by Jeff Meade
Mt. Airy’s Philadelphia Irish Center figures prominently in many of Shannon Lambert-Ryan’s earliest memories. When she appears at the center with her contemporary Celtic band Runa on Sunday night, March 9, she expects it will feel like a homecoming. Every time she returns, it feels the same way. (The center, also called The Commodore John Barry Club, is located at 6815 Emlen St., at Carpenter Lane.)
“I started competitive Irish dancing there with Pat O’Donnell when I was 5,” Lambert-Ryan recalls. “It’s absolutely a special place. The thing I remember more than anything else was the hardwood floor in the ballroom, where I learned all my 3s and 7s (Irish dance steps).”
She also recalls doing heel rocking exercises while clinging to the side of the bar. Usually, those moves are practiced in a dance studio — at a “barre.”
Whatever the Irish Center lacked in professional dance facilities, it more than made up for in character.
“It was a place where you would see the same people, not just from our dance school but from the Irish community, all the time. It was always a warm feeling. There was always a fire going when dance lessons were over. Always lots of music and dancing. I have a lot of very tactile memories. Whenever I go back over there, I get that feeling.”
Lambert-Ryan stopped competitive Irish dancing when she was about 13. She continued to dance for a while just for fun but stopped completely after a year.
Later on, after college, Lambert-Ryan worked as a stage and film actor, and eventually traveled to Italy, where she appeared as Ermia in the world premiere of “Il Sogno di una Notte di Mezza Estate (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)” with the International Opera Theatre Company. Later on, she sang lead vocals with Boston’s world music ensemble, the Guy Mendilow Band.
She was performing with the band at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 2006 when she had a chance encounter that would ultimately change her life both personally and professionally.
Well-known Irish guitarist Fionán de Barra, a native Dubliner, was also performing at the festival. “We met at a party afterward,” Lambert-Ryan said. “The following day, we just walked around the festival. We just really adored each other’s company.” The two maintained a friendly long-distance relationship for about a year and a half, until Lambert-Ryan joined de Barra in Ireland to record an album.
“When I went over there, he and I realized we were much more than friends. That was in April, 2009.” They were married the same year. “We realized we liked working together musically. From then on, we looked at what the possibilities would be.”
There was one other fateful encounter at the Folk Festival. Among the other musicians Lambert-Ryan rubbed shoulders with was Canadian percussionist Cheryl Prashker, prominent in the Philadelphia folk community. When Lambert Ryan and de Barra returned to Philly with their hopes set on performing together, they asked Prashker to join them.
That’s how Runa started. In time, Japanese violinist and Berklee grad Tomoko Omura joined the band. Her playing helped shape Runa’s approach to Celtic music.
“She helped us take the band in a couple of directions, not just traditional. Her background is in classical and jazz. She has a fantastic ability to pick up all styles of music. She helped us branch out and expand what we were doing.”
In early January, while the band was down at the shore, starting work on its fourth CD, the Irish Music Association confirmed what a lot of people already knew: Runa was one of a kind. The band won two awards, top group and top traditional group in a pub, festival or concert.
“We were so excited,” Lambert-Ryan recalls. “It was one of those things you can submit for, but you never really expect to be selected, even for the submission. You just have to kick yourself every once in a while, and say, ‘really?’”
On Sunday night, Lambert-Ryan will return with the band to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the place where the award-winning singing and performing took root. (It’s also right around the corner from Prashker’s house.) Lambert-Ryan is hoping for a big crowd.
“It’s a very different experience from the other performances we do,” she said. “It’s just a very different environment. We hope people leave our shows with the feeling that they’ve joined us in our living room. We hope that even if we weren’t doing this music for a living, we’d be doing it in our living room.”
The show begins at 7. Bar food is available. Doors open at 6. Tickets are $15 at the door. More information at 215-843-8051 or www.theirishcenter.com.