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The Celtic Woman now out on her own

Reporter David Medcalf enjoyed a conversation with singer Orla Fallon from Knockananna who has toured the world with her harp and is promoting a fine new solo album called 'The Sweet By and By'.

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Harpist and singer Orla Fallon

Harpist and singer Orla Fallon

Harpist and singer Orla Fallon

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 Wicklow-cum-Carlow Celtic Woman will be coming soon to a venue near you.

Bray People