The 83 city concert tour starts February 24th in Pensacola, Florida
By Timothy Wahl
The book on Ireland may read that you don’t have to be Irish to fall for the music in Ireland. Observed Paddy Maloney, the late founder of the Chieftains, a Grammy-award winning band from Dublin: “There’s something in Irish music that really gets you.” Songs of pining, love, land and loss are like magnets to the Emerald Isle, cheekily coined “the Old Sod,” which gave the world Yeats, Joyce and Shaw—and U2—and a host of who’s who “content creators” and world-class performance artists. Not much argument that Irish music is one of Ireland’s most endearing and defining cultural products.
Enter Celtic Woman, the all-female singing sensation from Ireland. Co-founded in 2005 by David Downes, music director for the Irish stage show Riverdance, this ensemble of three singers and an instrumentalist—“Riverdance with voices,” an arts critic tagged them—is about to take its show on the road to the United States. Headlined “Postcards from Ireland,” the show fuses traditional Irish music and modern songs in what could be earmarked as an “edu-tainment” experience for concert-goers. Publicity purports it to “celebrate Ireland’s rich musical and cultural heritage.”
In the lead-up to this foray is a treasure trove of accomplishments for Celtic Woman, which has brought its song to all the continents save Antarctica. Particularly, it has sold over ten million CDs and DVDs, was named Billboard’s #1 World Music Artist six times and nominated for a Grammy in 2019. It has entertained the US president at the White House two times and appeared on numerous TV shows.
PBS spotlighted the group in a special last fall on the release of its eighth album (Postcards from Ireland) as it readied for the launch of an ambitious three-month, 83-city tour of the United States commencing February 24th in Pansacola, Fla.
“We owe tremendous gratitude to PBS and the American people,” says Tara McNeill, Celtic Woman’s harp and fiddle player in an exclusive conversation on Zoom. A member of Celtic Woman since 2016, Ms. McNeill lauded the “unique” years-long relationship between her group and PBS. “That’s how we got started off on our journey [in 2005].”
But the “crowning jewel” of having “made it,” may have been, oddly, recognition on Saturday Night Live, the popular TV show that tends to spoof things not slick, hip and urban cool like Celtic Woman’s persona of wholesomeness and virtue, which may seem a bit “old-fashioned” and therefore natural fodder for lampooning on such a show for edgy tastes. Ms. McNeill met the parody with aplomb, expressing what some would say is a prototypical Irish way to be able to laugh at one’s own foibles. “Wasn’t it hilarious!” she gushed, noting her tickle over a character in the skit who thought he had procured tickets to a Boston Celtics game and was astonished to land in a concert of four lovelies from Ireland.
A first thing to get straight about the ensemble is that the “C” in “Celtic” is hard like a “k”, learned in grade school phonics class, not the soft “c”, or “s” sound, common in the United States thanks to the basketball team.
Second, it’s not a mistake that Celtic Woman is a singular, mass noun. “It personifies the collective spirit and the legacy of the Celts,” Ms. McNeill says, “particularly its women.” In Celtic society, believed to pre-date the Roman Empire, the women are said to have been rugged and independent beyond minding the hearth, qualities that mark the amalgamated energy of women in modern Irish life.
“So ‘Celtic Woman’ signifies ‘we are one.’” adds Ms. McNeill.
From its inception, Celtic Woman has acted as a placeholder for the comings and goings of talent. Fifteen performers have occupied the roles of vocalists and instrumentalist, the role currently held by Ms. McNeill.
Only Chloë Agnew, who came on board at 14, is an original cast member. While Muirgen O’Mahony, the newest member, Megan Walsh and she are rooted in the Republic of Ireland, Ms. McNeill is from Northern Ireland—alternately referred to in the Republic as “the North of Ireland,” a nod to Ireland’s past as a whole, undivided isle before “the Troubles,” the euphemism for the political rift over the British-occupied section of Ireland called Ulster.
Audiences at the stagings of Postcards from Ireland may recognize many traditional ballads as well as familiar vistas in a land known for green and lots of rain. The moors and the bogs, the verdant hills and valleys, lush streams and ancient castles define the Emerald Isle and its heritage, commonly populated with images of leprechauns, shamrocks, and St. Patrick. “For the two hours or so [of the concert] I want people to feel like they’ve landed in Ireland,” states Ms. McNeill.
A selection of the ditties in the performance are performed in Irish, which to lay ears may sound the same as Gaelic although linguistic purists may beg to differ. Handed down by the Celts, the Irish language is compulsory in Ireland’s education system. Pupils must pass an Irish language proficiency exam to receive a “leaver’s certificate” (equivalent to a high school diploma). Irish is spoken in all provinces including a few areas in the North. Many tunes throughout the land—in pubs, private homes and concert halls—are crooned in the Irish tongue.
Thus, the segue to Irish in song is a natural process for the performers in Celtic Woman even though Ms. McNeill’s upbringing in the British education system in Northern Ireland precluded schooling in the Irish language. “I studied French instead,” she said, grinning over a moot point—her non-singing role with Celtic Woman (although she is an accomplished singer).
“Voices of Angels,” like the title of an album released in 2017, is yet another nom de plume bestowed on these beautiful and talented sirens from Ireland, known as Eire (sounds like “air”) in Irish, whose rapturous music seems to transcend earthly boundaries and bring audiences in abundance to concerts. The approaching spectacle of Celtic Woman, in luminous, flowing gowns, includes background performers and a 50-piece orchestra on traditional Irish instruments—tin whistles, harps, bodhrans (drums), Uilleann pipes (bagpipes) and banjos.
Despite what some claim is a nominal difference between Irish and Celtic music, Ms. McNeill notes a fusion of cultures in the music of Celtic Woman. “Our songs are a mixture of traditional Irish music, classical and modern music. They are universal, for everyone, not just for people with an Irish connection. Wherever we’ve toured—China, Japan, Korea—people relate to our songs.”
Multicultural provenance extends to Celtic Woman’s orchestral accouterments, which have evolved through centuries of use and been adopted from other cultures. Particularly, she references the banjo, originating in Africa and crossing to America in the times of slavery. This instrument has a prominent role in American country-western and bluegrass, genres, she observes, that bear “striking similarities to traditional Irish folk music.”
In anybody’s book, the compass settings for Celtic Woman’s USA gallivant pose a recipe for a logistical nightmare. Night after night after the curtain falls and the set is struck, like “the travelers,” the nomadic people in the land they’re from, the entourage and ancillaries in the production, namely instruments and set fixtures, set off in a convoy of three buses that zig-zag north and south edging ever-so-slightly westward to California. Days off are rare, which mean that unpacking and setting up, blocking, lighting and dealing with the physics and acoustics at each venue is a daily grind.
This leaves little time for sightseeing, or craic (pronounced “crack”), the Irish word for “fun.” “But you’ve got to be careful using this word in America,” admonishes Ms. McNeill, with an impish smile. Crack, of course, is a toxic and illegal drug.
The Postcards from Ireland tour schedule is posted at www.celticwoman.com, where would-be concert-goers can get the skinny on when the craic from the Old Sod rolls into a town near them.
“We hope to convey a message of love and optimism as the world looks forward to getting back together again,” says Ms. McNeill.
Born and raised in Western New York (Andover), Timothy Wahl is a retired teacher in Los Angeles, Calif who enjoys writing in his newfound “spare time.” He can be reached at [email protected].