By OWEN McNALLY
Special to The Courant
June 27, 2014
As a precociously smart, athletic tomboy, Eileen Ivers, a future world heavyweight champion Irish fiddler, had a natural gift for stickball, playing on the streets of her Bronx neighborhood where she was raised by her Irish immigrant parents in a loving home drenched with all kinds of music, including, of course, traditional Irish music.
All things Irish reigned and poured in her world from the fluent gift for language and storytelling to a deep abiding love for the old country.
That love for her Irish roots and fascination with the immigrant experience of the Irish diaspora have been inspirations for Ivers, who presents her brilliant, fiery fusion of Irish folk and roots music with her super band, Immigrant Soul, at 8 p.m. Friday, June 27, at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, Old Saybrook.
As a child prodigy, who began playing the fiddle at age 8, Ivers dazzled Irish music fans from New York City to Dublin by winning nine All-Ireland fiddle championships, plus a tenth top award on tenor banjo and an additional 35 medals, making her one of the most decorated players ever in the prestigious competition — the World Cup of Irish music. Not only was she young but, even more incredibly, she was from America not Ireland. The gifted, first-generation Irish-American's great mentor and teacher in the Bronx was the master talent cultivator, Martin Mulvihill, who was, after all, originally from Limerick.
After such success with Irish folk contests, Ivers began to think about expanding her musical horizon to incorporate other genres.
She had a growing desire to explore how Irish music interacted with genres around the world, whether in Appalachia or Canada. It was her openness to the winds of change that led to her innovative, open-ended approach, all done without, she feels, diluting the essence of Irish music or ever losing sight of who she is as an Irish-American and where she came from as the proud daughter of Irish immigrants.
Part of the key to opening her mind and ears to this new frontier for contemporary Irish music may well have been her growing love for, of all things, mathematics as she edged into her 20s.
At Iona College, a Congregation of Christian Brothers-affiliated college in New Rochelle, N.Y., Ivers, developed an intellectual passion for higher mathematics. Even after graduating magnum cum laude from Iona with a degree in math, she pursued further studies on a post-graduate level. She was entranced by the logic and pursuit of working out harmonious solutions with equations and theorems.
Her curiosity inspired her to fuse world and roots music influences — everything from African and Latin to bluegrass, country, pop, rock and the improvisational edge of jazz —- with her lifelong passion for Irish music.
Her bold mathematical formula — Irish music + World music + the use of non-traditional Irish folk instrumentation, including, quite shockingly to folk purists, electronics — has yielded her a celebrated signature sound.
Retaining its core Irish roots, Ivers' jubilant blend that the New York Times declares makes her "the Jimi Hendrix of the Violin," has been electrifying audiences in concert halls around the globe. Her giant breakthrough occurred in the '90s during a three-year stint as the pyrotechnical instrumental soloist with the original production of "Riverdance," right from the mega-hit show's opening night in Dublin.
Perhaps the best and most succinct summation of this Celtic superstar's embrace of multiple styles and her Irish heritage was written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Irish-born writer Frank McCourt ("Angela's Ashes"): "She's Irish, she's American, she's international…Eileen is ready to take her fiddle to the mountain, prairie, savannah, jungle and bring back the sounds that keep us fresh, that renew us. Like Walt Whitman, she contains multitudes, and cannot be contained by Irish music itself."
Recently, Ivers spoke to by phone from her home in Rockland County, N.Y., where she lives, except for summer sojourns in her family home in County Mayo, Ireland, with her husband/manager Brian Mulligan and 5-year-old son, Aidan.
Q: In your performances you talk about the long history of Irish immigration. Tell me about your link with that and your Irish heritage, which is so central to your persona and artistry.
A: The Irish people are one of the most resilient people in the world, considering what they've gone through and endured. Yet they kept their faith, their language and their traditions. I think it's a very inspiring story.
Q: What about your parents who emigrated from Ireland to the U.S.?
A: Both my parents were from County Mayo in the West of Ireland, and came over in the 1950s. They instilled in me and my sister the love of our Irish heritage, and also the pride of being American and the great opportunities that this great country can allow.
