The Four Corners Celts
Ireland, Scotland and Wales set roots in the region

Performers take a break in between sets at the Irish Embassy Pub's weekly jam session, which meets every Sunday in downtown Durango. The Four Corners is becoming home to an increasing number of people of Celtic heritage, due partly to the region’s resemblance to  the Scottish Highlands./Photo by David Halterman

by Shawna Bethell

It’s a snowy Sunday afternoon in Durango, but inside the Irish Embassy Pub the warmth of a Celtic jam draws locals and tourists alike into the bar. The lilt of a fiddle, the deep resonance of a bodhran (Celtic drum), and the melody of a flute have captivated the audience while the musicians themselves laugh and call out to those listening. Every person in the room is part of the whole. No matter where someone might be from, there isn’t a stranger inside the pub.

“People who come and listen are discovering their family history here,” explains Bob Condon, of Cortez, as he waves his hand at a family sitting in one of the dark wood booths of the Embassy. “The music tells the stories of the culture.”

According to Condon, who can trace the history of his Irish family back to the 1600s, storytellers called the Schanachie are the ones who kept the oral histories of the Celts alive. Eventually the words were set to music, and the legends and lore of Ireland, Scotland and Wales have been passed on to generations that listen to the songs today."

Having retired from the Boston Fire Department, Condon relocated to the Four Corners in 2004, and he brought his love of music with him. Condon had played in well-known Boston pubs like Hennessey’s and the Black Rose and eventually met Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains one night. Maloney invited Condon to play with the band, and he took the stage with the storied band off-and-on over the next 13 years, whenever they visited the Northeast.

“After I’d been here a couple of years, I almost went back to Boston,” recalls Condon, who holds degrees in both Irish history and Irish literature. “The culture was such a part of my life.”

But, he eventually connected with other musicians in the area, and they decided to start playing at what was then Scoot’n’ Blues. When the bar was transformed into an authentic Irish Pub in 2008, the Celtic jams became a weekly event.

musicians in the area, and they decided to start playing at what was then Scoot’n’ Blues. When the bar was transformed into an authentic Irish Pub in 2008, the Celtic jams became a weekly event.

As music was the link that pulled together the weekly gatherings at the Embassy, it also became the tie that bound the San Juan Scottish Fiddle Society. In what would seem an unlikely setting – Aztec, N.M. – area Scots gather to celebrate music, culture and friendships.

In 1992, when John Cater and his wife, Sue, put an ad in the Thrifty Nickel asking, “Do you play Irish music or wish you did?” A surprising 50 people answered the ad.

“It’s a friendly music, not at all exclusive,” said Cater. “And the culture goes hand in hand with the music because the music is infused with Gaelic stories and history. There are a lot of folks with this heritage, but they don’t know the wisdom that ties it to the culture.”

It was in 2005 that Cater, whose mother was born and raised in Edinburgh and had a brogue so strong he often had to translate for her, along with Ian and Stephanie Kirste, formed the San Juan Scottish Fiddle Society. One of the group’s goals was to offer a place where kids can learn Scottish music for free. They also have Ceilidh (traditional dancing) regularly.

“It’s wonderful,” says participant Laura Ryan. “I love having the connection to home.”

Ryan, who had assumed she was the only Scot in Aztec until she discovered the society, was first supposed to come to the States on a Fulbright teaching exchange about 17 years ago. She was set to go to Minneapolis when the exchange fell through.

“But I had a friend in Vail who was working with Outward Bound in Silverton and had left her car in Denver. There was a tent in the back of the car,” Ryan begins. “But I’d never been camping in my life!”

Undaunted, Ryan camped and hiked her way through the Four Corners. She’d belonged to the Scottish Mountaineering Club in her home country and loved spending time in the San Juan Mountains. She eventually went back to Scotland only to reapply for the Fulbright. Odds were not with her as her area of focus is special education, but nonetheless, she received her letter from Fulbright in answer.

“I left the letter on the mantle for two days afraid to open it,” she says. When she finally did, she found she was awarded an exchange in Aztec and couldn’t believe she would be back in the area she loved, this time to stay. Now she teaches Scottish dance, plays music, and emcees events in Aztec. One of the most prominent is Robert Burns Night, in honor of the romantic poet of the 18th century, known as “the Bard of Scotland.”

“Burns was the poet of the common people,” explains Cater who also emcees the event. “His birthday celebration is a very formal event for us.”

Burns Night, held in late January, celebrates the poet’s birth with a complete Scottish dinner, many whisky toasts, the reading of his poetry and the bag-piping in of the haggis – the traditional Scottish dish memorialized by Burns in his 1787 poem “Address to a Haggis.” The formal event is followed by music, dancing and much merriment.

“When I visited Scotland,” Cater recalls, “I told a man that my mother was raised in Edinburgh. He shook my hand and said, ‘You are a son of Scotland.’

“The Scots are very clan-like,” he adds. “But the clans were broken up, so when you meet other Scots, you connect.”

Cater has lived and shared Celtic music in several towns across the Four Corners region, from Montrose to his current home in Aztec.

“There is a huge Celtic population on the Western Slope,” he says. And it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to him.

“The mountains here, from Colorado on down to northern New Mexico are much like the highlands of Scotland,” he adds. “I think people come here, and it’s like genetic memory. It feels like home.” •



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