Joanie Madden celebrates her 50th birthday on board the Norwegian Gem.Irish Voice

It might seem a tall order to celebrate a milestone birthday when you are one of the most popular Irish music entertainers to be found on either side of the Atlantic but if you are Joanie Madden, magical things have a way of happening.

Finding a space big enough on shore to perform and mix and mingle in that personal down to earth style that she is famous for would not be easy. So once again she turned to the high seas on the Norwegian Gem to enable a floating week-long celebration that would make her 50th birthday a memorable one. That half-century mark would serve as the hallmark of the fourth annual Joanie Madden Folk’ N Irish Cruise: The Big Session on the High Seas, organized by the dynamic New York native musician and her Cherish the Ladies sidekicks who are marking the 30th year of CTL as a performing act.

Her first three cruises sailed out of Miami also on the Norwegian Cruise Line, whose liberating “freestyle” customs allow passengers more flexibility for taking their own meals and sitting with whomever they wish at all hours or in normal sit-down mode at a variety of restaurants. This year’s itinerary called for a departure from New York City and its dramatic sail down the Hudson River into New York Bay and out into the Narrows was one of the most popular facets that made the cruise swell to her largest contingent ever of 650 people, including her staff of 66 entertainers.

You can’t emphasize the importance of this approach enough when you become aware that Joanie and her team had organized over 120 hours of programming over seven days featuring one of the more talented entertainment crews you can find on land or sea. Mealtimes were “squeezed in” between 65 events ranging from dance and instrument workshops, lectures, movie screenings to all the great live acts all over the ship. Sustenance was also needed for another 30 hours of “unscheduled” impromptu music sessions for singers and instrumentalists simultaneously over a few decks in between in the early hours immediately after the concerts.

The smaller ship this year (The EPIC used for the cruises in 2013 and 2014 held 4,000 cruisers) with its more accessible elevators quickened the pace and flow, allowing nothing to be missed on the more definable ship traveling at capacity of 2,400 passengers.

There was a mighty armada of entertainers whose versatility and congeniality warmed up the cruise goers from the very first bon voyage party in the Spinnaker Lounge, where Bruce Foley, John Nolan, Tony Corbett and Kevin McHugh found that the dancers needed very little coaxing to test their sea legs out on the dance floor.

As a veteran organizer myself, my instincts tell me from the opening gig what the crowd is like and the pattern that will emerge, and it was obvious that we had an enthusiastic bunch of dancers who loved Irish music of all sorts.

Joanie’s fellow travelers were there to party and enjoy themselves, and the beautiful Spinnaker Deck high atop the ship’s bow with large picture windows provided great views by day and a spacious lounge by night surrounding the circular dance floor that was just large enough to contain the large array of ceili and set dancers, quick step and jive folks and the many magnificent waltzers attracted to this year’s cruise.

These dancers were well-rewarded for their efforts all week because the musicians who worked that room as well as the outdoor decks at the stern and poolside were top class musicians whose mix of music and songs propelled people onto the floor all day and night. This enthusiastic and tireless crowd made dancing classes by Padraig and Roisin McEneany, Marianne MacDonald, Pat Kane and myself, joyous and productive affairs as people were anxious to put their lessons into use all week with such gorgeous music.

And speaking of musicians, it would be hard to know where to start and end because it was a seamless week of great musical performance with great energy and creativity and enjoyment on all sides.

I suppose you must start with the indefatigable birthday girl Joanie and her Cherish the Ladies troupe with regulars Mary Coogan, Mirella Murray and Kathleen Boyle and their special guests Nollaig Casey and Artie McGlynn, Liz Carroll, Donnchadh Gough, Cathie Ryan and Maura O’Connell, all of whom shone on their own as well in their individual sets or other collaborations.

Lighting the stage afire with CTL was the brilliant stepdancing of Donny Golden, John and Heather Timm, Colleen Farrell Martin (and later in the week her husband Matt joined it), Michael Boyle, Claire McKenna and the acrobatic hammerstepper Jason Oremus for a little extra percussive pizzazz.

At the core of any Madden cruise would be some of the finest trad musicians willing to be shanghaied aboard for ceili or session work, so Billy McComiskey, John Nolan, Brian Conway, Dylan Foley, Margie Mulvihill, John Reynolds, Troy MacGillivray, Monsignor Charlie Coen (and his brother Tony) and Josh Dukes starred all week along with the Matt Cunningham Band.

Balladeers and masters of the folk idiom would be an equally important part of the programming, and Madden assembled an all-star cast to fit the bill at all hours in Gabe Donohue, Harry O’Donoghue, Don Stiffe, Tommy Sands, Donnie Carroll, Bruce Foley, Valerie Seale and Gerry Timlin, who in true troubadour fashion worked one end of the ship to the other.

This nautical escapade was enhanced by a number of tireless but talented Newfoundlanders (15 I was told) who followed one of the main acts featured also onboard, the lovely Ennis troupe comprising Maureen and Karen Ennis with Mark Murphy who were on last year’s cruise. Some of those hardy Newfoundlanders were also on Joanie’s cruise back in 2012 like Sean Sullivan, who launched a new CD this year on the Gem.

Also keeping people on their toes were a classy group of veteran singers and musicians in T.R. Dallas (Tom Allen), P.J. Murrihy and Seamus Shannon and Dermot Hegarty and Frank McKenna with their timeless songs of romance and sentimentality so dear to the Irish.

Those craving more contemporary up tempo music were well served by the McLean Avenue Band led by Padraig Allen and also another legendary outfit, Rumor Has it, both of whom also leaned on the versatile Reynolds and

Nolan for added punch.

Capturing the euphoric atmosphere all week was a very hard-working but skillful photographer, Marianne Mangan, whose work lit up Facebook this past week with photography that has given visual evidence to what was most likely Joanie’s finest cruise to date if smiling faces are to be counted.

Those along with the buzz off the ship this year from many satisfied customers will most likely have people ready to book next year’s sailing to Halifax, St. John and Portland on May 29 as soon as the registration opens at

And how did our heroine actually celebrate her 50th birthday on May 26? By dashing up to Boston to rehearse a two-night engagement with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops. Some gal, and here’s to the next 50 years of pure entertainment and Irish craic.