BWW Interview: Oisin Mac Diarmada of IRISH CHRISTMAS IN AMERICA Talks About Fiddles, Country Music, and Ancient Burial Grounds
Christmas is a time that evokes many different feelings. For some, like me, the stress of finding the perfect gifts is balanced with the coziness of having everyone at home enjoying our family traditions. Warm fires, hot cocoa, maybe seeing a production of The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol, and enjoying the company of those we don't see but a few times a year. Of course, I am always open to exploring new traditions and this year I am particularly excited to experience the lauded Irish Christmas in America. It was started in 2005 by popular Sligo fiddler Oisin Mac Diarmada and boasts talented musicians, singers, and dancers Niamh Farrell, Seamus Begley, Samantha Harvey, Sean Gavin, and Grainne Hambly. Broadway World Sacramento spoke to Mac Diarmada about his whirlwind annual tour, Irish traditions, and how the upcoming show in Sacramento falls on a very special day. Nollaig Shona dhaoibh! Merry Christmas to you!
Welcome back to the States! We're looking forward to your show, Irish Christmas in America, at the Sofia on December 21st. This will be something new for me to see and I'm fascinated by it. How did you come up with the idea of bringing Ireland to America?
I play with an Irish band called Teada and I've been touring since 2001 in America. A few years into touring, I took part in a show with a half-orchestra in Europe and it was based around Christmas so I thought it would be nice to do something like that in America with some of the musicians I work with, as well as some new people. We jumped in in 2005 and did our first tour and have been doing this every season, so it's been 15 seasons of Irish Christmas in America. The great thing about Christmas is that it comes back every year. It's a great opportunity to bring together a bunch of wonderful music, sounds, and dance and work a theme around it. Christmas is universally understood. Coming from an Irish perspective, it's more than a religious festival. Even those that aren't religiously inclined like to bring people together and spend time with families and there's no better way of doing that than with a dash of song and dance. We don't take ourselves too seriously because the music has always been a part of socializing and fun.
How has the show evolved over the years?
It has been a journey. In the first 8 or 9 years I worked with a lot of different people, tried various things and, looking back, some elements were too heavy. It's been a learning curve for me, as well. The show has been the difference between being a performer and sitting back and listening. We try to be aware of the audience and to see which things worked. I assumed a lot of the audiences would have very strong connections to Ireland but that hasn't been the case and the show is every bit as popular in areas where there aren't those connections. That has been a revelation and that has shaped the show, as well. It's a wonderful way to introduce Irish culture to people.
What does Christmas mean in Ireland? Ireland seems unique in the fact that some beautiful pagan traditions originate there and then there's the added complication of Catholic vs. Protestant.
Christmas is a really huge event in Ireland and probably because it's a strong Catholic country, in a lot of ways, that has had a huge influence. One of the things you'll hear stories about is people long to be together and, since Ireland has such a long history of emigration to America, there is a focus of people coming home. There's a strong pull nowadays. It's a lot easier to travel but, at the same time, people are doing so many different things and moving around that having that one time of a year that people don't work and get together is important in Ireland.
I, too, thought that you would have a stronger reception in areas of people of Irish descent.
We don't make a particular base around Irish areas but there's always something magical about playing to Irish people just because I think there is a certain bond with someone living outside of their home country and that connection is always quite special. So, when I meet Irish people, it's always quite beautiful but we don't focus the tour on that area. We've had wonderful shows in New Mexico, Texas, California, and Oregon. We travel all over with the show and people are drawn because of that desire to see something different because Christmas is repeated every year. Some people might see the same show every year but there's always that element of seeking a different experience. Some come to sample a taste of Irish culture and we have visual imagery of Irish scenery in the background so most leave with a sense of what it means to be Irish. Some of them will be inspired to finish up with a trip to Ireland.
Do you mix old traditions with new ideas? What is your favorite Irish Christmas tradition?
We do, the content is a mix of both. We have some more popular folk songs, like by Joni Mitchell, from our singer, Niamh, who is very good at contemporary songs. Our other singer, Seamus, is legendary with older songs. Some of the songs are a couple of hundred years old and some have been composed in the last 10-20 years. With the traditions, what's interesting for me is I like being home at Christmas time. If I wasn't doing this tour, I would get out more around the Christmas season. My wife and I live in a small village in Sligo, in northwest Ireland, so we get back to a nice, quiet, rural life. My parents also live in the same village.
What can you tell me about your band, Teada?
Teada is the Irish word for string. We started out with a lot of strings. I started it right after I finished college. It began with a bunch of musicians that I had a lot of fun playing with at that time. I had no major ideas of touring. That's the beautiful thing about life-when you start things, you don't know where they will lead you. I've let it lead me where it's led me and I enjoy it very much. Thanks to support from a lot of people in America, we'll be back with Teada in late February. We'll be back in Winters, California, at The Palms Playhouse on February 27, 2020.
In listening to your fiddle playing, I'm reminded of country music here in America. Was that influenced by traditional Irish music?
A lot of American folk music was. We kind of claim to be the only influence in American music. So many Irish people played music and it was folk music played by the ordinary people and played at social events so, when they moved to America, it had a lot of influence in Appalachian and bluegrass music. Even American country music is popular in Ireland now. The fiddle and banjo are quite popular in both cultures. It definitely has been an influence. The beautiful thing about music is that it can be similar and so different. If you dig deep into the genres they're very different but, if you just have a listen, there are a lot of similarities as well. You'd think that something made 100 years ago would not have a lot of room in modern music but it does. A fiddle can be played in so many ways. Each person can create a different voice and sound from the instrument, which is beautiful.
Your concert takes place on the winter solstice. What solstice traditions do you honor? Will we see something special on that evening?
We don't do anything for the solstice, but I am thinking that Ireland was inhabited quite early on and there are great examples of prehistoric settlements. One on the east coast is called Newgrange and they have some beautiful, what seem to be more than likely, burial compounds for very important people and one of those compounds was evidently built in order to capture the life of the winter solstice. People put their names down to reserve a place in that chamber, like a waiting list. The light enters that chamber on that particular day. It was built as a big deference to the sun in that particular time because the sun was so important in that culture. The sun would enter only on that day. In fact, in previous years we have included an image of that place in the show and now I'm inspired to do so once again.
You have a new album out, "Last Night in Chicago", that will be available for purchase at the venue. Can you tell me about that?
It's Irish Christmas in America recorded live in Old Town School in Chicago, a venue that we play every year. We played 3 shows there last year and 2 this year and it always sells out. There's a great energy in that venue so we brought out a live recording of one of the shows there. Hopefully it captures a lot of the energy of that show.
Your last show in the States is December 22. What will you be doing for Christmas?
This year is going to be a different Christmas for me. The rest of the crew will be heading home and my wife and I will be spending it in her hometown of Ventura. Her sister is getting married right after Christmas and we will be getting home on New Year's Day.
Irish Christmas in America will be at The Sofia on Saturday, December 21. Tickets may be purchased at the box office at 2700 Capitol Avenue in Sacramento, by calling (916) 443-5300, or by visiting bstreettheatre.org.