Dancing, music at Irish event

MARIETTA – It’s nearly St. Patrick’s Day, and the Irish were already celebrating with music, dancing, food and fun during Sunday’s 32nd annual Irish Gathering at Marietta’s Lafayette Hotel.

“Mainly this is a time for us to just gather together as people of common descent as well as bring folks from the surrounding community in to experience some of our Irish culture,” said Jim Udell, president of the local Monsignor Donal O’Carroll Division of the Ohio Ancient Order of Hibernians.

The local group, celebrating the 35th anniversary of its founding this year, sponsors the Irish Gathering annually on the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day.

Member Mark Schwendeman of Marietta said his father, Thomas Schwendeman, and Walter McCarthy founded the local Ancient Order of Hibernians chapter in 1978.

“My father’s mother was a Flanigan,” Schwendeman explained. “The AOH does a lot for the community, and typically sponsors one or two Irish culture events every year. They’re always well-attended. And we enjoy being associated with such a good Catholic organization.”

Ramona Blevins, 45, and Cheryl Bibbee, 55, both from Vienna, were attending their first Irish Gathering on Sunday.

“I’d read a piece in the local newspaper about this event and have wanted to come for years,” Blevins said. “I finally just decided to do it. And I’m of Irish descent from my dad’s side of the family.”

Bibbee said her father, too, was of Irish ancestry.

“He often talked about his family cooking corned beef and cabbage (a traditional Irish dish) on certain special days,” she said. “I want to learn more about our Irish heritage, and I love the music and dance.”

There was plenty of that on Sunday as The Boys of the Hock, an Athens band, serenaded the crowd of more than 120 with traditional Irish tunes while The Athens Irish Dancers leaped and whirled across the hotel ballroom.

AOH member Chip Rogers, also from Athens, has been the event’s official emcee for eight years now.

“Music and dance is the glue that holds it all together,” he said. “If people have a good time and get some insight into our Irish culture, then it’s a success.”

Rogers said after covering the meal and ballroom rent, proceeds from the event are spread to schools, churches, libraries and other nonprofits throughout the local community.

Brynn Riordan, with the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, recently spent some time in Ireland with husband, Robert, during their 25th anniversary.

“We were mostly in southwest Ireland. My husband’s ancestors were from County Clare,” she said. “We found an old family home in that area where his grandparents had once lived. I took hundreds of beautiful photographs while we were there. It was October, but there was still a lot of green everywhere in the countryside.”

An unusual display during Sunday’s gathering included a sign mounted in an orange road construction cone that read “Caution, Irish Road Bowling Ahead.”

AOH vice president Pat Kelly explained that the sign is used to warn traffic that Irish road bowlers are using a local byway to play the traditional game.

“They usually play on a country road, but have to put a sign up because the game involves throwing a heavy metal ball, about 2 inches in diameter, along the roadway,” he said. “The idea is for the players to reach a certain destination with the least number of throws. It’s very popular in West Virginia, which I believe is the only state that holds Irish Bowling competitions.”

Rogers said the game is at least a couple hundred years old, and the original balls were actually cannonballs used by the military.

“It’s always played during the fall season. People just walk along the road and throw this ball,” he said. “It’s a social thing. Everyone has a great time – it’s really popular in Ireland.”