The Girsa Girls of Irish Trad
By Kristin Cotter McGowan, Contributor
October / November 2015
With their melodious voices, masterful musicianship and enthusiasm, the Irish American women’s group Girsa has captured the hearts of audiences everywhere by bringing a creative mix of vocals, fiddle, accordion, banjo, tin whistle, bodhran, guitar, and piano to their shows. Kristin Cotter McGowan stops by a Girsa rehearsal.
“Cup of tea? Of course you’ll have one!”
My welcome into the home of Rose Flanagan, former Cherish the Ladies fiddler and mother to Girsa members Maeve and Bernadette, is as warm and inviting as the young women gathered around the table. Girsa, Irish for “young girls,” is the exciting next generation of Irish traditional musicians. The Flanagan sisters, joined by their friends, cousins Pamela Geraghty and Emily McShane, laughed and joked with each other, catching up to rehearse for an upcoming show and tell me their story.
Maeve: “We have been together for a long time – we grew up competing against each other in competitions.”
“With each other,” corrects Rose.
Girsa was raised on Irish music; their families encouraged them – “we were forced!” they joke – to play at every gathering. They started lessons early on and quickly excelled in many music and dance competitions here and in Ireland. Maeve plays fiddle and whistle, and has written several tunes for their latest CD, A Sweeter Place, blending a modern sound with traditional style. Her sister Bernadette plays bodhran and piano, and is an award-winning step dancer. Emily plays piano and along with her cousin Pamela, also sings and plays guitar. Pamela also plays accordion along with Blaithin “Bla” Loughran. (Blaithin, a champion accordion player, is away at school and unable to make this rehearsal).
Pamela: “I always competed against Blaithin in accordion. I never won. Then one year she broke her arm – I won.”
Bernadette: “We still don’t know how she broke her arm.”
It was Pamela’s mother who said the group needed to give themselves a name and start playing gigs. Regular Sunday appearances at the Porter House in Montvale, New Jersey and Rory Dolan’s in Yonkers, New York, solidified the group and built its fan base.
Maeve: “It’s crazy to think how young we were.”
Emily: “I was 11? 12? It’s crazy to think that people actually watched us!”
Maeve: “In my college essay, I started off by writing that I had grown up in bars, and came home smelling of cigarette smoke – this was back when you could smoke in bars – my parents were there with me, encouraging me – and then at the end of the essay, I wrote, ‘but I’m no drinker, I’m an Irish musician.’ It’s just so funny to think about it – it was just our life. We were playing music.”
There were plenty of kids who could play music, but if these youngsters were exceptionally good, it’s because it’s embedded in their DNA, and their talents were nurtured by great musicians.
Many of Girsa’s teachers, including Maeve and Bernadette’s mother, played with the celebrated Irish music group Cherish the Ladies, whose front woman, Joanie Madden, lauds Rose and her fellow teachers for their commitment to keeping traditional Irish music alive.
“When the great teachers from the 1970s passed away or stopped teaching, mothers who had played when they were younger and now wanted their own children to learn, pulled out their instruments, started practicing again, and started teaching,” Madden said.
“Women like Rose Conway Flanagan, Margie Mulvahill, Kathy Linnane, and Patty Conway Furlong. All are great players and as good as you’d get. And what they’ve managed to achieve with this next generation is amazing.”
In the spirit and tradition of their teachers, the young women of Girsa, who are now in their very early 20s, are also instructors of fiddle, whistle, piano, and sean-nós, or “old style,” singing. In addition to the fundamentals, the girls instruct their students on the performance aspect of music.
Maeve: “Teaching has made me appreciate more the great teachers that I had – don’t tell my mom that!”
Rose (From the other room) “I can hear you!”
Maeve: “When she got sick of teaching me, she sent me to my uncle Brian who was such a good teacher – so very strict, but so very good.” (Uncle Brian is Brian Conway, an All-Ireland Senior Fiddle Champion and well-respected Sligo-style fiddler.)
Pamela: “Appreciation for your own teachers comes out of teaching. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into it. I remember my teacher, Patty Furlong, would come home from work, have her dinner on the table and try to eat at the same time as teaching me… For her it was work, teaching, bed. And the next day would be the same exact thing. I joke with my students sometimes – ‘You’re the next Girsa! You’ve got to carry it on!’”
Emily: “When your student came into my piano class the other day and sang the song I sang on the first CD – “The Home I Left Behind’ – I was so touched.”
