Arts

New memoir celebrates the life of Irish Australian cellist

The late Maureen O’Carroll, who played cello with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The late Maureen O’Carroll, who played cello with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

A NEW memoir has been published that celebrates the early life of Irish Australian cellist Maureen O’Carroll, who died in 2012.

Born in the Sydney suburb of Balmain to Irish immigrant parents, John and May O’Carroll, Maureen carved out a very successful career as a professional musician.

She and her nine siblings all showed a gift for music and their parents saw this as the path out of poverty.

Six of them, including Maureen, attended the NSW Conservatorium of Music High School and went on to become professional musicians.

O’Carroll was drawn to the cello at a very young age, and would prop her brother Robert’s violin on a jam tin and play it like a cello.

At 17, she joined the New Zealand National Orchestra and went from there to New York, where she performed with Frank Sinatra, among others. In 1974, she returned to Australia as a single mother of three. She played a blind audition behind a curtain (to avoid gender discrimination) and was accepted into the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The O’Carroll clan. Six of the children attended the NSW Conservatorium Of Music.

The O’Carroll clan. Six of the children attended the NSW Conservatorium Of Music.

Being a child of two rebels who had fought for Irish independence, Maureen was deeply patriotic about Ireland. At one Sydney Symphony concert, she noted Rule Britannia was on the program and refused to play it. She placed her cello down and marched off stage, only returning at its end.

The new book, A Musical Memoir of an Irish Immigrant Childhood, has been written by her daughter Leora although Maureen is posthumously credited as a co-author.

“Even though her family endured hardships and poverty, my mother always had an optimistic outlook and her humorous takes on her childhood is what makes her recollections so enchanting,” Leora told the Irish Echo.

“As an adult, I was working in New York City as a television writer and producer and decided to move to Seattle where my mother lived, so that we could finally work on this memoir.

Maureen, aged 12, practicing her cello.

Maureen, aged 12, practicing her cello.

“We sat side by side for many months to write the book. It was important to us to authentically capture the memories as seen through the eyes of a child. During the writing process, I learned much more about my mother’s life, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to work with her to capture these memories.”

In this extract, Leora writes about her father’s barber shop in Balmain which was called The Anchor. While hairdressing certainly took place at The Anchor, John O’Carroll ran other enterprises from the shop, which was set up in the family home on Darling Street.

“The most popular feature of the Anchor, however, was not the barbering, but Dad’s other business – his lending library. Housed in a partitioned area at the back of the barber shop, was a small collection of books which included volumes of Macaulay’s History, The Complete Works of Benjamin Disraeli, and The Novels of Lord Lytton, all undoubtedly purchased as a lot by my father at an auction.

“They were dry and unreadable Victorian works, but they weren’t meant to be read. One of dad’s sidelines was bookmaking. He wasn’t binding more volumes for the library but taking bets on the horse races. Bookmaking was an illegal activity, but this didn’t stop many shopkeepers from engaging in it, and my father enjoyed maintaining a unique system to disguise the betting; a borrowed book would be returned with the bet and money placed inside, and another book would be checked out ready for the next bet.

“On Saturdays, the Anchor was a social centre for many local men, who were off work that day and would evade their share of household chores by insisting to their wives that they need a haircut or shave. But of course barbering wasn’t the main attraction. Saturday was the most important day for horse racing and consequently, a particularly busy one for the lending library.

Leora O’Carrollm, who wrote the memoir with her late mother.

Leora O’Carrollm, who wrote the memoir with her late mother.

“Clutching their Lord Lytton novels, the men would hover around the radio in the smoke-filled Anchor, engrossed by the announcer’s incessant monologue of race results from tracks around the country, and as this was thirsty work, they took turns carrying a billy can up the street to the London Hotel to be filled and refilled.

“The lending library was enjoying a burgeoning patronage when my father fell victim to an informer. It was suspected that the woman who ran the comic book shop a few doors away didn’t appreciate the competition, and one day two policemen came into the Anchor – “We’re sorry Jack, but we have to take in your account books.” They probably were sorry too, also being patrons of the lending library. My father didn’t say anything but looking unconcerned, beamed one of his cheeky grins and proudly handed over his ledgers. All of his records had been written in Gaelic.

“Gaelic was not a common written language in Australia and while many Irish people may have spoken the ancient Celtic tongue, there were very few who read it. An attempt was made by the authorities to find a translator. The search was unsuccessful, and even if there was someone who could translate Gaelic, no self-respecting Irish person would have ever agreed to be employed in such a fashion.

“Without the required evidence, the case was dropped and my father resumed his concerns at the Anchor, congratulated by all the eager literary members of his lending library.”

