(Celtic Woman 2015, from left: Eabha McMahon, Susan McFadden, Mairead Carlin and Mairead Nesbitt)
By Bill DeYoung
Each of the four ladies in Celtic Woman has her own, specialized talent. Eabha McMahon, the Irish singing group’s newest member (her first performance with Celtic Woman was just this past September) is an acknowledged expert and master soloist in Sean Nos, one of the oldest (and most difficult) forms of Irish a capella vocal music.
For starters, Sean Nos (it literally means “old style”) is performed entirely in Gaelic, the traditional language of Ireland.
“I was brought up totally immersed in the Irish language – even though I’m from Dublin, where that’s not normal!” McMahon laughs. “We didn’t speak English in my house until I was 6. We spoke Irish. My mum would only speak Irish to us. Then I went to an Irish primary school, where we only spoke Irish. It was there that the Sean Nos started, because we were introduced to that as our form of music. We didn’t learn any English songs at all.”
Taking notice of exceptional talent, her teachers encouraged 5-year-old Eabha (pronounced like “Ava”) to join the local Sean Nos choir. She sang on a children’s record at age 9. At 13, she won the first of many competition finals on the national level.
“Once I started singing, I remember that I loved it more than any other music,” says McMahon. “Even when I was listening to pop music on the radio, I preferred Sean Nos music. I just think that there’s something very tribal about it. It’s deep-rooted in us, in the Irish people, whether they know it or not.”
She was 15 when she was invited to join the choral ensemble Anuna, becoming its youngest-ever member. Within a matter of weeks, she taped a special for American public television and traveled throughout Europe.
McMahon took a break from singing professionally to attend college, where she earned a BA in Human Rights Law (an issue that she is passionate about). Her studies, she explains, were all in Gaelic.
She insists it wasn’t a fallback, a way to ensure a “real job” once she’s too old to stand onstage and sing.
“You’re never too old!” McMahon laughs. “My Granny is the most amazing thing. She sent me a video the other day. Her piano just got tuned, and she sent me a video from my uncle’s IPhone of her singing ‘Love Song,’ and she wanted me to tell her what I thought. So I don’t think you’re ever too old.”
In fact, she was getting ready to make a solo album when the call came in from the 10-year-old Celtic Woman – they needed a new fourth to record and tour with Mairead Carlin, Susan McFadden and fiddler Mairead Nesbitt. “I really wanted to go back on the road again,” says McMahon. “So when Celtic Woman called me, I was just so delighted. It was the best day of my life.” In Dublin, the quartet taped a PBS special and recorded the new Destiny album, just before flying out for a series of Australian dates.
The Celtic Woman show, which includes a full Irish band, step dancers and – in the case of the current holiday tour – a small orchestra, is a musically magnificent, visually vibrant salute to Irish artistry. It’s lush, choreographed and beautifully staged, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the warmth and depth of feeling in centuries of Irish music.
Why does this music resonate so strongly with people all over the world?
“I think, in people that came from Ireland or maybe just know of the Irish culture, it sits somewhere inside them,” McMahon believes. “You can see people getting emotional in front of you as you’re singing an old Irish song.
“Maybe it’s the simplicity of it all that brings emotion to people. Because somewhere in them, they’ve heard that before. And it reminds them of home, whether it was their grandmother’s home or their great-grandmother’s home.”
Celtic Woman: Home For Christmas – The Symphony Tour
Wednesday, Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m.
The Mahaffey Theater, 400 First Street S., St. Petersburg
Tickets and parking here
Celtic Woman official website here