Austin's Celtic Clans
On the morning of Nov. 16, 2001, Lanora Davidson drove to work fearing the worst.
The night before, she and then-husband Crawford Shortt had hurriedly moved stock off the floor of Things Celtic at 911 N. Lamar amid warnings to evacuate in advance of the fast-rising Shoal Creek. Rains had sent more than a foot of creek water into their store only months before, business having returned to normal just recently. Nothing could prepare Davidson for the sight she was about to face.
Three feet of floodwater had filled the shop overnight. Items moved off the ground hours before lay in brown creek mud on the floor; heavy, wooden display cases and her grandmother's antiques dumped over like dollhouse furniture. Scottish swords, Celtic jewelry, Guinness T-shirts, Irish linens, leather goods, Christmas ornaments, books, and CDs were strewn everywhere in the muck. Less than six weeks before Christmas, and two-thirds of the store's inventory was ruined.
Phone calls flew -- to their insurance agent, to a professional water-extraction crew, to customers with orders for wedding rings, silver, and crystal. The news media descended with cameras and reporters who clucked and offered sympathies while filming the devastation. Overwhelmed by the force of nature that had turned her business dream into a soggy, holiday nightmare, Davidson ducked behind a large oak table knocked on its side, sank down onto a muddy stool, and wept.
Then something extraordinary happened. Two or three people appeared bearing cleanup materials. They were members of local Celtic organizations such as the Austin Celtic Association, the Gaelic League, the Texas Highlanders, and Scots of Austin. Four or five more popped in by noon -- musicians, customers, friends -- all prepared to work. By the late afternoon, more than a dozen volunteers had come to do what they could. Progress was palpable.
Davidson's heart was still heavy when she locked the door of Things Celtic that night, but another, unexpected emotion was present: pride. True to the ancient tradition of clans, when one family needed help, the village pitched in. People continued to show up and work for days afterward. It was an unwavering effort that saw the store back in business eight days later and bustling by Christmas.
"I was truly moved," remembers Davidson. "By the dozens of people who helped, the pubs who donated food to the workers, the hundreds who came shopping afterward, the love and labor that poured out. I can never repay the community for it."
Donnelle McKaskle was among the first on the scene at Things Celtic that Thursday morning. McKaskle, the voice of KOOP's Monday morning radio program Celtic Storm, kept busy contacting people even before the floodwaters receded. Over the next few days, via e-mail and cell phone, she rallied the volunteers who shoveled mud, cleaned furniture, and rescued inventory to help their beloved store.
She never doubted the ability of the Celtic community to support one another. In addition to the radio show, McKaskle is involved with the Austin Celtic Association, the Gaelic League of Austin, the Texas Highlanders, and the Scottish Country Dance Alliance. She recently founded the Celtic Cultural Center of Texas and this year applied to the city of Austin for a grant on the Center's behalf.
To those for whom the terms are vague, "Celtic" refers to the people, languages, and culture of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man in the British Isles, Brittany in France, and Galicia in Spain, all of which are sometimes referred to as "the seven nations." It was a pagan culture with a love of the arts, a warrior ethic, and no central government to unite its many tribes.
McKaskle comes by her love of the culture naturally -- her father is Scottish and her mother Scotch-Irish -- but it was hearing the music of Austin singer-songwriter Ed Miller that awakened her Celtic soul.
"[Through his music] I was introduced to the true Scottish culture, the culture that exists past bagpipes and kilts," says McKaskle. "The songs were about millers, fishermen, miners, and crofters; of heartbreaking immigrations and battles fought for the best of ideals, but guided by the worst of leaders. He transformed forever how I view the lives of my ancestors."
Music introduces most people to the Celts, which is imbued more deeply in the American culture than many realize: from "Auld Lang Syne" for New Year's Eve and "Amazing Grace" for funerals to "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" for the Civil War. Endless ballads and folk songs have their roots in the reels and jigs of Ireland and Scotland. "Sessions," impromptu musical gatherings, are found at a myriad of local pubs. Among the Celtic languages, music is the common tongue. And you need not be Celtic to speak it.
Her grandmother is Welsh, but when fiddler Heather Gilmer played with local folklorist Serge Laîné, she joked that she was "a Jewish chick from Jersey playing Irish music with a French guy." Gilmer moved to Austin five years ago and found a place to play before she found a place to live.
"I love the music and the community aspect attached to it," enthuses Gilmer. "I moved here not knowing a soul within 500 miles but had a whole social scene ready-made. The music scene here pales in comparison to Boston, New York, Chicago. On the other hand, the smallness of the Texas Celtic music scene has given me opportunities I would never have had if I'd stayed in the Northeast."
Opportunities are what Marc Gunn and partner Andrew McKee made the most of with local duo the Brobdingnagian Bards, who went from entertaining lunch crowds on UT's South Mall to playing the Texas Renaissance Festival. The Bards are one of the top bands on MP3.com, racking up more than 2.3 million downloads of their music including one gold single: "Tolkien (The Hobbit & Lord of the Rings)."
"I was destined to play Celtic music, since I was born on St Patrick's Day," explains Gunn. "While I grew up very passionate about my Scottish heritage, it wasn't until I began performing with the Bards that I really became a part of the culture, family, and friendship. But the musical aspect of it is most significant."
That significance rings true for anyone who plays Celtic music, whether or not they're musicians. Donnelle McKaskle took over KOOP's In Tune With Celtia five years ago and changed it to Celtic Storm. She finds the songs of the heart most meaningful.
