How I discovered Irish Music: A St. Patrick’s Day Post

Four-leaved_clover2I’m often asked why I love St. Patrick’s Day and all things Irish and Celtic. “Are you Irish, Laura?” is often the query. I do have a bit of Irish blood, but that’s far from the reason why I celebrate Ireland all year round. One of the elements I enjoy the most about Irish culture is the music, and here’s the story of how I first encountered it and the four artists who have become lifelong favorites.

1) Finding ALTAN

CelticOdysseyMy sister inadvertently introduced me to a lot of things that quickly became passions for me. She had a tape, I think made by a college friend, that had the Celtic Odyssey album on it (Narada Collection). It’s a sampler of songs from a bunch of different Celtic music artists, and I fell in love with it almost immediately. I had recently just read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and this album evoked all kinds of feelings and imagery from the book that had just changed my life. It was like the two were meant to go together.

Of all the songs on that album, my favorite was “Dónal Agus Mórag” by a band named Altan. It wasn’t even in English. I didn’t have a clue what the Irish lyrics were saying (the homemade tape just had the song names, no liner notes), but it captivated me. I began searching for this band and what other work they had done.

Enter: the Celtic Fields store. A store with Celtic and Irish-themed things opened in a mall near my home, and it quickly became my favorite place to go. The 1990s saw a huge influx of interest in all things Celtic and I was luckily standing in the right place when the tide came in. Yes (for those who remember them), Riverdance and Lord of the Dance were part of my journey too. It was at the Celtic Fields store that I found 3 other audiocassette tapes by Altan: “The Red Crow,” “Harvest Storm,” and “Island Angel” – and bought them immediately. I also bought some “Teach yourself Irish” tapes, but that’s another story…

Altan’s albums did not disappoint, I enjoyed scouring the liner notes that came with them, and trying to decipher the mysteries of the Irish language in the included lyrics. Eventually I somehow nabbed a catalog of their distributor: Green Linnet Records. This was my gateway to traditional Irish music. I found artists Eileen Ivers, Cherish the Ladies, Déanta, Andy Stewart, and more. I used my scanty funds as a high school student to buy more albums, and raided the public library, which luckily had plenty of CDs for these and other Celtic music artists to explore.

altan.jpgAnd what happened to Altan in my life, you ask? Well, naturally I bought all their albums, and continue to get each new one that comes out. I’ve also seen them 3 times live, which is always a supreme joy when I get a chance. My first Altan concert was February 1, 1999 (thanks parents!). I wrote an excited diary entry in green ink documenting the play list from the concert, audience reactions, the stage lighting and ambiance, and the way the band and audience interacted. High school Laura was disappointed all the Altan t-shirts were sold out, and reflected: “I really have more appreciation for the other members of the band on accordion, guitar, and bouzouki now that I actually got to see them in action and their parts in the mold of music.” Interestingly enough, that same diary entry records that I got my acceptance letter to Wheaton College that day. It gets a half-sentence mention. At the end.

My second time seeing Altan was in Ann Arbor, MI during grad school in the spring of 2005, but the third time seeing the band remains my favorite. It was on March 12, 2011 at the Ramsey Auditorium at Fermilab. I was there with friends good enough to put up with my, shall we say “excited?”, demeanor. We had great seats to see the band well and their hands as they made magic happen on their instruments. After the concert they said they’d stick around for a meet & greet and to sign albums. I had bought the lead singer’s solo album, Imeall by Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh (beastly difficult to get with limited distribution), and wanted to get her signature.

I was the last in line, and when I stepped up to her I got to say: “You played my favorite song tonight during the concert!” “Which one?” she asked, with her characteristic smile. “Dónal Agus Mórag” I said, hoping my pronunciation passed. “Oh! We just started playing that again!” she said. (Lucky me!) “Your music has been a huge blessing in my life, and I’ve been a fan for many years,” I added. “What a sweet thing to say!” said Mairéad, giving me a hug. I then had my photo taken with the whole band. “Go in amongst the gentlemen in the middle” Mairéad said, waving me over. That photo is framed and gives me the largest grin every time I see it sitting on my bookshelf at home. And yes, CD cover and program were both signed by Mairéad and the band.


