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Lisa Kelly, Lynn Hilary, Máiread Nesbitt, Alex Sharpe and Chloe Agnew of Celtic Woman.

Celtic Woman: The women behind the Irish musical phenomenon

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Lisa Kelly, Lynn Hilary, Máiread Nesbitt, Alex Sharpe and Chloe Agnew of Celtic Woman.

Each member’s singing voice and style is very different, allowing her to put her unique stamp on songs. Despite the predetermined structure, Lynn said that they can’t help but eventually show their personalities a little on stage.

“I know with Máiréad from the beginning she’s always had her style…she has to move with her music and she uses the whole stage. So that’s her being very individual and unique, showing her energy and passion for the music.” Chloë “sparkles…she’s a bubbly person in real life and very funny as well, and she’s smiling the whole time [on stage] because she loves it.” Lynn calls herself “the shy one,” something that she has embraced and that has made her more relaxed on stage.

The girls also have different musical influences – they mentioned everything from the Beach Boys and Michael Jackson to Sinéad O’Connor and Beyoncé – and different styles they enjoy performing, which is often reflected in the selections made by Downes for each album. This time around, the five women are backed up by their usual 6-piece Celtic Woman band and also by a veritable army of collaborators: a 12-member Aontas Choir, 27-piece film orchestra, 20-member Discovery Gospel Choir, 10-member Extreme Rhythm drummers and 11-piece bagpipe ensemble. The result is a beautiful, lush sound that ranges from a roar to a single voice, never losing pace.

Much of the album feels like a cohesive performance piece, the way the songs build and meld into one another.
While the album relies on the tried-and-true method of mixing covers of contemporary and classical songs with original pieces, the songs that beg to be listened to repeatedly are, unsurprisingly, the traditional Irish ones. “Nil S’én La,” which is famously performed by fellow Celtic crossover group Clannad, is reworked as an upbeat tune and given English lyrics that emphasize the song’s title (in English: “It is not day yet”) as a chance to continue celebration. A true testament to the group’s fusion of many musical styles, towards the end there is a funk-inspired bass-beat as the song continues to build in excitement to its halting end. 

Also included is the hauntingly beautiful “My Lagan Love,” which has been covered by everyone from The Corrs to Kate Bush to Van Morrison. Here it is a solo sung by Lynn Hillary, who cites it as one of her favorite songs to perform, and includes a rich string accompaniment.

These songs and “Galway Bay,” another melancholy rumination on the dreamlike coastline of Ireland’s West, describe perfectly the romanticized view that many Americans have long held of Ireland and of Celtic culture. When I asked the women if they thought Celtic Woman fit into an American perception of Celtic Ireland, their answer was a qualified yes. Alex admits, “I guess there is a romantic side to the Celtic Woman image. It does have a very pure and quite a magical, spiritual feel to it. Ireland has been associated so much with its myths and legends…of course, being here, especially in [Dublin], you do have a different take on it, as you do anywhere in the world.” 

Celtic acts like Celtic Woman and Riverdance may continue to be hugely popular for sentimental and nostalgic reasons, but what sets Celtic Woman apart is their acknowledgment and portrayal of the Irish-American connection through their performances. This is perhaps the most poignant message taken from their latest CD, Songs from the Heart, as well as the gratitude of Celtic Woman to their American fan base. Their last tour, the Isle of Hope tour, was named after the song “The New Ground – Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears” which appears on their latest album. Written by Brendan Graham, who also has penned the lyrics for “You Raise Me Up,” the song tells the story of the mass immigration to America by the Irish through the story of Annie Moore, the first girl to walk onto Ellis Island at only fifteen years old. The title and chorus refer not only to America and Ellis Island, an “isle of hope” for millions, but also of the home they left.

“During the Famine days a lot of Irish people immigrated to America looking for opportunities because Ireland was in such an awful state,” Lynn says. “But also they thought someday they might return home to Ireland, that Ireland might be habitable again.” The song ends with the speaker coming to America, imagining herself a successor to Annie Moore. The history of the Irish in America is a long and varied one, and “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears” grasps some of that complexity.

“O, America!” too is a testament to the Irish-American connection and, more generally, a thanks to an enthusiastic American fan base. Composed by Graham and William Joseph, the song is a patriotic oath that in its simplicity reveals something about our shared history: the same hope for opportunity that has defined the American dream has also defined the Irish experience in America. The appeal of these songs and of Celtic Woman is that they represent something familiar but also something still worth dreaming about, a dream of home.

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