Celtic Woman: The women behind the Irish musical phenomenon


In 2008, Celtic Woman’s album The Greatest Journey Essential Collection debuted at number one on Billboard’s World Music chart. Three of their albums combined have held the number one position for ninety consecutive weeks. Now, having sold over 50 million records worldwide, the multi-platinum Irish darlings of PBS are releasing their fifth studio album on January 26th.

Celtic Woman seems to be an unstoppable force, but few knew that the group would see more than a night of success. Originally, Celtic Woman was set to perform a one-night show with members Chloë Agnew, Órla Fallon, Lisa Kelly, Méav Ní Mhaolchatha and Máiréad Nesbitt. None of these singers had worked together before or knew each other, but under the musical direction of David Downes, they performed to a sold-out audience for the first time in 2004 for PBS Television in Dublin.

Despite changes in the lineup since then (according to statements released by Celtic Woman, Ní Mhaolchatha and Fallon both left to pursue solo careers), the quintet has continued to captivate audiences, specifically American ones, up into the new decade.

The answer as to why American audiences have responded so enthusiastically to Celtic Woman has not always been clear. When I asked Lynn Hilary, who joined the group in 2007, why she thought American audiences continue to be so responsive to Celtic Woman, she admitted that at first, she wasn’t sure. “I didn’t really understand it for a long time, that they would react in such a way,”  she said. “They’d be crying and on their feet every night applauding us. But American people really identify with Ireland, and a lot of Americans have Irish in their ancestry, so Celtic Woman allows them to re-identify with their roots and gives them a feeling of belonging.”

Alex Sharpe, who became a permanent member in 2009 for the Isle of Hope tour, added, “I think without America, to be honest, Celtic Woman would not be the success that they are. It was only supposed to be a one-night special, but Americans have taken us into their hearts and really embraced Celtic Woman.”

It’s no secret that America has had a long-standing relationship with Ireland, politically, culturally, and of course musically. With the Irish diaspora in America at about 45 million people, there is a secure space for a crossover group like Celtic Woman to thrive. Perhaps no one knows this better than David Downes, the creator of Celtic Woman and former musical director of Riverdance.

Building upon the massive success of Riverdance in the U.S., Downes decided to return to Celtic-influenced music and dance but this time in the format of an all-female lineup, similar to that of pop groups like Girls Aloud and the Spice Girls. The structure, however, is where the similarities end – the members of Celtic Woman are trained in everything from classical to theatrical to traditional Irish singing, with formally trained Máiréad Nesbitt on fiddle.

Máiréad, Lynn, and Lisa had stints on Michael Flatley’s dance shows, Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, while Alex Sharpe began her career playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz at Olympia Theatre in Dublin. Chloë Agnew, the youngest member at 20 years old, got her big break when she recorded a single with David Downes shortly after 9/11 to help American and Afghanistani children and raised over 20,000 pounds.

When they aren’t touring or making promotional appearances, the women of Celtic Woman spend time with their families and often work on other interests. Chloë, for instance, completed high school “with flying colors” in the early years of Celtic Woman and is now taking an online college course in child psychology. Lisa, who had her third child, Ellie, in 2008, balances life on tour with family time. “A lot of hard work goes into the balance of it, but I’m very lucky because I have a huge support group [her children] with me on the road.” She humbly added, “But it’s no harder than balancing any other career with three children, it’s just that I have to do it in a hotel room and on a bus. They enjoy it and that’s the main thing. They’re learning and seeing places they might never see again.”

Lynn Hilary released a solo album in 2008 called Take Me With You and Máiréad Nesbitt is currently working on her second solo album. 

With lives as full and varied as these, it’s hard to see how five women with different personalities come together to make such harmonious music. The members have resounding praise for David Downes in this respect, who controls the look, sound, and production of Celtic Woman in a way that is extremely polished but allows the musicians’ individuality to come through. “Each of the girls are an entity in themselves and I think that’s what makes it personal for an audience,” said Alex. “The fans have built up a relationship with these girls and they have their own favorites.”