Outdoor Cèilidh in the Time of Covid

Virginia Arts Festival and Virginia International Tattoo Courtyard Kay-Lee. The background is a photo of the courtyard with the columned building behind it, and there is a black and white tree of life symbol over the center.

Words by Penny Neef.
Image courtesy of the Virginia Arts Festival.

The Virginia Arts Festival continues the quest for safe, live performances this fall, while the weather is still cooperative in Hampton Roads. There is a charming Courtyard directly behind the VAF’s Clay and Jay Barr Education Center on Bank Street in downtown Norfolk.

On Saturday, October 10, the VAF and the Virginia International Tattoo will present Courtyard Cèilidh on the outdoor stage in the Courtyard. 

What is a Cèilidh, you might ask? How do you even say it? Cèilidh is pronounced Kay-Lee. It is a traditional Gaelic party that would include poetry, storytelling Celtic music and dancing. It translates from the Old Irish as “companion visit”. There are not a lot of parties and companion visits going on these days, but VAF is able to keep family groups apart, sanitize, limit the number of tickets sold, and provide lots of fresh air to keep it as safe as possible.

Performers will include Rhodes Academy of Irish Dance, US National champion Scottish fiddlers Seán Heely and Colin McGlynn, and Tidewater Pipes and Drums.

Chris Pearcy, the Pipe Major of Tidewater Pipes and Drums calls the Courtyard Cèilidh, a “mini Tattoo”. If you’ve never attended the Virginia International Tattoo in the spring as part of the Virginia Arts Festival, you have missed something spectacular. A Tattoo is a large gathering of military bands. The Virginia International Tattoo brings bands from across the world to Scope Arena each year for the largest Tattoo in North America. 

Here are the Massed Pipes and Drums of the 2019 Tattoo

Pearcy will be bringing 10 bagpipers and 8 drummers to the small stage in the Courtyard. Ten pipers are still a big sound. 

Tidewater Pipes and Drums are one of the original bands of the Virginia International Tattoo. They perform at Scope each year. Pearcy says they love meeting and performing with other pipe bands from around the world. They were disappointed when Covid forced VAF to cancel the Tattoo this year, but the pandemic also made Pearcy’s group “realize how much they missed practicing together and playing together”.

In March, April and May, the band did one-on-one work with technique and expression through Zoom calls. Pearcy is also a professor at ODU, teaching mostly European history to freshmen. He worried at the beginning of the pandemic that the members of Tidewater Pipes and Drums would lose their skills.

By the time June rolled around, the band was “itching to get out there and do something together”. They began practicing outdoors and 6 feet apart. Pearcy was thrilled that “people did not forget how to play.” In fact, they were better than ever. “Covid has been a big rebuilding phase for our group,” Peacy says, “We sound like one great, big bagpipe.” That’s a good thing, if you’re a pipe and drum group.

October 10th will be the group’s first time performing together since St. Patrick’s Day, oh so long ago. Even though the Courtyard Cèilidh will be barely 1/100th of the size of the “big” Tattoo, it will still be great to hear the sounds of the bagpipes, Scottish fiddles and see the high stepping of Rhodes Academy of Irish Dance.

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