Windmill Lane Sessions

The Celtic Tenors 17.04.16

The Celtic Tenors star Matthew Gilsenan tells Barry Egan about their experience of racist gay B&B owners in the US and singing for Kofi Annan's wife as a birthday gift from Bono

First, some house-keeping. The Celtic Tenors are one of the country’s most popular acts. As such, they are playing Independent News & Media’s Rock Against Homelessness concert next Sunday (April 24) at the Olympia in aid of Focus Ireland’s youth homelessness projects. I hope the gig — apart from raising a good few bob for charity  — will go without hitches, not least because master vocalists Matthew Gilsenan, James Nelson and Daryl Simpson have a certain history of hitches at their concerts...

A few years ago, The Celtic Tenors were hired to perform in the United Arab Emirates for a special performance. Rehearsing for three days with the Armenian Opera Orchestra and Lebanese pop star Abir, The Celtic Tenors’ performance was a specially commissioned piece in English and Arabic. All good, so far.

“We were fired up,” recalls Matthew, sitting in the green room after The Celtic Tenors’ sublime performance on’s Windmill Lane Sessions.

“We were ready to do the second half of the show for an audience which comprised some Emerati locals including the host, some of the Ferrari family and a host of dignitaries as well as racing world elite.” 

The intermission came in this lavish production, adds Matthew, when suddenly the host got a phone call: he had to leave at his father’s request, to join him at another location. Etiquette apparently demands in that part of the world that when the host leaves, the party’s over.  One table (out of hundreds of tables) stayed...

“It was the Sundance Film Festival table, we performed our 40 minute production with full orchestra to these 14 people. Because only half of the evening’s expected imbibement occurred, there were dozens of bottles of vintage Dom Perignon for the drinking, so, with ourselves, the orchestra and the crew, we had a monumental party,” laughs Matthew, before adding that they once dedicated a song Time To Say Goodbye to a woman in the audience who turned out to be 95-years-of-age. 

At another show in the United States, The Celtic Tenors found to their horror that they had been booked in a somewhat strange for the 21st century venue.

“We did an extensive tour of the Southern US States a number of years ago, and in a town, which should remain nameless, we performed our show,” begins Matthew. “The show went down well and during the after show chats with the audience, we discovered that this venue was being touted a ‘Whites Only’ venue.”

We were, of course, aghast and went to the organisers to see if this was true. This venue doubles as a ‘Whites Only’ and ‘Blacks Only’ venue on alternate weekends,” explains Matthew.  “This was our first, and only, encounter with the remnants of segregation in the US.  We thought we were safe back in the liberal hands in our boutique hotel, which was run by a charming gay couple.”  Breakfast next morning, says Matthew, proved otherwise.  “We were told how in their garden maintenance, ‘Mexicans were much harder workers than the African race’. We left soon after.”

Here to promote their magnificent new CD Timeless, Matthew says the group’s popularity and demand has never been higher. This is saying something, given that The Celtic Tenors have more than their share of big-wig fans.

“A few days after our performance in Dublin Castle for President Bill Clinton and the Northern Peace Process Team,” says Matthew, “Bono’s office called up to see if we could do an intimate performance, as a birthday gift from Bono and Ali to Secretary General Kofi Annan’s wife, Nane Annan.  We, of course, obliged and found ourselves performing five feet from Secretary General Annan and his wife in the drawing room in the beautiful Farmleigh Residence.  We received a lovely letter from Ms Annan.”

Presumably it didn’t mention Whites Only venues in the Deep South?