Historically, Calgary has had a noticeable Irish population, but Celtic music — an icon of Irish culture — might be on the decline.
The Irish Cultural Society is an organization in Calgary that hosts Celtic music shows. Other venues aren’t playing that kind of music as often, or are closing down due to COVID-19. In Hodgie Pickering’s opinion as the creator of the Nova Scotiables band back in 2015, Celtic music is very niche.
“I found it very low hanging fruit,” says Pickering. “It was very easy and quick to get work for this kind of music because I know pretty much all of the bands that play this kind of music, like all across Alberta and British Columbia, except for maybe the new and upcoming ones that I haven’t really heard of or anything yet but there’s not many of us.”
It wasn’t always this way. When the society was created back in the 80s, they ended up finding a community they did not anticipate, says Sean Buckley, one of the founding members.
“I became aware of a movement in Calgary to establish what is now known as the Irish cultural society,” says Buckley.
“I was drawn to that idea for a number of reasons. One: the Irish community out here — the Celtic community — was obviously in need of some sort of a central point — a place to call their own — and the ideas being kicked around suited my mindset, that they were not politically motivated, but they were culturally motivated.”
It became apparent to Buckley there were more “Irish people” around than he had first thought.
“People just [seemed] to come out of the woodwork and we realized that we had a very, very strong and healthy Irish community in Calgary, scattered through the community,” says Buckley.
Having that scene in Calgary should have been expected, considering that Irish heritage has rooted itself in Calgary since it was made. This can be seen in examples like the University of Calgary’s motto: ‘Mo shùile togam suas’ which translates from Gaelic to ‘I will lift up my eyes.’
“Way back in the day there was a famous lawyer Paddy Nolan, ‘Cappy’ Smart was the one of the fire chiefs,” says Buckley.
“If you look at place names around the city, very prominent Celtic Irish or Celtic names you know, whether it’s Riley Park or McMahon Stadium.”
“There’s always been a connection, and maybe there was a realization that there were a lot more Irish here, if you will, and the notion of having a place to call our own was even further justified by that realization.”
While the history is there to suit the need of Irish music in Calgary, buildings move from location to location. The scene tends to be few and far between these days according to Pickering. However, this is something the Irish Cultural Society has taken note of.
“With a lot of the bars and pubs moving to big-screen TVs and their budget shrinking for live entertainment, then it’s hit Irish music just as much as anybody else,” says Doug Wagner who is an organizer with Celtic Folk Calgary.
“That sort of changed the game a little bit for us, and we’ve been getting, like, Nova Scotiables and Morrissey’s Private Stock and other groups like that to come out and play for us and bringing their crowd with them, and then some of them end up coming back again for other shows.”
Appealing to a younger generation is what Wagner has been trying to do, which is why he had the Nova Scotiables come play for the Sea Bound Coast Concert last winter before the lockdown. The event was hosted in the basement of the Irish Cultural Society, known as Hickey’s Place.
The show had three bands perform that night, including the Nova Scotiables, who are used to performing for traditional show goers familiar with songs that fall under the Celtic umbrella.
Not only appealing to the Irish crowd, but to people with that shared heritage who are also familiar with it like the maritimer crowd is something Pickering has noticed in Alberta.
“I find that Alberta has more East-coasters by far,” says Pickering. “Here in Alberta, they’re actual real East-coasters. They will sing along to the songs as opposed to just dance.”
This type of music tends to form a community that even Buckley saw at the Sea Bound Coast concert.
“I saw some people in the audience last night who I remember seeing them at probably the very first or second Celtic folk concert way back when,” says Buckley.
Part of the reason people come out to shows like this is because the music in general is something that can offer more than just regular pop songs.
This is something that was noted on Mar 17, when St. Patrick day was essentially canceled for the City of Calgary due to COVID-19. This did not stop the Nova Scotiables. Because their gig was canceled, they performed over a live video stream for the occasion.
“I think there’s an energy to it. And part of it was that the music was meant to be danced [to], you know. Whether it was square dancing or set dancing or whatever,” says Wagner. “A lot of music grew from that. And so there’s that real toe-tapping energy to a lot of music and it kind of makes it unique in its own way. “
“This music is very contagious. It’s drinking music. There’s no disguise around it as to what we want you to do while we’re playing the songs. I find that people … can still be drawn into the entertainment quality and what we’re singing about and how we’re presenting the product,” says Pickering.
While the intricacies in the way this music is performed can vary, it does have some roots in finding an audience through heritage. Although Buckley lived in Ireland, it wasn’t until he came to Calgary that he started to get into Celtic music.
“Maybe it’s a yearning for something that’s more associated with your heritage and in the case of Irish culture, there’s songs, there’s music, there’s the Irish dance, and sports as well. Maybe it’s just a yearning for something to keep you attached to your upbringing,” says Buckley.
With fewer bars doing live music entertainment in Calgary, this aspect of cultural connection is at an interesting point for its survival.
As a long-time member of the community, Buckley is hopeful with seeing the trend of other venues playing this kind of music and keeping up with a higher caliber of quality in their Celtic music, but for Pickering it’s a different story.
“The clientele is great because they’re East-coasters [but] Irish music in Calgary, I think is suffering a little bit.”
While the uncertainty around the popularity and demand for Irish or Celtic music in general is something that can be unpredictable, it still has its appeal.
“I just think it makes a very attractive package and that makes people curious and want to sort of explore it a little more,” says Buckley. “Maybe it’s just there’s a certain charm that the Irish apparently have.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Sean Buckley’s name. It has been fixed and we regret the error.