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Cruising with Joanie Madden on the high seas - VIDEOS

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Photo: Frank Rudiger

Norwegian Pearl, Western Caribbean -- Over the 30 years or so that I have enjoyed the music of Joanie Madden and shared many an adventure with her, I have seen her conquer many a challenge while providing entertainment that is second to none around the world.

On dry land she is a force to be reckoned with, but on the bounding waves she proved last week to be a terrific impresario of the ocean as well on her maiden voyage of her cleverly billed “Folk ‘n Irish Cruise:
The Big Session on the High Seas” aboard a stellar cruise ship out of Miami called the Norwegian Pearl.

In a well-matched joint venture with Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) and Tully Travel, Madden brought along many of her most-talented friends in the traditional music sphere for an incomparable week of music, song, relaxation, island hopping and ocean cruising.

Orchestrating seven days of star-studded Irish programming provided great choice and variety that attracted 575 passengers and over 50 Irish entertainers who thoroughly enjoyed being at sea with one another.
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In NCL parlance, freestyle cruising (a feature aboard their 11-ship fleet worldwide) means greater flexibility in meal times and choice of cuisine that suited a wide-range of guests that included many families among the 2,400 plus passengers on board.

They were serviced in magnificent fashion by a crew of 1,075 NCL employees whose mission was to make everyone as comfortable and pleased as possible.

They achieved a high standard according to many cruise veterans that I talked to. I would have no experience myself since this was the very first ocean cruise that I have traveled on.
Joanie Madden (Photo: Frank Rudiger)

Madden and her Cherish the Ladies’ colleague Mirella Murray had a “shakedown cruise” of their own some weeks prior to help plot and plan how the NCL Pearl ship would be used to its maximum by the performers and the Irish audience who came aboard to share the experience January 29-February 5 starting in Miami.

Leading the entertainment bill were Madden’s own 27-year-old troupe Cherish the Ladies and her boy band the Pride of New York who provided great trad music for listening and dancing all week long on various stages and even poolside during the week.

Visiting from abroad were the Black family featuring Mary and Frances Black, Shay Black and Roisin O’Reilly (Mary’s talented daughter). They were accompanied by Bill Shanley and from Scotland, Phil Cunningham.

Ennis songstress Maura O’Connell (living in Nashville since the 1980s) who often appears as a special guest with Cherish added some great songs and craic, as did the great Galway warbler Don Stiffe.

Not only did the marvelous cast of singers enthrall people in the daily stage shows, but they also fueled the mighty singing sessions every night in the ship’s central late night hub, Bar City, conveniently placed in amidships next to the casino.

Impromptu music sessions filled one side of bar alternating with the multi-faceted Irish piano man Gabriel Donahue overseeing the mix of professional singers like the Blacks, Stiffe and the Cork balladeer Donie Carroll, who got many of the late sessions off to a roaring start -- and finish.

Deirdre and Matty Connolly and Hughie Boyle provided some great singing as well all week, and most especially when in the company of an extraordinary group of cruisers from the Canadian Maritimes.

A lively contingent from Newfoundland, the very Irish isle in Canada’s North Atlantic, were part of the traveling guests, and seemingly they sang their way through the entire canon of sea shanties and Irish ballads most nights breaking up just before the first breakfast buffet would be served.

Madden is not only a great performer but a great listener and aficionado of great Irish singers and musicians who also perform lively music outside trad lines.
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To satisfy this sailing faction, the up tempo and solid music from the New York area stalwarts Celtic Cross and Pittsburgh’s Guaranteed Irish had people dancing, clapping and singing along wherever they appeared, and helped round out the entertainment offerings with aplomb.

A key component to any Madden inspired entertainment package is solid stepdancing, as those who have witnessed the Cherish the Ladies shows over their 27 years know.

Aboard the Pearl and visiting from Donegal was Eileen Golden (sister of dance master Donny Golden) who was one of the original step dancers with the Cherish ensemble. She danced with Donny and Cara Butler, who is a Golden protégé as well.

