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Morehead Sister Cities welcomes musicians from across the Atlantic

Anabel Peterman

The Morehead Sister Cities Program presented an evening of music from Northern Ireland on Monday, November 13 at the Rowan County Arts Center. Performers traveled from Ballymena, Ireland, one of Morehead’s two Sister Cities.

Sean Doone plays tenor banjo with the group. He said they’ve discovered American old-time music and traditional Irish music have many key intersections, one being the songs’ unknown origins.

“It’s a lot of working-class people, a lot of it’s poverty. A lot of songwriters wrote songs and never made any money off of them, ‘cause nobody really knows who they are,” said Doone. “The Whiskey in the Jar, a traditional Irish song; nobody knows who wrote that, so it’s just put down as traditional. I think there’s a lot of that with a lot of old-timey and obviously blues music.”

Michael McCluskey plays guitar and said he had very little background in traditional Irish music before the exchange. He said in the past year, and through the group’s performances in Morehead and Danville, he’s come to treasure the genre like never before.

“My grandparents both love Irish music, and I was always like, ‘eh, that’s my grandparents’ music, they love that.’ And my granddad passed in March. I played a few Irish songs at the funeral ‘cause they wanted some songs at the funeral. And it’s weird, playing this, I’m thinking how I’ve never understood the music, but I’m actually starting to understand the music,” said McCluskey.

Rowan Leslie plays fiddle and said audiences in Kentucky are great because they are very receptive, both to the Irish traditional music and what the musicians have to say about the songs.

“Americans, obviously a lot of them claiming Irish roots and stuff, we found they’re quite pleased to hear us talk about things that they would know from the past as well,” said Leslie.

As part of the exchange, multiple Kentucky musicians, including faculty at Morehead State University, traveled to Broughshane and Ballymena, Ireland last month to learn from Irish fiddlers.

Dr. Jim Masterson, who acted as the concert’s emcee, is the President of Morehead Sister Cities. He said the program serves to enrich the cultural experiences of both communities.

“Well, it’s no secret that many of us in Appalachia, many of us who are from this region, have roots that are deep, deeply rooted in Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Irish Republic as well,” said Masterson. So, having those connections and knowing that our ancestry ties are over there, I think makes this relationship even more valuable.”

Andrew Cameron-Braithwaite rounds out the group from Ireland on guitar and drums. He said after all’s said and done, the group truly appreciates the opportunities they receive through the Sister Cities program.

“It’s just good people bringing people along to our towns and cities and interacting with our culture, and vice versa. So, it’s just been a really nice opportunity to meet them, and we’re playing music on this trip, but a lot of the stuff we like is just to meet people and know how they live their lives and chat with them.”

Organizers said there are many opportunities for the community to get involved with Sister Cities. More information about the program, which connects Morehead to the cities of Ballyemena in Ireland and Yangshuo in China, can be found at the Morehead KY Sister Cities Facebook page.