A Celtic Christmas Returns to the Cascade
● By Jon Lewis
Tales of Holiday Lore
Photo courtesy of TomaseenFoley.com
Several decades back, when Tomaseen Foley was but a wee lad growing up in a remote parish in the west of Ireland, the excitement of Christmas had more to do with the exchange of songs and stories than it did the exchange of gifts.
That remains the essence of Christmas for Foley, who is bringing his “A Celtic Christmas” back to the Cascade Theatre on Wednesday, Dec. 21. It’s a deliberately low-tech production that relies on the stalwarts of Irish culture—music, song, dance and a bit of blarney—for a night of old-fashioned entertainment.
Foley, who now resides in Talent, Ore., strives to “re-create a night in a farmhouse in the west of Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s. At that time, neighbors gathered at each other’s houses and it was very casual and informal and they would bring their instruments. It’d be a night of dancing, storytelling and music. I would love those nights growing up.”
Foley likes the simple format and has stuck with it for 20 years as he tours “A Celtic Christmas” around the country each December. What keeps it fresh are the personnel changes and, of course, the stories.
Foley relies on a nucleus of cast members, led by William Coulter, a Grammy-winning Celtic guitarist, dancer and music director. Brian Bigley, the master of the Uilleann pipes, flute and whistle, has been a regular for seven years—“he was just a kid when he started and now he’s married with a family. He’s also a step dancer who competes at the highest levels,” Foley says—and Marcus Donnelly, a dancer, has been part of the holiday show for nine years.
“Having a core of people who know the show in their bones means we can bring in new people who bring in new energies. I try to build the show around the people I’ve got. Each person brings their own sense of energies and talents to the evening and I try and draw those out,” Foley says.
Edwin Huizunga, a classically trained violinist from the Netherlands who fell in love with Irish music, has been an instrumental part of “A Celtic Christmas” for a couple years. “He’s a very physical player and extremely dynamic on stage,” Foley says. “He brings an amazing amount of energy. The fact that he’s 6-foot-5 and about 300 pounds doesn’t take away from any of that.”
Samantha Harvey, a traditional Irish dancer and an accordionist, is taking part in her third Christmas tour and vocalist Kara Matthias, who studied at the University of Limerick and recently earned a master’s degree in traditional Irish music from the university’s Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, is a newcomer to the show. “She’s all of 23 and a gorgeous singer. I think she will be quite the name in the future,” Foley says.
The show, just like those wintry nights of yore, is focused on the stories. “Storytelling was what the evening was about,” Foley says. “The music and the dancing surrounded that. When the dancing stopped and the music stopped, everybody waited for
Foley soaked up his neighbors’ stories as a child and then, at age 9 or 10 when his family’s farm house secured a radio, he listened to broadcasts of storytellers (or seanchaithe in the Irish language) like Batt Burns and Eamon Kelly.
How does he explain our fascination with stories? “I think it was something that was just built into us,” Foley says. “I think it goes back to hunter-gatherers and the Stone Age. As soon as it got dark in the evening, people sat around the fire and told stories. There was nothing else to do.
“When the light goes down and somebody says ‘I’ll tell you a story,’ we’re already entranced by the possibility of a story. When it’s live and one person telling the story, we can all follow along in our imaginations. Nobody is showing us a picture like in the movies. We can imagine it ourselves.”
Coulter, the music director, often watches from the wings during the storytelling and tells Foley that after about five to seven minutes, audience members get a little restless. “They’re not used to doing this, but after about 10 minutes, everybody’s completely engrossed again and they’ve forgotten their restlessness,” Foley says.
“I’ve had people tell me nobody is going to sit and listen to a story for 20 minutes, but I have found that not to be true. People really do. There’s a hunger for that simplicity, a longing that we have.” •
A Celtic Christmas at the Cascade Theatre
December 21 • 7:30 pm • www.cascadetheatre.org