Irish Eclectic

Cherish the Ladies, and a Brian Friel Play, All in One Month

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By Brian McGowan

A recent Saturday evening saw a sold-out crowd at the iconic Tarrytown Music Hall, welcoming the holiday spirit with an awesome performance by Irish-American band Cherish the Ladies in their annual “A Celtic Christmas” tribute.

With a solid assemblage of magnificently-talented musicians, the band delivered!  The two-hour performance presented a careful blend of traditional Christmas tunes and songs, all delivered with a strong Celtic twist, as well as masterful vocal performances by singers Don Stiffe and Kate Purcell.

If I had to pick one tune from the evening as my favorite, it would be “The Waves of Kilkee.” Written by Joanie Madden and Brian Keane, the tune was inspired by the wild coast of County Clare, Ireland. Madden’s tin whistle playing evokes the mist and wonder of this magical place like few other tunes can do.

Delighting audiences for almost four decades, the ensemble is led by founding member Madden, born of Irish parents in the Bronx. An impresario on tin whistle and flute, Madden, with roots in Counties Clare and Galway, learned traditional Irish music (“trad”) at her father’s knee.

She proudly displays her individuality in every tune she plays, as well as in her use of a concert flute versus the more traditional Irish flute. Few performers would attempt the feat, but Madden is able to capture every nuance of “trad” without sounding like a misplaced orchestra performer.

Like many bands, the group has undergone changes in the time it has been extant.  Currently consisting of Madden and fellow founder Mary Coogan, another native New Yorker, the band also features Irish-born Mirella Murray and Nollaig Casey and Scottish-born Kathleen Boyle. Over the years, the band has given launch to an impressive number of famed musicians and singers, including Aoife Clancy, Winifred Horan, Eileen Ivers, Liz Knowles and Cathie Ryan.

The Grammy-nominated and Emmy Award-winning band has been critically acclaimed since its inception in January 1985, when Irish traditional music maven Mick Moloney sought to break the gender barrier then characterizing much of “trad.” Irish music was largely the domain of male-dominated bands. The concept of an all-female ensemble was quite a departure from the norm.

An equally bold departure was to have the music played exclusively by Irish-Americans. At its birth, Cherish the Ladies had not a single Irish-born musician in its ranks. This was an equally bold departure for many who firmly believed that to play Irish music one must have first drawn breath in Ireland.

Madden and team quickly buried that myth, proving that Irish music was both gender- and border-neutral. For almost 39 years they have produced and performed some of the best music known in the Irish traditional music circle.

During December, the band is on stage in the Northeast for 15 nights, its second U.S. tour this year, with performances in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Ticket information is available at Give it a visit and see what’s lined up.

Another event I am looking forward to is a late December performance of Brian Friel’s play “Translations” at the Irish Repertory Theater in Manhattan (

As part of a larger effort called “The Friel Project,” the play, first produced in 1980, is described on the theater’s website: “In 1833 Baile Beag, County Donegal, a hedge schoolmaster gives his Irish-speaking students a classical education, versing them in Ancient Greek and Latin – but not in English. Meanwhile, the British Army arrives to create a new map of Ireland that will ‘standardize’ the Irish place-names to English. When the schoolmaster’s son returns home from Dublin to serve as the Army’s translator, the fate of the Irish locals and their native tongue is cast into uncertainty. The play is a captivating exploration of the power of language to kindle romance, ignite tensions, and inflame the human heart’s yearning to understand.”

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

Or, as they say in Ireland, “Nollaig Shona agus Athbhliain faoi Mhaise Duit!”

Longtime Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx, and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at He is the author of three books: “Thunder at Noon,” about the Battle of Waterloo; “Love, Son John,” about World War II; and “Island Prize,” about the Revolutionary War in 1776 New York. All are available at

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