Matching them step for step were the two exceptional Ottawa Valley dancers Jon Pilatzke (Cara’s husband and Chieftains’ dance mate) and Dan Stacey, who toured with Cherish for a few years.

Impossible to overlook over the week dancing at every opportunity was the Quilty sparkplug Martin Galvin, whose stylish Clare set dancing, jiving and waltzing caught the eye of all onboard and who celebrated a birthday as well.

No entertainment roster would be complete without a good comedian, and Madden was able to call upon a longtime favorite in Sligoman Dermot Henry.

Dermot Henry
His act is indescribable, and no verbatim rendering could ever convey the brilliance of his nonsensical musings delivered in his inimitable deadpan style.  His genius comes through his comedy and his songwriting which brings tears of laughter and sentimentality within moments of one another as his act unfolds.

Veteran performer and elegant MC Noel Kingston captured Henry’s zaniness when he quipped,
“Dermot was just one step away from a strait jacket” after one of his hysterical sets.

Given the number of Irish entertainment cruises out there and the high standards set by many of them, including those of Gertrude Byrne, whose 25th cruise is about to take off, it is evident that this is an entertainment niche that is highly popular.

Even though cruising is a good value for money form of tourism, figuring out how to offer the most or specialized entertainment packages is key.  This plays to the savvy and personable Madden’s strengths, because not only is her rolodex of performers deep with seasoned entertainers, but they come with a loyalty and respect for her as an artist who brings out the best qualities of the performers who share a stage with her.

The ability to mingle with the audience afterwards shoulder to shoulder or armchair to armchair in a cozy after-hours session is paramount and one of the key components making this first ocean-going venture such a phenomenal success.

After all, we were a captive audience for seven days, sharing dining tables and decks and the ample facilities onboard, so the camaraderie was evident at all times and reciprocated by artist and audience willingly as the Irish do so well.

The tone was established very early primarily with the Black family, who made a point of inviting folks to sing along with them in their sets.  Even though they are notable singers each in their own right, they emphasize the joy of singing together to keep the tradition alive and passing their heritage on just as their mother and father did with them as they grew up in Dublin.

A couple of days before the cruise would end in Miami, Madden called out to a bearded and balding grey-haired chap to give us a song from his bar-stool perch across the room. The Limerick native delivered a Jimmy McCarthy song, “The Contender,” with such feeling and volume that he silenced the noisy bar area instantly.
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Among those listening just a few feet away from the unknown singer was one of Ireland’s leading balladeers, Paddy Reilly, who complimented your man as a “chanter from the old school.”

Taking the compliment on board, your man would tell Madden at her cocktail party in the Spinnaker Lounge that he was enjoying his best week ever aboard the Norwegian Pearl thanks to all the wonderful singers and musicians who shared so many happy moments with him.

On Saturday morning, the Limerick man Tom Piggott drew his last breath as his heart gave out.

It stunned one and all as the news went round that last day, especially Madden, who had to see to the final details along with the cruise line as well as the last night’s entertainment schedule.

Monsignor Charlie Coen administered last rites and a remembrance at the community Mass later that day as a special collection was taken up to assist a comrade at sea.

The sadness of such an untimely death was quickly matched with the solace that comes from a peaceful passing in one’s sleep surrounded by people on board who shared his last happy days.   Which of us wouldn’t pray for such a fate?

Piggott’s proclamation that this was his best week ever was echoed six hundred fold by the maiden voyagers of the Madden Folk ‘n Irish Cruise and its many brilliant sessions on the high seas by the time we pulled into the Port of Miami Sunday morning.

And the better news is that it will happen again next year, so stay tuned for details in the months ahead as Madden crafts another seaboard adventure with such good company.

Here, catch Joanie Madden and her band Cherish the Ladies perform a Celtic Medley:




Here, watch Dermot Henry and his performance at Pearl River High School:

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