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Arts and Music

Gaels Gone Wild

How Celtic Woman boils Irish culture

down for the masses

If the mix of cable-knit sweaters and caps, pennywhistle, reels and jigs are your touch points for Irish music, Celtic Woman just might throw you. Consisting of four colleens (three vocalists and one fiddler), this quartet has been selling millions of records and raising boatloads of cash for PBS during its annual fundraisers ever since the then-fivesome was created by Susan Browne and David Downes in 2004.

With the latter being the former musical director of Riverdance, it’s no surprise that Celtic Woman is a glittery distillation of Irish culture thanks to a Vegas-worthy stage show packed with costume changes, step dancing, bagpipes, a choir and orchestration. Along with soloists Chloe [Agnew], Lisa [Lambe] and Susan [McFadden], it’s a concept and presentation that Celtic Woman founding member/fiddler Mairead [pronounced like parade with an m] Nesbitt sees as an escape for the group’s millions of fans.

“There’s a lot [happening] onstage. Each of the soloists has a different style, and then we come together for the ensemble numbers,” Nesbitt said from the group’s latest stop in Moncton, Canada. “It takes people through a journey for the two hours that runs through Celtic, classical and contemporary music. It’s a big visual treat as well as a treat for the ears. It does take people away from the everyday worries.”

To be sure, there are many who bristle at the notion that this is Irish music. Of the 85 responses to Cecily Kellogg’s Uppercase Woman blog posting entitled, “Celtic Woman, Oh How I Hate Thee,” most were overwhelmingly negative, with a woman named Leslie posting, “I love traditional Irish music and there are lots of current performers playing wonderfully updated variations too but what they do is New Age-ified dreck without any redeeming value…”

But for Nesbitt, who has been playing fiddle since she was 6, Celtic Woman doesn’t claim to represent Irish music. Instead, she sees it as a hybrid of styles despite the fact that “Danny Boy,” “Carrickfergus” and “The Water Is Wide” often make it onto set lists.

“Celtic Woman is classified as ‘World Music,’ but it’s a mix from Celtic and contemporary to classical. We each have our own different style, and then we all come together for the ethereal blend [of genres] that Celtic Woman has,” the fiddler explained. “There is a great kind of storytelling in our music. The Irish are very good at storytelling in their songs, and the melodies are very melodic, for lack of a better word. It’s very accessible to people. The actual arrangements and new compositions by our music director and composer David Downes have that common thread through the whole journey of the show.”

In many ways, the Celtic Woman phenomenon is not unlike what St. Patrick’s Day has become—a joyous celebration of Irish culture that’s now far removed from its roots, which in the case of the latter is as a day of religious observation.

But for those who grouse about what’s become of traditional Irish music, it’s a spirit of inclusion that’s endemic to both that Nesbitt embraces, particularly when it comes to that day of green beer and shamrocks.

“You know, you don’t have to be of any religion to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. And it’s actually gotten like that in Ireland in the last five to seven years. It doesn’t matter what background you’re from, and I myself think that’s better,” Nesbitt declared. “I think it’s brilliant how you celebrate it over here [because] everybody wants to be Irish for a day.”

Celtic Woman appears on March 23 at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts, 720 Northern Blvd., Greenvale. For more information, call 516-299-3100 or visit

Meet Celtic Woman

Mairead Nesbitt – The daughter of a fiddle-playing mother and multi-instrumentalist father, Nesbitt started out playing piano at the age of 4, later switching to fiddle when she was 6. The former All-Ireland fiddle champion has worked with Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor and Emmylou Harris along with playing on the soundtracks to Riverdance, Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames.

Chloe Agnew – One of the original members along with Mairead Nesbitt, Agnew started singing in the group at the tender age of 14. Also the product of parents who are performing artists, she cut her first two David Downes-produced recordings between the ages of 12 and 14. She’s since collaborated with Anne Murray and Chris DeBurgh.

Lisa Lambe – The actress/vocalist joined Celtic Woman in 2011 having starred in numerous title roles in a variety of theatrical productions in Ireland, Europe and the UK. She has been a featured soloist with Ireland’s RTE Concert Orchestra and a Best Actress Nominee at the Irish Theater Awards.

Susan McFadden- A Celtic Woman member since 2012, McFadden has an extensive musical theater background. In addition to playing Sandy in the West End production of Grease, she’s played lead roles in two other major revivals—Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Legally Blonde.

- Dave Gil de Rubio, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it