Interview with Legendary Button Accordionist Billy McComiskey Coming to York, PA January 15th with Irish Super Group The Pride of New York

The Susquehanna Folk Music Society is proud to present our first concert of 2017 with The Pride of New York on 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, January 15, 2017, at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of York, 925 S. George Street, York, PA.  The Pride of New York is an Irish-American super group comprised of some of the best known players on this side of the Atlantic. Between them, they have won four All-Ireland championship awards, recorded multiple solo albums, and logged countless miles touring across the US and abroad. But, at its essence, this quartet of singular talents is defined in spirit by the city of New York which gives the group its name.

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The Pride of New York includes Joanie Madden — leader of Cherish the Ladies, and the first American to win the Senior All-Ireland championship on the tin whistle, Billy McComiskey — the finest button accordion player ever to emerge from the United States, Brian Conway — one of the best fiddlers of his generation, playing in the Sligo style, and Brendan Dolan — stellar multi-instrumentalist who’s worked with some of the brightest stars on the Irish-American scene.

Concert tickets are $27 General Admission, $23 for SFMS members and $10 for students ages 3-22. Advance tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets or toll-free (800) 838-3006. For more information, visit the Susquehanna Folk Music Society website.

Recently we interviewed the Pride of New York’s acclaimed Irish Button Accordionist Billy McComiskey about his early influences, playing in the Pride of New York, and a prestigious award that he received recently.

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FOLKMAMA: Recently you were named a NEA National Heritage Fellow, can you explain a bit about this award and what it means to receive it?

 

BILLY: The National Heritage Fellowships are awarded annually, to Americans representing every conceivable ethnic and cultural group, and I cannot even begin to tell you how humbled I am to have even been considered for such a high honor.  The award goes to musicians, but also to visual artists, dancers, craftspeople, and really anyone who has helped to preserve and perpetuate the cultural identity of his or her community.  So, while it is certainly a national award, it is every bit as much, if not even more so, a recognition of ongoing work done at the local and community level.  And, in that regard, I can take pride knowing that I have tried my very best to keep Irish traditional music alive and well in the mid-Atlantic region.

 

FOLKMAMA: What was is like growing up and playing traditional Irish music in Brooklyn, sections of which have been called westernmost counties of Ireland? Did you have a strong cultural identity growing up?

 

BILLY: I had a very strong cultural identity growing up in Brooklyn. In New York City, when I was still a boy, Irish Traditional music was not marketable; in fact, it was almost on the verge of extinction.  What saved Irish music in New York at that time were the Irish immigrant clubs, and especially the Irish musician clubs, which were really the genesis of today’s CCE (Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann).  All five boroughs contained many of those clubs, and my family — the McComiskeys, as well as my Sweeney and Caplis relatives — were known and welcome in those clubs.  And it was also around that same time, in 1967 to be exact, that my uncle Matt Caplis — who owned a boarding house in upstate New York, in an area known then and now as “The Irish Catskills” — first introduced me to Sean McGlynn, from Tynagh. Co. Galway, who became my dear friend and musical mentor, and whose grey Paolo Soprani accordion I still play to this very day.  Anyway, between Brooklyn and upstate, there really was never a time when I wasn’t keenly aware of my Irish heritage.  And from a very early age, I realized that one of my own heritage’s most remarkable aspects is the beautiful traditional music, which attracts not just Irish and Irish-Americans of course, but people from virtually every ethnic background as well.

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FOLKMAMA: All four of you have had very successful solo careers and projects with other musicians and groups. What is it that you like most about performing in The Pride of New York?

BILLY: Well, by way of answering your question, let me first give you a bit of historical background.  In 1986, my good friend Don Meade was running a concert series at the Eagle Tavern in lower Manhattan, and one night he hosted a performance featuring accordionist Martin Mulhaire, fiddler Brian Conway, and pianist Felix Dolan. My mother played me a cassette tape of the concert, and it struck me that this was exactly the style and standard of music that I love, especially since it emulated the music recorded by accordionist Joe Burke, fiddler Andy McGann, and the same Felix Dolan, in 1967, on the landmark “Tribute To Michael Coleman” album — it was the epitome of the New York style.  Anyway, when Don asked me soon afterwards to put a band together for that same series, I asked Brian to join me, and to round out the group, I then asked Joanie Madden to join us on the flute, as well as Felix Dolan himself to join us on piano.  We must have gone over very well, selling out two seatings, so I suppose you could say we were an immediate hit.

And at some point after that, when Felix was unavailable for a performance, his son Brendan came on to do the gig, and he soon became a permanent band member.  Anyway, we played whenever we got the opportunity, both as a ceili band and as a performing band, but it wasn’t till we were asked to do a concert set at Catskills Irish Arts Week, in East Durham New York, about ten years ago, when Paul Keating, who was directing the event, introduced us as The Pride of New York, and the name stuck, even to the point of it our using it when we recorded our CD not very long thereafter.

So, aside from the fact that Joanie, Brendan, Brian and I are lifelong friends, with nearly identical musical influences and inspirations, the music we make always seems effortless, and it never ceases to be a source of immense joy for all of us.

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Pride of New York on 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, January 15, 2017, at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of York, 925 S. George Street, York, PA.   Concert tickets are $27 General Admission, $23 for SFMS members and $10 for students ages 3-22. Advance tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets or toll-free (800) 838-3006. For more information, visit the Susquehanna Folk Music Society website.

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