THE ‘doyenne of Irish harpists’, Máire Ní Chathasaigh, has no regrets about giving up a secure teaching job in a secondary school.
Like her sisters, Nollaig Casey and Máiread Ní Chathasaigh, she was born to play music.
A sadness in her life stems from no longer being able to sing because of a problem with her vocal chords. Nollaig and Máiread both play the fiddle and sing. And the Bandon-born trio are set to enchant the audience at Ballymaloe Grainstore on February 25 when they perform their acclaimed album, Sibling Revelry. There is no sibling rivalry between the sisters, points out Máire.
“It might sound a bit daft but I think if you do something with love and authenticity, people will respond to that,” she says.
The album is testament to those qualities. The sisters always wanted to record together and were keen to do so while their mother, Úna Casey, 94, was still alive. The matriarch of these talented sisters is thrilled with the album and had an input into it, making suggestions, based on her own love of song, playing piano and the mouth organ as well as her former prowess as a singer.
But there was a time when Úna and her now deceased husband must have fretted about Máire’s decision to chuck in the permanent and pensionable job, teaching Irish at Scoil Mhuire in Cork city.
While she admires the school, Máire only stuck out her job there for three years.
“Everyone thought I was crazy at the time. But I never regretted giving up teaching. My parents were not all that pleased but I never asked them for a penny. It wasn’t that I was doing the maggot. I’ve managed to make a living from music ever since.
“I’m looking at my friends now who are all retiring on nice pensions. Sometimes, I think that would be really nice but then I realise I’d have had to teach for 30 years to get that. I’m fortunate really, I suppose. I still get to teach a bit, doing workshops all over the world when I’m touring.”
Máire is a tutor every year at Cairde na Cruite (the Irish Harp Society) festival and says: “The success of the festival is a barometer of the huge increase in interest in the harp in Ireland in the last 30 years.”
Touring all over the world with her partner, guitarist Chris Newman, Máire seems to have a great life. The pair have just returned from a tour of New Zealand. Last year, they toured in the US for two months.
Nollaig, who used to play with Planxty and has toured with Riverdance, tours with her husband, Arty McGlynn, while Máiread teaches fiddle and harp in Bandon and also plays professionally.
“I love being on the road,” enthuses Máire.
“If you didn’t like travelling, you’d have no business doing a job like this.”
The sisters started learning music at an early age, including the piano. Máire started playing the harp when she was ten.
“I really took to it. I played classical piano quite seriously for a long time. My harp education was extremely bitty. I didn’t have proper harp lessons until I was in my early 20s. I took lessons with Denise Kelly for a few years.”
Máire, who was awarded Female Musician of the Year in the Live Ireland 2016 award, started playing traditional dance music on the harp — something that hadn’t been done before.
“It was something I wanted to do. I had already done it on other instruments. When I was a teenager, harpists either accompanied singers or else they played the music of Turlough O’Carolan. That was all that was there. Now there are huge numbers of harpists in Ireland. It would be impossible to find anyone who doesn’t play traditional dance music on the harp.”
Máire and Chris have their own recording label, ‘Old Bridge Music’ on which Sibling Revelry was released. The couple have made seven albums together.
“When we decided to make Sibling Revelry, there were lots of things we particularly wanted to record such as tunes that have a particular association with our family (the sisters have three brothers) and with West Cork.
“We also recorded music that for one reason or another, had never been recorded before. We found this music in old manuscripts.”
The three sisters love playing together.
“There’s a lot of empathy when siblings come together. You’re tuned into each other. It’s like telepathy. It’s very special.
“Máiread and Nollaig are excellent singers. I get quite depressed about not being able to sing anymore. I’m hoping that one day, all of a sudden, my voice will come back again.”
Máire has an honours degree from UCC in Celtic Studies “which was basically Irish and Welsh and a bit of early art history”.
She adds: “Afterwards, I did a higher diploma in education. Then I did a year and a half of a music degree at which point my family said it was time I considered getting a job. So that’s how I started teaching.
“When I gave up that job, I started to teach at the Cork School of Music for a few years while I built up my solo concerts and toured. Then I met Chris. We have worked all over the world.”
The experience of “being on the road with my sisters is quite different. There are some things that we all want to do, like looking in clothes shops. It’s a lot girlier!”
Tickets for the Sibling Revelry concert in Ballymaloe Grainstore on Saturday, February 25, are €23. They can be booked on www.ballymaloegrainstore.com or call 021 465 2531.