It was a wonderful upbringing because we had that sense early on, and my dad — God, rest his soul… we lost him about two years ago…worked for the airlines most of his life. The wonderful thing about that job was that he was able to get our family of four over to Ireland every summer for a couple months of summer vacation visiting relatives there. We were out of the Bronx in the long, hot summer and over to Ireland where my sister and I were running around playing with the cows and jumping over haystacks.
Q: What was it like in your neighborhood in the Bronx when you were growing up?
A: There were other ethnic groups around, but the neighborhood I was brought up in was Irish. There was even a great bakery with Irish scones and a terrific butcher shop up the block. Looking back, you get a sense of how these Irish immigrants were holding onto their heritage in so many ways, whether it was with sports or food and, most especially, through their music and dance.
Q: How did you get hooked on the fiddle?
A: I really did gravitate to the sound of the fiddle. I associated it mostly with being happy because a lot of the Irish tunes were upbeat. But, later on, of course, I really enjoyed that you could be so emotional and cathartic at times on the instrument.
Q: Did your parents direct you towards the fiddle?
A: My mom thought Irish dancing might be for me, so she enrolled me in Irish dance lessons at first. Honestly, I just didn't really like it. And it was taking me away from playing stickball in the streets with my friends.
Q: How did that turn out?
A: I kept after her. So my parents rented a little ¾ fiddle, and that's where the story begins. I had a wonderful teacher and was blessed by having this Irish-born gentleman, Martin Mulvihill, an immigrant from County Limerick. He taught fiddle, accordion and whistles and all sorts of traditional instruments in this little Shamrock Club down in a little neighborhood in the Bronx.
Q: You play with such daring and consummate mastery of the instrument. You must have had classical training.
A: No. I always joke by saying, 'I have no bad habits. I never studied classically.' I think going to fiddle competitions in Ireland made me get very much into the technical part of playing, hopefully bettering myself as I went up the ladder of those years.
It's such an amazing instrument. I think 'til the day you're gone, you constantly learn and hopefully get better. Obviously, in life you have to have that attitude of always learning.
Q: What about the role of tradition in your music, which embraces so many diverse elements?
A: Tradition has to be respected and not really diluted. At the same time, you want to make the music more accessible and bring in other sonic elements that maybe Irish music didn't have traditionally, like electric bass guitar. The Irish drum, the framed goat-skin bodhran, and the feet were the big elements in percussion. But if you use bigger sounding drums, or African drums or congas as we do in the group, it gives, in a complementary way, different aural sensibilities that can enhance the sound.
Q: You also deal with the Irish diaspora, right?
A: Our current project "Beyond the Bog Road," speaks to the immigrant's journey of leaving and all that has entailed over the last four centuries. With the Irish being uprooted from the island for many reasons, their music has travelled with them all over the place, and interacted and integrated with other roots music along the way. And I find that absolutely fascinating.
Q: How would that be illustrated?
A: I talk about how Irish music integrated with French Canadian music and elsewhere though the journeys of the immigrant, especially in the Great Hunger and famine times. And how Irish music and African roots music impacted and basically was the groundwork for American Appalachian music and bluegrass music and even country music. We'll play a French Canadian set of tunes; a Breton selection from Brittany, which is one of the seven Celtic nations; and some bluegrass. I like to play the audience an Irish hornpipe that's a very old tune, and show how it became known in the Appalachians as a different tune, then show the similarities and the subtle differences.
Q: Do you get criticism from purists for your innovative approach?
A: You do, of course, from certain traditionalists. Everybody has their opinion, right?
Q: What about your own reflections?
A: I had a little internal struggle in my own heart wondering, 'Is this okay to do with the music?' And at the end of the day, I came down to this litmus test. 'Is it still being true to Irish music? Is it diluting it?'
I think it's really complementing it, and taking it in this wonderful timeline that is a very natural, healthy progression. It's a living tradition, after all. I come back to that all the time. Yes, I decided this is a good thing, especially if it's in your heart to do it. Maybe God gave you a certain gift to be able to pull these elements together and that's important. If you're feeling it, and you're striving to do it and it's in your nature to do it, you can't really fight it
EILEEN IVERS AND IMMIGRANT SOUL perform at 8 p.m. Friday, June 27, at The Kate, 300 Main St., Old Saybrook. Tickets: $45. Box office: 877-503-1286. Information: www.katharinehepburntheater.org.
Copyright © 2015, The Hartford Courant