The C-Word

An exploration of the word ‘Celtic’
Episode Trailer

What’s up with the word ‘Celtic,’ and what does it have to do with Irish music?  Why does the C-Word sometimes come off as non-specific, simplistic, or academic? Host Shannon Heaton unpacks the meaning and mysteries of Celtic culture with Seamus Egan, Neil Pearlman, Marc Gunn, Ellery Klein, and coffee drinkers at Mystic Roaster in Medford, Mass. 


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Brian Benscoter, Kevin O’Neil, Rex Edwards, and Hannah Derusha for supporting this episode. And thank you to Matt Heaton for script editing and production music.

Episode 13-The C-Word An exploration of the word ‘Celtic.’ 
This Irish Music Stories episode aired February 13, 2018

– this episode edited by Bob Suchor –

Speakers, in order of appearance

>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Crowd Montage (Sean Tear, Sharon Hepburn, a group of kids, and Matt Bell)
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> Seamus Egan: Philadelphia-born multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer who led the band Solas for 20 years
>> Neil Pearlman: Maine-based multi-instrumentalist, stepdancer, and host of podcast TradCafe
>> Marc Gunn: Alabama-based Celtic-style singer, songwriter, and Sci-Fi fan who hosts the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast
>> Ellery Klein: Boston-based fiddle player and teacher who toured with various Irish groups and teaches a myriad of fiddle styles


>> Shannon: Welcome to Season two of Irish Music Stories! Before I start the show, I wanted to thank everybody for listening. IMS is from me to you.  It’s my way of sharing my love and curiosity for traditional music. And it really is my privilege to talk to fellow trad musicians and dancers.

But it’s also very time consuming. Your support keeps me going. So thank you to this month’s donors, read by my son, Nigel. 

>> Nigel: Thank you to, Kevin O’Neil, Rex Edwards, Hannah Derusha, and Brian Benscoter 

>> Shannon: If you haven’t donated yet, or rated the show in iTunes, please visit  And thank you!!  And… 

I’m Shannon Heaton, and this is Irish Music Stories, the show about traditional music, and the much bigger stories behind it…

… like what’s behind the C-Word.


Tune: “Free the Heel,” from Kitchen Session
Artists/Composers: Matt & Shannon Heaton]

Thats right, the C-word: Celtic.

In this episode, I unpack the meaning and mysteries of Celtic culture with Seamus Egan, Neil Pearlman, Marc Gunn, and Ellery Klein… and a few coffee drinkers at Mystic Coffee Roaster in Medford, Mass:

>> Shannon: So when I say the word Celtic, what do you think of?

>> Speaker 1 (Sean): I think of Boston, I think of Southie, I think of people dancing and having a good time.

>> Shannon: When I say the word Celtic, what do you think of?

>> Speaker 2 (Kid): It’s a weird name.  

>> Shannon: What about you?

>> Speaker 3 (Kid): Um, like Scotland stuff, European music and whatnot.

>> Speaker 4 (Kid): Celtics … I don’t know.

>> Speaker 5 (Matt): When you say the term Celtic, I can’t help but think you must be mistaken. They’re the Celtics, the Boston Celtics, and they’re the greatest team in the NBA.

>> Speaker 6 (Sharon):  I guess Irish and Scottish music and dress, and lots of green and rain.

>> Speaker 7 (Kid):  What’s that word again?

>> Shannon:  Celtic.

>> Speaker 7: [laughter] Like a Tic-Tac. [more laughter]

>> Shannon:  Tic-Tac flavor? hat kind of Tic-Toc flavor would it be? Sweet?

>> Speaker 7:  Spicy. [laughter]

>> Shannon:  Spicy, alright.

>> Shannon: That was Sean Tear, Sharon Hepburn, a group of kids, and Black Sabbath fan Matt Bell.

So… Celtic. I heard varying degrees of familiarity with the term here. Here’s a more in-depth definition:

Celtic refers to these distinct cultures who speak Celtic languages… or who did at some point in history: Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Breton, Cornish, Manx, and sometimes Galician. 

