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Bringing Irish Christmas to Iowa

BY ISAAC HAMLET | DECEMBER 04, 2014 5:00 AM

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It’s a familiar setting to most in the American Midwest: slipping from the cold blanket of white peacefully covering the world into a warm department store adorned for the holidays — often with the store playing a Christmas song so familiar you find yourself humming along unconsciously.

Familiar as those tunes might be, their melodic and lyrical tropes are far from universal. 

At 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10, the Celtic band Danú will regale the audience at the Englert with traditional Irish Christmas music for the Hancher-sponsored show “A Christmas Gathering: Féile Na Nollag.”

“I am not too familiar with the way Christmas is celebrated in America but in Ireland it’s basically a two-week holiday,” said Benny McCarthy, Danú’s accordion player and one of its founders. “People gather from Christmas Eve until at least New Year’s Day, so there are many gatherings of musicians and dances during this holiday.”

McCarthy has managed the band since it began in 1995, when the founding members attended Festival Interceltique de Lorient, the world’s largest Celtic gathering. There, the group was required to don a Celtic/Irish name.

“We were given the title Danú by a friend,” McCarthy said. “All very simple; it went really well, and nearly two decades later, here we are still going.” 

Oisin McAuley, the band’s fiddler, believes a part of this appeal lies in the hundreds of years of rich tradition and the intricate narratives in Irish music, especially noticeable in Christmas pieces.

“Traditional Irish Christmas music is typically a lot older than the American variety,” McAuley said. “Some of the songs we sing in our show are almost 1,000 years old.”

Danú’s vocalist and flute player Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh describes two of her songs as having a magical quality, partially because of their great age.

“We have beautiful melodies, and we explain the stories behind all our pieces too, to help the audience connect with them and bring them with us on a journey,” Amhlaoibh said.

It’s that journey Danú’s members hope listeners experience and enjoy.

“The most important thing for us when we perform every night is for the audience to have a great night out,” McAuley said. “To experience the Irish ‘craic,’ which is a word for the exuberance of Irishness, its music, and — particularly — the self-deprecating Irish humor.  It’s critical for us to be authentic. If we aren’t really enjoying ourselves, the audience won’t either. It’s why people should come to our performances; you can forget all your troubles for a couple of hours, have the ‘craic,’ and then have some more by chatting to us after the show.”

In spirit of the holiday season,  Danú’s concert is meant to be a celebration accessible to audience members both Irish and American.

“Who doesn’t enjoy fun Irish people playing fun Irish music and heartbreaking songs?” McCarthy said.


MUSIC

Danú’s Traditional Irish Christmas Concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10
Where: Englert, 221 E. Washington
Admission: $10-$40


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