Both Pamela and Emily teach at the Erin Loughran School of Irish Music & Arts. Erin is a former Girsa member and a sister to Blaithin.
Pamela: “The songs we teach are ones that Emily and I learned growing up. It’s fun. The students look up to us, almost like we’re superstars!”
Maeve: “Pamela’s being really humble during this interview.”
Pamela: “No! But like, in their eyes, we’re really cool…when we might not be that cool!”
In their eleven years together, Girsa has released two CDs and an EP, and has toured, playing gigs in the trendy Austin music scene, a stint at Disney World, and the trifecta of summer Irish Festivals – Kansas City, Dublin (Ohio), and Milwaukee. A typical year brings a March madness lineup of St. Patrick’s Day shows, summer and fall festivals, and Christmas concerts.
Maeve: “We love playing festivals because we get to hang out with other bands. When we were younger, we used to travel to Ireland all the time for music competitions, and we loved that because we got to meet people from everywhere, and now those people are kind of coming to us and playing at the big festivals here in America. The comradery of it all is fun – staying up until five a.m. playing music.”
Pamela: “There was a woman at the last concert we had in Ireland who had seen us when we first started. She said that it’s been such a great experience seeing us grow into ‘the beautiful women that we are now.’”
The girls all have a hearty laugh at this.
“People have kind of made the journey with us, so that’s pretty cool. You can see the growth in our recordings. Our first album is very ceili-bandish, very tight musically, we all played the same thing and didn’t venture out melodically. And now we’ve grown and are able to improvise and do different things.”
Emily: “It is cool to have our second CD recorded so that we can see that progression.”
Girsa’s self-titled first release features traditional set music and ballads and covers Rod Stewart’s “Rhythm of My Heart” with a definite Irish twist. Pamela describes it as a “memory of the time period we were in.” The liner notes features snapshots of the girls growing up. Their second CD, A Sweeter Place, offers another generous mix of jigs, reels, and slow airs, along with covers of Dougie Maclean’s “Garden Valley” and Van Morrison’s “Irish Heartbeat.”
Pamela: “After that first CD was released, we were reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. I remember we were in the Catskills and we were all freaking out.”
Maeve: “We all huddled around one computer to read it online. We weren’t equipped for [the public response] because we weren’t yet on iTunes, and people were emailing us telling us we needed to get on iTunes!”
As the girls matured, graduated college, and embarked on careers, the band dwindled from the eight original members to six, and now is surviving the most recent departure of Deirdre Brennan, who left to pursue other music opportunities. Maeve admits to the challenge of keeping the group together. “Everyone’s doing a million different things. Having played together for so long is an accomplishment. All the festivals and concerts and our CDs are great, but staying together for over eleven years is bigger than all of that.”
Maeve: “Pamela’s going to Ireland for a few months, when she gets back we’ll be doing all the fall festivals and another Christmas concert. The EP we just did is only five tracks, so we’d like to finish that. We’re also playing on Disney Cruises! Pamela, Blaithin, and Blaithin’s sister Neidin are going to Iceland and Norway, and Bernadette, myself, and Emily are going to Stockholm, Copenhagen, and St. Petersburg.”
Pamela: “I’m attempting to write songs. I wrote one, but haven’t finished it.”
Emily: “It’s really nice.”
Pamela: “I always see Bla writing down random things in her notebook all the time. She’s trying to write songs, I know it. And she would be very good at forming words.”
Maeve: “Forming words?” (More laughter).
The evening’s rehearsal was not only to prepare for upcoming shows, but to welcome their newest member, the sight of which may give audiences another reason to stand up and take notice. Sean Tierney, a “he” in the house of “she,” brings a wealth of talent, playing the flute, uilleann pipes, low whistle, sax, and ‘foot percussion’ as a step dancer. They’ve all known each other since childhood, making this transition a seamless one.
Maeve: “Emily had an assignment in her English class the other day where she had to write her obituary and she wrote that ‘Emily McShane played with Girsa until she was 76 years old.’”
Pamela: “But she dies at 105 so Maeve was like, ‘Why weren’t you playing with Girsa until you were 105?’”
Maeve: “We’ve all been asked multiple times ‘What are you going to do when you’re no longer young girls?’ because that’s what Girsa means, and it was Pamela who first responded with, ‘We’ll be young forever.’ So that’s our motto. We’ll be young forever.” ♦
Kristin Cotter McGowan is a writer and a musician. She lives in Glen Rock, NJ, with her husband and three daughters. Together they own and run Carrick Mór, a gift shop specializing in the best of Ireland and Irish culture.