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Irish academy seeks to carry on traditional culture

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Every year in March, it seems that Irish heritage turns up in everyone’s blood.

They wear green clothing, shamrocks and Irish flags. Celtic music blasts from stereo speakers, with the driving beat and blare of bagpipes. People lift a toast to good health with a dark stout or glass of Irish whiskey.

With St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, now’s the time to learn that there’s more to Irish culture than corned beef and Guinness.

At the Irish Arts Academy of Indianapolis, students learn to play the bodhran, the whistle or the highland pipes. They can sing in the traditional sean-nós style, learn to dance the ceili and even speak Gaelic.

Classes in more than 10 disciplines are offered, with the hope to help spread all things Irish throughout the year.

“There are so many people in this country who are part Irish, it’s part of our heritage,” said Hilary Abigana, assistant director of the academy. “Learning where our ancestors came from and learning about the music that makes that country so unique is so important.”

Every Saturday morning, students gather at the Garfield Park Arts Center for some insight into the Emerald Isle.

The school offers lessons in every instrument traditionally in the Irish music genre.

Some participants sit and pluck massive harps, while others keep rhythm on hand drums known as bodhran. The airy notes of the flute drift down the hallway, mixing with the jaunty tune of the fiddle.

“There are older people who are done with college or in the career, and they’re musical. They want to do it, but they have nowhere to go,” said Dmitri Alano, director and founder of the school. “Why not bring my love of Irish music and culture to them?”

Alano started playing the highland bagpipes in the late 1980s when he had saved enough money after college to buy a set.

Eventually, he joined Hogeye Navvy, a longtime Indianapolis Celtic band. His career lasted for 10 years with the band, and he became more involved in the small but tight-knit Irish music scene in Indianapolis.

“It was one of those things where you did something you always wanted to do, and it leads you to more people who do the same thing,” he said.

After leaving Hogeye Navvy, Alano dabbled in other Irish bands and groups. He kept working with the same people and noticed how few young people were part of the scene.

“In my mind, I’m thinking of this community of Irish musicians that are getting older, and I wasn’t seeing new people coming up. It’s not bad seeing the same people, but you want new blood.”

A former high school band director, he knew that many of the Irish instruments correspond to traditional band instruments that students learn. The fiddle is just a violin used for folk music. Penny whistle or Irish flute are similar to other woodwind instruments.

“There are so many people who, after they finish high school, never play violin or clarinet again. That’s musical talent they can use,” Alano said.

In 2009, Alano founded the Indianapolis Ceili Band. Ceili is a Gaelic term that means “a musical gathering,” and that’s what he imagined the band being.

Starting a ceili band allowed him to find new people who had never played Irish music or were just starting out. The thought was to eventually found a school to produce the next generation of Irish musicians.

Alano worked with Hilary Abigana, who was performing with the ceili band, to start up an instructional school offering lessons in the Irish arts.

“I’ve been playing Irish music since I was a kid,” Abigana said. Seeing how many people go to Irish Fest, and how many people go to the Irish sessions in town, there are folks interested in learning about Irish music and dance and arts.”

The pair started signing up other Celtic specialists to teach the classes for the academy.

Lydia Campbell-Maher, who studied sean-nós or “old style” singing, teaches traditional Celtic vocals. Another teacher, Devin Blankenship, offers Irish language lessons.

They also worked with organizers of the annual Indy Irish Fest, a celebration of all things Celtic conducted in the fall. Festival organizers were excited at the thought of fostering interest in Irish culture and helped provide funding to pay the instructors.

“The Irish are the second-largest immigration population in Indiana. My grandparents are ones who immigrated. They’d have gatherings at their house, where people from all over the neighborhood would come together to play session music,” said Mary Coffey, chairwoman of the Indy Irish Fest. “It’s a shame that so many of the younger folks have moved away from that or weren’t aware that it happened with them.”

The school opened last summer and has been offering nine-week sessions since then. From the start, the school has attracted students from all over central Indiana.

In addition to the weekly lessons, the school offers a quarterly workshop on ceili dance, a form of Irish square dancing that would be common in a town celebration.

Plans are in place to do Irish music jam sessions the last Sunday of every month at local pubs and coffee shops in Indianapolis.

“One of the ideas we had was, ‘Let’s go to pubs or places we can bring Irish music to.’ It works for us, giving us a place to perform and for them to maybe get some more business on a Sunday,” Alano said.

Though still less than a year old, organizers of the academy are excited at the response. The summer and fall quarters drew full classes; and despite a winter where the weather affected attendance, they anticipate good turnouts in the spring and summer.

The result hopefully will be not only an increase of talented Irish artists and musicians but a population more knowledgeable in the culture that surrounds them.

“Irish music is the roots of bluegrass, country music, a lot of things that are the mainstays now,” Coffey said. “The thing we love most about the academy is it helps hone local talent. We bring acts in from all over the world to showcase at the Irish Fest, but we get really excited when new folks from Indiana can get involved.”

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