Christmas music with an Irish touch: four recordings to know

In Ireland this time of year, the light starts to fade by four in the afternoon, and sunrise comes after nine o’clock in the morning. Sometimes well after. At the time I’m writing this, the island is experiencing its coldest winter in more than forty years. In the midst of this comes the light and celebration of Christmas, a time of family and connection, whether your Irish family happens to live in Galway, Derry, Perth, Calgary, Sydney Mines, or Albuquerque. Part of the celebration is music. All, Irish or not, are warmly welcomed to share in that. Take a listen to these recordings, and do so yourself.

Cherish the Ladies have looked at this holiday season through two albums. The heart of On Christmas Night turns in the song The Castle of Dromore, a winter lullabye of sorts from Irish tradition, with quiet, understated lead singing by Heidi Talbot. There are at least two Castles Dromore in Ireland that I know of, probably more. The warmth within and winter winds without work as a fine image whatever the landscape, however. As they often do, the women of Cherish offer a program that mixes songs with jigs, reels, and in this case, carols as well. All are top players, led by founding band member Joanie Madden on flutes and whistles. A good place to hear their instrumental style is on the set that moves from the holiday song Ding Dong Merrily on High through to Con Cassidy’s. The Holly and the Berry, another song from the Irish tradition, finds the women trading leads by verse in the singing. Talbot handles the lead on the varied holiday sentiments of The Little Drummer Boy and Silent Night, which she sings in both English and Irish, with understated and thoughtful grace,

A Star in the East the second Christmas album from Cherish the Ladies, finds them with a different lead singer, Michelle Burke. She puts a fine and robust spin on the carol The First Noel, and the contemporary song by Robbie O’Connell, All on a Christmas Morning. As before , the ladies wind carols and tractional tunes into sparkling instrumental sets including one that begins with God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen closes with O’Connell’s’ Welcome to Parliament. Madden reads from poet Patrick Kavanagh’s A Christmas Childhood, which is paired movingly with In the Bleak Midwinter. Madden and guitarist Mary Coogan put their own bit of Irish twist to the African American spiritual Rise Up Shepherd and Follow, while Burke and all the band members playing in support of her have good fun with a take on the rush of things at the holidays, Home in Time for Christmas.

For their Christmas album Fine Winter’s Night, Matt and Shannon Heaton also choose a mix of song and tune, both traditional and original. Matt does a fine job with lead on the Wexford Carol, which dates back to the twelfth century. Shannon handles lead on the title track, which is a song about, among other things, finding joy in the sometimes harsh times of winter. Shannon plays flutes and whistles, Matt plays guitar and bouzouki, all of which are shown to good effect on a number of tunes, including Christmas at Mount Horeb. They both sing lead and offer fine harmony as well. You’ll hear those aspects of their work on the gently funny story of Julius the Christmas Cat, in the tale of a Victorian Christmas evening in Boston in First Snowfall of December, and in the reminder of the steadfast hope of the season in Fisherman’s Lullabye.

Narada’s Best of Celtic Christmas is one of those rare compilation albums that works. It is a two disc set. One disc, called The Night Before, comprises the music of the Ireland based group Dordan. As you might expect from that name, the songs and tunes evoke both the excitement and the hushed anticipation leading up to Christmas itself. The other disc is a collection of tracks from a range of artists. Cathie Ryan starts things off with a thoughtful take on It Came Upon A Midnight Clear. Kathy Mattea, Natalie MacMaster, William Jackson, The Boys of the Lough and Altan are among those who add their ornaments to the many branches of this Celtic tree of music. Fiddler Bonnie Rideout brings things to a close with a rousingly Scottish take on Adeste Fidelis.

Good companions all, for seasonal gatherings and quiet moments of reflection.

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