Couple extends Celtic celebration to community

Michael Newton and Stephanie Johnston, second and third from the right, lead a music workshop. They taught traditional Gaelic songs. Staff photo by Liz Tablazon.
Michael Newton and Stephanie Johnston, second and third from the right, lead a Gaelic sing-along workshop at Johnny’s Gone Fishing. Staff photo by Liz Tablazon.

Singing, dancing, fiddles and Gaelic phrases welcomed the Celtic New Year at Johnny’s Gone Fishing on Saturday, Nov. 1. Stephanie Johnston, a Celtic musician and dancer, and her husband, Dr. Michael Newton, a Scottish Gaelic scholar and writer, planned and held the celebration in hopes of meeting people who would be interested in Celtic workshops. Celtic languages include traditional Irish and Scottish Gaelic.

“We wanted to re-establish some sort of community that might be interested in Gaelic dance,” Newton said.

Newton and Johnston had previously lived in North Carolina but lived in Canada for several years before returning to North Carolina last year. Newton, who has a doctorate in Celtic studies, works as technical lead in the Digital Innovation Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Johnston started teaching step dance classes at The ArtsCenter this summer.

A few months ago, Newton gave a lecture about a large Gaelic-speaking settlement that existed in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina.

“There are certainly many people who have that in their ancestry even though it’s not a living culture any longer,” he said. “There are people in the area that we know that are enthusiastic about the song and music and dance tradition. Our goal is to see how we can bring people back into that … and to celebrate that and commemorate that interest in this area.”

At the event Johnston and Newton taught traditional Gaelic work songs and call-and-response songs. Newton even gave a short Gaelic language lesson.

“I taught a few basic phrases that you would use to say ‘hello’ to somebody, ask who they are, one nice compliment and a few naughty phrases,” Newton said with a chuckle.

He just released his newest book, “The Naughty Little Book of Gaelic,” in March.

They also had an instrumental music session during the evening. Cary Eddy came with her fiddle to participate in the music and step dance sessions. She started playing the fiddle when she was 11 years old.

“I came with Stephanie [Johnston],” she said. “I know her and some other people who organize the dancing and music part.”

Eddy became involved with Gaelic music when she started meeting with a group that plays Irish music every other Thursday at Steel String Brewery in Carrboro.

Maria Noyola said she had no experience in the Gaelic language or music, but she came to the event to explore a culture that was new to her. She particularly enjoyed the instrumental session.

“They didn’t really tell you what songs they were playing. They’d start one, they’d look at each other, and they’d start playing,” Noyola said. “It seemed like once someone started playing, if they know the song, they just joined in. So they were getting to know each other. … They’d get really into it. Some people would dance along.”

Noyola said that she felt comfortable and welcomed at the event.

“It was very open to new people,” she said. “I loved that we got to sing and that they taught us the pronunciation and would repeat any verse we didn’t quite catch.”

There were people in attendance with prior Gaelic experience. Newton said that a couple took online lessons, and some were familiar with the songs. Several people signed up for their mailing list before leaving. He said many people who came showed interest and curiosity.

“People really enjoyed it. … It seems encouraging building something from that.”

They hope to plan another Gaelic event for the spring.

Author of the article

Liz is a staff writer for the Carrboro Commons. She is a student at UNC-Chapel Hill from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.