Maureen O’Carroll: A Musical Memoir Of An Irish Immigrant Childhood is available via Amazon

Irish Film Festival to screen in Sydney, Melbourne

Between Land And Sea, which focuses on Clare’s burgeoning surf scene, is one of the movies in this year’s Irish Film Festival.

Between Land And Sea, which focuses on Clare’s burgeoning surf scene, is one of the movies in this year’s Irish Film Festival.

The Irish Film Festival returns to Sydney and Melbourne this May.

The festival officially launches in each city with Float like a Butterfly, an uplifting drama from the producers of Sing Street and the Oscar winning film Once. Set in 1972 when Muhammad Ali was set to fight in Dublin, the film follows Frances, a young Traveller girl with big dreams of becoming a champion boxer.

The film has been acclaimed at both the Cork and Toronto International Film Festivals.

The celebration of Irish cinema begins in Sydney with a community screening of Unquiet Graves at Penrith Gaels Club on Wednesday May 1, followed by the official opening night at the Chauvel in Paddington on Thursday May 2. The festival runs in the Chauvel until Sunday May 5.

The Melbourne leg of the festival takes place at the Kino Cinema in Collins Street from Thursday May 9 until Saturday May 12.

This is the fifth iteration of the festival which started in 2015.

Festival director Enda Murray says he is proud of the programme for this year’s festival. When pressed for a ‘must-see’ he nominates The Drummer And The Keeper.

“Nick Kelly, who is the writer and director, was the lead singer with Irish band The Fat Lady Sings back in the day,” he said.

“He brings a songwriter’s sensibility to the film and I love the fact that it revolves around music.”

The director also singled out A Lifetime Of Stories, a documentary in which older Irish emigrants reflect on their lives. Sydney residents Tomás de Bhaldraithe, Pat Foley, Marian Reilly, Marie MacMillan and Damien McCluskey are some of the locals featured.

“From witnessing Derry’s Bloody Sunday in 1972 to sailing around Ireland on a Galway Hooker, these are men and women who have experienced life to the full,” Murray said.

Float Like A Butterfly follows the fortunes of an Irish Traveller girl who dreams of becoming a top boxer.

Float Like A Butterfly follows the fortunes of an Irish Traveller girl who dreams of becoming a top boxer.

Among this year’s festival highlights are:

Float Like a Butterfly

It’s Ireland in 1971. Muhammad Ali is fighting in Croke Park in Dublin and Frances (Hazel Doupe, right) a young Traveller girl dreams of being a boxer. From the producers of Once and Sing Street, Float Like a Butterfly is a powerful and timely story of a girl’s fight for freedom and belonging.

Unquiet Graves

This documentary alleges that the British government colluded with Loyalist paramilitaries in the deaths of more than 120 citizens in Ireland in the early 70s. Unquiet Graves details how members of the RUC and the UDR, (a British Army regiment) were centrally involved in the murder of over 120 civilians during the recent conflict in Ireland. Director Seán Murray will be a guest of the festival.

Between Land and Sea

Lahinch, Co Clare is an unlikely home to five surfing schools and one of the world’s most dramatic big-wave breaks beneath the majestic Cliffs of Moher. This enthralling documentary presents some incredible surf photography and an engaging portrait of new lifestyles for young people on the West coast of Ireland.

The Drummer and the Keeper

Two young Dublin men find friendship despite their mental health problems in this tender and uplifting rock’n’roll story. Gabriel (Dermot Murphy), a drummer who is bipolar, meets Christopher (Jacob McCarthy), a teenager with Aspergers Syndrome, while the pair are in rehabilitation. An unlikely friendship blossoms despite the hardships giving both young men something to live for.

The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid

An Irish farmer takes on a multinational company in this weird and wonderful documentary.

A Lifetime Of Stories is a documentary in which older Irish emigrants in Sydney reflect on their lives. One of the subjects is Tomás de Bhaldraithe.

A Lifetime Of Stories is a documentary in which older Irish emigrants in Sydney reflect on their lives. One of the subjects is Tomás de Bhaldraithe.

Dublin Oldschool

A WANNABE DJ deals with life head-on in a drug-fuelled weekend Dublin’s rave scene in the ‘90s. Ulysses meets Trainspotting. Director Dave Tynan is a festival guest.

Metal Heart

We hear amazing stories of travel, work and family in the oral histories which the subjects present in their own words. From partnering with Hurricane Higgins in snooker to a young woman driving overland to Australia via Kathmandu on the ‘magic bus’ in the ‘70s - these are men and women who have experienced life to the full.

No Party for Billy Burns

Billy Burns (Kevin McGahern) is a would-be cowboy lost in the dreary fields of Cavan. Billy seeks romance and adventure and dreams of riding into the sunset but the local rednecks have other ideas.

The Camino Voyage

Five artists including Oscar winner Glen Hansard embark on a modern day Celtic Odyssey as they row a currach 2,500km from Ireland to Northern Spain.

