Benefits & Ceilidhs | Bowing Down Home

As frolics, church or school picnics, and other local benefit dances disappeared, their role in community life was filled to some degree by benefit concerts. Benefit concerts raised money for local families struggling with illness or other hardship. Instead of offering old-time dancing as a major attraction, however, this latter-day event relied primarily upon local talent shows to draw a crowd. A typical Island benefit concert featured a mixture of fiddling performances, vocal numbers, step-dancing demonstrations (accompanied by local fiddlers), skits, and poetry recitations. Quite frequently, at least some members of the PEI Fiddlers’ Society would also attend and perform en masse. None of the performers would be paid for their time.

Commercial “ceilidhs” (pronounced KAY-leys) transformed community such talent shows into regularly scheduled fund-raising or for-profit events. The Orwell Ceilidh – founded in the late 1970s and held in a reconstruction of the old Community Hall at the Orwell Corner Historic Site in southeastern Queens County – was perhaps the first venue of this type to be established. According to Margaret Ross MacKinnon, the name ceilidh was selected "with the idea behind [it] being the Gaelic word traditionally used for a local informal gathering." Different headliners were featured each week to maintain audience interest, but most of the program consisted of unpaid performances by local instrumentalists, step-dancers, and vocalists.

In the early 1990s, Jenny O’Hanley McQuaid and Teresa MacPhee Wilson founded the Monticello Ceilidh in northeastern Kings County. As at Orwell, different fiddlers and singers were hired each week to serve as headliners, and much of the program was in effect a local talent show. McQuaid and Wilson also introduced some new features. They made dancing square sets a prominent part of the program; they encouraged local youngsters who had been studying step-dancing to perform for the company; they introduced a 50/50 raffle (the house retains half the take and distributes the rest); and they offered a generous snack at no extra charge. What’s more, all these features were seasoned by a stream of light, friendly banter from McQuaid & Wilson, both of whom were amateur comediennes. This formula proved to be so successful that the structure housing the event had to be enlarged several times to accommodate a growing audience. By the year 2000, it was roughly four times its original size.

Having witnessed the success of the Monticello Ceilidh, many other Island towns and districts began to set up their own, similar events. Ultimately, it got to a point where on any given evening there were multiple “ceilidhs” taking place – particularly during the summer when getting around by car was relatively easy. By 1999, Islanders were talking about a "ceilidh boom," and it was not uncommon on a typical summer weekend to find two full pages of classified ads in the Guardian announcing all the ceilidhs taking place around the Island. And once it became clear that visitors to PEI often enjoyed watching Island musicians and dancers in action, entertainments of this nature also grew up that were aimed specifically at the tourist market.