BCMFest to mark 20 years of celebrating local Celtic music and dance Jan. 12–15

This year's BCMFest Nightcap concert features the "Boston Celtic All-Stars" – Clockwise from top left, Katie McNally, Jenna Moynihan, Shannon Heaton, Natasha Sheehy, Christine Morrison, Rebecca McGowan, Janine Randall, and Bethany Waickman.


For two decades, BCMFest (Boston Celtic Music Fest) has spotlighted some of the Greater Boston area’s best musicians, singers, and dancers in the Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, and other Celtic and Celtic-related traditions. The all-ages festival will celebrate its 20th year with four days of concerts, sessions, and other special events from Jan. 12 through Jan. 15.

Among BCMFest 2023’s highlights will be a concert featuring the “Boston Celtic All-Stars,” including Katie McNally, Jenna Moynihan, Shannon Heaton, Natasha Sheehy, Bethany Waickman, Janine Randall, Rebecca McGowan, and Christine Morrison – all of whom have performed at the festival over the years. 

Other BCMFest favorites coming to the 20th anniversary bash will be Matt & Shannon Heaton; Copley Street; Katie McNally & Friends; Jenna Moynihan; Scottish Fish; Molly Pinto Madigan; the Boston Scottish Fiddle Orchestra; Elizabeth & Ben Anderson; Fódhla; Leland Martin & Friends; Casey Murray & Molly Tucker; the Medford All-Star Ceili Band; Maura Shawn Scanlin & Friends; David Healy, Nathan Gourley and Eamon Sefton; and the Carroll Sisters Trio. 

Also confirmed for BCMFest 2023 are: James Kelly & Ryan Douglas; Sarah Collins & Jonathan Vocke; Kate Gregory & Brendan Hearn; Loud Weather; David McKindley-Ward; Adam Hendey with Eamon Sefton and Simon Lace; and the duo Mrs. Wilberforce.

BCMFest will be centered around Club Passim in Harvard Square (47 Palmer Street), with the First Round and Roots & Branches evening concerts on, respectively, Jan. 12 and 13 and a marathon “Dayfest” on Jan. 14, as well as The BCMFest Brunch on Jan. 15. The Sinclair (52 Church Street) will be the venue for the Jan. 14 BCMFest Nightcap with the Boston Celtic All-Stars.  

Also on the schedule is BCMFest’s perennially popular Celtic dance party, The Boston Urban Ceilidh, on Jan. 13 at The Crystal Ballroom in Somerville, and participatory sessions at the Cambridge First Parish Church on Jan. 14.

Flute/whistle player and vocalist Shannon Heaton, who co-founded the festival with fiddler Laura Cortese, recently recalled how she and her husband Matt moved to Boston in 2001 and quickly made themselves at home among the various music sessions around town. But while being in an Irish music “bubble” was “glorious,” she said, “I also loved hanging with Laura and other non-Irish players when we’d end up at parties and concerts.”

So when she and Cortese happened to bump into one another in Davis Square one afternoon in 2003, they wound up hatching an idea to bring the area’s various Celtic music and dance communities together. 

“We thought about creating a weekend where we’d all deliberately intersect and collaborate. We’d invite all the Irish, Scottish, and Cape Breton musicians. And we’d pull in dancers and singers, too, since back then there wasn’t as much footwork or singing at the sessions,” said Heaton. “Boom: BCMFest.”

In addition to recruiting their musician friends and acquaintances to perform at that first festival, Heaton and Cortese also enlisted the aid of venues like Club Passim, The Burren, and the Canadian American Club to provide performance and participation space. The results were everything that the pair had envisioned, and more.

“I loved seeing and hearing everybody all mixed together, all taking turns to play and listen, all supporting one another,” said Heaton. “And there were some acts that had really taken on our invitation to ‘experiment, to try something new.’ We got people collaborating, just by putting all the different trad communities together in one space. Different styles, different ages. It felt way bigger than just the two of us organizing some weird concert.”

McNally, who has taken the lead in organizing the Boston Celtic All-Stars ensemble, said her vision for the Nightcap concert was inspired by “the BCMFest principles and goals that have been part of the festival from the beginning, especially the idea of uniting the Celtic music communities in the Boston area. So I wanted to be sure that the concert had the Scottish, Irish, and Cape Breton components, and keep everything in balance, including music and dance.”

She also thought about those “who have represented the festival over the years – people from different generations coming together, which is another important value of the festival,” citing Heaton as well as Randall, “who has been part of the Cape Breton vanguard in Boston for years, and has such a strong connection to traditional music.” Moynihan’s inventive Scots-style fiddling represents new directions in Celtic music, McNally added, while Sheehy is a fine exemplar of the traditional Irish accordion sound. McNally said featuring dance traditions in the Nightcap concert also was a must, hence the inclusion of stalwarts McGowan (Irish) and Morrison (Cape Breton/Scottish).

McNally, who was 13 when BCMFest started, has appeared in almost every edition of the festival since then. She’s grateful for the positive impact it had on her as a young musician who had only been playing for a few years when she first performed there. 

“I found BCMFest so fun and welcoming, and I just remember learning lots of lessons about traditional music and how it could be played and presented. There were special events like the Boston Urban Ceilidh, which is so fun, energetic, and bright, and then creative, wacky bands like Tradbot. It was also where I learned reverence for older musicians who were rooted in the tradition; BCMFest was unique in that way, because not a lot of festivals made that kind of room for traditional players.”

The blending of generations, as well as “tradition bearers” and more modern-influenced performers, continues to be a hallmark of BCMFest, said Heaton. 

“I love the huge age span. I love that there are acts that have come out of local colleges who play really well and maybe are newer to traditional music; and there are also passionate amateurs and community music schools who also bring such beauty to the weekend.”

BCMFest is a program of Passim, a Cambridge-based non-profit that supports a vibrant music community through Club Passim, music school, artist grants and outreach initiatives. 

Updates, ticket information, performer bios and other festival details will be available at passim.org/bcmfest.