Doyle’s Café is a Boston institution – and more to the point, a Boston Irish institution, as anyone who has seen its Irish and Irish-American memorabilia and décor can testify. So there aren’t many more appropriate venues around for a good old-fashioned Irish ceili than the nearly 135-year-old Jamaica Plain establishment.
On the second Saturday of each month, Doyle’s plays host to the Jamaica Plain Ceilis, which brings together generations for an evening of fun and fellowship that enlivens the back room with set and ceili dancing. The series, which runs September through May, is now into its second year.
The organizers for the JP Ceilis are Jackie O’Riley, a Stoughton native who is an Irish dance performer and teacher, and Los Angeles transplant Joey Abarta, a widely recognized master of the uilleann pipes. They were inspired by a one-off event a few years ago at Doyle’s organized by friends seeking in particular to interest a younger crowd in ceili dancing. The space seemed to work fine, and the turnout was good, but as O’Riley explains, at the time no one was ready to spearhead the next step: making it a regular event.
“Finally, after about a year, Joey and I decided that we could do this as a team,” says O’Riley, who often calls the dances at the ceilis but happily defers to special guests. “We’ve been very fortunate to have a team of volunteers to help us, as well as the cooperation from Doyle’s, to make it all work.”
Another valuable component of the series is the Jamaica Plain Ceili Train, a band with a shifting line-up, organized by Abarta, which provides the music, and a good part of the energy, for the event. “There’s nothing like dancing to live music,” says O’Riley. “Joey and the musicians he invites are so great, and they give everything such a lift.”
The ceilis are preceded by about a 40-minute crash course in the basics of set and ceili dancing. “We’re extremely welcoming to beginners,” says O’Riley, who adds that she and her co-organizers make a point of referring newcomers to other set dancing events in the Boston area.
Once the evening gets going in earnest, there are usually on average about 70 people participating. And it’s then that an important element – one that goes beyond the immediacy of the event – kicks in, she says.
“One of our major goals with the ceilis is to have mixed ages and experiences. The core set dance community is Boston is aging, and they have a lot of wisdom to pass along, so we want to make sure they get together with the younger, less seasoned folks. The older dancers are very understanding and helpful; even though someone is calling the dance, they really look out for those people who aren’t used to doing it.”
This dynamic is a big part of what makes the ceili series so appealing for O’Riley and many of those who take part. “In this day and age, when life just seems to be so busy for many of us, having these monthly dances is a chance for communion, for getting together and enjoying one another’s company,” she explains. “The ceilis aren’t a competition, just a way to recognize joy and celebrate life. I know it certainly makes me feel happy and healthy.”
The evening’s program includes a little break for people to catch their breath, and to inject some variety – perhaps a song from a willing singer, or a few flourishes by step dancers who are present. It all depends who shows up, notes O’Riley, and sometimes anything can happen: On one occasion, a group of Greek students came by, joined in on the set dance “Shoe the Donkey,” and eventually wound up demonstrating a Greek dance.
There also are moments of true grace, O’Riley says, such as when a particular dance is running along smoothly and she allows herself to relax a little and observe the tableau in front of her. “I look across the floor, and I see the older dancers who have loved doing this for years; I see young kids who are there with their families, having a good time getting caught up in the moment; I see my musician friends, many of whom almost never get a chance to dance; I see people who are new to the dancing, and they’re getting the hang of it. And my heart just swells.”
The next Jamaica Plain Ceili at Doyle’s will be March 14, at 7 p.m. (instruction begins at 6:15). For information, see the Facebook group at facebook.com/thejamaicaplainceilis or e-mail O’Riley at email@example.com.