Celtic Music, Historical Preservation Come Together In Harwich Concert

By: Russ Allen

Topics: Local Music

Judith Ford, left, and Rose Clancy. RUSS ALLEN PHOTO

The sounds of Celtic music and the goal of historic preservation will come together on Saturday, March 9 in two special musical events being held at the South Harwich Meetinghouse on Chatham Road in Harwich.

The “Celtic Crossroads Concert: A Celebration of Celtic Songs, Tunes And Spoken Words,” will be presented by the Friends of the South Harwich Meetinghouse, Inc., and hosted by Rose Clancy, owner of the Chatham Fiddle Company. Dennis Cunningham will narrate the two performances at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. in the role of a traditional Gaelic storyteller, a shanachie.

The concert will feature performances by Clancy, the Vox Hunters, Max Cohen, Sarah Ford Marchio, and John Alden. Vox Hunters is a duo of multi-instrumentalists gleefully caught up in the folk tradition of the Northeast. Rose Clancy often performs with the Irish singer-songwriter Robbie O’Connell. Max Cohen, whose tunes are included in the Séamus Connolly Collection of Irish Music, performs with the Celtic band Mist Covered Mountains and the Renaissance Faire band Misfits of Avalon. Sarah Marchio, a piper and a Harwich native, has reached the highest levels of competitive and professional Scottish bagpiping. John Alden plays bass, button accordion, piano and guitar.

As an extra special treat, members of Celtic Roots, Jonathan Ford, fiddle and tin whistle, and Bailey Ford, piano, and Thomas Marchio, guitar, mandolin and banjo, will perform together for the first time. The Fords are award-winning Irish musicians and step dancers and Marchio is a guitarist for The Chatham Fiddle Orchestra, which is directed by Rose Clancy.

Cunningham has contributed his talent to a number of short films at Emerson and Boston Universities, and the feature film “Disposable.” His most recent credits are roles in the Cape Rep’s 2018 production of “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Weir” at the Harbor Stage in Wellfleet.

The South Harwich Meetinghouse was constructed in 1836 to house the South Harwich Methodist Church that primarily served sea captains, their families, and others who lived in the South Harwich area and sailed out of the thriving fishing and shipping wharf at the end of Deep Hole Road. Though at the time there were only 1,400 residents in Harwich, of whom 75 lived near the church, at one point 150 sea captains and fishermen attended worship and social events at the meetinghouse.

The South Harwich Methodist Congregation merged with the East Harwich Methodist Church in 1979 and the meetinghouse and surrounding cemetery were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. The vacant building was purchased by the town of Harwich in 1996 for its stabilization and preservation. The Friends of the South Harwich Meetinghouse, Inc., was formed 2003 and soon thereafter the town entered into a license agreement with the Friends, allowing the group to initiate “a comprehensive restoration project to restore the building to its 1836 splendor.”

Utilizing the dues of its members, a generous bequest, and the proceeds from fund-raising events such as this concert, totaling roughly $200,000, and Community Preservation Act funding of $544,000, and with the assistance of Sara Chase of Lexington, a historic preservation consultant, that project was completed in 2018 and marked by a “Grand Opening Concert” by the Chatham Chorale last March. Today the Friends are developing and directing the meetinghouse as a “fine center for cultural arts, performance, education, and community gathering.”

The restoration of the meetinghouse has been a balance between preservation of its past and adaptation to the present. The main area has been painted to match its original colors and patterns, its original chandelier has been reinstalled, as has its balcony. The main area is graced by a grand piano and a pipe organ, and platforms have been created to increase its stage area for concerts such as this one. Where necessary aspects of the building were brought up to code, a new foundation was created, an elevator installed, and the lower level has now been designed for small social events and concerts.

Seated at a table in that comfortable space, Judith Ford and Ruth Clancy talked about the universal appeal of Celtic Music and the importance of historic preservation.

“While the type of event being held at the meetinghouse in March could be held in a concert hall in Ireland, Celtic music is played virtually everywhere, and is always able to find an audience to enjoy and appreciate it. There is a universality to its appeal, and opportunities to enjoy its sounds are regularly offered at the Chatham Fiddle Company, often including world famous performers who take a break from their concert appearances in Boston to play for a small group gathered in Chatham,” Clancy says. As a player and teacher of Celtic music and a builder of fiddles herself, Clancy believes that there is something about this cultural phenomenon that invites people to experience it themselves whenever they can.

Ford’s energy and enthusiasm for historic preservation in general, and especially for the mission of the Friends to repurpose the meetinghouse, is infectious. Having worked with other historic institutions and projects in Harwich, she is convinced that preserving the past is vital for the future wellbeing of Cape Cod and its people. In her role as the president of the Friends she has amassed a wealth of information about Harwich and the meetinghouse and looks forward to fine tuning the preservation that has been done already, as well as developing new uses for the now restored and fully operational building.

“In addition to housing events sponsored by the Friends and meetings by some of the town’s non-profit organizations,” Ford says, “the meetinghouse can be used for weddings and social events, lecture series, concerts and other cultural programs, as well as presentations on the history of Harwich and Cape Cod.”

Tickets to the two performances on Saturday, March 9, are on sale for $20 at the Friends website southharwichmeetinghouse.com or by calling 508-364-5223. All proceeds after expenses will go to the Friends. A beer and wine cash bar will be open before each program and during intermissions. Concert sponsorships are also available from $50 to $1,000. For more information on that form of support for the concerts, questions about renting the meetinghouse for an event, or ways to become involved with the ongoing work of the Friends, call Judith Ford at the same number or email her at jamford@verizon.com.