Captain Morten and the Spider Queen

A FAMILY cartoon featuring a shrinking boy, a talking caterpillar, and the voices of Brendan Gleeson, Pauline McLynn and a host of Irish comedians.

For tickets and the full program, click here.

Irish boy Fox finds his voice in Australia

Entertainer Bobby Fox, who now calls Sydney home, was born in Edgeworthstown, Co Longford.

Entertainer Bobby Fox, who now calls Sydney home, was born in Edgeworthstown, Co Longford.

Bobby Fox had to come to Sydney to find his voice. And what a voice.

The Longford native is one of four featured singers in the new production of Saturday Night Fever, which opens at the Lyric Theatre in Sydney next week, the latest entry is his impressive showbiz resume.

Fox is now an established star of Australian musical theatre with credits ranging from Jersey Boys to Hot Shoe Shuffle to Spamalot to Assassins. But it was Irish dancing that originally steered him towards a life in showbiz.

“All my upbringing was Irish music and Irish dancing,” he tells the Irish Echo at Saturday Night Fever rehearsals in Sydney. “When I first came to Australia I wanted to expand my horizons as a dancer but I absolutely needed a break from Irish dancing.”

He had performed and toured internationally with Riverdance as well as a number of spin-off shows.

“I was a champion dancer up to the time I joined Riverdance in 1998 but that was when I became passionate, that’s when the passion went ‘click’ and I just wanted to perform.”

Fox relished his time with Riverdance and describes the ensemble as “the very best”. He went on to join a show called Dancing On Dangerous Ground, in which he performed in London and in New York, at the Radio City Music Hall. He then joined To Dance On The Moon, a smaller Irish dance show. It was this production that first brought him to Australia in 2002. But he knew it was time for a change.

“I was doing a performing arts course in Sydney and one of the elements was song ‘prep’. So I had to put a song together and perform it for the class. Everyone around me was saying ‘you have to come back to Australia’.”

He says he owes a debt of gratitude to the couple who ran the course, Elena and Mario De Cinque of ED5 International, who helped him apply and ultimately secure his residency.

“They researched the visa pathway and gave me the money to pay for it. They just said ‘pay us back when you have the money’. Three weeks after I got my residency I got a call to say I had a part in the Sydney production of Mamma Mia. As soon as I had my first couple of paychecks I said ‘thanks lads’ and I was on my way.”

Bobby Fox at rehearsals for Saturday Night Fever in Sydney.

Bobby Fox at rehearsals for Saturday Night Fever in Sydney.

If Mamma Mia was the springboard, Jersey Boys was the splash hit.

The stage musical, which dramatises the remarkable real-life story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, premiered in Sydney in 2010.

The show had won Tony and Olivier awards in New York and London as well as a Grammy for best recording of a musical so expectations were high for the Australian production.

The Edgeworthstown man’s ability to master Frankie Valli’s trademark falsetto was key to him securing the role and he was given the nod by the singer himself.

“I had sung falsetto before but I didn’t think it was that special,” he says. “I could sing before Jersey Boys but Jersey Boys taught me how to sing. I learned how to do it safely, how to clarify it, how to expand the sound, how to take it from just hitting the note nice and sharp to it being something that bellowed through walls.”

Fox went on to perform the role almost 1,000 times around Australia leading to other musical theatre roles in Blood Brothers, Oklahoma and the Australian musical Ladies in Black, which toured nationally and for which he received a Green Room Award nomination. In 2017, he performed in Assassins for which he received a Helpmann Award nomination. On screen, Fox’s credits include Upper Middle Bogan, It’s a Date, Tricky Business and House Husbands. He also appeared in the feature film The Cup. He is also one of Australia’s most in demand corporate and event entertainers.

He admits to creative restlessness and says likes to expand his musical resume along the way.

“I know there’s always something more to me. If I was doing the same thing all the time I would explode.”

In Saturday Night Fever, he is one of four star vocalists along with Paulini, Marcia Hines and Nat Conway, performing songs like How Deep Is Your Love, Stayin’ Alive and More Than A Woman. His involvement, he says, came about through his girlfriend.

“My partner Mel [actress, singer and model Melanie Hawkins] who plays Stephanie, was auditioning for the show so we watched the movie together. That was the first time I had actually seen it. I was obviously familiar with the music and I’m such a big fan of disco. The craftsmanship of the tunes is second to none.”

Fox, whose sister Lisa is an accomplished actor and performer in Ireland, will soon get a chance to

channel his Irish heritage in his own show, The Irish Boy, in which he will sing, dance and reveal his other musical skills on the button accordion and the bodhrán.

“What I want to do is take the traditional and combine it with what’s happening now. I want to replicate that session feel like when the craic’s on and the tunes are good..”

