Wicklow People (West Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

ONE of the most com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful mu­si­cal artistes ever to come out of Ire­land is a na­tive of County Wick­low. Orla Fallon may not quite be a house­hold name in her na­tive land but she has a stel­lar rep­u­ta­tion in the United States. The harpist and singer has per­formed in some of the best known venues in North America, meet­ing two Pres­i­dents along the way.

And, though short of match­ing U2 in the pub­lic­ity stakes, she has strut­ted some of the same stages as the Dublin rock­ers. She en­joyed con­sid­er­ably more than the stan­dard ra­tion of 15 min­utes of fame as a mem­ber of Celtic Woman.

A lit­tle more than a decade ago, the all-fe­male out­fit topped the charts in the USA, not just for weeks, or for months, but for years on end. The Celtic Woman fran­chise lives on, con­tin­u­ing to at­tract huge live au­di­ences to shows across North America. How­ever, the mem­bers of the orig­i­nal quar­tet have all hung up their ball gowns and moved on to other work. While her three col­leagues stayed in the States, the lady from the Wick­low hills has also headed west. But she made it only just across the Car­low border, as a long-time res­i­dent of Leigh­lin­bridge, not too far from where she was raised.

‘I grew up in Knock­ananna and I am re­ally proud of my Knock­ananna roots,’ she con­firms. Her mother Eileen is orig­i­nally from County Kerry, so Orla is well con­nected in Ard­fert as a re­sult. Her late fa­ther John was a born and bred Wick­low man, hail­ing orig­i­nally from Augha­van­nagh up in the Glen of Imaal. Eileen was prin­ci­pal of the lo­cal pri­mary school in Knock­ananna for 35 years while John was a farmer who di­ver­si­fied into the meat trade. Like his daugh­ter, he en­joyed his slice of the lime­light, as owner of the highly suc­cess­ful Rule Supreme race­horse, a win­ner in Chel­tenham and France as well as on home tracks.

Orla, el­dest in a fam­ily of five chil­dren, re­calls that Knock­ananna was great place to grow up in, sum­mer holidays spent damming the lo­cal river and gen­er­ally liv­ing the out­door life. Early school­days were passed in Scoil Naomh Bríd where her mother held sway. Strict but fair is the daugh­ter’s rec­ol­lec­tion of Eileen’s ap­proach to teach­ing.

‘She was a bril­liant teacher. She gave me the love of Ir­ish,’ says Orla whose mu­si­cal lean­ings were ac­com­mo­dated as she took charge of the pri­mary school choir for first com­mu­nions while still a pupil. She can­not re­call a time when she was not singing, gifted with a voice that has ma­tured in adult­hood into a de­light­fully clear and sweet in­stru­ment. One of her ear­li­est me­mories is as a three year old singing a song of her own im­promptu com­po­si­tion in the back of the fam­ily car. On trips to Kerry, she learned ‘every Ir­ish song that was go­ing’ from her mother’s mother, drink­ing deeply from a rich cul­tural well. And she was also fer­ried to Clon­more in Car­low where Mis­sus Jones served a slice of cake af­ter pi­ano lessons.

Some fur­ther dis­ci­pline was even­tu­ally put on this stream of nat­u­ral tal­ent once it was de­cided to dis­patch her to be a boarder at Mount Sackville be­side the Phoenix Park in Dublin. She re­calls the place as a great school once she

had stopped crying at be­ing trans­planted from the moun­tains of Knock­ananna. She dodged PE and at first showed no en­thu­si­asm for the harp, the in­stru­ment in which the school spe­cialised. Then she was as­signed to the class of a nun called Sis­ter Eu­gene who man­aged to har­ness the tal­ent la­tent in her Wick­low stu­dent. It was a lib­er­a­tion: ‘With Sis­ter Eu­gene, I fell in love with the harp.’

She also sang in every choir the school had, fre­quently called in to per­form at fu­ner­als and other oc­ca­sions in the greater Castle­knock area. With a good Leav­ing Cert to her credit, she en­rolled at the Mater Dei teacher train­ing in­sti­tute in Marino, spe­cial­is­ing in the­ol­ogy and mu­sic. There she was streets be­hind most of her col­leagues in terms of ab­stract mu­si­cal the­ory: ‘I was able to per­form but I some­times felt in­fe­rior in class un­til I found my feet.’ She per­se­vered to grad­u­ate in 1992 pre­pared for a con­ven­tional ca­reer as a mu­sic/re­li­gion teacher, first in Tul­low and then at Cabin­teely, where more bat­tle hard­ened mem­bers of the com­mu­nity school there ad­vised her that she would never get the kids in her charge to sing. ‘But I did!’ Her de­light in prov­ing the pes­simists wrong still re­sounds many years later. ‘Mu­sic was a great way of get­ting on side with the kids.’ Her choir was where the craic was.