"There's beauty and a soulful resonance in the poor and strident life of an immigrant," professes McKaskle. "The Celtic people are masters of portraying that life in music and song, not only with respectful, mournful airs, but with unequivocal humor and joy."
Overt spirituality and mysticism are other characteristics of Celts, and a diversity of religious beliefs is supported locally. St. Brendan's Celtic Christian Community and St. Aiden's Celtic Christian Church exist alongside more traditional Catholic and Presbyterian congregations, with a gathering known as Pagans' Night Out thriving at a favorite pub once a month.
Social groups have more than doubled in the last 10 years, including the Austin Celtic Association, Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League of Austin), Texas Highlanders, and Scots of Austin. These organizations promote the culture of Celtic nations through performances, language arts, group and public activities, and other services.
As a harp player, Thomas "Doc" Grauzer specializes in Irish music at Mother's Cafe three nights a week. A former member of both the ACA and Gaelic League, he doesn't belong to either currently, yet he maintains a strong presence within their ranks. Grauzer believes that the emergence of such groups has had a palpable effect socially.
"Efforts made through the Austin Celtic Association unified the communities, which did not have much contact before its existence," he explains. "The Irish dancers rarely had live musicians play for them, the Scottish and Irish communities didn't talk much at all, the Gaelic League was a small group that had little contact with anyone, and no one had heard much of the Celtic Christian community."
Rollin MacRae serves as chairman of the Gaelic League and agrees that a growth spurt has benefited all.
"When the Gaelic League formed its local branch in 1993, there was one sort-of Irish pub in town and no regularly meeting group except the Scottish Country Dancers," points out MacRae. "Plus, we had to wait for the Chieftains or somebody like that to come every 10 years or so. Now, there are nearly a dozen organizations, several booming pubs, and events all the time."
Within the local Celtic community's bonhomie lie wildly varying visions of how to best serve the community. It's here you'll find the factious nature of Celts to be no different than ancient warring clans. The Hatfields and McCoys have nothing on what Gaelic League President John Merritt calls "the usual Celtic infighting instead of cooperation," a sentiment echoed privately and publicly.
Disagreements regularly erupt at board meetings, elections are sometimes grudge matches, and even the internal organization of community events is hotly disputed. For his part, Merritt wishes for more emphasis on aspects of Celtic culture besides music. That's a popular goal envisioned by numerous movers and shakers.
"A multifunctional, city-supported, Celtic cultural center for the Celtic performing arts with classroom, dance, office, museum, and art exhibition spaces," dreams Donnelle McKaskle.
"... Lectures, films, a book club. We need a central facility where we can have classes, offices, banquets," opines MacRae. "We aren't yet a community in the broad sense. Most of the work is done by a very small number of people, and the Irish and Scots generally are not participating, even by attending. We have not yet struck the spark that ignites it."
Doc Grauzer is skeptical about resolving the ongoing infighting.
"There's still a long way to go to achieve the goal of a thriving and popular Celtic community in Central Texas."
If there's no consensus on how best to preserve and promote the culture, what's a good Celt to do? Return to the consistent tie that binds the seven nations and soothes the most savage of beasts: music.
No event is more cherished in the local Celtic community than the Austin Celtic Festival. The two-day annual gathering survived punishing weather the first year, then was rained out the second, though it was blessed with better weather the third and fourth years. Last year's fest was the first at Fiesta Gardens, a venue that will be its home this and for several years to come.
This weekend's sixth go-round finds the Austin Celtic Festival maturing and diversifying, a crossroads for Celtic interest groups, organizations, businesses, and clubs. It also attracts participants from related groups like the well-established Society for Creative Anachronism, the Austin Scottish Country Dancers, Storytellers of Austin, and the Irish Dance Center, among others. Most importantly, it appeals to an audience beyond the Celtic fringe.
The festival gives hope to Austin Celtic Association President Richard Shannon, who's overseeing this year's ACF. He wants to encourage the different groups to cooperate on events in order for the festival to become a major regional happening and for local music establishments to offer more local and touring Celtic shows.
"Interacting with others who share interests in the culture and the love of the music is always magical," asserts Shannon. "Each successful event is important in establishing Celtic music as a driving force in Austin."
Also looking into the future with great hope is Lanora Davidson of Things Celtic, one of the sponsors of this year's festival. It has been nearly a year since the flood of 2001, and Davidson pays back the goodwill whenever she can, through participation with Celtic events and donations to the Red Cross for San Antonio flood victims.
She's also marking the anniversary in her own way, one that means losing a landlord she adores and a neighborhood she's called home.
"I'm moving the store."
2002 Austin Celtic Festival Schedule ACF returns to Fiesta Gardens (2101 Bergman, by Town Lake) Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 2 and 3, with music, dance, workshops, vendors, arts, crafts, and food. Acts include Ed Miller, the Killdares, Maggie Drennon, the Tudor Tarts, and many more. In addition, children's activities, Highland games, theatrical performances, storytelling, historical re-enactments, a cultural heritage area, and late-night, adults-only performances are offered. Gates open 11am daily, rain or shine. Tickets are $7 per day in advance, $10 for one day, and $16 for two at the gate (kids under 12 and seniors over 65 get in free). Tickets available at Things Celtic, Barista Coffee Cafe in Smithville, and through www.ticketweb.com. Call 512/498-4908 for more information. The Austin Celtic Festival is co-sponsored by 107.1 KGSR and The Austin Chronicle.
Margaret Moser is a member in good standing of the Gaelic League and the Austin Celtic Association, and is a Celtic Fest volunteer.