Dubliner Enda Markey, who is producing the show, said, “Bobby is one of the most charming and charismatic performers in the country, and it’s been a real labour of love to be able to develop The Irish Boy with him to create a unique celebration of our home country, showcasing Bobby’s incredible talents.”

It will also give Fox a change to dance again. Last year, while performing Assassins at The Sydney Opera House, he fell on stage during his big number on opening night, breaking his foot.

“It will be a year in June since that happened,” he says. “I’m keen to get the feet moving again.”

Dublin comedy trio set to overdose on craic

Sean Finegan, Conor McKenna and Sean Flanagan are Foil, Arms and Hog.

Sean Finegan, Conor McKenna and Sean Flanagan are Foil, Arms and Hog.

“Can’t wait, really excited about it.” Sean Finegan of Foil, Arms & Hog says he and his mates are chomping at the bit to bring their sketch comedy show Craic-ling to Australia.

“Dying to get out there just to see how the material goes down with a crowd that has been asking us to come for a long time. We’re very excited.”

The comedy trio have only performed in Australian once before, at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2017.

“We did the fringe there for a month. We were gigging four times a night. Nobody knew us and we lost a fortune but had a brilliant time. That’s the last time we were in Australia. We arrived in the middle of a 40-degree heatwave and it melted us but didn’t deter us from coming back.”

FInegan is one third of Foil, Arms & Hog alongside Sean Flanagan and Conor McKenna. The trio write, shoot and edit a new sketch every week to release on Facebook and YouTube.

It’s a formula that has given the trio a massive online following and, one suspects, a steady income. For example, their brilliant take on Brexit, with Britain and Europe portrayed as a divorcing couple has clocked up more than 450,000 views.

In the stage show Craic-ling the trio conducts a class on how to hold a baby, sings a Gregorian chant about life as a monk and re-enacts the assassination of a classically trained actor. Chortle.co.uk described the show as “an effervescent hour of fast-paced gags, fizzing with energy, invention and great lines”.

How would Finegan describe the show for the uninitiated?

“It’s sketch comedy. People think certain things when they hear sketch comedy. In Ireland, there’s no sketch comedy scene whatsoever so when we started out; we started doing stand-up sets. There was no opportunity for any lights or sound, it just had to be funny. It’s very quick, off the bat. We would go sketch to sketch and we started to interact with the audience. It’s kind of like a blend between stand-up and sketch comedy as most people think of it. There’s no overarching theme. Instead of a random series of jokes, we do a random series of sketches, whatever we think are funny.

“People think it’s going to be similar to the online videos but it’s nothing like that. The stuff on stage is way whackier, weirder, much more out there.”

Finegan says they have no idea how the gags will go down, Down Under.

“We have one sketch where three guys join a monastery, become monks and they become really bored really quickly.

“Buckfast is an alcoholic drink made by monks and they find that. I don’t know. How familiar are people in Australia with monasteries? Should we be worried?”

How do the trio decides which material is for their online fans (they have 900,000 followers on Facebook) and what will go on stage?

“The wordier stuff works really well for video. The stuff that works on stage tends to be the bigger world ideas, like crazy stuff you couldn’t film without a Hollywood budget but, with a blank space, the audience can imagine whatever they want.

“The weirder and wilder stuff really bring the crowd into it as well.

“It might take us a week to work on a video for the internet but it would take us two or three months just to write one sketch for stage, it’s just so much more difficult. The standard is so much higher for stage for what you watch on screen but it’s what we enjoy doing more even though it’s harder, the rewards are so much bigger.”

The trio first came together in 2008 while they were still students at University College Dublin. The name evolved from their respective nicknames. Sean Finegan was the comedy ‘foil’. Conor McKenna was ‘all arms and legs’ and Sean Flanagan ostensibly hogged the limelight.

Finegan says he hopes to see a big Irish turnout at the Aussie shows.

“We did a gig in London. It was a really big gig for us in the Hammersmith Apollo and a load of Irish living in London came out and it was almost like this reunion party. It turned into this mad Irish night out. It’s like you’re playing in the World Cup and you’ve got a great travelling support.”

The last time they were in Australia, an elderly Irishman at one of their Adelaide shows was so taken with them, he tried to give them money after the gig.

“He had been living in Australia his whole life and after the show he came up to us and put a pile of money into our hands and he says, ‘Thank you so much for reminding me of home; you’ve taken me back’. We were like, ‘What? This is ridiculous for a silly comedy show’.

“It’s comedy, there’s no messages involved with it but to create something emotional in someone was really nice.”

Foil Arms & Hog kick off their Australian tour in Melbourne on April 9 before performing three shows in Sydney from April 23. The first two Sydney shows are already sold out.