Festivals and radio shows like Celtic Connections, Celtic Colours, A Celtic Sojourn — they all use Celtic as an umbrella term. They’re making space for the different Celtic communities. And for related traditions like Cape Breton, Appalachian, and Quebecois. So this is an informed, even slightly academic use of the word.

Buuut then there’s this other connotation of Celtic. 

[ Music: “Many Splendored Celtic Music Fantasia,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist/Composer: Ryan Beveridge ]

It might refer to a pile of jewelry, some new age spirituality, a kilt worn with a pirate blouse, a tattoo that says pogue mahon, a pile of potatoes, sour cream and salsa at a Renn Faire.

You can see it, right? “Celtic Nachos, 8 tickets” in bright green Book of Kells lettering. It’s funny. And the Claddagh rings and the Celtic wedding vows book at the stall beside it. It’s all a many splendored experience that feels just a little more windswept with the Celtic handle. 

So: Celtic Nachos. Lord of the Rings Wizard staff. Stonehenge font. Gem encrusted swan pendant … It’s somethin’.

Do I sound cynical? Elitist? Maybe… And also, curious. But most of all, I’m probably just ego-driven. I mean, I’ve invested all this time in my adopted Irish music corner. So the idea of dabbling in a few unrelated elements, from different regions and time periods, and just calling them “Celtic” feels … well it feels a little opportunistic, or at least simplistic.

But maybe it’s all about engaging with culture and community, and who cares if people use Celtic to refer to those distinct linguistic cultures…. or to refer to this vague, romantic, cultural world, based on modern and ancient people and places?


Tune: “Celtic Grooves,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton]

To help me consider new angles of the C-word – and maybe soften my black and white sensibilities a bit – I talked with multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan. 

Seamus co-founded the band Solas. We chatted when he was in town for Brian O’Donovan’s Celtic Christmas Sojourn. Seamus reminded me that Celtic – like the actual living traditions it incorporates – is evolving. 

>> Seamus: You know, I think Celtic for the longest time — I think it’s changing now — but back then certainly, anything Celtic just seemed to mean Irish, which I thought it was unfortunate, because it sort of lumped everything into the same thing, and ultimately it was just Irish. I just felt it was a catch all term that was used without exactly folks knowing that there was a lot more to it than just Irish. Particularly when it started getting into that sort of mainstream, you know, with the River Dance influence and everything. You couldn’t turn the television on without tin whistle happening on a commercial.  All that kind of stuff. So playing Irish music was fine, but if I was playing Celtic music and it wasn’t Irish well, like, come on guys!

>>Shannon: Do you think the term has changed?

>>Seamus: I think there’s a greater appreciation that it’s more inclusive of things other than just Irish. And I think just the creativity and the range of sort of “Celtic music” that’s out there now, coming from Scotland or Brittany or Galicia, or whatever. I mean, yeah, it’s great. And in some ways, and maybe properly so, maybe Irish music has sort of taken its place in the pantheon of it all, not just this is what Celtic music is. Because that was never right.

>>Shannon: Yeah. 

As Celtic Christmas Sojourn’s music director, Seamus brings in a variety of influences. But he’s an Irish musician first. And when his music intersects with other styles, he’s aware of the process. 

So: firm foundation in a tradition. And also an open spirit. He called on both during his 20 years with his band Solas.


Tune: “Hugo’s Big Reel,” from The Turning Tide
Artist: Solas]

>>Shannon: Solas is an Irish band, started as an Irish band. 

>>Seamus: All of us having grown up in the tradition never felt we needed to hold on to that to such an extent as to exclude trying other things. That sort of DNA would always be within whatever that we would try. So there was certainly sort of an inherent interest in pushing things a little bit and trying new things. Even though we pushed the boat out from time to time, I think the band always sort of … there was a kernel of sound that always seemed to be there.

>>Shannon: And you’ve definitely sewn in some of these extra Irish music influences.

>>Seamus: It was probably difficult for me to play something that doesn’t have the sort of smell of it, you know, ‘cause it’s so ingrained in. So I never feel I’m … no matter what it is I’m doing, to me I can always smell …

>>Shannon: Smell Irish?

>>Seamus: I can smell the Irish music in it.

