Songs of pining, love, land, and loss are like magnets to the Emerald Isle. 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.” Cheekily coined “the Old Sod,” Ireland gave the world Yeats, Shaw, U2, and a host of world-class performance artists. There’s no 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 about to take its show on the road to the United States. Co-founded in 2005 by David Downes, music director for the Irish stage show Riverdance, this ensemble of three singers and an instrumentalist was originally tagged by an arts critic as “Riverdance with Voices.”
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 their latest foray into the American music scene, Celtic Woman has brought its performance to every continent save Antarctica. The group has sold over 10 million CDs and DVDs, was named Billboard’s #1 World Music Artist six times, and was nominated for a Grammy in 2019. It has entertained a U.S. president at the White House twice 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 Feb. 24. “We owe tremendous gratitude to PBS and the American people,” says Tara McNeill, Celtic Woman’s harp and fiddle player, who joined “The Epoch Times” for an exclusive interview. A member of Celtic Woman since 2016, 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 event that said they “made it” may have been, oddly, an appearance on Saturday Night Live, the TV show that tends to spoof things that are not slick, hip, and urban cool. Celtic Woman’s persona of wholesomeness and virtue seems a bit “old-fashioned” and therefore natural fodder for lampooning on a show that favored edgy tastes. 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.
Emerald Isle Melodies
A first thing to get straight about the ensemble is that the “C” in “Celtic” sounds like a “k,” not the soft “c” or “s” sound, as in the Boston basketball team.
Second, it’s not a mistake that the Celtic Woman name is singular, not plural. “It personifies the collective spirit and the legacy of the Celts,” 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, doing much more than minding the hearth, qualities that mark the amalgamated energy of women in modern Irish life. “So Celtic Woman signifies ‘we are one,’” McNeill said.
From its inception, Celtic Woman has served 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 McNeill.
Only Chloë Agnew, who came on board at 14, is an original cast member. Muirgen O’Mahony, the newest member; Megan Walsh; and Agnew are rooted in the Republic of Ireland. 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, now called Ulster.
Audiences at performances of “Postcards from Ireland” may recognize in many traditional ballads the green vistas. The moors and the bogs, the verdant hills and valleys, lush streams and ancient castles define the Emerald Isle and its heritage, commonly known for leprechauns, shamrocks, and St. Patrick. “For the two hours or so [of the “Postcards” concert], I want people to feel like they’ve landed in Ireland,” McNeill says.
A selection of the ditties in the performance are performed in Irish, which to a layman’s 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 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. Although she is an accomplished singer, McNeill has a non-singing role in the group.
“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 (pronounced “air”) in Irish, whose rapturous music seems to transcend earthly boundaries and bring audiences to their concerts. Audiences can expect the members of Celtic Woman come on stage in luminous, flowing gowns, supported by background performers and a 50-piece orchestra. The orchestra has traditional Irish instruments including tin whistles, harps, bodhrans (drums), Uilleann pipes (bagpipes), and banjos.
Despite what some claim is a nominal difference between Irish and Celtic music, 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 that has a prominent role in American Country-Western and bluegrass genres, she observes, bears “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 McNeill, with an impish smile.
The “Postcards from Ireland” tour schedule is posted at 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,” McNeill says.