A Green Christmas

Traditional Irish band Téada returns to Tucson

Oisín Mac Diarmada was racing by train across Ireland to Dublin one evening last week. His nation was in economic freefall, and he'd just learned via iPhone that "our prime minister just announced the dissolution of Parliament."

"Without a doubt, it will be a harder Christmas this year," he said by phone in his heavy brogue, redolent of the West of Ireland. "But we take solace in our old traditions."

Mac Diarmada, an all-Ireland fiddling champion from Sligo, and the rest of his Irish traditional band, Téada, will bring some of those old customs to Tucson Friday night.

Their popular show Irish Christmas in America, last seen in Tucson in 2008, mixes traditional Irish music and dance with family-friendly narration and a slideshow about Christmas customs in the old country.

Besides Mac Diarmada, the six-member band (Téada means "strings" in Irish) features Tristan Rosenstock on bodhrán, Séan McElwain on guitar and bouzouki, Gráinne Hambly on harp and concertina, Damien Stenson on flute and whistle, and Tommy Martin on uilleann pipes.

They've been together almost 10 years, ever since Mac Diarmada and Rosenstock met at Trinity College Dublin.

"We're in our early 30s, and they're still calling us a 'young band,'" Mac Diarmada joked.

Guest singer Séamus Begley joins Téada for the second time on the Irish Christmas tour, now in its sixth year.

"He's a big figure in music here in Ireland," Mac Diarmada said. "He's a highly regarded accordion player and singer."

A native Irish speaker with "one of those beautiful voices," Begley lives in the "Southwest tip of Kerry down there on a small farm." He specializes in old style—séan-nos—singing in Irish.

The old Irish Christmas carols he'll sing, unknown in the United States, were lost somewhere in the great Irish immigration to America, Mac Diarmada said, as immigrants forgot their native tongue.

"It was easier to keep instrumental music alive, and harder to keep language-based song alive," he says. "But music was a way that people stayed close to home."

Complementing Begley's Irish carols, dancer Brian Cunningham of Connemara performs old-style séan-nos dancing.

"People here have seen Riverdance," Mac Diarmada said. "But what Brian does is the older style of dancing found in the western parts of Ireland." In contrast to the usual stiff body of Irish step-dancing, séan-nos "has a looser movement of hands." The young dancers of Tucson's Maguire Academy of Irish Dance will also perform.

Rosenstock narrates a slide show that humorously recounts Irish Christmas customs, some of them still practiced in modern-day Ireland. The Wren Boys—young people dressed in silly costumes, including straw hats, pajamas, cloaks and odd shoes—go door to door on St. Steven's Day, Dec. 26, "looking for money and treats," Mac Diarmada said. "At the end of the day, there's a Wren Party" in which merrymakers "share the spoils of the day."

The town of Dingle still stages a Wren Boy Parade each year, he said, and the Irish still light candles in the windows on Christmas Eve, to invite their neighbors in for a drink or cake. "It harks back to the welcoming the stranger, anyone who might be wandering."

The Téada Christmas tour is taking the musicians up and down the U.S. West Coast, through Arizona, and then back East. But they've taken care to schedule their last American show on Dec. 19.

"We always come home a couple of days before Christmas," Mac Diarmada said. "I've only once missed Christmas at home in Ireland."

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