Singer Meg Mac cherishes Irish heritage

Meg Mac is a star on the rise with a national tour in April.

Meg Mac is a star on the rise with a national tour in April.

Irish Australian artist Meg Mac announced herself as a talent to watch out for when her song Known Better was selected for Triple J’s Unearthed progamme in 2013.

Accolades were soon coming her way. She was named Unearthed Artist of the Year while Marie Claire Australia chose her as an Artist to Watch and she received a nomination for Rolling Stone Australia’s Best New Talent award.

The ARIA Music Awards in 2015 saw her up for Best Female Artist and Breakthrough Artist while she was yet to even release her debut album. When her debut Low Blows landed in 2017, it went straight into the ARIA Chart at No 2 and won critical acclaim.

Now Meg has returned with GIve Me My Name Back, the first single from a new EP set for release in April when she also tours around Australia. The song is described as a ‘rallying cry, imploring girls to stand up, speak up and assert themselves’ and is about reclaiming identity, dignity and self-worth.

“It kind of means something different to everyone,” Mac told the Irish Echo.

“I’ve been getting literally hundreds of messages from people telling me what the song means to them and it’s completely different from what it means to me. Everyone can relate to what it feels like to lose who you are or your identity or feel like you’re not your full self anymore and that’s what I wrote it about but being able to see how it is relating to people is really amazing.”

The Irish Australian, who was born Megan Sullivan McInerney, has been writing material for her new EP and the next album to follow. She says she is now conscious of the pressure of producing a good follow up record.

“I think the first time you make something, that pressure isn’t there and then ever since then the pressure’s been there so I kinda just have to ignore all the pressure because if you focus too much on it you’re not going to make meaningful music,” she said.

Her powerful voice often sees her compared to Adele and Amy Winehouse but her earliest and strongest influences come from her Irish background. She was born in Sydney to parents from Donegal (Ballyshannon and Letterkenny) and Cork (Adrigole).

“Mum was always singing Irish songs. I realise now I know them and can sing along just from hearing them as a kid,” she recalls.

Meg Mac was born in Sydney to Irish parents from Donegal and Cork.

Meg Mac was born in Sydney to Irish parents from Donegal and Cork.

“My mum’s dad played accordion, bagpipes and violin, but my mum still has his button accordion and she often gets that out but she usually ends up getting really emotional and has to put it away. And he’s like in the folds of the accordion, he’s handwritten all the names of his favourite songs in all the folds. I never met him because he died before I was born.

“And my dad loves The Pogues and the Fureys, he’s always playing them so it was always around. My sister did Irish dancing.

“I think it is a strong influence. When my mum would sing a lot, she was just singing without any accompaniment. I’ve always loved being able to sing without music, you can just sing the song. When I’m writing as well, I love to be able to sing just the song and have a song be able stand up on its own, have a melody strong enough and pretty enough to seem like all those songs my mum would sing. Often, I’ll just write away from the piano, just singing.”

You will more than one member of the McInerney family on her records as sister Hannah often joins Meg on backing vocals.

“It’s easy, she knows how to sing with me. If I’m at home and I’m writing and I want harmonies, I’ll just call out to my sisters and they’ll come in and then straightaway I can hear what I wanna hear. It’s easy. And you can tell them that it sounds wrong or they’re doing it wrong and they’re not gonna be offended.”

The 28-year-old has fond memories of visiting her family in Ireland.

“Yeah, I’ve been a few times. I still have family there although I haven’t been in a few years.

“I always remember driving all the winding roads and having to stop for sheep to come across the road and then into my auntie’s house and she’s like, ‘go and dig out potatoes’. I’d never done that before: Go outside, pick the potatoes that we were going to eat for dinner. The most important memories are of my cousins, my grandparents. Living so far away, didn’t get to see them that much.

“It’s that weird thing where it feels like home but it’s not actually your home. That’s where both my mum and dad are from and I’m Australian but really I’m not Australian so it feels familiar. Whenever I meet Irish people, it feels like family.”

Meg Mac tours Australia April and May. For information visit www.megmac.com.au

Get set for tsunami of Irish music

Luka Bloom returns to Australia after a four-year absence.

Luka Bloom returns to Australia after a four-year absence.

Fans of Irish music might need to brace for a ticket-buying frenzy as a virtual invasion of artists prepare to travel Down Under over coming months

The East Coast Blues and Roots Festival in Byron Bay over Easter has a distinct Irish accent next year with Hozier and Imelda May both headlining.

Hozier is now a genuine superstar who has built up a massive following around the world since his breakthrough hit Take Me To Church in 2013.

Damien Rice makes a welcome return to Australia.

Damien Rice makes a welcome return to Australia.

Dubliner Imelda May looks very different to when she first toured Australia in 2011. Now, having abandoned her rockabilly look and sound, she has established herself as a brilliant soul and jazz singer.

