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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Irish Catskills

Recently the PBS television channel broadcast an hour-long documentary about the "Irish Catskills". Here is the documentary's trailer.

The Irish Catskills was an area around East Durham, New York, that featured many hotels that, in the summer, hosted large numbers of Irish-Americans from New York City and other large cities. This Irish phenomenon was similar to the Jewish phenomenon portrayed in the movie Dirty Dancing.

The documentary was produced by Kevin Ferguson, an Irish-American whose family visited the Irish Catskills every summer when he was growing up. An article about Ferguson and his documentary, titled The History of the Irish Alps, was published by Hudson Valley magazine. Here is an excerpt from that article:
“It was such a bizarre place,” Ferguson recalls. “The town was completely transformed into an Irish town in summers. It’s where my parents met, and where many Irish couples met, on the dance floor. It’s where I learned to dance. It was charming and odd in so many ways, and hard to describe in words, and the fire prompted me to go into film. It needs moving images and sound, because it is so imbued with music and dance. It’s obvious, really.”

When Ferguson’s mother emigrated from County Cavan to America in 1950, her first address was a small boarding house, owned by her sister, called Mullan’s Mountain Spring Farm in East Durham. Ferguson says that Irish immigrants had been visiting the area, which was previously predominantly German, since the late 1800s. The landscape reminded many of them of the old sod, what with its lush, soft, rolling green hills. In the 1930s and ’40s, with the Depression and then war in Europe, many Germans sold their boarding houses and businesses to those of Irish descent, and the Irish Alps were truly born.

The towns of Leeds, South Cairo, Oak Hill, and East Durham offered boarding and sustenance at places with evocative names like the Shamrock House, the Weldon House, O’Neill’s Cozy Corner, O’Neill’s Tavern, Kelly’s Brookside Inn, and McKenna’s Irish House. In the summer, city dwellers looking to escape the heat and dirt headed upstate for the clean mountain air. As with the Borscht Belt, the Irish Alps hit its heyday after World War II, from the 1950s through the early 1970s. In 1960 there were upwards of 40 Irish-run hotels or boarding houses in the area, Ferguson says, filled each summer with Irish families singing, dancing, and playing music. “Leeds reminds me of a village in Ireland, with one main road, a few storefronts. It’s only a block long, but in the day there was a street car,” he says. “That’s how much activity there was.”

The union organizer, Michael Quill, played a big role in that. As one of the founders of the Transport Workers Union of America, established in the 1930s in New York City, he helped Irish workers earn better pay and more time off. Many had been spending any free time in the Rockaways, a smorgasbord of Irish, Jewish, and Italian retreats. Now, they could travel farther, for longer periods, and be with their own.
The documentary is well done. It includes many old video clips and many interviews.

A popular activity at these hotels was traditional Irish music and dance. The following video is not from the PBS documentary, but it shows that kind of music and dance.

Because I am interested in Dirty Dancing, I was particular interested in a part of the PBS documentary that described a radical change in the Irish Catskills music that took place at the end of the 1950s and 1960s. In Ireland itself, there was a music fad of so-called "show bands", and such bands toured in the Irish Catskills. During those few years, those "show bands" became more popular among young Irish-Americans than the traditional, folk-music bands. If someone wanted to make a movie like Dirty Dancing about the Irish Catskills, that invasion of Irish "show bands" would provide an interesting setting.

Here are two videos that show the look and sound of that period's "show bands".

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