The music of Ireland is at its heart about the telling of stories.
High powered stage shows, hearty drinking songs, and sentimental ballads all have their place. They often make good gateways to further interest and understanding.
There is more, though. One way you can go deeper into understanding the joys and sorrows, lively and quiet aspects of Ireland past and present is to get to know the music of Cherish the Ladies.
They were not supposed to be a band, at first. Mick Moloney, a musician and scholar of Irish music, had been noticing that while there were many gifted women playing Irish music, they were, at the time — this was in the mid 1980s — close to invisible when it came to concerts. A few singers, Mary Black and Maura O’Connell among them, were just beginning to make their way as solo artists, but although women were winning many of the top awards in instrumental music. this was not translating into concerts. Moloney called up his friend Joanie Madden, who’d recently won one of those top awards. “He asked me if I would put together a concert of women musicians,” Madden recalls. “I said I would, but that I didn’t think anybody would come.”
People did come, though, to what was meant to be a one off concert in Manhattan. Additional concerts were added and still lines stretched around the block and some had to be turned away. Clearly people were ready to listen. Grants funded a short tour and a recording. That recording was collection of individual pieces rather than a band project. Nevertheless it was named the best folk album of the year by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
But then there was no more grant funding. Some of the women had day jobs and other commitments. Madden got together with those who thought they could stay on, and asked: do we want to make a go of it? Do we want to see if we can make this work and earn our livings doing this? Yes, they said. “And so,” Madden says, “we were off.”
Off to what is now three decades plus of sharing and creating sparkling instrumentals, thoughtful songs, lively dance, and good stories that inspire audiences with the heart of Ireland, and connections of Ireland with its wide flung diaspora.
With the recent chart topping, million selling recordings and concerts of the group Celtic Women, the international careers of superstars including Mary Black and Maura O’Connell, with Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh fronting the internationally renown band Altan, it might be difficult to believe that putting together a band featuring top notch Irish women musicians would be that risky, or that finding bookings difficult. But in 1987, it was.
“People didn’t believe that we could play or sing, they just didn’t think we’d be any good — or draw anybody to come listen — once we got there, if they booked us,” says Cathie Ryan, who was the original lead singer and bodhran player with the group. “They thought we were a novelty act — the Irish Spice Girls, “ Madden recalls.
Promoters and bookers did not know that they’d be taking a chance on a group that at that time included Madden, who’d go on to be named one of the top one hundred Irish Americans and has won wide recognition for her composing skill as well as her playing on flute and whistle and her exuberant stage presence; Mary Coogan, widely considered one of the best guitarists in Irish music today; Eileen Ivers, who’d go on to play with Riverdance and win Grammys for her solo work; Jean Butler, who would be principal dancer for Riverdance and later be respected for her own creative choreography, and Cathie Ryan, who would be twice named Irish Voice of the Decade and become one of the most widely respected and awarded songwriters and singers in Irish and Irish American music.
The promoters didn’t know this. The women didn’t know it either. But they kept on, doubling and tripling up in hotel rooms, rattling cross country in cars and vans to make gigs, and night by night, day by day, word began to spread that Cherish the Ladies were the real deal, a band that would leave you laughing, leave you crying, dry your tears and send you off with a new — or renewed — respect for authentic Irish music.
They still do that. Over the years band members have come and gone — often into stellar solo careers of their own — but with each turn of the wheel new artists keep up the high standards and bring fresh perspectives to the group.
Why am I telling you all this? Why should it be of interest to you as a perceptive traveler?
Cherish the Ladies tour extensively, in the United States and across the world. Whether you travel often yourself or stay in one spot, chances are you will find opportunities to see them.
On record or in concert, through their work Cherish the Ladies offer opportunities to take your understanding of Ireland to a deeper level, in ways that are both accessible and enjoyable. The current core of the group — Madden on flute and whistle, Mary Coogan on guitar (these two are founding members), Mirella Murray on accordion, Kathleen Boyle on keyboards, and Nollaig Casey on fiddle — are top class, and so are the guests who join them along the way.
There’s a treasure trove of recordings by the band, and current and past members work on other projects too. If you enjoy Celtic Women, or The High Kings, or Riverdance, or drinking songs at the pub, explore the music of these Celtic women, too. It will take you deeper into Ireland. Several of my favorite Cherish the Ladies recordings:
The Back Door: The first album the women recorded as a band, after four years touring on the road. Cathie Ryan is the lead singer and wrote the title song, a piece inspired by undocumented Irish immigrants which is still timely. Also listen out for the lively Coal Quay Market, the stunning My Own /Native Land, and the lively and well named instrumental set called The Dance.
Christmas albums: Cherish the Ladies have recorded three, and they are all excellent. The most recent is Christmas in Ireland. Listen out for Hannah Rarity as lead singer on All the Valley Down, the instrumental Errigal Beauty, and other well and lesser known seasonal selections. Star in the East features lovely guitar work by Mary Coogan across the tracks and the spiritual Rise Up Shepherd and Follow which fits right in with a Patrick Kavanaugh poem spoken by Madden, and the lively and funny Home in Time for Christmas with Michelle Burke singing lead. On Christmas Night is a graceful collection: listen out for the instrumental set Old Apples in Winter and Heidi Talbot singing lead on The Castle of Dromore, as well as some of your favorite seasonal tunes and carols.
If you are recalling, planning, or dreaming of a trip to Ireland, the music of Cherish the Ladies will see you well on your way
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