Maire Egan is one of the elite Irish fiddlers in the world. There are lots of musicians who would claim that level of ability. Some would be right. Many would be wrong. But, at or near the very top of the mountain sits Maire Egan, and she is a musical treasure. What is really interesting is why. What about her is so rare, and why does she showcase so perfectly real Irish music in the 21st Century? She is not unique. But, she is very close.
Born in County Offaly, she was raised in a musical family which was taking her and her sister, Eilis, to sessions at a very early age. As with so many young Irish musicians, she went into the annual Comhaltas competitions. She won several awards. So far, so good – if a bit ordinary. Then came the Irish music revolution that changed everything in the country’s cultural landscape. Riverdance. When the massive international entertainment phenomenon hit, it suddenly became cool to be an Irish musician and an Irish dancer. In fact, it became very cool to be Irish. As you know, a hit show the size and scope of Riverdance can have its pick of musicians. The best of musicians. Through her musical preparations and achievements, Maire came to the attention of Riverdance composer, Bill Whelan, and the show’s producers. She was hired as the lead musician for one of the show’s traveling troupes. That changed everything. The great Michael Flatley saw her, worked with her, and fell in love with both her musicianship and showmanship. She was a star waiting to shine, and he knew it. Following an international tenure with Riverdance, Michael Flatley went on to form his own personal hit, Lord of the Dance. Then, everything changed again when he chose Maire and her longtime friend, Brenda Curtin, to share the fiddle work in fronting that monster hit, Lord of the Dance. Riverdance and Lord of the Dance could both fill books on their histories and cultural influence. We don’t have time or space here. Suffice it to say, Maire was now an international star. When it comes to Irish fiddling, combined with fame, she was just about the whole ballgame. Then, the whole thing changed again. Following the end of Lord of the Dance, she and Brenda joined with the aforementioned Eilis on button box and Michelle Mulhaire on drums. The Bridies were formed. Joined by Ireland’s best guitar player, Mike Galvin from Killarney, the group was a smash hit. The flamboyant quintet had two musical hits in Ireland (4&9, and the hysterically satirical, Nice Bit o’ Ham) and traveled internationally for several years. Maire now heads up a musical show in Las Vegas, and has for years.
Now, why is this important? Musicians of this calibre are rare in the first place. Note that in the days of the great foundation players like Michael Coleman, Seamus Ennis, Junior Crehan, James Morrison and John Kimmel with a host of other even earlier legends, it was a different musical world. It was a world ruled by 78 rpm records, and shared musical approaches in local sessions. There were many artists like Kimmel and Joe Cooley from Gort who moved to the United States. However, having done that, their playing and recordings were generally made on a local basis. The music moved, all right. But, it moved very slowly.
In the 1970’s, the surge of popularity of Irish music, led by DeDannan, Planxty and the Bothy Band moved the music to a generally broader plain and a much more diverse audience. Regionalization of musical styles began to rapidly disappear in the new age of cassette tapes and even 8-tracks, to say nothing of cd’s. The music became easily portable and an entire tradition of young musicians worldwide endlessly listening to the same recordings over and over again while trying to emulate them on their instruments was born. All of this tended to make a real potpourri of the formerly highly regionalized techniques of playing Irish music. It all began to blend.
The next great wave of change began with Riverdance. Musicians such as Marie Egan were taking Irish music to the world, and in person. And (this is critical) the world was bringing its music to the Irish musicians. It is pretty hard to find a place where a musician with the background of Maire Egan has not played. But here’s the point, and here’s the secret: the great musicians never stop learning, never stop synthesizing, and never stop growing. They are as influenced by world music as the world has been by Irish music. Maire Egan is one of those rare musical talents who has been there for all of this, personally. Sharing, comparing, blending, and extending. Many of the greats in the past came and went in Irish music, and never got more than 100 miles from home. That lack of travel and exposure perfected certain styles of music, but did not extend them.
Now sits Maire Egan in Las Vegas, of all places. A musician who in one package, personifies the change and expansion of Irish music in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This is all due to a combination of her talent, hard work and circumstance. She and a very few others have been in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, and have capitalized on it. It is the chicken and the egg. Did musicians like Maire Egan internationally popularize Irish music, or did Irish music internationally popularize them? Both.
The end results are these rare examples of broadly-based, yet traditional, Irish musicians pushing the music forward. Contrary to popular belief, there never was a set time when you could point to Irish music and say, “That is it. That is what it is.” Like all art forms, it must expand and change to live. It is all well and good to be a fiddle player who wants to sound just like Michael Coleman and that comes from a real respect for the music. But it is not enough if the music is to survive.
And, there is Maire Egan. She is still moving forward along with Irish music. If the halcyon days of Riverdance, Lord of the Dance and the Bridies are over, her influence, and musicians like her, is just beginning. America is lucky to have her out there, still taking it to the world. Good on ya, Maire.