Irish Music Takes to the High Seas

Marianne MacDonald with a ceili dance student.

Marianne MacDonald with a ceili dance student.


By Marianne MacDonald

Take one irrepressible dynamo of a woman, 55 Irish musicians and performers, 400 plus pigment-challenged Irish and Irish-American folks from 7-92 years of age and what do you have? Joanie Madden’s Folk ‘N Irish Cruise, aka The Big Session on the High Seas, or in Donie Carroll’s words “a divil of a noise”! As the Northeast suffered through a week of freezing temperatures, gloomy skies, and sporadic precipitation ending with 30 inches of snow in Boston last winter, the flute and whistle player from Cherish the Ladies and her contingent cruised the Caribbean on the Norwegian Cruise Line’s Epic, a floating city holding over 4000 passengers.

From the very first day out of Miami, to the bittersweet return to reality, dozens of dances were danced, hundreds of friendships were made, thousands of tunes were played and songs sung and thousands of buckets of beers were consumed.

Joanie has a knack for picking just the right combination of musicians, dancers and entertainers who will keep the wide age- and interest- range of her cruise audience fully immersed in their culture, heritage and history. Whether one’s interests lie in Irish ballads and song, traditional tunes on a variety of instruments, dancing of either ceili or sets, or just soaking it all up, there were dozens and dozens of options to choose from.

I was traveling as a ceili dance instructor and was thrilled to have a class with about 25 students, ranging from total beginner to intermediate level. I focused on some simple, but fun, two-hand dances along with two easy ceili dances and was totally chuffed that the class was able to learn a total of seven dances in all. I was doubly pleased to see them up and dancing at every opportunity! Of course, who could not dance to the music provided by such top-notch musicians as the Pride of Moyvane Ceili Band, Liz Carroll, Fr. Charlie Coen, Dylan Foley, Dan Gurney, Antoine McAbhann, Gabriel Donohue, Joanie herself, John Nolan, John Reynolds, Margie Mulvihill and many other trad players.

Talk about a wealth of riches. I had to make some really hard choices when it came to the concerts. Maura O’Connell is one of my very favorite women singers and I was fortunate enough to hear her in 3 concerts. Mary Black and the Black Family, including Frances, performed several times, as did Tommy Sands. Every one of them legends.

I was also thrilled to see Mickey Coleman, who has appeared in Philadelphia numerous times, currently living in New York, join the cruise and impress the audience with his self-penned “Culdaff.” Of course, Don Stiffe is one of my musical heroes and he sang his heart out several times over the week to the delight of the entire cruise. Donie Carroll, from Co. Cork, had a fabulous release of his new CD, featuring many songs from the 1920’s. During his release performance he had the entire audience singing along to such songs as “Love’s Old Sweet Song”, “Are You Right There, Michael” and “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree”. I could never neglect to mention our very own Gabriel Donohue, the man who other performers fear having to go on after him. Singer, musician and entertainer, Gabriel, who comes from Galway and now lives in Philadelphia, is one huge bundle of talent and charm and makes everyone sound superb as he accompanies them. And he’s not too shabby on his own, either!

Supplement these highlights with acts such as Padraig Allen and McLean Avenue, TR Dallas, Harry O’Donoghue, Guaranteed Irish, Frank McCaffery, Brigid’s Cross, Stepdancers Donny Golden, Cara Butler, Michael Boyle and John Jennings, and of course, The Ladies Who We All Cherish and you have a week of unbridled Irish delight! Every night ended officially at about midnight or 1:00, but does that every stop the Irish from enjoying themselves when there is another song to be sung or tune to be played? Cagney’s Bar was the official after hours rendevous site to enjoy more craic until the wee hours (ummm…7:30 A.M.?)

As Friday rolled around and we all realized we were off home to our different cities across the U.S. and to Scotland and Ireland, we shed a few tears, donned our coats and pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and wished everyone a “Safe home…and see you onboard next year!”

And you can hop on board next year. Joanieā€™s cruise is scheduled for February 2-9, 2014. For more information go to Prices start at $1,099.

All photos by Frank Rudiger.

Author: Jeff Meade

Jeff is one of the founding editors of More details.

Share This Post On