>>Shannon: Sarah McLaughlin was endeared to this smell, uh sound, when she wrote a song based on Seamus’s tune “Weep Not for the Memories”

Her words, sung to his melody, became a hit:


Song: “Weep Not for the Memories,” excerpt from Brothers McMullen Soundtrack
Composer: Seamus Egan, Artist: Sarah McLaughlin]

It will be really interesting to see what music Seamus comes up with, now that he has a break from Solas

>>Seamus: I’m as curious as anyone else! hahahah! 

Like Seamus, piano player and podcaster Neil Pearlman’s work emanates from his own trad music background:

>>Neil: My experience is most strongly out of the Scottish and Cape Breton community.

Growing up around the Scottish and Cape Breton tradition, I feel like the phrasing of that music is inside all of my … all of my musical soul, really. The phrasing of that music is something that comes out in everything I play. And so everything I write is going to have a tinge of that. 

>>Shannon: Neil knows where his music comes from. He knows when he’s branching out. And he regularly investigates the intersection of tradition and creativity in his TradCafe podcast. In fact, we traded interviews … and you can hear the mic turned back on me in his Trad Cafe Episode 8.

So Neil came over and we chatted in the kitchen about why he is more likely than Seamus Egan, to describe his own work as Celtic:

>>Neil: Would you like me to just say a whole bunch of sample words and phrases so you can make me say anything you want? [laughter] Four. Six. I. [more laughter] 

I like to think of myself as a musician within the Celtic world, whose specific background is in Scottish and Cape Breton music. I think that people understand more the idea of Celtic music than Scottish music. I think it’s maybe a little bit more of a concern for someone playing Scottish music than Irish music, because Riverdance has really made, in a mainstream way, the idea of Irish music. But if I say I’m a Scottish musician and people think of kilts and bagpipes.


Tune: “Hector the Hero Medley,” from 2015 Worlds Competition
Artist: Inveraray District Pipe Band]

>>Shannon: Which is cool.

>>Neil: Which is cool. But it’s not really what I do most of the time. I think it’s harder for people to figure out what it is than if I say it’s Celtic.

Yeah, and I would say the Scottish scene, there’s just less, somehow, compared to the Irish scene in the US. Scots seem to have assimilated more to kind of more mainstream American culture than the Irish immigrants did. You can go all around the US and find an Irish session or an Irish pub. Pretty much in any town there’s going to be one. It’s harder to find that with Scottish. Although the hillbillies, the original hillbillies were often Highland immigrants, so Appalachian music has a lot of Scottish roots to it.  But they don’t see themselves as Scottish as far as I can tell.  So I would say Scottish sessions in the US are fewer and farther between. I think a lot of it is fed by a certain strain of kind of American-Scottish musicians who have gone … especially gone to Alasdair Fraser’s fiddle camps. 

>>Shannon: Fiddle player Alasdair Fraser moved from Scotland to California in 1981. 


Tunes: “Jig Runrig, The Ramnee Ceilidh,” from Highlander’s Farewell
Artists: Alasdair Fraser, Natalie Haas]

With a strong footing in traditional Scottish style, Alasdair was driven to find his own voice on the fiddle. He developed a way of playing with an emphasis on rhythmic bowing. And since starting Valley of the Moon fiddle camp, he’s helped a lot of players find their own personal styles. For many of the students, and the instructors, there’s that shared priority on bowing and rhythm.

>>Neil: So you find in the US in Scottish sessions that there’s a slightly different take on how Scottish music is getting played than there is in, say, Glasgow.

>>Shannon: So what do they do in Glasgow?

>>Neil: Well the way I would characterize Scottish sessions in Glasgow are incredibly fast. They play tunes at break-neck speeds. Unlike maybe father north in Scotland, where’s there’s more dancing.  In Glasgow, you know, at the pub sessions people aren’t dancing, so they’re just ripping through these tunes, which can be really exciting.  And I think that in the US, because there are so many Irish sessions and not very many Scottish sessions, when you find

a Scottish session in the States, they’re often a little more protective of playing Scottish tunes, because it’s hard to find a space to do so. In Scotland, I think, they don’t worry about it as much, so they just play.

