The Irish Catskills: Then and Now with Filmmaker Kevin Ferguson
Kevin Ferguson's documentary, The Irish Catskills: Dancing at the Crossroads, made me wish I were born a couple of generations earlier. The film takes us back to 1950s, to a time when Greene Country, particularly the hilly, green-as-the-homeland hamlet of East Durham, was affectionately known at Ireland's 33rd County. It was a place for love connections with fellow Irish ex-pats, its bustling dance halls ringing with traditional Irish music mixed with swing and big band. Back then, it was a working man's resort town and the ideal spot for an inexpensive, kid-friendly vacation, and it many ways, it still is. (Though, as you'll notice when you look at these old photos, our wardrobes have gone way downhill!)
Kevin, who just received a much-deserved Irish Community Champion award from the Irish Echo, has managed to capture the joy of area's heyday while also documenting its evolution. In the following Q&A, he generously shares his own family's history and takes us on a door-to-door tour of East Durham as it stands today. He talks about Irish Arts Week, politely-yet-firmly shuts down his critics, and explains the never-ending conversation that lives on in the Irish Catskills, a conversation that I'm happy to join in on and which I hope to pass along to my own children.
BKDW: Around what year did you start spending your summer vacations in the Catskills? Did you stop going up at some point, or do you still bring your family there today?
Well, my parents met up there in the early 1950s. They married in Sept. 1955, and I was born in Oct. 1960 – the youngest of four. I guess you’d call us Irish quadruplets. My father started going up to the Catskills in the 1940s, after World War II. Like many New Yorkers, he first went to the Rockaways. In 1950, my mother emigrated from County Cavan, Ireland, joining three of her sisters who were already here. One of them, Marie, had bought a boardinghouse with her husband, Ed, also from Cavan, in Oct. 1946. The following May they opened Mullan’s Mountain Spring Farm (later Hotel). When my mother wasn’t working as a nurse in NYC she—and every other relative—worked at Mullan’s. By that time, my father would tend bar and sing up there. That’s how they met.
So, we would spend several weeks at a time up there during the summer, occasionally weekends in the fall and winter, as well. I continued going fairly regularly until I went away to college in 1978 (Rutgers). I also worked up there two summers in the mid-1950s, washing dishes, babysitting, and mowing lawns. I started going back more regularly after the Catskills Irish Arts Week started about 20 years ago. I attended some classes, though the appreciation I have for traditional Irish music never migrated from my head and heart to my fingers. But I brought my daughter, Grace Aine (turns 13 in June) up there a couple of years ago and she loves it. She took a step-dancing class with Donny Golden and stayed up late with me to listen to some sessions.
BKDW: When you go back to visit, which restaurants/bars/resorts/events do you go back to? And are there any new spots or events that you've come to love in recent years?
I almost go from place to place. I start with Stack’s Lamppost, so I can check in with Michael Stack, the owner. I then make my way up Route 145, stopping at McGrath's. I spent many wayward nights there as a teenager, and the late Kathleen McGrath was the first owner I interviewed for my film. I always feel welcome there still. After that, I make my way up, seeing if anyone is playing out on the lawn at Simply Durham Cottages. If it’s Irish Arts Week, Billy McComiskey [pictured above] is usually teaching accordion and it’s great to hear him play and chat with him. Next stop is the Shamrock House, which remains the epicenter of the Irish Catskills, I think. It’s in the center of town and it's always lively on a summer night. I also stop in to Lawyer’s General Store. It’s changed hands a few times over the years, but it remains so much like it did 50 years ago. We used to hoof it up from Sunside Road, walking along 145 in the hot sun, just to get an Italian ice from the soda fountain counter that used to be in the center of the store. After that, used to stop off at Furlong's, but that closed a few years back. It was a great place for sessions. Then it's up to Gavin's – more about that in a moment. I also stop in at the Blackthorne Resort. That's where my story in the Catskills started. This was the boardinghouse that used to be Mullan's. The main house burned to the ground in September 2010 and prompted me to start the film.
The more recent addition I've made in recent years is Oak Hill, just up from East Durham. It's a great little town. Good antiques, some great B&B’s (including the DeWitt, where my daughter and I stayed last time) and good food.
As for events, I can't say enough about the Catskills Irish Arts Week. In my early 20s, I might have drifted more toward the festivals on Labor Day and Memorial Day weekends. But the CIAW is special. People come to hear and play music. It’s a real celebration of genuine culture, more so than the other weekends, in my opinion. That said, I have gone to the other weekends and made some connections. I'm just quieter now than when I was younger, so I have to work harder to find quiet moments on the big festival weekends.
