ON THE COVER: THE O’NEILL SISTERS
The Kerry siblings who have an audience with the Pope.
They’ve blagged their way into a Louis Walsh audition, hung out with Bruno Mars, recorded with Will.i.am and almost represented Ireland in the Eurovision but the O’Neill sisters say performing for the Pontiff tomorrow will be a career highlight – oh and they’ve a few bones to pick with him if he has time...
Laughing and giggling together, the O’Neill sisters give the vibe of a trio who have spent a lot of time in each other’s company. They talk excitedly about their plans for the future and easily fall back into companionable conversation about the hijinks their relatives have got up to.
Having made their name touring the globe performing classical Irish ballads, their credentials as ambassadors for the genre are as impeccable as their perfectly pitched harmonies and wholesome onstage choreography. Guests at sell-out shows which feature their note-perfect renditions of classics such as Danny Boy and When Irish Eyes Are Smiling have included royalty and the likes of Hillary Clinton.
Tomorrow, however, they will step up to a new level as they perform in front of the Pope at one of the biggest live events in the world. It’s a ➤
moment that their career seems to have been slowly working its way up to.
But, as with many millennials, their views of the Catholic Church have evolved in such a way that they’re not afraid to question the ethos and ask for change. They are refreshingly blunt about what they would like to say to Pope Francis if they got the chance – and, despite the fact they’d like to indulge in some hard questioning, they reckon they’d actually get on.
‘Everyone seems to be thinking he is the best Pope they’ve had in a long time and I think everyone has hope for the Pope,’ says Naomi. ‘At least his views are different. I think if you can open up, you can bring that change everyone is looking for. He’s the guru of the Catholic Church and has the voice that people will listen to and follow I think.’
For her part Fiona, who is a single mother, supports gay marriage and thinks women should be allowed to be priests. The 34-year-old also thinks the Pope should apologise to the victims of clerical abuse.
The three sisters, who are from the village of Causeway, north Co Kerry, will perform two sets at the Phoenix Park in front of an estimated 600,000 people. The Solemn Eucharistic Celebration is the conclusion of The World Meeting of Families.
Fiona, who has an eight-year-old son called William, said: ‘When they say the World Meeting of Families, I’m a single mother with a child and to me that is my family. Even the three of us are a family,’ she says of her sisters. ‘When I’m at home with mum and dad, that is my family. For me, there’s not just one definition of family as in a mother and a father and children.’
Given the Church’s stated views on unmarried mothers, does she feel in any way excluded? ‘I don’t care,’ she says. ‘I don’t allow that to bother me because my mind is stronger than all of that.’
As far as the Pope meeting survivors of clerical abuse, she says: ‘I think it would be nice if he met them.’
Her 30-year-old sister Naomi adds: ‘If the Church is to survive in any shape or form, it needs to move in that direction or else it won’t.’ On gay marriage, she says: ‘I think love is love and people should be allowed to be free to love whoever they like.’
Her sister Eve adds: ‘If you’re not harming another individual then what business is it of anybody?’
The sisters are not currently scheduled to spend time with the Pontiff but Fiona says that if she has a chance to talk to him for any length of time, she will ‘tell him the whole thing needs to be revamped’. A grand demand indeed – but the sisters are at pain to emphasise they are not against the Pope or the Church in any way.
In fact, Fiona says: ‘I think if we were stuck in an elevator with the Pope for a few hours, I think we would see eye-to-eye. He’s a man of great spirituality and we are really spiritual, so I think we would get on.’
One of the reasons they may just get the chance to do that is their mother Marie, a former singer with the Corcoran Sisters, who used to tour with 1970s legends Planxty. She heard former Saw Doctors drummer Johnny Donnelly talking on the radio about the Phoenix Park Mass, for which he designed the stage.
Marie wrote to him and the sisters were very quickly invited to attend after he checked out their website and listened to their music, which is a mix of covers and their own compositions. Their mother’s support for their career – which includes allowing them to quit school to chase record deals in LA – is in contrast to her own experience.
While Marie had success touring with The Corcoran Sisters, it ended abruptly when her own mother Catherine Dineen, an Irish nurse in World War Two London, told her there was no future for her in the music business.
Although she subsequently became a nurse at Bon Secours Hospital Tralee, Marie vowed to never make the same mistake and never stood in the way when it came to her three daughters’ singing ambitions.
They started from a very early age and for as long as any of them can remember they were singing and performing. Naomi, for example, started appearing in dramas produced and hosted by the National Folk Theatre, Siamsa Tíre in Tralee, when she was just three.
It wasn’t until 2000 when Naomi was just 12 and Eve 10 that Fiona – who was aged just 16 at the time – decided to form the sisters into a group. The catalyst was a series of auditions Louis Walsh had organised that year to find another boyband to rival Westlife and Boyzone.
