At the Ceilidh–Prince Edward Island


No one may visit Prince Edward Island without attending a ceilidh. Not allowed. Can’t happen. All visitors to the island must attend a ceilidh.

And eat a lobster supper, but I’ll deal with that in the next post.

Ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee) is a Gaelic word for a social gathering that usually involves music and sometimes dance and storytelling. Since a lot of Celts settled in the Canadian Maritimes and since the Scotch and Irish know a thing or two about a party, a lot of ceilidhs happen on Prince Edward Island.

And whereas in the old country, a ceilidh might take place at the pub over, oh, say, a pint or three, on Prince Edward Island when tourists are involved, ceilidhs happen more in local halls and involve strawberries–usually in the form of shortcake or sundaes.

It’s an economic thing here–part of the way the locals earn a living that they hope will tide them over the long, cold winter. So a ceilidh is less a gathering of family and friends at the local pub and more an entertainment that visitors pay to attend. The strawberries are a nice touch that sweetens the pot, so to speak.

So, Julia and I asked around. The first thing we learned was that we had missed the Festival of Small Halls. This is a musical extravaganza in which musicians large and small perform in all the tiny town halls and community centers that are liberally scattered throughout the island over the course of ten kick-arse days in June.

And even though we’d missed the festival (Note to those who follow us: do not be so foolish as to miss the Festival of Small Halls. Go to the island in June and chart your course accordingly), “the musicians still seem to be performing in a lot of the local halls,” said a shop clerk as we were mulling over a bulletin board filled with adverts for performances.

So, for no particular reason, we decided to attend Wednesday night’s ceilidh at the Community Center in Brackley Beach where Cynthia MacLeod & Friends were performing.

We arrived early and were advised (by Cynthia’s mother who was taking tickets) to claim our seats (which were folding card-table chairs) because the hall would fill quickly. It  was a small hall of the type you see in towns throughout the Midwest–US and Canada–with a meeting room that smells of old wood and worn carpet and a drab but cavernous kitchen on the side.

When the tour bus arrived, I was glad for mom’s advice.

I would never have picked Cynthia out of the crowd until she leapt onto the modest stage with her violin, er, fiddle. Her pals this Wednesday night were two guys, both on guitar–one was the musician (Gordon Belsher); the other was a dynamite storyteller (Nils Ling).

Nils Ling, storyteller, Cynthia MacLeod, and Gordon Belsher, on guitar

Cynthia made up in energy for what the performance might have lacked in virtuosity or innovation. She fiddled; she stomped; she danced. She explained the difference between a jig and a reel, which I’ve forgotten.

Cynthia MacLeod

Her friends were equally competent and entertaining. We got stories; we got knee-slapping traditional music. AND we got a special surprise–a sweet local girl who danced up a storm:


This was where I first heard the term “from away”–when Gordon Belsher, the guitarist, explained that, even though he’d lived on the island for decades, that indeed, he had known Cynthia almost from birth, still–a lifetime notwithstanding–she would always be considered the native islander while he was, still and forever, “from away.”

I was to hear the term several times before I left these island places. And I’ve experienced the sense of being the “other” myself in small towns where the generations tend to stay put. Such is the clannishness of humankind–we need to identify what is “ours” and what is not. Who belongs to our tribe and who is the alien. This has served our species well sometimes, but is tragically flawed at other times.

I am almost always “from away,” and while I sometimes miss the feeling of belonging and of knowing whose grandfather owned that pub or planted that field, mostly I like the anonymity and freedom of not being known or particularly rooted.

How about you? Where do you fall on the scale of clan or nomad? Tribal member or loner? Roots or wheels?

The evening had been a rousing good time. Some of us tourists got back on the bus, and others of us got into our cars, and we all drove to wherever we’d come from, which for all of us was, ultimately, from away.

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2 Responses to At the Ceilidh–Prince Edward Island

  1. shawnE 19 January, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

    From away. Coming back, 32 yrs later.


  1. St. Anne's Lobster Supper--and Some Fairy Dust | Adventure Blog | Travel Journal Blog | WanderingNotLost - 21 December, 2012

    […] attending a ceilidh, the second traditional thing to do on Prince Edward Island is to go to a lobster supper. There are […]