 15 years ago, there has been a steady growth in interest Irish music. Today, there are several Irish dance groups, at least four weekly Irish sessions, and a dozen formal and informal ensembles performing Irish music in all its variety, in pubs, restaurants, and community events throughout the city.
In 2009, Dmitri Alano, already a 20-year veteran of Irish traditional music, had the idea of inviting some of the best local musicians to form a céilí band to play throughout the area. In addition to creating the céilí band, his goals were to continue to introduce people to traditional Irish music, and for the band to compete in the Midwest Fleadh Cheoil.
Throughout the year, The Indianapolis Céilí Band plays at céilís, weddings, and festivals; pretty much anywhere we can find 10 chairs and a piano! Each winter they get serious and gather, at least weekly, to start learning the sets they will be taking to the competition in May.
The Senior Céilí Band division is generally considered ‘the’ big event of the Fleadh, where bands show off their understanding of the music, precision, timing (and stamina). In 2015 The Indianapolis Céilí Band placed first in the competition, and in 2016 they performed at a level that the adjudicators (all from Ireland) invited them to compete at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, All-Ireland competition, in Ennis, County Clare.
The band is honored and thrilled to have achieved this level of musicianship and recognition, and is truly excited to represent Indiana and the Greater Irish community as we bring Irish music full circle.