Orla’s ca­reer as a full-time teacher lasted no more than five years all told as she be­came di­verted into the singing phe­nom­e­non which is Anúna. She took the bull by the horns and asked the group’s leader Michael McG­lynn for an au­di­tion. She wowed him with an old Ir­ish song ‘Tá mé mo shuí’ and her harp. She was in­vited to join the choir at re­hearsal in Par­nell Square where McG­lynn’s com­plex songs were honed to vo­cal per­fec­tion.

‘Michael is a ge­nius,’ declares Orla Fallon in undi­luted ad­mi­ra­tion. ‘The har­monies are very hard to learn but when you learn them, then they are amaz­ing.’ She missed Anúna’s Euro­vi­sion ex­pe­ri­ence of 1994 but, as she de­voted more time to per­for­mance, she took up with an Anúna off-shoot called Suantraí. She also worked with the charis­matic Fa­ther Liam Law­ton and with Done­gal brother Padraig and Noel Dug­gan of Clan­nad fame.

Some­where along the way, she took the time to record a demo tape which she passed to pro­ducer David Downes. He showed plenty of en­thu­si­asm, told her he loved her sound, but she heard noth­ing fur­ther from him un­til one fate­ful day at least 18 months later, in 2004 Mar­ried to John Comer­ford since 1997 and work­ing part-time as a teacher of the harp, she was not geared for global fame at the time. But when the pro­ducer said he was putting a show with four singers and a fid­dler to­gether for the PBS tele­vi­sion net­work, her re­ac­tion was ‘count me in’.

PBS broke both River­dance and the Ir­ish Tenors in the United States and Downes aimed to fol­low the same pro­mo­tional route with what was called Celtic Woman. Orla was joined in the line-up by Lisa Kelly, Meav ní Mhaolchatha and a pre­co­cious teenager called Chloe Agnew - daugh­ter of Twink - with Mairead Nes­bitt on fid­dle. They were given a bunch of old Ir­ish songs to learn in prepa­ra­tion for the record­ing of an al­bum and The Helix was booked for a con­cert.

It was de­cided to make use of Orla’s ex­per­tise on the harp, with her ‘Isle of In­is­free’ in­cluded in the set, in due course to be­come a sta­ple of the play-list. To this day, she is not sure which was the more daunt­ing, learn­ing the dance moves (‘we didn’t do much chore­og­ra­phy in Knock­ananna’) or the lethal Dolce & Gab­bana heels on which they teetered around the stage.

‘It was one of those nights you never for­get,’ she says of the Helix ex­pe­ri­ence – and it was fol­lowed by many more rich ex­pe­ri­ences. The whole ex­er­cise was targeted across the At­lantic and they were soon off to New York and singing their Celtic hearts out at the Rock­e­feller Cen­tre broad­cast to mil­lions on the ‘To­day’ show. Next, they were on tour, fill­ing two big trucks with their gear and five buses with their band and choir.

They opened in Cleveland and threw in a con­cert at Carnegie Hall along the way – ‘Carnegie Hall, that was my am­bi­tion from when I was a girl’. Celtic Woman played in the White House for Ge­orge Bush and Ber­tie Ah­ern, later meet­ing the Clin­tons at a Demo­cratic fundraiser. Ja­pan, South Africa, Ger­many, the Nether­lands, Switzer­land loved them too.

It all added up to an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence but, af­ter four years Orla called it a day, con­fess­ing she was fed up with a rou­tine which al­lowed no room for im­pro­vi­sa­tion. She branched out on her own though go­ing solo proved no cake­walk as she found her­self back on tour, singing the songs and ap­pear­ing on chat shows all around North America.

‘It was like be­ing on a treadmill,’ she can now ad­mit. De­spite all the fun of hav­ing her own band and for all in­valu­able con­tacts made in Nashville, she needed to be back in Leigh­lin­bridge. For a brief while af­ter her fa­ther died, she lost her mu­si­cal mojo, though the joy of be­ing a mother to four year old Fred­die pro­vided rich com­pen­sa­tion.

Now, she is back in busi­ness, how­ever, with her fifth solo al­bum which is col­lec­tion of per­sonal favourites, ded­i­cated to the late John Fallon. Some of the dozen songs on ‘Sweet By and By’ are spir­i­tual while oth­ers sim­ply move her spirit, recorded in Dublin, il­lu­mi­nated with Orla’s pitch per­fect voice, and then sprin­kled with magic dust at a Nashville stu­dio mix­ing desk.

‘These songs cry to be per­formed live,’ she pon­ders. So maybe, just maybe, this Wick-


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