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Song, Swords and Celts : St. Pat's celebration opts for cultural traditions instead of beer.

March 12, 1998|JUDY RAPHAEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're tired of celebrating St. Patrick's Day at yet another Irish bar, there's an alternative--experiencing Celtic tradition sans the green beer.

"There are probably more people with Celtic ancestry in the United States than any other ethnicity, yet we use the holiday to sit around conjuring up shamrocks and leprechauns," said Rob Seutter, founder of Los Angeles Dreamshapers, which promotes Celtic (Irish, Scottish and Welsh) storytelling. "There's much more to being Irish," said.

To prove that point, this Saturday in Glendale his organization will present "Celtic Madness," a deliberately dry, St. Patrick's Day blowout of Irish dance, music, swordplay and storytelling, along with such crafts as leather working and lace making. There also will be homemade Irish foods including colcannon, a creamed Irish stew.

"It's a family affair," said promoter Georgette Ryan. "We're trying to recreate the feel of the old-time village gatherings when elders would pass down stories to the young, and everyone was part of the celebration."

The evening, Ryan said, will span a period from ancient to modern times, and stress storytelling.

"Storytelling is the original Celtic art, the principal form of Irish entertainment, as passed on by the old seanachies, or paid bards, for 700 to 800 years," said Seutter, who will perform in his weekend guise of "True Thomas," a 13th century bard.

As emcee, he'll kick off the evening with his original "5,000 years of Irish History in Five Minutes," a humorous piece of "real and folkloric history," moving forward from 1,000 to 1,500 A.D. with a chorus of: "And then they fought amongst themselves!"

"It's kind of an ironic piece, and sad, because the Irish have been their own worst enemy," he said.

Luckily, said Bill Howard, a San Gabriel English teacher and King Arthur scholar who will share the storytelling spotlight, tradition has survived, despite long years of battle and English reign.

"There are a lot of Celtic stories," said Howard, "because we're big mouths--we're an extremely oral-tradition-oriented culture." Howard will weigh in with a song glorifying the Irish political machine in early New York (one of the American cities where St. Patrick's Day took hold), then head back to 200 A.D. for some surrealistic folklore about magical King Finn MacCool.

"Thank goodness we were great storytellers, so when we finally got to writing, many of the ancient epics were not lost," he said.

One that's made it through the ages, he said, is "Dierdre of the Sorrows," a prologue to the 1st century Irish epic "Tain Bo Cuilagne," which, as the evening's centerpiece, will include storytellers, role-playing sword fighters and musicians.

"It'll be a theatrical experience, a mix of readings, pantomime and martial arts deriving from a "Ceili," which today refers just to dancing, but in other times included singing and storytelling and "just about everything else," said Howard.

He and Seutter, he said, will trade off narrating the alliterated translation, as eight fierce warriors led by King Fergus Mac Roi (all from the group, Galloglach), enact a climactic battle scene at full, choreographed speed--using unpadded steel swords. "Homemade, because we break 'em!" said leader Glen Mitchell, who will bring a variety of Celtic-style 1st century short swords and broadswords to demonstrate.

Accompanying the action will be the band Finagle. They'll later do two sets of their own, swapping off on concertina, penny whistle and bodran (Irish drum) and other exotic instruments. The songs they will perform, said Finagle member Anne Lainhart, include a rousing anthem of the Irish Easter Uprising and earlier ballads of the Yeatsian renaissance.

The evening will wind up with Shelly Puente and Friends performing Irish step dancing, which, like many of the Celtic arts, is enjoying a comeback.

"There is a renewed consciousness in the Irish American community," agreed Howard. "Even Disneyland's new Main Street Parade took a lot of the choreography from 'Riverdance.' " Yet, he added, "many people remain ignorant."

Still, says Seutter, "By the time you've spent an evening with us, you should have taken a trip through 1,000 years. There's a line of ancient Irish poetry that goes, 'I am he who sets the head aflame with poetic thought.' Well, we're trying to help reignite the Celtic fire."

BE THERE

"Celtic Madness," 7:30 p.m.-midnight at Verdugo Woodlands Dad's Club, 1728 Canada Blvd., just north of Glendale Community College, Glendale. Call (818) 956-9005 or Rob Seutter at (818) 762-9075. $12 admission.

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