Cherish These Ladies: another aspect of Celtic women's music

by Kerry Dexter /
Kerry Dexter's picture
Mar 16, 2009 / 3 comments


Before there was the widely popular show known as Celtic Women, there was Cherish the Ladies. Cherish was begun, in fact, because in the early 1980s, though there were many fine Celtic women musicians, they were not all that widely known, in America or Ireland itself.


Cherish the Ladies - celtic music - 2007

Cherish the Ladies - Joanie Madden on left


“It was just meant to be a couple of concerts of Irish women in music, just in New York City, “ says Joanie Madden, all Ireland flute champion and native New Yorker who was asked to host those 1983 shows. As it turned out, the shows sold out and a recording sparked by the shows won an award for best folk album of the year. Several short tours, funded mainly by grants for heritage music, found success, but then the grant moneys dried up. Madden, who’d become the band leader, asked her fellow musicians if they’d like to try making a go of it on their own. They all agreed, and now more than twenty years later, Cherish the Ladies is still going strong, selling out clubs and concert halls and appearing with orchestras and at festivals.


Cathie Ryan

Cathie Ryan

It wasn’t always an easy road. In addition to balancing families and touring, the women ran into skepticism about their skills and knowledge of Irish music, because of their gender and their places of birth. In the early years, all were first generation daughters of Irish immigrants. “At first, people thought we were some kind of band put together for novelty,” Madden recalled, and in Ireland it was even more discouraging. “‘You’re American, how good could you be?’ “ Madden recalled people saying.

Top notch, actually, which became apparent as soon as people started listening. The first touring band had several all Ireland instrumental champions, including Madden and fiddler Eileen Ivers, as well as singer Cathie Ryan, who would later on in her career be recognized as one of the top Irish voices of the century. They toured constantly, and eventually in 1992, released their first album, The Back Door, which showcased the spot on musicianship as well as a selection of tunes and songs in Irish and English, both from the tradition and from contemporary sources. That’s a mix that still holds through their most recent releases, On Christmas Night and Woman of the House.


Cherish the Ladies - fiddler Winfred Horan

Fiddler Winfred Horan

Over the years Cherish the Ladies (who take the name from an old Irish jig) has seen the contributions of a number of world class musicians, including Solas founder Winifred Horan, a fiddler whose background includes classical and folk experiences, singer and guitarist Aoife Clancy, who has built a strong solo career and identity while carrying on her well known family name; Ryan, who continues to win world class recognition for her singing and song writing in the US and Europe as a solo performer; Riverdance fiddler and Immigrant Soul band leader Eileen Ivers, and Heidi Talbot, who is fast establishing herself as a gifted interpreter of folk and contemporary song in her solo work.

“People come and stay for five years, or eight, or ten, and I hate it when anybody leaves,” Madden says, “but it’s inevitable with a band, especially with one going this long. People have their own careers to pursue, and when you’re in a band you are restricted from that. But I’ve always managed to find great women to replace the great women who’ve gone. Right now we’re making great music. I think it’s some of the best we’ve ever made.”


Cherish the Ladies - Aoife Clancy

Aoife Clancy


Those who’ve seen Cherish will no doubt agree. Those who’ve seen the band, and the recent work of Winifred Horan, Eileen Ivers, Aoife Clancy, Cathie Ryan, and Heidi Talbot will also know that the currently popular Celtic Women stage show is only just the slightest glimpse of the breadth, depth, and grace of the music Irish women are making.

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Kerry Dexter is the Music Editor for Wandering Educators.

Kerry's credits include VH1, CMT, the folk music magazine Dirty Linen, Strings, and The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas. She also writes about the arts and creative practice at Music Road.. You may reach her at music[at]

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