HALIFAX, N.S. —
Canadian Celtic culture has come a long way in the 400 years since this East Coast peninsula and the island of Cape Breton were designated as New Scotland by Sir William Alexander in 1621.
But even traditions as old as the mountains dark and dreary of Nova Scotia can still be celebrated alongside their modern hybrids in virtual form during the eighth annual Halifax Celtic Festival, which runs from Wednesday, Jan. 27 to Sunday, Jan. 31.
Although the auspicious anniversary can’t be celebrated in person due to COVID-19 health restrictions, organizers from the Celtic Cultural Society of Nova Scotia have assembled an impressive five-day online event for its eighth year, with full details of its free concerts, workshops and demonstrations on the festival website at www.hfxcelticfest.ca.
Starting with the virtual flag raising from City Hall on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., the festival will be viewable worldwide, providing a platform for the region’s young talent; well-known performers like Heather Rankin, Shannon and Tony Quinn and Rawlins Cross’s Ian McKinnon; and multi-cultural genre-blending artists like Cuban piper Marcel Amores and the Irish-Persian Ensemble with Saeed Foroughi, Scott Macmillan and Mohammad Sahraei.
“There’s a bit of something for everyone,” says the society’s vice president Brian Doherty, who also performs during the event with his longtime musical cohort Kevin Evans on Friday evening.
Even if you don’t speak Gaelic or Welsh, or have a heritage that includes one of the participating cultures — Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, Manx (Isle of Mann) and Breton — Doherty says there is a wide array of online events to learn from and enjoy.
“Lewis McKinnon hosted a talk called Giving Celtic Context, which brought in some people from Ireland and Bridget Brownlow, who is a professor in conflict resolution at Saint Mary’s University,” says Doherty of the Thursday evening event that also includes music from McKinnon and Halifax traditional Irish singer Dusty Keleher and a Celtic fashion show.
“In pre-COVID times Bridget would be taking students from her program over to Northern Ireland to study Catholic and Protestant schools and how they’re dealing with the post-conflict era. So that’s a very interesting discussion.”
Once events are posted according to the festival schedule, they can be enjoyed by anyone at any time, anywhere in the world. Thanks to corporate sponsorship and government support, the event is free of charge, and Doherty has reached out to other events to help spread the word of the Halifax Celtic Festival’s array of dance troupes, pipe bands and classes from Cape Breton’s Gaelic College, as well as its nightly sets by seasoned musical performers.
“We all have huge connections to the Celtic music world,” says Doherty. “For example, I’ve sent a notification for this to the Milwaukee Irish Festival, and they’ll share it with the thousands of people on their mailing list. So we’re getting (th3 word) out.
“There’s also an ad hoc group called the Celtic Festival Organizers of North America, of which I’m a member, and they include a lot of the major festivals on the North American circuit. Besides Milwaukee, there’s Chicago, Pittsburgh, Portland, Cleveland and so on, and they’ll all share information on this with their mailing lists, so we’re hoping for a wide reach.”
Doherty says that even though it’s all online this year — while organizers hope that by January of 2022 the event can return to a live, in-person format — he feels the festival has cast as wide a net as ever to keep its audience engaged, especially with the potential for viewership outside of the region.
“Not everyone’s going to be interested in dance, not everyone’s going to be interested in the pipes, but I think there’s something in there for the wider Celtic interest that’s in everybody, everybody has their specialties and their favourites,” says Doherty, who hopes virtual attendees will take advantage of the convenience of online viewing to try out something new.
Whether it’s the global fiddle groove of Cape Breton and Cirque du Soleil musician Brad Reid, Irish instructor Orla McCague’s readings and language lessons or the duo of harp virtuoso Ellen Gibling and Newfoundland-bred fiddler Colin Carrigan, Doherty says moving online hasn’t kept the event from being progressive in its programming.
“Hopefully they’ll enjoy what we’ve put together.”