More than 100 people gathered at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts in Lower Town recently for an Irish Céilí (pronounced ‘kay-lee’), a social event usually featuring folk music, singing, and traditional dancing.

Céilís can take many different forms in the Irish tradition, such as kitchen parties where participants are encouraged to share songs, poems and good company.

“Our interpretation of the Céilí is a lot more focused on called dances, either in line form or in square form, along with a showcase of local artistic talent,” said Oscar Mou, the event’s head organizer.

The afternoon kicked off with a dance, in which a caller led participants through a series of practice movements before stepping out in time with a seven-piece band consisting of violins, violas, flutes and piano.

Carol Ann Bowers was the caller, a task that involved coordinating as many as 40 people on the dance floor. She has been calling dances since 2013 and she says she enjoys the frenzy. But she cautions that people should not take it too seriously.

“I always say, if you haven’t got a good sense of humor, and you can’t laugh at yourself, don’t bother attending,” said Bowers. “It’s a social event you know, it’s not a competition.”

After more dancing, harpist Mary Muckle introduced the Ottawa Youth Harp Ensemble – a group of musicians she has been teaching for years. The 10 harps filled the room with songs from South America, Wales and, of course, Ireland.

“We played Danny Boy, which is a quintessential Irish song,” said Sarah Dolan, a member of the ensemble. “If you’re feeling insecure that the repertoire you’re performing isn’t quite Irish enough, you can add in Danny boy, and that brings the spirit.”

The Ottawa Youth Harp Ensemble led by Mary Muckle perform at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts. [Photo @ Claire Hutcheon]

Dolan has been playing in the Ottawa Youth Harp Ensemble for more than 10 years. Their next performance will be March 2 at The Royal Ottawa Golf Club for St. David’s Day, who is the patron saint of Wales.

After the harp performance, what else but more dancing. And on the sidelines traditional soda bread and tea was served.

Reece Pruneau, a first-time participant, says he is already looking forward to the next Céilí at Saint Brigid’s on March 10.

Ottawa Irish Arts has been active in Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts for many years, hosting concerts, social mixers and celebrations, although, the Jan. 21 Céilí was only the third held in the space.

Saint Brigid’s has been steeped in Irish culture since it was constructed in the late 1800s. In the latter half of the 1900s it became a Filipino parish and then was deconsecrated and sold to a conglomerate of Irish groups in 2007. It was almost sold to The United People of Canada – a Freedom Convoy-affiliated group – in 2022, although the group was evicted in a controversy over unpaid bills and building code violations.

Bowers says such events are helping restore Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts as a focal point for Irish culture in the city.

The next Céilí will take place during the Saint Patrick’s Day season, “when everybody finally remembers that Irish culture is a thing,” Mou joked.

Some may enjoy the Americanized Saint Patrick’s Day filled with green hats and beards and “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” shirts, but Mou says that the next Céilí will be a more traditional celebration.

“It’s a lot more in tune to what you would find in Ireland as a celebration of Irish culture,” he says.

Mou notes that profits from Ottawa Irish Arts’ most popular events such as the Céilís go towards funding smaller events that may run at a loss.

“We do our best to present the best of Irish culture and the fact that there is such a positive response is very fulfilling.”