Winter: it is a time for gathering in and going out, for celebration, reflection, for travel and for staying home and coming home. It’s a time to welcome a stranger and to be one, to savor old friendships and make new ones, to recall favorite memories and make new ones. The music of Ireland at winter holds all these aspects. This winter season, five top class Irish music acts are bringing their views, stories, and memories of Irish and Irish American Christmas time across the United States. Catch these shows if at all you can.
Irish Christmas in America, created a dozen years ago by fiddler Oisin Mac Diaramda, takes note of family, of the ties that bind across the oceans, and the fun to be had hunting the wren in the days after the Christmas feast is done. Mac Diarmada is also founder of the high energy band Teada, and often bandmates from that instrumental group come along on this tour. Guest vocalists across the years have included such top singers as as Cathie Ryan, Cara Dillon, Karan Casey, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and Seamus Begley. Begley, who is also known for his dexterity on the accordion and his lively wit, will return this year, as will harpist Grainne Hambly. Step dancer and pianist Samantha Harvey will be there, and singer Niamh Farrell will be making her first appearance with the show. There’s a recording of some of the instrumental pieces which feature in the show: Irish Christmas in America.
Eileen Ivers was raised in New York by parents who had come over from Ireland. Ties back to the home country remained strong, and never more so than at Christmas time. Ivers has taken her fiddle in to collaboration and connection with all sorts of music, but she remain grounded in that of her heritage. You can hear this on her Christmas recording An Nollaig, which includes traditional songs and tunes as well as a Celtic infused take on Bach. Ivers will be doing short run of holiday season dates in the mid Atlantic States this year. Her most recent recording at this writing is Beyond the Bog Road, in which she explores ways the music of Ireland crossed paths with music of other communities in North America, from Quebec to New Orleans.
Danu began as a band in the tradition rich area of southeast Ireland a bit more than twenty years ago and includes musicians from counties Waterford, Wexford, Dublin, Donegal, and Cork. With comings and goings of band members, top notch musicianship and an approach to music that both respects tradition and invigorates has remained a hallmark of Danu. Here’s a bit of what the band’s holiday show offered last year:
With bodhran, guitar, flute, bouzouki, and songs in Irish and English, this year their tour in the United States, which called A Christmas Gathering, will move from Oklahoma to Arizona, Texas, the east coast, and points between, and will include the the newest member of the band, singer Nell Ni Chronin. The band’s latest recording is called Buan.
Cathie Ryan has appeared as a guest on many top holiday concerts and tours. This winter, though, marks the first time she has put together a series of holiday concerts all of her own design. She will include well known and loved carols, original music (including a piece she and guitarist Patsy O’Brien composed just for this tour), and several seasonal pieces that are often sung in Ireland but are less well known in the States. Ryan is calling her tour The Winter’s Heart. It is a name which references “everything I believe Christmas is about, including Christ being born at Christmas and all of the heart centered teachings of Christianity, “ Ryan says. “It is beautiful that in this time of cold and barrenness, a time when most of us go inside, we open our hearts, our homes, to new hope, new life and to each other.” Ryan, along with O’Brien on guitar, Patrick Mangan on fiddle, and Kieran O’Hare on pipes and whistles, will be playing dates in the mid Atlantic and midwest this winter. You can read about what a Cathie Ryan concert in Belfast was like. Ryan’s most recent recording at this writing is Through Wind and Rain.
When Joanie Madden was asked to put together a one off evening concert of Irish women musicians in New York City, she agreed to do it, “but I thought no one would come!” she recalls, as the talents of women were not well known in Irish music at the time. Turns out lines for tickets were around the block, and turns out, getting on for three decades later for the band that became Cherish the Ladies, they still are. Madden on flute and as bandleader and Mary Coogan on guitar are the two founding members still with Cherish the Ladies; Ivers and Ryan were both part of the early years of Cherish too. The quality of musicianship has remained top class over the years, and that’s well displayed especially on their Christmas tours. This year, after kicking off December with the band’s first ever visit to Japan, they will bring their holiday show, alive with jigs, reels, dancing, reflective songs and joyful ones, to places across the States from Alaska to Connecticut. The band has Christmas recordings, too, three of them: On Christmas Night, Star in the East, and the most recent, Christmas in Ireland.
Each of these artists will light up your holidays — a trip to see one (or more) of them will give you memories to enjoy. If you’ll not get to see them at the holidays. though, all of them tour in the United States and internationally through the year, and they all have recordings for you to explore as well, both seasonal and otherwise.
Photographs courtesy of the artists; photographs of Ireland in winter by Kerry Dexter
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