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Group photo of the Board of Trustees of the Riley School of Irish Music, a 2017 Ohio Heritage Fellowship Award recipient

Come to the Ceili: Cincinnati's Riley School of Irish Music Receives an Ohio Arts Council Heritage Fellowship Award

Cincinnati's Riley School of Irish Music received a 2017 Ohio Heritage Fellowship for Community LeadershipAfter more than six decades of playing violin, Susan Cross Gilligan still looks forward to the first day of class.

“In Kids’ Band, we go around the circle and tell our names and how long we’ve been playing,” said Gilligan, founder of the Riley School of Irish Music in Cincinnati. “So, (the students) go around and they say, ‘I’m Mary, and I’ve been playing for two years …’ And I’m last, and I’ll say, ‘I’m Susan and I’ve been playing for 61 years.’ And they just squeal. It just overwhelms them.”

Gilligan began her musical studies at the age of 9 when, following a successful audition on the flutophone, she was accepted into the orchestra at her school in Lexington, Kentucky.

“They had this wonderful program starting all kids in the fourth grade on an orchestra or band instrument,” Gilligan said, recalling that she had narrowed her top choices down to either violin or drums. “My parents helped me choose violin. They didn’t want drums in the house.”

She continued to play violin classically until she was 33 and she heard the instrument incorporated into the Doobie Brothers’ hit single “Black Water.” Gilligan said she became intrigued by songs and genres that better fit her desire to enjoy the music she played.

Musicians from the Riley School play at a community ceili in Cincinnati“I think classical music is stressful because you have to be perfect and it’s very technical,” she said. “Once, I was tapping my foot, and the person in front of me in the symphony orchestra turned around and yelled at me, saying, ‘Don’t tap your foot! It ruins everything!’ …. So, I knew I was really in the wrong kind of music.”

After dabbling in different styles and playing in ensembles ranging from rock ‘n’ roll to bluegrass, Gilligan settled on the Irish sound, which challenged her to embrace the experience of “playing social music.”

“With Irish, all the Celtic, and folk and traditional music, you play by ear with other people and that’s how you get to be a better player. And it’s really, really fun,” she said. “I guess it is sort of like a pickup game of basketball, where you establish this common ground because you need to do this together. And it brings you such joy and a sense of community.”

Gilligan said she felt called to bring this message of musical unity to others. In 1996, while working as a science and French teacher in the Cincinnati area, she opened the Riley School with the help of her friend and business partner Cindy Matyi. Gilligan named the school after her mother, who had unexpectedly passed away a few months earlier.

“I did it because I had to. I had to do something for my mom,” Gilligan said. “She loved music. She always made sure we had music on in the house. We had a hi-fi record player in the living room, and when the whole family would go to bed at night, she would put on a stack of classical music records. We’d all fall asleep listening to some symphony.”

Throughout its 22-year history, the Riley School has grown from a class of five students who signed up for its inaugural year to 115 musicians currently enrolled this quarter. Twenty teachers, many of whom first joined as students, now offer instruction on 14 traditional Irish instruments.

“Dozens of people over the decades have worked hard for the school, volunteering both their time and skills,” Gilligan said. “A parent of a young student ends up as an adult student after the child has grown and moved away, then becomes a teacher for the school or sits on our board of directors.  A young student grows up and comes back to be a teacher for us.  An adult student gets involved in running the school and sits on the board …. There are so many wonderful people that I hesitate to name any of them for fear of forgetting someone.  But they all deserve enormous credit for making the Riley School a thriving community of musicians and their families.”

Dedicated to the pursuit of Irish music, the school aims to preserve an aural folk art by maintaining it as a living tradition. In recognition of its efforts, the Riley School received an Ohio Arts Council Heritage Fellowship Award for Community Leadership last fall.


Cheryl Hainey, a student at the school, submitted the nomination.

“After taking just one class, I was hooked and have continued learning other instruments as well—flute, harp, and traditional singing—and I’m not finished,” said Hainey, who initially became interested in traditional Irish music when her daughters were studying Irish dance. “As a student, it didn’t take me long to realize what a treasure we have in the Riley School. Every week I have the privilege of learning from internationally known artists in the world of Irish music.”

Hainey said she is pleased that the Riley School is being recognized for the role it plays in enriching the community.

“The Riley School performs at many public events including the Cincinnati Celtic Festival, Celtic Lands Culture Fest, Tall Stacks, Louisville Irish Festival, (and) Miami Whitewater Celtic Heritage Days,” she said.

In addition, Hainey said, the school hosts ceilis and parties that are open to the public. During these celebratory events, guests are encouraged to get up, dance—and, of course, tap their feet—as they enjoy music as it was meant to be experienced.Musicians from the Riley School perform at a community ceili in Cincinnati

“(Music) is what kept communities going hundreds of years ago. They would have these house parties where they would push back all the furniture … in some places, they’d even put sugar on the floor so you could slide your feet around,” Gilligan said. “I think we have a lot to learn about traditional arts. We take it all for granted coming out of the speaker in the wall. We need to learn that this is human, and we need to appreciate that the humans are doing it.”

For more information about the Riley School of Irish Music, visit

To learn more about the Ohio Heritage Fellowship program, visit

The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at


Article by Amanda Etchison, Communications Strategist
Photo credit: Photos courtesy of the Riley School of Irish Music and Ohio Arts Council

Video by Ohio Arts Council

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