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Reeling Through PEI Culture
By Shelley Cameron-McCarron
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 through October.
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 Tire.
"Who are you?" the curious emcee asked.
"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 stage.
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 guitar.
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 MacEwen.
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.