Naomi recalls: ‘I said one day, wouldn’t it be so funny if one of us dressed up as a boy and went in an auditioned for him?’ Fiona duly obliged, managed to get past security and moments before she performed a rendition of Mariah Carey’s My All on stage, she revealed she was a 16-year-old girl. ‘I got a great reaction,’ Fiona recalls. ‘The whole room erupted.’
The sisters formed a group that evening, later putting on their own concerts with equipment they bought from the €1,500 first prize in a talent show. ‘We would put on our own shows and people would come,’ Eve says. ‘Naomi would do ➤
“I THINK LOVE IS LOVE AND PEOPLE SHOULD BE FREE TO LOVE WHOEVER THEY LIKE”
“I USED TO GET CALLED ON THE PHONE AND ASKED WHY DIDN’T I JUST KILL MYSELF”
this Elvis tribute, she would impersonate Elvis in her own style and people loved it. And Fiona was doing James Brown.
‘We played all over Kerry and we were getting paid for it. We thought this was great, let’s keep this going.’
Their first serious attempt to break into the music business came two years later in 2002 when they auditioned for the inaugural You’re A Star auditions on RTÉ to find Ireland’s entry for the following year’s Eurovision Song Contest.
They did well with their rendition of You Raise Me Up, which was at the time a minor UK hit for Irish group Secret Garden. But to go further in the contest, they had to produce passports and prove they were over 18.
Fiona, who was the only one over 18, recalls: ‘We had to tell them Eve was 12 and Naomi was 14. They were very disappointed.’
Their attempts to make it did not go unnoticed by some of Naomi and Eve’s classmates, who started poking fun at the ambitious teenagers. This turned into bullying and an almost constant stream of threats from a number of girls.
Eve recalls: ‘I used to get called on the phone and asked why didn’t I just kill myself. There were also a lot of threats. Thank god we grew up at a time when mobile phones were not as prevalent as they are now.’
When the promise of a record deal in the US emerged in 2005, the sisters didn’t hesitate to quit school and head Stateside, under the watchful eye of their mother. Their idea was to capitalise on the interest in classical Irish songs that flowed with the success of acts such as Enya, Clannad and Riverdance.
Sadly nothing came of the deal, but the sisters stuck it out – although it wouldn’t be the last time they would be let down by the industry. ‘There was a lot of this sort of thing,’ Naomi says. ‘We would go to labels and they would say can you do a few more songs.’
In the years that followed, the sisters moved back and forth across the Atlantic in search of big breaks. At one point they moved from New York to LA when MTV promised to headline them in a new show promoting America’s Next New Pop Group. But by the time they had moved, MTV chiefs decided to change the format of t he show and they were no longer what they said they wanted.
Still, life in LA was among ‘the best years’ of their lives. Neighbours included Guns ’n’ Roses guitarist Slash and the list of people they spent time with include Bruno Mars before he rose to fame in 2010. They also got to record with Black Eyed Peas star Will.i.am. The experience gave them a taste of the life their grandfather Jimmy Corcoran, himself an immigrant from Ireland, led when he was in Hollywood. Stars he became friends with included Roy Rogers, who gifted him one of his treasured saddles, and Marilyn Monroe. He tiled the kitchen of her last home for her in Brentwood just weeks before she died in 1962.
Ever since, he remains convinced she did not kill herself. According to the sisters, although she wept in his arms a few times, she was happy and making plans with her life. In the vast catalogue
of stories he brought back from Hollywood to Causeway, there is also an anecdote about him delivering steaks to Howard Hughes. ‘He was a bit of a fixer,’ Naomi says. ‘People loved him. He got on with everyone.’
And he wasn’t the only storyteller in the wider O’Neill-Corcoran family. Maurice Walsh, the Irish novelist best known for writing The Quiet Man before it was turned into the John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara film, was a cousin.
Another cousin is designer Kerryman Don O’Neill, whose clients include Oprah Winfrey, Taylor Swift and Amy Poehler. The sisters will be wearing Theia Couture gowns he specially designed for them tomorrow.
They won’t be paid for their Papal Mass performances, but that doesn’t matter to the sisters – they see it as yet another stepping stone to becoming better known for doing what they love. A recent endorsement of that is the success of their rendition of the classic song Red Is The Rose. When it went up on the Legendary Vocals Facebook page earlier this year, it became a viral sensation almost overnight.
To date, the video has been viewed more than 6.3 million times and shared almost 14,000 times.
They probably didn’t make any money out of that either. ‘This is CV stuff,’ says Fiona, ever the pragmatist. ‘We don’t care. We’re going to sing for the Pope.’
And she adds with a laugh: ‘Our whole life is CV stuff.’