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The 2016 NEA National Heritage Fellowships Honor Two Outstanding Marylanders

The 2016 NEA National Heritage Fellowships Honor Two Outstanding Marylanders

June 30, 2016

National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chairman Jane Chu today announced the 2016 recipients of the NEA National Heritage Fellowships, the nation's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.

Among the nine recipients of the prestigious annual award are Marylanders Billy McComiskey, the world-renowned accordion player and composer in the East Galway style of Irish traditional music, and Michael “Mike” Vlahovich, the founder of Coastal Heritage Alliance, an organization that safeguards and promotes maritime cultural heritage in Maryland and Washington state.

"I am very proud that two talented Marylanders have been recognized with this prestigious national honor,” said Governor Larry Hogan. “The exceptional contributions of Billy McComiskey and Michael Vlahovich strongly reflect the diversity and richness of Maryland's artistic and cultural communities.”

“We give a heartfelt congratulations to both Billy and Mike for their significant contributions to the cultural and artistic fabric of our state and country,” said Theresa Colvin, executive director of the Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC). “We are honored to work with and support these outstanding stewards of cultural heritage through our state folklife program, Maryland Traditions.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Billy McComiskey grew up in a family steeped in Irish music and dance and in a region to which masters in Irish fiddle, accordion, flute, tin whistle, and dance immigrated. In his early teenage years, he became the “sidekick” of the great accordion player, Sean McGlynn, who mentored McComiskey for several years. Since moving to Baltimore in the 1970s, he has played an integral role in building the now thriving Baltimore-D.C. Irish traditional music community, connecting the deep legacy of the East Galway traditions of New York to the region.

In the 1970s and 80s, he won gold and silver in the prestigious All-Ireland musical competitions in solo accordion and in duets with the renowned fiddler, Brendan Mulvihill. He also received the Irish Echo’s Album of the Year for his 2008 Outside the Box and was honored as their 2011 Traditional Artist of the Year. McComiskey teaches musicians all over the world, as well as in his home state, as a master through the Maryland Traditions apprenticeship program.

Michael Vlahovich’s family emigrated from Croatia to the Pacific Northwest roughly a century ago. In 1966, he began his career as a commercial fisherman and has since become a master builder and restorer of wooden boats. Over the years, he developed a deep passion for helping to enhance socioeconomic viability for fishing families and their traditional maritime vessels, knowledge, and skills. In 1994, he co-founded the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma, Washington, receiving the Washington State Governor’s Art and Heritage Award for his efforts.

After moving to Maryland in 2001, Vlahovich worked as the boatyard manager and Director of Special Projects at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. It is there that his love for the Chesapeake fleet of oyster-dredging skipjack boats grew. In 2003, he founded the Coastal Heritage Alliance (CHA), dedicated to the preservation and advancement of the cultural heritage of commercial fishing families in North America, based both in the states of Washington and Maryland. CHA seeks to document the living waterways traditions and assist fishing families in passing on their heritage to new generations within their own communities and to the broader public audience. It is also involved in training watermen and women in sustainable tourism practices as a means of subsidizing their income. For the past several years, Vlahovich has served as a master in skipjack restoration through the Maryland Traditions apprenticeship program, and since 2015, Coastal Heritage Alliance has been a Maryland Traditions partner, strengthening its statewide folklife infrastructure.

Learn more about Billy McComiskey and Mike Vlahovich on the MSAC website at

About the NEA National Heritage Fellowship

Since 1982, the NEA has awarded 413 NEA National Heritage Fellowships to artists including bluesman B.B. King and Cajun fiddler and composer Michael Doucet. Past winners from Maryland include duck decoy artist Lem Ward, old time musician and singer Ola Belle Reed, and Piedmont blues songster Warner Williams.

The NEA will celebrate the 2016 National Heritage Fellows in Washington, DC, at an awards ceremony at the Library of Congress on Wednesday, September 28, 2016, and a free concert on Friday, September 30, 2016, at 8:00 p.m. at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. Both events are free and open to the public.

More information about the NEA National Heritage Fellowships is available on the NEA’s website:

Media Contact: 

Michelle Stefano
Co-Director, Maryland Traditions
(410) 767-6570

Chad Buterbaugh
Co-Director, Maryland Traditions
(410) 767-6450