BKDW: What do you miss most about the Irish Catskills of your childhood? And have you tried to replicate that experience for your own children with any success? I don't think East Durham will ever see hordes of kids coming in from the city and suburbs like the old days, but there are still a few resorts, like Gavin's, that seem to have a bunch of kids running free.
Last summer, I had one of my favorite evenings in years in the Catskills. My daughter and I were over at Gavin’s during Irish Arts Week. It was at least 11 p.m., probably much later. I was standing outside the door of Gavin's Tea Room listening to several uilleann pipers, including Jerry O’Sullivan, who played at my wedding. Outside, my daughter was playing manhunt (akin to hide and seek) with a dozen or so new friends. They were running and giggling, and I was listening to Irish music, chatting with an old friend. I knew she was safe, and I was having a wonderful time. Mary McKenna Dearing, who owned what was McKenna’s Irish House, said in my film that up in the Catskills "you were part of a common conversation." And that is key. You could come in any time, year after year, and walk into a conversation as though you had just stepped away for a moment to grab a cup of tea. That still happens today, but you have to work a little harder now.
BKDW: I was bummed to see that you got some negative comments on your Facebook page a few weeks ago. I thought the comments were unfounded and ridiculous, and we don't need to get into that here, but how would you describe the East Durham resort owners and business owners that you interviewed in your film? Would you say that they've kept the warm Irish character of their businesses, and that they're welcoming to people of all backgrounds? Were they welcoming to you and your film crew?
Ah, well, there’s a lot to say, but I don’t think I’ll go into too much detail. What I will say is that many of the owners were suspicious of my motives. There have been a few articles, most notably in the New York Times, that more or less sounded the death knell for the Catskills. They were afraid I was going to do the same. And even after the film, there’s a few people—but only a few—who feel that I’ve somehow betrayed them. Why? Because I acknowledge the obvious: the Irish Catskills are not as big as they used to be. What critics don’t understand is that if I were to disregard that history, I would look foolish and the documentary would be nothing but fluff. I purposely ended the film on what I thought was a hopeful note.
At the end of the day, no one’s banned me form their premises. The two main stores—Guaranteed Irish and Lawyer's have stocked the film, and I’ve had several showing of the film in town and one at the Greenville Drive-In.
A lot of it comes down to my motivation for making the film in the first place.
What the film is not: It was not meant to be a commercial. It was not meant to be a travel piece. It was not meant to highlight the hardships of the Catskills or upstate New York (that's been done already.) It was also not meant to say that it was better then than it is now.
What it is: A celebration of Irish culture and a record of how important the Irish Catskills were to the first-generation Irish in America. Whether or not the Irish-owned bars are still open was never the point. It's that much of the history—specific people, specific places—are in danger of being forgotten as time moves on. Since I began filming in 2010, eight people I've interviewed have died. I didn’t want their stories to be buried.
Aside from all that, I would say, yes, we were welcomed.
As far as the Irish character, I would say that some of the places still have it. What's changed is that it's not as pervasive as it once was—i.e., every summer day, every place would be packed with Irish and Irish-Americans. But can still have some of these conversations. Better still, my daughter now enjoys going on these door-to-door visits where I drop in on people. So, I've managed to pass it along to the next generation.
As far as being welcoming, I'd also say, yes. Although I've witnessed some anti-Semitism, I don't think that's pervasive at all. I've also brought my Ethiopian son, Semeredin, to East Durham and no one batted an eyelash.
BKDW: Do you have plans to make another documentary, or are you working on any other projects?
I’d love to start another documentary, but I don’t have the funds. I was able to raise a little bit last time, but spent more than $100,000 out of pocket. So much for retirement. Then again, given that I’m 56 years old and have children not quite 11 and 13, my retirement party will consist of me lying in a box with flowers on my chest. Until then, I continue to write and film for other purposes. I just got back from Liberia in western Africa where I was interviewing some government minister and some rural folks for a charity group called Oxfam.
A note from BKDW: Irish Catskills: Dancing at the Crossroads recently aired on PBS and you can buy the film on DVD or download it from Vimeo on the Narrowback Films website. Makes a great gift for any fan of Irish music and Irish-American culture. My 75%-Italian son, age 6, loved it so much that he asked if he could take uilleann pipe lessons.
All photos courtesy of Kevin Ferguson