The all-woman Celtic supergroup Cherish the Ladies has been wowing audiences around the world with a mix of traditional music, song, and dance for nearly four decades. Like most performers, the members are emerging from a quiet few years as the Covid-19 pandemic put paid to live performances, but now the ladies are keen to get back on the road, starting with an all-star line-up in the Town Hall Theatre in Galway later this month. Here, band leader and champion flutist and whistle player Joanie Madden talks about the history of the group, how they weathered the pandemic, and what the audience can look forward to at their upcoming Galway concert.
Cherish the Ladies have been touring and recording for the past 37 years, and according to Madden their emergence in what is traditionally a male-dominated genre was a matter of chance.
"It’s a fluke that we got together," she said of their 1985 debut. "Our great friend Dr Mick Maloney was blown away by the female musicians coming up at the time, because he had done so much research on female musicians in America. In the Philadelphia Irish musicians' society there were 3,200 members in over 100 years, and not one of them was a woman. All of a sudden in the late seventies, early eighties, women were coming to the forefront, not just playing music but winning All Ireland championships.
"He thought we should put a concert together featuring women musicians, and he called me up to help organise it," she added. "He said, we need to come up with the name, and I said what about Cherish the Ladies? It’s a traditional Irish jig that has been around for years, I never thought we’d be stuck with it for 37 years."
More concerts followed, and an eponymous album which was chosen by the US Library of Congress as the best folk album of the year, which in turn led to a grant which funded a tour of 12 cities around the US. And the women found they loved it.
'We’ve all been bitten by the traditional bug'
"We had so much fun, and I just called up the girls and said, do you want to see if I can get a few more shows?" Madden recalled. "I ended up sitting at a desk for 12 hours a day making calls. And it started from there. Now we’re on the road 37 years, and we've probably played over 4,000 concerts around the world and recorded 18 albums."
The daughter of Irish emigrants, Madden was born in New York and grew up listening to traditional music. Her father Joe, a native of Portumna, was an All Ireland champion accordion player, and traditional music was ever present in the home and at social events. She was taught by legendary flutist Jack Coen, and became a world champion on both the concert flute and tin whistle. She was also the first American to win the coveted Senior All-Ireland Championship on the whistle.
"We all kind of had the same story, where our dads were these incredible musicians who passed the music down to us," she said. "My dad had one of the most successful bands in America, so as soon as I could play two tunes I was in the band. I was almost 13 when I started. Most kids would start at six or seven, so I would be considered late starting. Music was non stop in our house so when I did start to learn it came very quickly to me. It’s like osmosis.
"We’ve all been bitten by the traditional bug, and when it gets into you it’s very hard to get rid of it."
Originally an Irish American band, only Madden and fellow founder Mary Coogan now hail from the other side of the Atlantic. The other members are Mirella Murray from Claddaghduff, acclaimed fiddle player Nollaig Casey, and Kathleen Boyle from Glasgow, whose family have roots in Donegal.
"There are not too many bands coming from America to tour Ireland, it’s usually the other way round," Madden said. "We started coming over, and nobody would give us any guarantees, and I said let's just go, and we continued to come back every year, and even if we made just a few bucks it was great to come to Ireland and do our shows. Now we sell out wherever we go."
With a stellar line-up, it is easy to see why Cherish the Ladies are so popular. All five band members are highly accomplished musicians, and are bringing an impressive array of singers, musicians, and dancers with them to the Town Hall Theatre on June 24, along with some special surprise guests on the night.
Acclaimed folk singer-songwriter Don Stiffe will be joining the group on vocals at the Galway performance, along with harper and sean nos singer Seamus O Flatharta, folk singer Kate Purcell, Yvonne Keane on fiddle, Jimmy Higgins on bodhran, Trevor Hutchinson, of Lúnasa and The Waterboys, on upright bass, and multi-instrumentalist and singer Bruce Foley.
Dance also forms an integral part of every Cherish the Ladies performance, and the Galway concert will include five times world champion dancer David Geaney, known as the Dingle Dancer, and Canadian dancer Nathan Pilatzke, who has toured the world with The Chieftains during his 30-year career.
"We’ve always had Irish dancers in our show," Madden said. "That came about because whenever we had a session the dancers would jump up and the place would go electric. All the top dancers in the country have danced with us."
'You just can’t beat the feel of a live audience and the excitement in the room'
The upcoming concert will also mark something of a special occasion for the group - it will be one of the first times they have performed together, without any restrictions, since the pandemic began.
"It’s going to be wonderful to be on top of each other, we haven’t all been together since the lockdown," she said. "We haven't seen each other since we recorded a TG4 TV special during the first lockdown in 2020. We got together and we were playing eight feet apart from each other, no pub afterwards, it was very quiet and low key.
"We’re looking forward to being back together playing live without restrictions, it’s just a fantastic thing for musicians. We’ve been doing Zoom concerts but you just can’t beat the feel of a live audience and the excitement in the room, the atmosphere and everyone feeding off one another, you just can’t beat it."
Live performances were not the only thing Madden missed out on due to the pandemic. Last year she was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the US National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honour the United States can bestow for artisitic excellence and contribution to arts heritage. The awards are usually presented by the US President in the White House and accompanied by a week of celebrations in Washington DC, but last year's awards were virtual due to Covid.
"I got a phone call from Joe Biden and a Zoom call from [US Senate leader] Chuck Schumer," she recalled. "Each year awards are presented to nine people from all walks of life. Michael Flatley won it. I’m the only second woman to win it after Liz Carroll, it’s a huge award, usually presented in the Oval Office but because of Covid I didn’t get to go. But it's a huge honour and I'm absolutely delighted I could do this for myself and for the Irish community.
"It was supposed to be the best years of my career and overnight the rug was pulled out from underneath me," she continued. "It’s going to be great to be back. We’ve been doing Zoom concerts but you just can’t beat the feel of a live audience and the excitement in the room, the atmosphere, and everyone feeding off one another, you just can’t beat it.
"It was the first time I had to stop. Usually I get up and there are 50,000 things to do, and tours to book, and places to go. I never stopped. It was the first time I stopped, and the world stopped. I realised the little things in life that we take so much for granted, just being together, and there's nothing like a live concert. We spent so much time on a computer trying to perform to people, and you don’t have that magic you have with a live audience.
"We’re going to be so excited to be able to play naturally and normally. I think that the key to our success is that we have the music, the singing, the dancing, and I love to have the craic with the audience, there’s great laughter always at the shows. I think that’s why we're still here, not too many bands can say they’re here this long. We want to get people up on their feet and make sure they’ve had a wonderful experience. That’s our job so we will be doing that."
Cherish the Ladies will perform in the Town Hall Theatre on Friday June 24. Tickets are available online at www.tht.ie, or by calling 091 569777.
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