The Celtic Cottage vibrates with music as people of all ages clap and tap their toes to the beat of The Wild Rover. Those who know the words sing along. At the heart of this seisiun—a Celtic word meaning session—is Una Cleary, a vivacious Dublin native who has lived in nearby Little Silver, N.J. (pop. 6,170) for more than 20 years.
Four years ago, Cleary, a mother of four and grandmother of seven, organized a seisiun group that meets Sunday evenings at various local pubs. A multi-instrument musician, Cleary now mostly plays the piano accordion, which she began learning at age 13. One of five children, she recalls singing anywhere the family traveled. “And they weren’t just songs,” she says, “they were the beats and melodies of the Ceili (traditional Irish) dance music.”
Cleary is also a member of a three-piece band called The Celtic Clan and enjoys many types of music—but has a soft spot for the sounds of her birthplace. She started the seisiuns to be part of it. “I was looking for a musical outlet,” she says. “I’ve played music my entire life.”
The group varies in size, some weeks drawing a handful of musicians, sometimes as many as 20. Instruments are diverse, from Cleary’s accordion to guitars, fiddles, spoons, drums, flutes, concertinas, and, occasionally, even a mountain dulcimer.
“We play traditional Irish music,” Cleary explains, “but we also enjoy bluegrass, country and western, and whatever else the group feels like playing.” Being around other musicians provides her with the camaraderie and friendship of her upbringing. “Irish music has very simple roots,” she smiles. “It came from the kitchen to the parlor and into the pubs.”
One of the hallmark characteristics of Cleary’s seisiuns is that all musicians are welcomed and encouraged to participate. “Music is an expression of love,” Cleary says. “We don’t close the door on non-Irish musicians.” She also likes to sit back and listen as others play.
Singer Ellen Williams appreciates Cleary’s leadership. “Una makes a point of going around the circle and supporting everyone in showing their talents. She’s a very generous person.”
Violinist Marilyn Stengl, who has been coming to the seisiuns for three years, values the variety of the group’s members and talents. “Everybody brings a unique perspective,” Stengl says. “We have a lot of diversity, but we’re all one community.”
Wayne Kite, a guitarist and member of The Celtic Clan, as well as a regular in the seisiuns, calls Una the “undisputed queen of the Irish scene in New Jersey. She’s the most energetic person I’ve ever known, and she plays unbelievably fluid music.”
Nancy Devenny agrees. She is a singer and the third member of the Clan, which plays in diverse venues such as the boardwalk in Bradley Beach and private parties throughout New Jersey. “We have more fun than the people we play for,” Devenny says.
Cleary credits Kevin Martin, the owner of The Celtic Cottage, with being an integral part of the group’s development and for providing a venue for them to play. For Martin, Cleary is a gift. “I can’t say enough about her. If someone has a relative visiting or a special occasion, it’s just a couple of calls and they’ll pull together a seisiun,” Martin says. “The energy she has is unbelievable.”
But music isn’t Cleary’s only talent. She’s a nationally ranked tennis player and has coached in Ireland and New Jersey. She participates in a seniors league where she recently claimed half the doubles champion title when she and her partner went undefeated the entire season. Cleary also finds time to work a full-time job in a doctor’s office.
Even with other interests, Cleary’s life revolves around music. She listens as her sister, Eileen, visiting from Ireland, shares memories of an evening in Dublin recalling that the music started around 10 p.m. and concluded as the sun rose. The story sums up nicely the purpose of a seisiun.
“It’s about everyone having a good time and everyone getting a chance to participate,” Cleary grins. “All it takes is a wink or a nod and we all know where we’re going.”