Irish step dance and music
Barrington, Rhode Island
With more than five decades of Irish step dance under his feet, Rhode Island-born Kevin Doyle will delight Richmond audiences with a dazzling display of nimble footwork. He will be joined by an all-star group of friends—and all dedicated educators, like Kevin—from the thriving Irish music scene clustered along the Eastern Seaboard: from New England, flutist and singer Shannon Heaton and button accordion and concertina player Chris “Junior” Stevens; from New York City, fiddler Rose Conway Flanagan; and from Baltimore, pianist Donna Long.
Kevin Doyle is a son of County Roscommon through his mother Margaret Taylor Doyle, and a grandson of County Longford through his father John, whose Irish parents came to live in Providence, Rhode Island’s Fox Point neighborhood in the early 1900s. At the age of eight, Doyle, along with his sister Maureen, began to learn their first Irish dance steps from their mother. He recalls his mother lilting (a way of vocalizing, rhythmically, using syllables rather than words) old tunes like “McLeod’s Reel,” which she had learned from her own mother in Ireland. She taught him the traditional step dances and music from the old country, including jigs and reels. These dances are characterized as “close to the ground” and rhythmic, incorporating intricate footwork. In the 1960s, Doyle studied at the Pat Fallon School of Irish Dance with visiting Boston instructors Steve Carney and Mary Sullivan, and at the McCorry School of Dance in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where he learned steps traceable to the old masters of Ireland.
Doyle danced competitively from an early age, distinguishing himself as a U.S. Champion in several feis (competitions). The athleticism of his steps brought early acclaim to Doyle. He twice won votes from a national audience for his performances on Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour, a precursor to today’s American Idol and America’s Got Talent. Numerous awards have followed, including both solo and ensemble honors.
Kevin’s passion for sharing Irish culture extends to mentoring young dancers, having served as a master artist in several folklife apprenticeship programs, including teaching his daughter, Shannon. He has received the highest honor in folk and traditional arts on both the state and federal level—in 2011, a Folk Arts Fellowship from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, and in 2014, a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Flutist Shannon Heaton is highly regarded in Irish traditional music circles for her beautifully expressed playing, singing, and composing, as well as her dedication to teaching and promoting the music. Prior to moving to Boston, she learned from musicians in Chicago’s rich Irish traditional music scene, and later in repeated trips to County Clare, Ireland. For National Heritage Fellow Seamus Connolly, Shannon’s playing encapsulates the tradition. “In it I hear so many elements of the old styles, such as the playing of Kevin Henry from County Sligo, Ireland, who lived in Chicago and whose music goes back to another time” explains Connolly. She was named a 2016 Traditional Arts Fellow by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
One of the foremost exponents of Irish concertina and button accordion in the U.S., Chris “Junior” Stevens got hooked on the concertina at 15 and began attending sessions in pubs in Portland, Maine, to learn the music. Now a highly regarded educator, he taught for many years as part of the faculty at the Hanafin-Cooley CCÉ Music School in Boston. He has been invited to some of the country’s prominent music camps and currently instructs a large body of private students. In 2017, he was named a master musician by the Maine Arts Commission, receiving a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship.
Rose Conway Flanagan first began studying with fiddler Martin Mulvihill while growing up in a musical family in the Bronx. She further developed her Sligo fiddle style by absorbing the playing of Martin Wynne and Andy McGann during their frequent visits to the Conway home. In 2013, she was inducted into the Mid-Atlantic Region CCÉ Hall of Fame, joining her father, Jim (1996), and older brother, Brian (2006); they are the only family with three members to receive this honor. Rose’s reputation for teaching excellence has spread across North America, and she keeps a busy schedule of private lessons and as a staff instructor at music camps across the States and in Ireland.
Pianist Donna Long is a longtime resident of Baltimore, and one of the most important and influential figures in the city’s Irish traditional music scene, both as a teacher and musician. Her father was a jazz and classical pianist who instilled in Donna a love for music; she began piano lessons with him at the age of five. Fluent in many musical styles, she became “hooked” on Irish music and began to seriously study it in 1978 after hearing fiddler Brendan Mulvihill in a Washington, D.C., pub. She is a former member of the internationally acclaimed Irish group Cherish the Ladies, and appears on five of the group’s recordings. She has recorded two duet albums with Mulvihill, a solo project, and has been a guest artist on many recordings.