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The tenor and the bombshell

Celestine was the prettiest girl in Kells, while Matthew sang with the nuns. He was sure he didn't stand a chance

'MATTHEW was a very good boy back then," says Celestine Gilsenan with a laugh, recalling how she first met her tenor husband in Kells when they were doing the Leaving Cert. "He wore a Pioneer pin and sang with the nuns in our assembly hall, and I'd be thinking, 'Sweet Jesus!' I thought I was God's gift to mankind at that point, and was flying around the place driving my mum's car."

"Celestine Jennings was the prettiest girl in Kells and she was everyone in my year's idea of the perfect girl," says Matthew. "She was gorgeous and unattainable and only went out with older boys. I didn't stand a chance!"

Back then, there were two people with the same name living locally, so our hero was known as "Matt the singer" (as opposed to the other fella -- "Matt with the horse!"). He and Celestine met 10 years later in Dublin at a party, when both were 27, and she realised that she liked the look of him. He had lost the Pioneer pin, gained a bit of life experience, and, in short, had, in Celestine's words, "sexed up a bit!" That, and the perfect smile and gorgeous curly mop, made a winning combination, although she wasn't as keen on the leather trousers he sported!

They started dating, and he realised that she wasn't as cool as her facade suggested, but was warm and lovely underneath, and she realised that he was far more hip and interesting than she had imagined. They were married at the house at Headfort School (they were the first people to marry there) and have three children, Sean, 9, Grace, 6, and Rose, 4. Matthew unfortunately missed Sean's birth by a day as he was on tour in Germany, but this scenario, alas, can be an occupational hazard of being an international performer.

Celestine and Matthew are both warm and funny and well able to laugh at themselves. They have also started working together, which has given them very much a shared focus.

As the eldest of the five Gilsenan children from a farming family from Moynalty, Co Meath, Matthew was a soloist with his choir from an early age, and had some voice training with his singing teacher, Sr Dominic. When he came to Dublin to study engineering at UCD, he also did vocal studies part-time at the College of Music, or the DIT Conservatory of Music, as it is now known. He initially went to work as an engineer in England for five years, but had a yearning to explore his musical side.

Back in Dublin, he joined the National Chamber Choir, and was approached by two members of the Celtic Tenors, James Nelson and Niall Morris, at a performance at the Gaiety Theatre. They invited him to join, and the rest is history.

The Celtic Tenors have become Ireland's biggest-selling classical crossover group with record sales in excess of 500,000. Daryl Simpson replaced Niall in the line-up a few years ago. They have performed on all the world's major concert stages, and include former US president Bill Clinton and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as fans. They spend a lot of time abroad, as new territories are opening up all the time, including China and Australia. However, Irish fans will be in for a treat when the group bring their particular brand of magic to the National Concert Hall this Wednesday, with Matthew's younger sister Deirdre Shannon (of Celtic Woman and Lord of the Dance fame) as a special guest.

Celestine has an older brother Brian and sister Maeve, who now live in France, and she and Matthew like to visit them there. Her parents, Tom and Vivienne Jennings, still live in Kells, and Tom has a hardware store called Royal County Services in Navan. After school, she studied Russian in Trinity for a year, followed by a secretarial course, and then she got the Morrison Visa and went to live in Tampa, Florida, for a couple of years, where she worked as an au pair. And had a ball, she says.

When she came back to Ireland in 1995, she worked for Hamilton Osborne King, Equity Bank, and the Outdoor Advertising Company. She also went back to college and did a diploma in marketing and PR.

After their first child, Sean, was born, Celestine did a bit of part-time event managing with Microsoft in Ireland. Then, when The Celtic Tenors parted company with their management and started managing themselves, she began doing basic admin for the group, initially booking flights and managing schedules.

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"As they became more confident in their own management and their own direction, my role grew," she explains. "Matthew is managing the group himself now with James, and I'm his wingman and his sidekick."

With a busy working and family life, the pair unwind by running. Matthew says that he still thinks that Celestine is "smoking hot" and feels that her involvement helps them and enhances their marriage, particularly as the group is prone to go off on tour for long spells. They are currently talking to an Australian label and a touring company, and will possibly go out there for the summer next year.

"I don't think I'd be as sympathetic to a touring lifestyle if I worked somewhere else, but now I see the bottom line," says Celestine.

"I see the bank balance, manage the cash flow, sort out visas and tax compliancy, deal with all the agents, and manage their schedules. It's much easier to send Matthew off now, but I don't think I would be as understanding if someone else was doing it. Now I get it as I'm part of it all. I see the whole scenario."

The Celtic Tenors will perform 'An Evening of Power Ballads and Great Love Songs' at the National Concert Hall this Wednesday at 8pm. Bookings on 01 417 0000 or www.nch.ie. Their new album, 'Feels Like Home', is out now.


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