What's the weather like in Dublin at the start of St. Patrick's season?
"Rain, rain, rain," laments Tadhg O Meachair by phone from his hometown. "There's a bit of a storm coming tonight."
This week, though, O Meachair and his mates in the Irish traditional band Goitse will trade in the gray and wet of Ireland—what the Irish call "broken" weather—for the sun and blue skies of the American Southwest.
The award-winning band, five musicians strong, will hit Tucson next Wednesday, March 8, performing a concert of Irish songs that will kick off the Old Pueblo's annual celebration of all things Irish. Tucson's Celtic Steps Irish Dancers (formerly Tir Conaill Irish Dancers) will provide a little soft-shoe and step dancing.
"We'll do trad tunes and trad tunes that are newly composed," says O Meachair, Goitse's accordionist and pianist. The band's repertory includes songs composed by the band's fiddler and vocalist Aine McGreeney.
"She's a wonderful singer and a strong Irish speaker," says O Meachair, who himself grew up speaking Irish in a bilingual family in Dublin. McGreeney, named Best Female Vocalist of 2016 by the Irish American News, will give Tucsonans a taste of the old language: she sings in both Irish and English. (The band's name is an Irish word for "come here.") And McGreeney's way with the fiddle has taken her on tour in Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance.
Rounding out the band are Colm Phelan, World and All-Ireland champion of the bodhrán, the Irish drum; guitarist Conal O'Kane, a Philadelphia-born child of Irish immigrant parents; and banjo player James Harvey, the baby of the group, who was a year or two behind the others at the University of Limerick. (He missed the band's last stop in Tucson, in 2013; while the others were out on tour Harvey was working on his senior thesis.)
The musicians met a decade ago at the university's Irish World Academy, a rigorous program in Irish arts that has produced a gaggle of thriving young bands.
"From day one," says O Meachair says, the four founding members "started putting stuff together. By the third year we recorded our first CD (Goitse), and right after graduation we went straight to the States for a two-month tour."
In the years since, the band has racked up a pile of awards, most recently nabbing the title of 2016 Band of the Year from the Chicago Irish American News and 2015 Trad Group of the Year from Live Ireland. They've now have four CD's, with the latest, Inspired by Chance, released last year. And the musicians have developed a devoted fan base at home, in Canada and in the U.S., particularly in Irish-American communities. But they've also got a fierce following in Germany and Austria.
"It's an inviting kind of music," O Meachair says, explaining the fervor of their fans. "It's dance music with a core pulse and energy."
Goitse and Celtic Steps, 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 8, Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway. Advance tickets $25 general, $23 seniors, students and members of Tucson Friends of Traditional Music. Available at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave. 792-3715; at The Folk Shop, 2525 N. Campbell, 881-7147; or at www.iconcerttucson.com. $3 more at the door.
Tucsonans go mad for all things Irish around St. Patrick's Day, and music is only part of the story. The Old Pueblo's March Madness also takes in theater, painting, and of course the annual parade.
Live Theatre Workshop embraces the season with The Cripple of Inishmaan, an Irish play by the acclaimed playwright Martin McDonagh. A Londoner born in 1970 to a pair of Irish immigrants, McDonagh has written savagely funny plays about the rural Ireland of the past. Cripple is set in 1934, in the wind-blown Aran Islands where a film crew has arrived to document the life of the traditional, Irish-speaking locals. TW theater critic Sherilyn Forrester writes that the 1996 play—revived on Broadway to acclaim in 2014—displays McDonagh's trademark "mixing of humor, poetry and tragedy." Through March 25, 5317 E. Speedway, livetheatreworkshop.org.
Painter Joe Forkan grew up in Tucson, studied art at the UA and recently had a smash Lebowski solo show at the UA Museum of Art. But he has Irish roots. In 2010, he won an arts residency in County Mayo's Ballycastle, which, as his Irish luck would have it, was just a short drive from his ancestral village, with a graveyard full of Forkans. Forkan worked feverishly in the Auld Sod, making dozens of plein air paintings that captured the changing light of the sea and cliffs of the Irish coast, where the sun rapidly gives way to rain. Etherton Gallery has pulled out a small array of these splendid Irish works, showing them this month in honor of St. Patrick's. 135 S. Sixth Ave., ethertongallery.com.
March 17 falls on a Friday this year and the St. Patrick's Day Parade will wend its way through downtown on the big day itself. Starting at 11 a.m., step dancers, floats, dignitaries and, let us not forget, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will strut from 17th Street and Stone Ave., north up Stone and then east to Armory Park, 221 S. Sixth Ave. The late, much lamented Tim Prendiville, everyone's favorite Tucson Irishman (he claimed to have once sung "Danny Boy" with JFK), is no longer here to kick off the afternoon festival with his usual sonorous prayer in Irish. But his spirit surely will surely hover over the performances of Irish music and dance on the festival stage, and the consumption of Irish stew and Guinness. Festival runs from noon to 5 p.m.
At 7 p.m. on St. Patrick's, perpetual partiers can repair to O'Malley's, 247 N. Fourth Ave., make a Great Irish Toast and listen to the live music of McCallion, Zavala & Friends, a partial reunion of The Mollies, the band that pioneered a Mexican-tinged Tucson Celtic sound.
With the demise of Auld Dubliner, you'll have to search out other bars for live Irish music. Check the Weekly's listings.
Meantime, the big-time Irish concert still to come will unfurl after St. Patrick's Day, on Thursday, March 23. Mick Moloney, a giant in Irish music circles and a scholar who studies the ways Irish music changed when it reached America's shores, turns up in Tucson for the first time in years. Moloney, a Limerick man who's expert on tenor banjo and mandolin, and singer and a storyteller extraordinaire, teams up with Athena Tergis, a San Francisco-born fiddler who performs and records widely. St. Francis in the Foothills, 4625 E. River Rd. inconcerttucson.com