Ireland in Song and Tune: Cherish the Ladies

Kerry Dexter's picture

It was a packed hall, a sold out concert, a cold January evening, the second night of the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, Scotland. People from all over Scotland and from other parts of the world were buzzing with excitement and happy anticipation as they waited for the women of Cherish the Ladies to take the stage.


Cherish the Ladies, Celtic Connections


Take the stage they did, with fiddle, flute, guitar, piano, accordion, and bodhran leaping into a a lively set of tunes that immediately drew the audience into the tone of the evening. This unfolded next through band leader and flute and whistle player Joanie Madden’s humorous tale of how a snowy day in childhood and as an adult worked its way into her music. Songs, stories, jigs, reels, hornpipes, and an explosion of dancers across the stage lighted up the evening for more than three hours of energy, sharing of Irish heritage, and connection with the audience. After an ending that involved Madden light footing it across the stage with the dancers, singer Deirdre Connolly stepping forth to show off her dancing chops as well, repeated calls for encores, and the whole audience on its feet clapping and cheering as they let the band go, the hall still pulsed with energy, and a warm glow of connection and enjoyment. Kids tried out their own versions of step dancing on the walkway; friends compared notes on what music they’d liked best as they gathered up their coats and bags. Wrapping his scarf around his neck as he prepared to head out into the January night, a grey haired gent shared a mile-wide grin as he said, “It just doesn’t gte any better than that, does it?”



“We love coming here, it’s the highlight of our winter every year,” Madden had said in an earlier conversation. “And to see that packed hall and just feel the energy and the joy from the audience... but it didn’t start out that way. When we first came here, years ago, nobody knew who we were.”


No one knew who they were when Madden was asked to organize a concert of women in Irish music nearly thirty years ago in New York City. Scholar and musician Mick Moloney had asked Madden if she had noticed all the women winning All Ireland titles and other awards, but yet being mostly invisible in touring bands at the time. Madden hadn’t, although she’d won All Irelands herself. “I was more chuffed to be an Irish American winning,” she recalled. “It was more about, could you play?” She agreed to put the concert together, “but I thought no one would come,” she recalls.



Turned out there were lines around the block for that first gig, and it provided the spark for a band that would still be going strong twenty seven years on, a group which has traveled the world many times over, been a part of the solo careers of top artists including Eileen Ivers, Cathie Ryan, Aoife Clancy, and Heidi Talbot. There’s a street in the Bronx in New York named after Madden and the band, near where Madden grew up, the daughter of parents who had come from Ireland. Cherish the Ladies have won top awards and accolades and are in demand on tour. At the beginning, though, things were different.


With the recent chart topping, million selling recordings of the group Celtic Women, the international careers of superstars Mary Black, Sinead O'Connor, and Maura O’Connell, with Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh fronting the internationally renown band Altan and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh taking Irish singing around the world as lead singer of the band Danu, it might be a touch difficult to believe that putting together a band comprising Irish women musicians would be that risky, or that finding bookings for them would be that difficult. But in 1987, it was.


“People just didn’t believe that we could play or sing, they just didn’t think we’d be be any good -- or draw anybody to come listen once we got there, if they booked us,” says Cathie Ryan, who was the original lead singer and bodhran player with the group. “They thought we were a novelty act -- the Irish Spice Girls," Madden recalls, laughing. Doubling and tripling up in hotel rooms, rattling cross country in cars and vans to make gigs, and night by night, day by day, word began to spread that Cherish the Ladies were the real deal, a band that would leave you laughing, leave you crying, dry your tears and send you off with a new -- or renewed -- respect for authentic Irish music. A new respect, too, for these women who made it.



That is still the case, twenty seven years, fifteen recordings, thousands of concert dates and thousands of miles traveled on. This winter, Joanie Madden will be hosting a Caribbean cruise with many top Irish musicians, and Cherish the Ladies will be returning to Glasgow for a performance that will mark their twentieth appearance at Celtic Connections. It should be a night, indeed.


If you’re feeling in a seasonal mood, two of those fifteen recordings are Christmas-themed.




Kerry Dexter is Music Editor for Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com

You may find more of Kerry’s work at Music Road, and at  Journey to Scotland, Perceptive Travel, Ireland and the Americas, National Geographic Traveler, and other places online and in print.



All photos courtesy and copyright Kerry Dexter