“This music is the real deal. Really, it’s just amazing where it’s taken us.” That’s whistle and flute player Joanie Madden talking, and she’s speaking about Irish traditional music and the group Cherish the Ladies, the internationally renown band which is now going on more than twenty years bringing Celtic music and dance to audiences around the world.

“At first, it was just meant to be a couple of concerts of Irish women in music, just in New York City, “ said Madden, who was asked to host those 1983 shows by Mick Moloney, musician and scholar of Irish culture who’d been impressed by the somewhat underground and under appreciated status of top Irish women musicians and their contributions to the music. “I really didn’t think anybody would come,” Madden said, “but they sold out, and hundreds were turned away.” Madden, who is at far left in group photo above, and guitarist Mary Coogan, at far right, are the two who remain from the touring group which evolved.

At first, there were several short runs funded by grant money but when word came that those funds were no longer available, the women decided to go it on their own a nd see if they could make livings with their music. They did, though it wasn’t an easy life. “I wish we’d had computers back then. I was on the phone all the time!” said Madden, who booked the gigs — which meant finding venues and selling promoters on the idea. “At first, people thought we were some kind of band put together for novelty,” she said, and in Ireland it was even more discouraging. “ ‘You’re American, how good could you be?’ “ Madden recalled people saying.

Quite good, as it happened. The first touring band had several all Ireland instrumental champions, including Madden and fiddler Eileen Ivers, as well as singer Cathie Ryan, in the photograph at center above, who would later on in her career be recognized as one of the top Irish voices of the century. At the time, though, it was a group of daughters of Irish immigrants making their way in the world of music much as their parents had made their way in a strange new geographical country. They toured constantly, building a stellar reputation and silencing the early critics by engaging stage presence and powerful musicianship. “We had to keep going, though, touring all the time, because the fees just weren’t there,” Madden recalled. “We’d be on the road two hundred to two hundred fifty dates a year.”

Over the years Cherish the Ladies (the band takes its their name from an old Irish jig) has seen the contributions of a number of world class musicians, including Solas founder Winifred Horan, shown above on right, 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; and Riverdance fiddler and Immigrant Soul band leader Eileen Ivers. The current ensemble, in addition to Madden and Coogan, includes Roisin Dillon on fiddle and Mirella Murray on accordion. Lead vocalsit Heidi Talbot has recently decided to pursue a solo career with the release of her second solo disc, In Love + Light. “People come and stay for five years, or eight, or ten, and I hate it when anybody leaves,” Madden said, “ 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.”

They still tour quite a bit too, though these days the gigs might as likely be arts centers and symphony halls as school rooms and saml club. Recently, the current group headlinesd at the Milwaukee Irish Festival. where they met up with old friends Clancy, Ryan and others, and shared a reunion concert one rainy afternoon.

“We plan on doing this band and this music for a long, long time, “ Madden reflected, “to be true to it, to be good to it, and hopefully leave the music off in a better place than where we started.”

Cherish the Ladies most recent album Woman of the House

and their first one

The Back Door

Kerry Dexter. former folk music editor at VH1.com and contributing writer at the folk and world music magazine Dirty Linen, also writes about music, the arts, and creative practice at Music Road

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