Sounds of sibling revelry

After years spent blazing trails with their own projects, the Casey sisters from West Cork finally got around to playing together, writes Marjorie Brennan.

The Casey Sisters: Nollaig, Mairead and Marie have upcoming concerts at the INEC in Killarney and Ballymaloe Grainstore.

While their musical talent is plentiful, a shortage of time due to a busy schedule means it has taken a while for the Casey sisters from west Cork to collaborate on record.

“It took us a long time to get an album together because we were all so busy doing different things,” says Nollaig Casey, one of Ireland’s most accomplished fiddle players. However, the wait was worth it, with their album Sibling Revelry receiving a resounding chorus of acclaim on its release last year.

Eldest sister Máire is considered one of the world’s best harp players, with a long list of awards and accolades to her name. She recalls how growing up in Bandon, Co Cork, their household was steeped in music.

“My parents were madly keen on music, they came from much farther west, my mother from Allihies and my father from near Skibbereen. They were very keen to pass that on to us. My mother was a very good singer so the first thing we all did was sing.

"My mother tells me I could sing before I could walk. One of my earliest memories is singing the ‘Star of the County Down’ for my grandmother, who died when I was three.”

There is only a year or so between Máire and Nollaig. She remembers how their favoured instruments were decided by fate — or at least their mother’s eye for a bargain — at an early age.

“When I was nine or ten, my mother arrived home one day with a harp and a fiddle she had bought at a bargain price from Pigott’s music shop in Cork, which was closing down,” says Nollaig. “We both tried out the instruments, playing by ear.

"I gravitated towards the fiddle and Máire went for the harp. I always just loved the fiddle. I remember the smell of the wood and I couldn’t wait to go down to the sitting room and start playing it again.”

Youngest sister Máiréad is a music teacher in Bandon. She recalls another big musical influence.

“When Máire and Nollaig were in their early teens, and I was a good bit younger, we started going to the Piper’s Club in Cork, which was run by Mícheál Ó Riabhaigh. It was the first time we met a lot of other people who were interested in Irish music.”

Mairéad is now passing on those skills to the younger generation in West Cork.

“It’s nice to be able to give something back,” she says. “There is a huge interest in traditional music, compared to when I was a child. I’d say we were probably seen as very odd in that we liked Irish music. It was not cool or fashionable.

"There are a lot more classes available to children, and music in schools, with kids learning the tin whistle. I think all of that has helped foster an interest in Irish music. It’s great, the tradition is safe.”

The sisters also have three brothers, none of whom play music professionally. “They all found a different path,” says Máire. “My youngest brother works in computers but he still plays the accordion. My other two brothers don’t play any more.”

Máire plays the Irish (Celtic) harp, rather than concert (pedal). There was a shortage of harp teachers in Cork, so she ended up teaching herself to a great extent.

“I wanted to play traditional dance music on the harp but nobody was playing it so I had to figure it all out myself. I would have loved to have learned pedal harp but the opportunity wasn’t there. It was only in my 20s when Denise Kelly starting coming down to Cork from Dublin once a fortnight that I learned a proper harp technique. That really had a big influence on me.”

Nollaig went on to study music at UCC and later joined the National Symphony Orchestra before playing with ground-breaking traditional bands Planxty and Coolfin. She has played with a who’s who of Irish artists, including Enya, Van Morrison and Christy Moore, as well as a host of international names including Rod Stewart, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle. Her musical influences are closer to home, however.

“One of my heroes when I was a teenager was Sean Keane, the fiddle player in the Chieftains, he would have had a huge influence on my playing. I have also worked a lot with Donal Lunny, and I learned a good deal from him, particularly as a producer and arranger.”

For a while it looked like Máire was headed for a career in teaching but her love for the harp eventually won out.

“I did Celtic Studies in UCC, then I did a hDip, then music for a few years. I taught in a secondary school for three years and even though it was a lovely school, I couldn’t cope with the idea that I was going to be there the following year doing the same thing with a slightly younger bunch of girls.

"So, since 1981, I have been a professional touring musician. It was an unheard-of thing to do at the time, to give up a permanent, pensionable post but I did. There’s no way of telling how these things will work out but I’ve made a living all these years and toured all over the world so that can only be good.”

Touring is far from a chore for Máire, who lives in Yorkshire in England, with her partner, guitarist Chris Newman. They regularly play together and have just returned from New Zealand. “I love travelling, I think it is an addiction to novelty. Sometimes I think being a professional musician just supports my travel habit,” she laughs.

Máire and Chris also occasionally perform with Nollaig and her guitarist partner, Arty McGlynn. What’s it like to cover all bases as a solo act, duo, trio and quartet?

“They are all a totally different dynamic,” says Máire. “When I play with Chris, we do lots of other kinds of music because Chris’s background is in improvised music, swing jazz and bluegrass and stuff like that. Then, the quartet we do with Nollaig and Arty has a different dynamic, obviously.

"Arty is similar to Chris in many ways, he has worked in all kinds of genres too so that works very well in terms of an eclectic mixture. What I do with my sisters is very personal and special. My grandmother belonged to a very well-known family of singers called the Dwyers in the Beara peninsula.

“There were a lot of fiddle players in that family going back to the 18th century. When you grow up with that feeling of a connectedness to the past, it means that when you choose music to play, it’s music that appeals to your heart.”

As for recording and performing together, the sisters are singing very much from the same hymn sheet.

“The three of us have very similar ideas about music and what we like and what we don’t like,” says Máire. There are obviously points of difference but if anyone gets annoyed, it blows over in five minutes. There is a safety there.”

Máiréad agrees. “You’re probably more blunt with each other, which can be good. Because we played together for such a long time, it feels natural, we know each other’s style, it’s a meeting of minds in a way.”

Nollaig emphasises the joyful element of working together. “It was great fun. If you’ve grown up with people, you know each other inside out..I couldn’t say there’s one boss, there’s three bosses,” she laughs.

  • The Casey Sisters play The Gathering Concert, INEC, Killarney, Co Kerry, on Friday, February 24, and the Grainstore at Ballymaloe, Co Cork on Saturday, February 25

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