By Barbara Pash
6:00 AM EST, February 26, 2014
Colin Cassady held his violin, ready to take the stage. Only, Cassady is a member of the Baltimore Irish Music Ensemble, and in the world of Irish music, it's not a violin. It's a fiddle.
So Cassady, 16, a Towson resident and junior at Calvert Hall College High School, explained to the uninformed.
"The instruments are the same but the music is different," said the tall teenager who's been studying Irish fiddling for a decade. "It's fun."
The crowd that filled the social hall of the American Legion Post 183, in Parkville, certainly seemed to think so. On a frigid Saturday night in February, 100 or so people turned out for the Emerald Isle Club's ceili (pronounced KAY-lee), a celebration of Irish music and dance.
On the bandstand, flanked by American and Irish flags, the ensemble, all students of Donna Long, a Baltimore City teacher of Irish and classical music, played in between breaks by Peter Fitzgerald and the J. Patrick's All Stars Ceili Band.
Couples filled the dance floor, taking a spin at Irish set dancing, a square dance-style throwback to the 18th-century quadrille, with such names as Haymaker's Jig, Walls of Limerick and Bonfire Dance. An instructor was on hand. At tables circling the dance floor, families and friends enjoyed the scene.
The Towson-based Emerald Isle Club is the only one of the 17 Irish groups in the Baltimore area that hosts regular ceilis. Held monthly, the first Saturday from October to May, with pay-at-the-door fees of $15 per adult club member, $18 for an adult non-member and senior and family discounts, they are a fundraiser for the club. The annual St. Patrick's Day Ceili will take place March 1 at the Parkville American Legion Post during which dancers from the McHale School of Irish Dance in Lutherville will perform.
Judy Kondner arranges them. "They follow a pattern," said Kondner, a Towson resident and retired elementary school teacher, the married mother of two who serves as both vice president of the Emerald Isle Club and chair of the ceilis.
The ceilis average 110 people per event although attendance has hit up to 170. About half are club members; half, non-members, mostly locals but some from as far away as Delaware and Washington, D.C., where an Irish group there also holds monthly ceilis.
"It's a mix — older members of the club who are from Ireland, people who like Irish music and dance, a lot of families," said Kondner, herself third-generation Irish, who was part of an Irish dance troupe in her youth. She got involved in the club when her daughter, now an adult, became interested in Irish dance, as well.
In 1956, Irish immigrants, their families and friends founded the nonprofit Emerald Isle Club to celebrate and promote Irish culture. Irish immigrants had been settling in Baltimore long before then, though.
"Baltimore was a big destination," said Bill Zittle, president of the Emerald Isle Club and former board member and current secretary of Irish Charities of Maryland Inc., the umbrella organization for the local groups.
"It was a port city. And, there were a lot of laboring jobs, particularly on the railroad," he said.
He points to the Irish Railroad Workers Museum, at 920 Lemmon Street, near the B&O Railroad Museum. The museum was established in 2002 to commemorate Irish workers on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad circa 1840s.
Zittle himself is not Irish. The 47-year old Freeland resident and businessman has a German-Polish background. When a family member took up Irish dancing in the early 2000s, he didn't even know the club existed.
A few years later, when he was asked to join the club's board, he hesitated. "I thought you had to be Irish," Zittle said.
While that is the case in many of the local groups, the Emerald Isle Club is inclusive. Zittle estimated that perhaps 75 percent of the club's 250 members have an Irish heritage; the rest are people who are interested in the traditions and music.
At the February ceili, Kevina Maher and Don Kaliher, of Elkridge, sat at a table with two friends. Married for over three years, the couple met at an Irish dance class for adults in Glen Echo Park, Glen Echo.
As it happens, there are four Irish dance schools in Baltimore, all located in the Towson area. McHale School in Lutherville, O'Connor School, which is based out of Towson Presbyterian Church and Egan School which meets at St. Pius X Church are for children. An adult Irish dance school meets at First and St. Stephen's Church in Stoneleigh. Except for February, students from one of the schools perform monthly at the club's ceili.
Maher, a teacher, is from County Kilkenny, Ireland. Kaliher, a retired government worker, isn't Irish, as far as he knows. The two are long-time and frequent attendees at the ceilis.
"We like the music and dancing," Maher said. "It's authentic."
Cindy Ariosa had just come off the dance floor. Ariosa, a Towson resident and realtor, was attending her first ceili. "I love the dancing. I love the family atmosphere," said Ariosa, whose grandfather emigrated from Ireland and who visited Killarney, Ireland, last year. "It's an opportunity to celebrate our Irish heritage."
Laura Cadden's parents were original members of the Emerald Isle Club. She remembers the then-Irish neighborhood at Greenmount Avenue and Biddle Street where her late father, a Baltimore City Police captain, grew up.
"I remember attending the ceilis. I remember the set dancing," said Cadden, a Cockeysville resident and publisher, who belonged to Irish dance troupes that performed in Gaelic festivals and dance competitions in cities in the mid-Atlantic region. "This was before 'Riverdance' made it popular."
Cadden is now a board member of the Emerald Isle Club. Through its various fundraising activities, the club donates about $3,000 annually to various charities such as St. Elizabeth School, Little Sisters of the Poor in Catonsville and participation in the St. Patrick's Day Parade.
"It's a wonderful community and I like that the club is charitably focused," Cadden said.
Club president Zittle agreed. "There's a lot of pride in the Irish community."
For more information about the Emerald Isle Club and the monthly ceilis, go to emeraldisleclub.com. The St. Patrick's Day Ceili takes place from 7-11 p.m. on March 1 at American Legion Post 183 Hall, 2301 Putty Hill Ave., Parkville.