Ulster’s Dylan Foley wins big Irish fiddling prize

Dylan Foley. (Marianne Mangan)

Dylan Foley. (Marianne Mangan)

This year, Ulster County native Dylan Foley became the first American in a generation to take top honors in a prestigious Irish fiddling competition. Now, the 22-year-old Highland native is passing on the tradition to a new generation with a series of classes at Kingston’s Irish Cultural Center of the Hudson Valley. The classes are part of a larger effort by the ICCHV to keep traditional Irish culture — everything from language to dance to sports — alive and thriving in the 21st century.

“This is going above and beyond listening to [traditional] Irish music,” said Brian Cook, who directs cultural programming for Kingston ICC. “This is reviving it and restoring it.”

For Foley, who plays Irish fiddle in the clean, precise, emotional Sligo style, the workshops are a chance to teach the music the way he learned it, by ear, passed along musician to musician and generation to generation. Foley’s own education started at age 8. Growing up in Highland, Foley said, there was always Irish music in the house. An uncle played banjo in traditional “sessions” run by Father (now Monsignor) Charlie Coen in Rhinebeck. Fr. Coen’s sessions attracted top players from New York City to Albany.

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“It was like a pilgrimage to go sit down with the guy,” said musician and ICCHV Board member Sean Griffin of Coen’s influence. “Just to learn something.”

Foley took his first forays into fiddling at Rose Flanagan’s School of Irish Music in Pearl River, he also studied with Coen and Brian Conway.

Within a few years Foley was competing, and winning, fiddling competitions sponsored by the Irish cultural network Comhaltas. Comhaltas was formed in the early days of the Irish Republic to promote the island’s music, language and dance. All three, Griffin said, had been driven to near extinction under English rule when Irish cultural expression was associated with rebellion and punished.

But the music was kept alive in the sprawling Irish diaspora. In the New World, Irish immigrants not only played the old jigs, reels and slides, but incorporated sounds from other immigrant cultures, including the African-influenced banjo and the Greek bouzouki.

“You saw the restoration of a culture that had purposely been pushed aside, stepped on and almost destroyed,” said Griffin.

Today Comhaltas has branches around the world and sponsors regional and national competitions leading up to a massive All-Ireland Fleadh which annually draws some 300,000 people to the host city. Back in 1986, Foley’s old teacher Brian Conway was the last American to take home the Fleadh’s Mickey Conway prize for fiddling. Last month, Foley followed in his footsteps at the All Ireland Fleadh held in Sligo.

Back in America, Foley’s been busy touring and recording with his band “The Yanks” and playing the sessions that are at the heart of the Irish musical tradition. The session, typically held in a pub, are informal affairs. Musicians sit in a circle among the audience, taking cues from one another as they proceed from tune to tune. There’s no stage, no set list and no lineup. It’s a style and atmosphere that draws people of all ethnicities to sessions from Dublin to Tokyo.

“Irish music is the only music I can think of where you can just walk into a pub, have a few drinks, sit down and enjoy it live in this inclusive atmosphere,” said Foley.

In taking on the role of teacher for the ICCHV, Foley said, he’s doing his part to keep that tradition alive and moving into the future. The lesson program begins on September 18 at the Knights of Columbus Hall at 389 Broadway. A course of eight lessons is $180 for adults and $150 for children. ICCHV members and their children receive a 20 percent discount. For more information, or to sign up contact culturalprograms@icchv.com or call Sean at (845) 338-3562.

Check out Foley in performance: The Broken Windshield Medley