Cathie Ryan: Home is Where the Music Is


By Ian Worpole
October / November 2007

My mum had a phrase that fascinated me – whenever something like the vacuum cleaner showed signs of failure, she would say, “Oh, it’s going home.” I’ve always had a vision of what a strange and wonderful place that particular Home may be, filled with weary appliances. It’s a powerful phrase, and as I grew older and maybe wiser, I realized it is more usually indicative of the human condition, of finding one’s place in the world.
Ireland as Home seems to hold a particularly special place in the hearts of millions, and it was with great pleasure that I was recently invited to the Lincoln Center Institute (LCI), which promotes Arts in Education, to hear and talk to one of Irish America’s foremost singers, Cathie Ryan.
Some of the Irish-related events the LCI has mounted over the years include a stage production of James Joyce’s Dubliners, traditional Irish music as part of a program called “Duo Loco: A Percussive Explosion,” Irish story-telling, and readings of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. This year’s presentation by Ryan, titled “From Shore to Shore: Irish-American Music,” is a return event that had a highly successful tour of schools around the NYC area last year, and it is great fun. Donal Clancy, son of Liam Clancy of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem fame (a fact which drew a gasp of recognition from the crowd), accompanied Cathie on guitar, with Ben Power, a fine flute player from Liverpool, New York fiddler Sara Milonovich, and Scottish guitarist Alan Murray alongside also.

After running through a selection of traditional and original material, Ryan invited questions from the audience, and was immediately grilled about the bodhrán she was playing. Percussion seems to be all, and Cathie detailed how she broke the ice at one school by luring a somewhat recalcitrant group of young kids onto the stage to break dance along to her playing.

I caught up with Cathie before the concert; it had been a breathless few days for her. In addition to the Lincoln Center performance she was back in New York to celebrate and sing at her son’s wedding.

Cathie was born and raised in Detroit by Irish parents who instilled in her a love of Irish music. After a long stint with Cherish the Ladies, and a successful solo career, the longtime New York resident recently moved to Ireland.

So why the move?
Since I was young I would visit Ireland two or three times a year, and it really did feel like home. My son, now grown and soon to be married, simply said, “Mom, why don’t you move over there, you love it so much.” It was a revelation. After a time, I sold the house in New York and moved my furniture over to a lovely little cottage on the shores of the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth.  I wake up in the morning and drink my coffee gazing out at the Irish Sea.

Has the move inspired any new songs?
I’m feeling that something new is in the air. I’m not sure what it is yet, but it’s very exciting! For so long, I’ve been on the road more than I’ve been at home. The Farthest Wave was recorded in a rush between tours; now I’m looking forward to having much more time to myself, and writing new material will be an important part of it.

How personal are your songs?
(Laughter.) My really personal songs I only sing at home. But when I’m looking for a song, I look for a universal emotion, something that my audience can relate to, whether it’s my own song, or some other writer like Gerry O’Beirne. I do love the great traditional Irish songs, “Danny Boy” for one, but for the most part I will sing those unaccompanied, sean nós style, and never in a pub!

You have worked with a wealth of great musicians – Seamus Egan, John McCusker, the Rusbies, John Doyle, Donal Clancy, Kris Drever. It’s a great community.
It is. We all live together when recording an album, and someone will come down in the morning with a new idea to try out – it’s great fun.
When I’m on the road I meet up with friends at festivals and we play some tunes together, it’s wonderful, but I’m also looking forward to some down time when I can just get together with them, without the pressure of being on the road.

Thanks, Cathie, and good luck with your new adventure. I’m sure more than a few of us are dead jealous!

For more information about the
LCI, go to: www.Icinstitute.org.
For more information about Cathie, go to: www.CathieRyan.com ♦

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