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Comhaltas in San Diego, California

By Judy Carlstrom

Irish culture, history and tradition have had a venerable presence in San Diego since the founding of The House of Ireland in Balboa Park, in 1935, as part of the California/Pacific International exhibition.

The House of Ireland opens its doors to the public every Saturday and Sunday in order to share the history and culture of Ireland, this includes free refreshments and a morning and afternoon of music sessions.

Since 1981 the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade has been the largest of its kind West of the Mississippi.

The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and the Irish Outreach Center both work to support Irish immigrants.

Pub sessions and dance schools have thrived here for over thirty years.

Until 2017 the only missing element in the celebration of Irish tradition was instruction in music. That was the year that Barry Cogan of Carrigaline, Co, Cork, came to visit his son, Máirtín de Cógáin in our town on the Southwest Coast of California. The visit was to honor the christening of Mairtín’s son, Fionbarra, named after his grandfather. I was there as part of a session group invited to help bolster the celebration of the occasion. After a few lively tunes, Barry approached the group and talked to us about Comhaltas. I was familiar with the Fleadhs but knew little of the history of Comhaltas. Barry was passionate. Apparently, everywhere that Mairtin lived, once he had moved to the U.S. his father had tried to get him to open a Comhaltas branch. This time, he caught me in his snare. He was a charming man and brimming with enthusiasm for Irish traditional arts. He himself had been involved with Comhaltas for at least 40 years and had helped to establish several branches in County Cork. He had been a drummer in a dance band in the 60’s and 70’s and competed in the Munster Finals of the Céilí Band Competition with Croabh na Dúgalise a few times. He was passionate about céilí, set dancing, and storytelling in which he, himself, held two titles.

Because I too, was passionate about Irish music and dance (my daughter had been twice to the World championships in Ireland) I volunteered to be part of the founding board. The irony is that I have no Irish heritage. I am Italian and Swiss German. My husband was Swedish. It didn’t matter.

I was determined to support any tradition that involved bringing people together to share music, dance ,and storytelling, in homes, pubs, or on street corners. In the beginning Comhaltas San Diego rented classrooms and offered lessons in concertina, bodhran, storytelling, singing, fiddle, whistle and Sean Nós dancing.

The next year we moved to The House of Ireland, adding banjo, mandolin and guitar. We offered a Tinteán Ceoil on Sunday nights where we could gather at the House of Ireland, in front of the artificial fire and sing, play and tell stories while enjoying a cúpán tae.

We established a hugely successful, annual céilí where, during the break, we invited the local dance school students to participate in a “step-about”.

We survived the pandemic by adding an on-line beginning tune learning session for members only, which now continues in person at the House of Ireland.

Although San Diego itself has a notable presence of citizens of Irish descent our Comhaltas branch has grown to embrace many enthusiasts of Irish tradition who are not themselves of Irish origins. The growth of our Branch, Craobh Barry Cogan, in San Diego speaks to the magnetism of Irish music and culture. As Barry Cogan himself said, when interviewed for our FleadhFest video, ” Traditional Irish music and culture is very much

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