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.