Also on the bill at Byron Bay are Canadian based Irish singer Irish Mythen, honorary Irishman David Gray and Irish-American Celtic funk band Flogging Molly.

Ahead of that, in February, the uber-talented Damien Rice returns for his first Aussie tour in a decade.

Playing intimate venues like the City Recital Hall in Sydney Rice is slated to “take audiences on a familiar yet unique musical journey – presenting much-loved classics, with the tease of new music on the horizon”.

In March, Gavin James returns after a very successful tour in 2016.

The Port Fairy Folk Festival and Blue Mountains Folk Festival also boast some awesome Irish talent with Luka Bloom returning to Australia for his first tour in five years. Also performing at those festivals in the remarkable Wallis Bird. Born left-handed, she lost the four fingers and thumb of her left hand in a lawnmower accident and had four sewn back on. She got used to playing a right-handed guitar upside-down, which explains her unconventional style.

Hozier plays the East Coast Blues and Roots Festival.

Hozier plays the East Coast Blues and Roots Festival.

Also hitting the festival circuit will be Daoiri Farrell. The former electrician, who decided to become a musician after seeing Christy Moore perform, has been described by some of the biggest names in Irish folk music as one of most important singers to come out of Ireland in recent years.

Sharon Shannon also returns to Australia in February for a shows in Perth, Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne. Also in Australia that month will be crooner Daniel O’Donnell.

Dublin’s Kodaline also return to Oz for the first time since their sold-out 2014 tour. The indie pop quartet have gigs lined up in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth after a St Patrick’s Day show in Melbourne.

Fans of Irish pop can look forward to a reformed Boyzone touring in March and April. Before that, Irish girl group B*Witched will arrive for shows from the end of January.

Celtic Tenors also arrive in May for a national tour.

Unique Irish dance show set to charm audiences

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CRAIC TEAM: The cast of Irish Celtic features some of the world’s best Irish dancers

A UNIQUE Irish dance show is set to get feet tapping in Melbourne and Sydney, with the acclaimed show Irish Celtic set to make its Australian debut.

Set in a traditional Irish pub, the show brings the warm welcome and raucous entertainment for which Ireland is known to a theatre stage to make for a night out like no other. Coming direct from successful tours of Germany and France, Irish Celtic boasts the talents of the finest performers from the best Irish dance companies as the show is choreographed by Jim Murrihy, an original cast member of Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames.

The performances are married to the musical direction of Anthony Davis whose soundtrack will remind audiences of classic films such as Titanic, Braveheart and The Last of the Mohicans and all is brought together by artistic director Toby Gough, international award-winning director of Lady Salsa which played on London’s West End for two years.

Choreographer Jim Murrihy told The Irish Echo they are excited to be bringing the show to Australia. “It’s an area we haven’t been to yet and hopefully it’s the start of many years of touring around Australia and New Zealand and Asia.

"It’s a great show and I think they’ll love it. “Irish music and dancing is accepted worldwide since 1996 when Michael Flatley and Riverdance put Irish dancing and Irish music on the map. “It goes down really well in all those countries.

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Even with the language barrier, I think the music and dancing pull everything together.

“It’s a theme show, set in a pub. We have a narrator who is the owner of the pub, Paddy Flynn, and it’s a simple enough story. He’s passing down keys of the pub to his son Dermot and as the show goes along, he talks about the history of the pub and all the things that used to happen there, anywhere from births to deaths to parties, we talk about the Titanic when people left Ireland to go over to the States many years ago, so he’s telling a story.

“We want the audience to get involved in the show and that’s one of the main things. We want every person to feel like they are in that pub that night that we are portraying.”

The show will electrify fans of Irish dancing who get to see the elite of the craft and what they can do.

“The majority of our dancers are world champion Irish dancers, great performers from Lord of the Dance and Riverdance so we have a very talented cast.

"The dancers are extremely talented, the cream of the crop around at the moment. You will see that in the performance. We do a great number and it’s just the four boys and the sean-nós dancer and it’s just about who can do the best rhythms and taps, who has the highest kicks, the fastest footwork and the audience really likes that.”

When asked how he thinks the show will go down with Australian audiences, Murrihy is reminded of when he came to Australia before as part of Michael Flatley’s production.

“I think it will go down well. In my experience, they have been very receptive to Irish music and Irish dance. Hopefully it will be the same, hopefully they come away smiling and clapping. If they’re cheering and clapping for the first number, then the rest of the show will be fun.

"They just sit back and relax and enjoy the show and become part of the Irish pub. We want them to feel like it’s an Irish pub.

"What we do in Ireland on a social scene witH musicians in a pub, we’re just taking that from an Irish pub and putting it on a theatre stage. “Who can’t relate to a night out in a pub and the things that go on?”