2) Finding ENYA

EnyaMy first encounter with Enya was a very strange occurrence indeed. Well, the first encounter I enjoyed. My sister also had an Enya song on one of her mix tapes, but it was “Cursum Perficio,” one of what I now affectionately call her “angry-sounding Latin songs” and not to my taste. No, I had been watching an episode of Northern Exposure (one of my favorite shows) and was poised to turn off the TV because Baywatch was coming on, when I heard the most amazing music ever. Some lady in a blue swimsuit was doing a slow-motion complex dive through the air, but the music filling the scene was a sound of beauty like I’d never heard before, and I was transfixed. What was this mysterious music with the ethereal singer? It was Enya’s song “Caribbean Blue,” and it remains my favorite song by her to this day. Do you know how hard it was to find that out in the pre-internet days? Well, it was hard.

My first Enya album was Watermark, and “Orinoco Flow” wowed me just like everyone else. When I got to Shepherd Moons, I was very intrigued to see that one song title was “Lothlórien.” Good heavens! Could Enya be a Tolkien fan too?? Turns out she is, as the world found out when she scored two songs for The Fellowship of the Ring film in 2001. And what else did I learn after some investigation? She had been on keyboards back in the day with Altan and came from the same part of Ireland as them. Whaaaatt?!

Another favorite early Enya memory is when I spotted a VHS tape in a store (Best Buy?) that was of her music videos. “Music videos aren’t generally very entertaining,” my mother warned me, “you won’t want to watch it more than once.” But, this is Enya. I mean, I couldn’t imagine how her videos couldn’t be good. They were probably filmed in secluded forests and ended with Enya walking up a rainbow into the sky, right? Well, my high school wishes were pretty close to that. The thought that went into the videos is evident, and the visual imagery is stunning. Her videos are amazing, and although I now have a DVD with all of them on it, the VHS tape still sits proudly on my shelf as my first introduction to the visualization of her music. I’ve also gotten into artist Maxfield Parrish thanks to her videos and album art.

And Enya’s music is one of the two artists I can listen to on infinite repeat, without weariness, and whenever I need to concentrate or relax. The other artist? Owl City, who by the way loves Enya too, and has said that he uses a lot of her chord progressions and techniques in his own music. Of course he does.


The VisitSo my sister had this mix tape made for her by a friend…seeing a trend here? This time the song was “The Lady of Shalott” off of Loreena McKennitt‘s album The Visit. I was familiar with the Tennyson poem from Anne of Green Gables, which made me predisposed to like the song. What I wasn’t prepared for was that it was 11 minutes long! A good portion of the poem was used, beautifully set to music, and Loreena’s haunting voice had me hooked at once. I got the album from the library, and the rest is history.

I used Loreena’s version of “The Two Trees” for my report on Yeats in my junior year high school English class. I also begged my senior year high school English teacher to include “The Lady of Shalott” poem in our studies of English literature even though there wasn’t time for it in the schedule. She did, much to my delight.

Had the pleasure of seeing Loreena live at the Lyric Opera in Chicago on May 1, 2007. She’s just as good live as she is on her recordings, and I wrote a thorough concert report to capture every memory from the experience. Hoping to see her again soon…she has a new album coming out after all!

4) Finding THE CORRS

Forgiven_Not_Forgotten.jpgIn the summer of 2001 I traveled to Ireland for the first time as a college student with the Wheaton in England program through Wheaton College. You can maybe, just maybe, gauge how excited I was on that trip after reading the post up until now. I booked it to the Irish Music Hall of Fame and Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, and was so excited to hear live music and explore. Amongst the rows of albums I thumbed through at the ITMA, and the CDs available for sale in stores, the album Forgiven, Not Forgotten by The Corrs caught my eye.

The band is a set of 4 siblings who have been trained in traditional Irish music, but splice it with pop-style music. It was, and remains, a very fun and dynamic combination. Soon I was shoving my headphones into friends’ ears as we bumped along the Irish roads in our big coach bus saying: “Listen to this new band I just found. Aren’t they great?!” Some people on the trip had heard The Corrs’ popular single “Breathless,” which led me to more of their albums, which I looked up in the internet labs and cafés when we were lucky enough to have such luxuries of web access. I remember sitting in my St. Anne’s College dorm room in Oxford jamming to the Talk on Corners album on my discman.

One of my favorite Corrs memories though was long after at my friend Elizabeth’s wedding. She and I had been on the Wheaton in England trip together and she had a certain favorite Corrs song that was a very peppy Irish jig she enjoyed dancing to. Without telling anyone but the DJ, we played the song at her wedding reception and she suddenly leapt into an Irish jig dance with several bridesmaids. It was magic.

So that, friends, is my tale of Irish & Celtic music discovery, and what a marvelous journey it has been! I’m always up for trying out new artists. Can’t wait to see what else is just around the corner!



Postcard I got in Ireland.


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