I feel wonderfully like a local when
three Islanders join my group of friends as we mill about outdoors
waiting the start
of 'Ceilidh at the Corner,' the granddaddy of the revived Scottish
ceilidh experience on Prince Edward Island.
As conversation quickens
and jokes fly, it's easy to
feel like I've been coming here for years, all old friends standing
around the steps of the Orwell Corner Historical Village community
hall, stars twinkling in the night sky.
"You're going to hear one
of the nicest voices
tonight," Steve Sharratt, the night's emcee, a local journalist, says
on the evening's talent, Anita Curran, an angel-voiced singer from
nearby Alberry Plains.
"The beauty of these
ceilidhs is they book people who
are talented Islanders, and there's plenty of them," says Sharratt, a
guitar playing, singer-songwriter himself.
I can't help but feel the
passion as he talks about the
ceilidhs, held Wednesday nights in this historical village from May
Twenty-five years ago the
dance hall tradition seemed
to be dying off, but when Ceilidh at the Corner started, the crowds �
including many tourists � began to pick up noticeably.
This September evening we
meet folks from Australia,
the U.S., and other Canadians mixed in with the locals in the intimate
wood-panelled hall, lit with kerosene lamps.
Tom Rath, proprietor of the
Lady Catherine Bed &
Breakfast, a 30-minute drive away in Murray Harbour North, doesn't miss
many Wednesday nights. Each week he offers his guests a ride.
"One of the big reasons you
come to PEI is to
experience an interesting culture. This is a fine example of it," he
tells me as we take our seats near the front of the hall, which holds
maybe 100 people.
"Typically we often have to
explain what a ceilidh is,
how to pronounce it and how to spell it. On the way home, they're just
thrilled. It's the highlight of their visit. They'll say, �We're so
glad we decided to come.'"
Orwell is his favourite of
the Island ceilidhs. "It's a
living museum. It's real, not assembled. The community hall is a
beautiful place for a traditional ceilidh."
Acoustics are great in the
building, built on the same foundation as the original that burned down
in the 1950s.
The authentic feeling
begins as soon as we turn off the
highway into the village. This night, the sun's light is gently golden,
setting over a shingled barn. A bull and cow stand watch in the field.
Visitors leave their car in
the parking lot and take a
lamp lit walk through time, strolling through 1890s PEI to the hall,
the only building not original.
Orwell Corner is more than
just a good time though. It helped revive the Island ceilidh.
Wendell Boyle, the
village's late curator, a musician
himself, started the idea of a ceilidh partly as an avenue for his
perfomers and partly to bring tourists to his site.
Before he knew it, the hall
was packed. "It gave a lot
of life to the place," one Islander recalls. "They had people standing
out in the yard, dancing around."
Now, in summer, one can
catch a ceilidh � "the same,
but different," as they joke here � in small halls across the island.
Century-old traditions have a new lease as tourists flock for an
intimate glimpse into the living culture.
"A ceilidh is a gathering
or party, and we're going to
try to have a little party here tonight," Orwell Corner Village
director Tom LeClair says.
"The whole reason to have a
ceilidh like this is to
have a party," Sharratt explains. "We ask people in the audience to
come up, sing a song, stepdance, tell a story."
He recalls a hot July
night, the place was packed, when
a fellow struggles out of his seat, heads up to the front, and tells
the story of how the last time he played his fold-up guitar was with a
Russian friend in outer space. The man then sang a song about Canadian
"Who are you?" the curious
"My name is Chris
Hatfield." "Our Canadian astronaut," Sharratt fills in.
The "regulars" � Stirling
Baker on fiddle and Duncan Matheson on piano � soon take the stage.
"Give us a good one now,"
Sharratt deadpans, breaking
into a broad grin after a particularly rousing set. Soon he's passing
out spoons for the audience to play, "We'll need at least four couples
for the set.
"It's like lobster, or
Anne, you don't go away without having a country dance, a set dance,"
he tells the crowd.
While Orwell Corner is a
perfect way to start an Island
ceilidh experience, it's certainly not the only one. PEI is the most
Celtic of Canada's provinces with about 70 per cent of its people
descended from Scots and Irish.
The College of Piping and
Celtic Performing Arts of
Canada in Summerside, the island's second largest city, provides the
history behind the dance and ancient tunes. I really enjoyed the
free-mini daytime concerts where performers come onto the Mary Ellen
Burns Amphitheatre stage, in traditional costume, and talk to the
audience about their performance and its significance before launching
into the pipes, sword dance or a truly amazing drum demonstration. A
longer two-hour ceilidh is held nightly.
On Thursday we continued
with the Festival of Tales and
Tunes in Victoria-by-the-Sea, a tiny fishing village halfway between
city centres Charlottetown and Summerside. The village of little over
100 supports more charming shops and restaurants than many larger
towns. Victoria Playhouse is PEI's longest running theatre. We're
fortunate to have seats for the sold-out performance of Two Alans and
an Erskine � where two Island storytellers and a musician share the
If Ceilidh at the Corner
shows one side of Island
character, this evening helps explains it. Erskine Smith and Alan
Buchanan have the audience in stitches as they tell tales of Island
characters, nicknames, politics and more. Allan Rankin sings and plays
The stories and songs share
a similar wit, and the
performers say Islanders do like something witty, something quirky, and
a one-liner that takes the wind from someone's sails whose head is
getting too swelled. The humour has a subtlety to it, as one never
quite knows when his leg is being pulled. Islanders also seem to
possess one of humour's great tools � the ability to understate things.
We have a chance to catch
one last ceilidh before
leaving PEI so it's Friday night at the Benevolent Irish Society
(B.I.S.) on North River Road in Charlottetown.
Again the small hall brings
an intimate feeling. There's joy in the music, the storytelling, and,
oh, the dance.
"There's not going to be
one of you sitting in your
seats quiet, I guarantee it," emcee Trudi Barry says as she introduces
18-year-old fiddling sensation Cynthia MacLeod and guitarist Bruce
Their easy repartee
delights the crowd of about 140,
which holds representatives from each Canadian province and many of the
U.S. states. The teenager's long blonde hair is pulled back off her
face. Her ever-present smile and pixie-like charm is in full swing, bow
flying fast across the fiddle and feet a-pounding.
I'm asked to the floor for
a dance called the Waves of Tory. I can't wipe the smile off my face.