Irish Celtic plays at The Palms at Crown, Melbourne until August 5 and the Capitol Theatre, Sydney from August 7 to 12. For more information, go to www.irishceltic.com.au

From Sydney's beaches to my Longford farm

John Connell is a returned emigrant, writer and award-winning journalist.

John Connell is a returned emigrant, writer and award-winning journalist.

It’s a cool April morning after what has been one of the worst winters in Ireland in living memory. I am sitting down to my computer after morning jobs on the farm and reflecting back on my years as an emigrant. 

Outside my window the gentle waters of Lough Gowna lap and for a brief moment I am transfixed, transported back to Sydney Harbour and gentle days spent there.

I am a farmer and writer now where once I was a journalist and producer in Sydney. I have left that old life behind me but there is a part of me that will forever be Australian.

I came to Australia as a journalism student aged 20 on an exchange program. That move was to define the rest of my life, for six months soon turned into five years and I found myself an accidental Aussie.

I was not alone in that move. Many Irish – indeed, many friends and neighbours – made that same voyage in the years after the recession and worked in the mines and building sites around and throughout the great southern nation.

Sydney was everything Dublin and Longford were not. It was beautiful, and sunny, multicultural and full of opportunities and employment. 

It was in Sydney that I became a writer and a journalist. Putting pen to paper for the first time as a homesick 20-year-old, I wrote my first short story, The Little Black, about a downer cow. The story was to go on to give me my first book deal at the tender age of 23.   It was here too that I met my mentor, the writer David Malouf, who has had a lasting impact on me and helped me become the writer and man I am.

The Australian mentality of the fair go was something new and different to me. Here people judged you not on who you knew, but what you knew and merit was rewarded in a way that Ireland never has quite managed.

I worked for SBS and the ABC before starting my own production company. These were golden years for me; I made friends in both the Australian and the Irish community, including the wonderful and now departed journalist Seumas Phelan. Employment and opportunities, aside Australia was where I met my wife Vivian and so it is forever a joy-filled place for me, a place of grá.

My time in the southern land came to an end a few years ago after a number of health problems forced me home. Those first months in Ireland were not easy ones but they have laid the foundation for my new life here.

Returning to Ireland has been a huge shift. I have lived here now for the last three years and in that time have begun to understand my nation anew. 

There is a beauty and wonder to this place that I see now in ways that I had missed as a child. I had to leave this land in order to appreciate it.

I began farming once again after years as a journalist and the work, while at first hard, proved rewarding. I swapped an office and computer for fields and a tractor. 

I took a great joy in working with my body again and a whole hidden Ireland began to open up to me once more, a world of neighbours and ceilís, of marts and bachelors, local football matches and village fairs.

There were times I missed a nice flat white and a walk by Rushcutters Bay but there is something about bringing a new calf into this world in the middle of a cold Irish winter’s night that no city can ever replicate. 

One has to be active in rural Ireland to feel a part of the community but I have found the rural people of my youth so welcoming and open, for they too have been emigrants and they too know what it is to return.

Australia is where I spent my formative years but Ireland was always calling me home – and it did, eventually.

I’ll forever be an Aussie Irish man, and I’m the better for it.

John Connell, who now lives and works in rural Longford, is a Walkley-winning journalist, farmer and writer. His memoir, The Cow Book, is published this month in Australia by Allen & Unwin.

Brisbane-based Dubliner releases debut album

Mick McHugh has just released his debit album,  A Million Stars.

Mick McHugh has just released his debit album, A Million Stars.

Having shared the stage with artists as illustrious as Amy Shark and Damien Dempsey, Australian-based Dublin singer-songwriter is making a statement of his own with his debut album, A Million Stars.

After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Mick wrote the album with help from none other than Shane Howard of 70's/80's folk/rock group Goanna. Singles Not in Kansas Anymore and Good Good Day have been well received, even receiving industry award nominations.

Mick started recording in early 2016 and explains it may have been a long road but he wanted to make sure he was on the right track.

"I wanted to make sure I did it right," Mick told The Irish Echo.

"It gave me a great opportunity to step it up, to take myself to that next level as an independent artist and compete with the big guns. That was why I took my time to do it. I took the long road to make sure I did every step right."

One of these steps was securing the services of Howard, renowned songwriter of iconic tracks like Solid Rock.

"He is first and foremost a songwriter and he is all about the song, that is what he cares about. He cares about the song. That's why he was brilliant to work with. He was really all about the song.

"He said to me, 'Mick, if you want me to work with you, you have to give me something to chew on'. It had to be something deep. He was writing songs that mean something, songs that have a bit of weight to them and have social commentary.

