Arts and Entertainment

Going Irish on San Juan: Ninth annual camp and concert this week

Top photo: Accordion player James Keane  performs at a previous Irish Music Camp. Middle photo: Antoin MacGabhann of County Meath, Ireland, is one of the fiddle instructors at this year’s camp. Bottom photo: Islanders enjoy the music at a performance. - Contributed photos
Top photo: Accordion player James Keane performs at a previous Irish Music Camp. Middle photo: Antoin MacGabhann of County Meath, Ireland, is one of the fiddle instructors at this year’s camp. Bottom photo: Islanders enjoy the music at a performance.
— image credit: Contributed photos

It is a fact that the San Juan Islands bear a passing resemblance to the landscapes of Ireland. There is both a negative and a positive to this.

On the one side, the Irish fiddle player is forced to go through the boredom and discomfort of a 12-hour plane ride to end up in a place that looks much the same as the place he or she just left. On the other hand, however, it means that San Juan Island is the perfect place to host a festival dedicated to the culture of Irish music.

This sense of place is a contributing factor in the success of the Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp. Co-organizer Dan Paulson attributes the sense of kinship many people have with Irish music to the importance of family history.

“So many early Americans traveled here from Ireland, and the music remains a tie to their ancestors,” he said. “The mission of our camp is to preserve the authentic tradition of Irish music and keep it alive.”

Paulson and his fellow camp founder and organizer Randal Bays are careful to avoid idealizing Irish culture and making it “cute.” “There are no leprechauns,” Bays said.

Bays is also aware of how commercialized Irish music can be, with big-name shows like “Riverdance” directing public attention away from grassroots Irish music. With the aid of professional, quality Irish musicians, it is this pitch of original, true-to-culture music that the camp aims to hit.

Bays explained how the variety of Irish musicians who come to teach at the camp are unaware of the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. “They have only ever seen the East Coast — Boston, New York,” Bays said, explaining how the music performance circuit confines the musicians to the eastern seaboard. “When they see this place, they think it’s the best part of the States.”

Although the quality of the musicians means that the camp would probably be a success in any part of the country, the fact that the music seems to match the landscape adds to the overall experience.

“I just love being up here on the island,” Bays said. “It helps with the whole immersion idea.” A musical immersion is the experience that Bays and Paulson strive for. The camp is in its ninth year and Bays said it promises to be the biggest yet, with the number of returning participants equaling the number of new ones. The camp also has a new location, moving from the U.W. Friday Harbor Labs to Roche Harbor.

“We are very excited about our move to Roche Harbor,” Paulson said. “Brent Snow, Sam Jacobson and Pat Carver have been wonderful to work with and the venue is perfect.” In addition to the concert on March 12, there are traditional Irish music sessions in the Madrona Bar & Grill and in McMillin’s Dining Room on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights, at about 8:30 p.m.

The camp reached full capacity several weeks ago and there are high hopes for next year and the big 10th anniversary.

“Next year, we may expand the camp though the weekend,” Paulson said. “If so, the weekend would consist of a festival atmosphere where the public would be invited to spend the weekend on island and hear live music and dance throughout the weekend.”

AT A GLANCE
— What: Ninth annual Irish Music Camp
— When: March 8-13
— Where: Roche Harbor
— Don’t miss: Irish music sessions March 8, 9, 11, 8:30 p.m., in the Madrona Bar & Grill and in McMillin’s Dining Room; Irish Music Concert March 12, 7:30 p.m., San Juan Community Theatre (Concert tickets are $26).
— Call: 378-3210. Online: www.fridayharborirish.com; www.sjctheatre.org.

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