by Walter Fox

For the past 55 years, the Mt. Airy-based Philadelphia Ceili Group has been, in its own words, “devoted to the promotion and perpetuation of Irish music, dance and culture” in the greater Philadelphia area.

Its activities have ranged from holding regular monthly music, dance and singing sessions at the Irish Center, 6815 Emlen St., to sponsoring concerts by outstanding Irish musical groups and staging an annual Traditional Music and Dance Festival. They have included instrumental and dance workshops, lectures and theatrical productions.

All of these efforts got a boost recently when it was announced that field recordings made at the Ceili Group’s annual festivals and other events will now be available to the public in digital form as part of the Villanova University library’s audio collection.

In 1990 the Ceili Group deposited its recordings archive in the library’s special collections department. The archive consisted of nine boxes containing 339 cassette tapes and 53 VHS tapes, encompassing 13 years of festival main stage performances as well as other events, such as concerts, workshops and lectures.

At that time, the library did not have the hardware necessary to make the recordings available to its users, so the collection was kept in storage but never accessed in the 20-plus years it was at Villanova. But thanks to both advances in digital technology and the library’s own open-source digital software, recordings from the Ceili Group’s audio collection are now accessible online.

The first phase of the digitization project consists of 12 sets of music from the group’s 1996 music and dance festival – a small part of the entire archive, which now includes recordings from every festival from 1977 to 1996. But even these few sets are rich in selections spanning a wide range of music, performers, instruments and styles. The Ceili Group also has recordings from 1997 to the present ready for digitization.

The Ceili Group’s recordings are currently the only music collection in Villanova’s digital library.

Michael Foight, special collections and digital library coordinator at Villanova, predicted that it would take “between five and seven years” for all of the Ceili Group’s audio material to be available online. He noted that in addition to the technical aspects of processing the tapes was the need to secure rights clearances from the performers.

Robin Hiteshew, of Germantown, a former president of the Ceili Group who has managed the group’s archives since 1979, said it was “important to note that the archive was created with little money and the hard work of volunteers over the years.”

“This could not be done without the high regard and support of the many artists who have appeared at the festivals and concerts produced by the Ceili Group for recompense far below their normal fees,” he said.

Calling it a “priceless resource” that includes “examples of the finest musicians playing in the past two-and-a-half generations,” Hiteshew said the collection would “significantly add to the body of knowledge of Irish music around the world.”

Jim McGill, of Chestnut Hill, one of the original members of the Ceili Group who has served several terms as its president, described the digitization project as “fantastic.”

“There are a lot of people who would like to hear this music but would not take the time to go to a library to hear it,” he said. “Now they can listen in their own home.”

To hear these recordings, go to:

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