"I was telling a story of how I turned up to a gig one time and I realise my stuff wasn't going to work here, ya know, because you have your stuff and you know where it works. I turned up and was like, 'Oh man, not in Kansas anymore'.

"I was telling him this story and he clicks his finger, points at me and says, 'that's the song we're going to write'. We went into his man shed with the two guitars and we came out a few hours later with this song and it's done very well for us, finished as a finalist in the Great American Song Contest and it was a semi-finalist in the International Songwriting Contest. It was quite an easy process to work together."

Mick McHugh is a Dubliner but now calls Byron Bay home.

Mick McHugh is a Dubliner but now calls Byron Bay home.

Is it satisfying to get accolades such as these award nominations?

"It is absolutely because it's a long journey and as an independent artist in this point of my career, it's not financial gain so when it gets shortlisted, you know the song is doing its job, that it strikes a chord. It's definitely very satisfying to get the feedback. It's a pat on the back saying, 'Good on ya, man. Keep going'. That's what i means, you're getting it right and it means something to people."

Mick has been honoured to support big Irish acts like The Coronas, Gavin James, Brian Kennedy, Nathan Carter, Bell X1 and Paddy Casey when they have come to Australia.

"When you get to do those gigs, you get to see someone at the peak of their performance so being around those situations is brilliant because you get to see these bands, not just the show but the entire process and that is really beneficial to me going out there then as an independent artist on my own doing the same thing. Then of course you get the exposure to their audience, and you've nothing to lose, you've everything to win. You show people what you do and you're gonna pick up fans, you always do."

The time of Mick's album release coincided with the time he became an Australian citizen after 12 years here. This is a source of pride as it is a country that has been good to him: "I'm an Aussie, mate. Absolutely, very grateful to Australia for the journey it's given me and continues to give me. I've become a full time singer-songwriter.

"I saw the opportunity: 'Because you're emigrating, you have a clean slate. Here's your chance to just pick up the guitar and go for that'.

"Very grateful to Australia that it responded and gave me a chance to grow. I work hard at it, that's the other thing. I was coming out of Dublin going, 'I'm working in restaurants, I'm working in engineering, I'm working in teaching. I'm giving a lot of people a lot of my time. I wonder what would happen if I gave that time to myself?' That was my other inspiration to give this a go, very grateful to Australia the way it's given it back to me. With Australia, if you put the work in, it will come back to you."

Having already launched A Million Stars in his home town of Byron Bay and in the Gold Coast, Mick launches the album in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney this month.

He is also planning on visiting Tasmania, Perth and Adelaide.

"I used to go down to these places regularly but I have stepped off the last three years to focus on making the music so delighted to be stepping out again. Then we have some festivals on the cards. It's just great to be back on the road."

Mick McHugh's A Million Stars is Out Now. Mick McHugh launches the album at The Milk Factory, Brisbane on May 12, Long Play in Melbourne on 18 and 19 May and Moshpit, Sydney on May 26. For more information, visit his website

Australian premiere for orphan girls play

The cast of Highlands Theatre Group's production of  Belfast Girls .

The cast of Highlands Theatre Group's production of Belfast Girls.

Belfast Girls, a play which dramatises the journey of Irish orphan girls to Australia in the mid-19th century, is to have its Australian debut this month.

The play, written by Irish playwright Jaki McCarrick and directed by Stephen Clancy, will be performed by the Highlands Theatre Group (HTG) at the Mittagong Playhouse in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales.

Set in 1850 in the immediate aftermath of the Great Hunger (an gorta mór), the play follows the fortunes of five young women who set sail for a new life in Australia aboard the Inchinnan. Each carried with them their own dark and shocking secrets of the past.

As their journey nears its end, they battle with memories of past deeds and confront the reality of what their futures in this new land, may actually hold for them.

Between 1848 and 1851, more than four thousand young women - many of them orphaned by the famine - left Ireland under the Earl Grey Scheme to boost the female population of the colony.

The HTG is one of only nine amateur theatre groups throughout the world to be given permission to stage the show. 

Writer Jaki McCarrick became interested in the orphan girls story when she found a namesake,  Nora McCarrick, from Easkey, Co Sligo, who had travelled to Australia under the scheme.

"This was a chapter of Irish history I knew nothing about," she said.

"I read what books I could find on the subject, including Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, Thomas Kennelly’s History of Australia, Trevor McClaughlin’s Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish Famine Orphans in Australia, Irish Women and Irish Migration, edited by Patrick O’Sullivan.

"In my reading of these books and articles, I discovered that a particular group of ‘orphans’ were considered to have been especially feisty and colourful, known for their use of obscene language and riotous behaviour. These were known as ‘the Belfast girls’."

The HTG will stage six performance of the play. For more information, and bookings, visit htg.org.au or call Destination Southern Highlands directly on (02) 4871 2888.