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INTERVIEW: The Music-Makers Fronting Celtic Woman

Celtic Woman in concert. From left to right: Tara McNeill, Éabha McMahon, Mairéad Carlin, and Megan Walsh. The ensemble performs Saturday evening at the State Theatre in Minneapolis.

The global musical sensation Celtic Woman comes to Minneapolis tomorrow. Since its formation in 2004, the performance collective has brought its striking presentations of Irish music to countless global stages. Its concert videos and albums are a living room staple for many U.S. households, and the ensemble has been named a Billboard World Album Artist of the Year an impressive six times.

Fifteen years is a long life in the music business, and the ensemble’s lineup has shifted over the years with solo projects, children, and other life events. With this shuffle comes new songs, new talents, and fresh energy. Throughout it all, however, Celtic Woman has featured powerful, engrossing performances by master musicians.

Currently, Celtic Woman comprises four talented women: Máiréad Carlin, Éabha McMahon, Tara McNeill, and Megan Walsh. Basil Considine spoke with these performers about their lives, influences, and experiences with the ensemble.

Megan, you’re the newest member of Celtic Woman. You were part of making Ancient Land before your joining was announced – how did you become involved with the album and how did they invite you to join?

Megan Walsh: I was studying music and voice in London when Méav Ní Mhaolchatha got in contact with me and asked me if I would like to audition for Celtic Woman. I was actually singing in Paris at the time, but cut my trip short to get home. It only took a Eurostar trip back to London, a 5-hour train up to Wales and a 4-hour ferry back to Dublin, but I made it! I sang for them the next day and a few days later I got the call to say I’d be the newest member of Celtic Woman.

It was an absolute dream come true. The following week I was flying over to Real World Studios in the UK to record Ancient Land. It was one of the best experiences of my life and I’ll never forget it.

What have been some personal highlights of working with Celtic Woman thus far?

MW: Filming the Ancient Land castle special was definitely a huge highlight for me thus far. I grew up watching the Celtic Woman specials so to now be a part of one is an absolute dream. Our Christmas Symphony tour was also a massive highlight for me. It was my first ever tour and I absolutely loved it. Getting to sing Christmas music every night with some of the best symphony orchestras in the world was incredible.

Getting to tour Ancient Land across North America has also been amazing. The audiences have been incredible and we’re all having so much fun.

Celtic Woman performing during their 2018 Ancient Land concert at Johnstown Castle in Count Wexford, Ireland.

Éabha, you grew up speaking Gaelige at home. Are there any songs from your childhood that you’ve advocated for the group to perform?

Éabha McMahon: I loved “Sadhbh Ní Bhruinneallaigh” growing up. And I would sing it with my brother Caraí at home and he would play bodhrán and my brother Páidí would also play along on his concertina. So when I got to sing it for our Homecoming album in the 3Arena it was a really special moment. And it is now in the show as a group number which I absolutely love. We have so much fun.

There is something so magical about singing in your mother tongue. I feel very lucky that my mother encouraged the Irish language in our household growing up; it’s a privilege to be able to continue to share the history and the beauty of our language on the Celtic Woman stage.

You and John Gaffney married last year. The touring life is sometimes hard on couples – how do the two of you stay in touch and reconnect during a tour?

EM: John and I have always been very much a team. When we met seven years ago, it was my dream to be a singer: to sing and promote Irish music around the world while spreading a message of unity and hope to everyone I met along the way.

At the time it was a big dream. One of those dreams that, when you tell people, you can see the look of concern in their eyes because it’s so outside of the box. I was studying human rights in University at the time, and had just returned from living in Vietnam for a year, working with the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation.

I remember telling John that I wanted to combine my passion for human rights and my passion for music. I told him my big plans to sing songs all over the world and I will always remember his unwavering belief in me. He never once questioned if it was possible. So I started to write my own music and John was my constant throughout that time, always encouraging me and talking about the possibilities of the future.

I will never forget the day that I got the call from Celtic Woman. It was incredible and John had tears in his eyes. I was singing in New York at the time, which was the biggest gig I had ever done, but this message from Celtic Woman was the beginning of something very special – I knew that and so did John. He is my rock and he knows that I am out here living that dream that for so many years we talked about in my sitting room over many cups of tea.

John is also very passionate about his job, too, and I think the fact that we are both very driven and passionate about what we do, makes being away from each other easier. We managed to combine our passion for human rights as well, and we are both ambassadors for the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation. John flies out to see me on the longer tours and he is certainly part of the Celtic Woman family out here on the road. I feel very lucky to have married John. He is one of a kind.

A promotional photo of Celtic Woman.

Tara, you did a fair bit of traveling and touring before joining Celtic Woman. Are there any exotic places that you’d like the management to book concerts at, so that you have an excuse to visit?

Tara McNeill: I would absolutely love to visit New Zealand! It looks incredibly beautiful. Also, Hawaii is the only state which Celtic Woman hasn’t visited yet so I would love to have a few shows on each of the islands! Iceland is also on my list, as it looks like something from a dream. So fingers crossed for the future!

You play a violin made by violinmaker Roger Hansell. Purchasing an instrument is a very easy process for some and rather like buying a house for other people. How did you and this violin become united?

TM: I was very lucky to be introduced to my violin by my wonderful teacher Michael d’Arcy. He already owned a Roger Hansell violin and was in his workshop when mine was in the early stages. He tried it out, and said if I didn’t buy it he was going to! So he brought it back to Ireland from Yorkshire, England for me to try and I instantly fell in love. I had tried a few violins previously but there just wasn’t that spark. It’s like finding your soulmate, when you know, you know!

What are some of your favorite things to do on tour when not having to perform?

TM: I love finding the water wherever I am. If the sea is nearby, I’ll run along it; if there’s a river, I’ll walk.

I love discovering a place by just getting out there and exploring! We’re so lucky to travel around the world with our jobs, so when we have some down time we try to make the most of the adventure!

Celtic Woman by day. L-R: Megan Walsh, Mairéad Carlin, Éabha McMahon, and Tara McNeill.

Mairead, you’ve been part of Celtic Woman since August 2013. More than a few faces have come and gone during that time – are there particular interests, responsibilities, or activities with the ensemble that you’ve chosen to develop as opportunities have arisen?

Máiréad Carlin: I just think it’s really important to embrace everyone who comes through the Celtic Woman doors. We’re all here for a reason: every woman that has entered the group has been carefully chosen, so I feel a great sense of responsibility to make sure they feel as loved and welcomed as I did when I first joined.

Change is good – it keeps everything alive. This group has been going 15 years, which is absolutely incredible. Morale is so important on the road, so that’s my main focus every day – to keep spirits lifted.

It’s been a while since your debut album Songbook – any solo writing or recording projects in the works?

MC: I’ve been working on a solo EP over the last little while and I’ll be going into the famous Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin to record it when I’m home.

I’ve started writing with an amazing singer songwriter in London called Ben Parker. He has written a lot of Amy McDonald’s songs and is a wonderful person. I feel as I have become a little bit older, I have a lot more to say – and unapologetically so.

I think, in my earlier years (as most people are in their early twenties), I was embarrassed for people to hear my own music – that’s why Songbook was all covers, because that way I could hide behind the title of “interpreter”. Now, however, I’m happy for people to hear what I have to say. (Celtic Woman is my number one priority of course, and will always be, but it will be nice to release something of my own on the side, for our fans to hear a little piece of my own headspace and sound world.)

Celtic Woman performs at the State Theatre in Minneapolis, MN on Saturday, May 18 at 7 PM.

Basil Considine