>>Shannon: And Neil doesn’t worry much about it either. As he explained in “The Backer,” which was Irish Music Stories Episode 6, he uses the term Celtic as an open border mandate.

>>Neil: I see it as more of a broad community. I don’t want to shut myself out of the Irish community, or shut the Irish community out of my community by drawing these lines.

>>Shannon: And by calling it Celtic it is inclusive. 

>>Neil: Yeah, that’s what I see it as.  

>>Shannon: And descriptive. 

>>Neil: Yeah. I think it’s still a useful descriptive term, but allows more open borders.

>>Shannon: Here’s a great Neil groove from a few years ago.

[ Music: “Farewell,” from Coffee and the Mojo Hat

Artist/Composer: Neil Pearlman ]

>>Shannon: OK. So musicians like Neil and Seamus are coming from distinct musical styles. They’ve learned from traditional music masters, and then their new stuff wells from that base.

>>Neil: It’s a way of inhabiting my own identity as an American Celtic musician more, by saying I come out of Celtic music but I live here and love all these other styles of music that I’ve grown up hearing and exploring and playing a bit of as well, so let me write my own new music that comes out of all of that.

>>Shannon: Then you’ve got Marc Gunn. His group, the Brobdingnagian (brob-din-nahg-EE-en) Bards, created a repertoire of Irish, Scottish and original singalongs – like the Jedi Drinking Song and The Psychopathic, Chronic, Schizophrenic Gollum Blues. They’ve played Renaissance faires, and science fiction conventions wearing kilts. They’re mixing it up.


Song: “Jedi Drinking Song Prequel,” from Sci Fi Drinking Songs
Artist/Composer: Marc Gunn]

Marc also hosts the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast. We got to know each other when he graciously invited me to guest host his show. I was really excited to hear what Marc thinks about the term Celtic. We did a video chat after we’d each dropped our kids off at school….

Marc Gunn, you know a lot of Irish drinking songs … so are you a Celtic musician?

>>Marc:. So I started playing with the Brobdingnagian Bards. We called ourselves Celtic Renaissance.  We’re doing some traditional Irish songs, we’re doing some parodies of traditional Irish songs. When I started the Celtic music magazine I had to come to a decision of my own: what is Celtic?  To me, Celtic music is … traditional Irish music is one aspect, Irish drinking songs, bagpipe music, you might have thematic lyrics, you might have instruments that are a part of the culture, and that is ultimately how I define Celtic community. 



Tune: “Fingerstyle Fantasia,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton]

>>Shannon: What is the Celtic community?

>>Marc: It’s about we who are of Celtic ancestry: Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Breton. You know, what is a Celtic heritage?  It’s kind of hard to say outside the linguistic aspect, of how it’s traveled,  

whether it’s the modernized version, or whatever, it’s that culture of music, dance, language, and of course the places that we have located. There’s a diaspora that occurred and now we’re all over this world. And so you can find Celts everywhere.

>>Shannon: So the Celtic community, if it’s all people with Celtic heritage, meaning some sort of ancestral tie, what about the fiddle player who has no ancestral tie, but knows the music?

>>Marc: I would include them in that, too. They have gotten the bug. It makes me think of the Jewish people – that, you know, you become a Jew not necessarily because you were born one, but because you might have found your faith in that community and believe in Judaism and worship that way. It’s a similar sort of thing. I guess you could easily say you become a Celt by falling in love with it. By listening to the music, by experiencing the culture that you love and appreciate. I think that’s a fair assessment.

>>Shannon: Yeah. And so do you become a Celt, do you become a part of the Celtic community, or do you become an Irish fiddle player?

>>Marc: Good question. I think it’s ultimately up to you. I think you can choose what you want to be, and if you want to call yourself a Celt, I don’t see any problem with that. It’s sort of like, I have a friend who has been criticized numerous times because he’s black and he likes to wear a kilt. You know, he loves Celtic music. But does that make him any less Celtic than you or I? I don’t think so. I think he could just as easily be called Celtic as well.

>>Shannon: Marc’s concept of community and heritage is generous. But it’s not always like this for people who proclaim Celtic identity.

You know the Celtic crosses that that has been appropriated by white supremacist movements, too?

>> Marc: It breaks my heart for many reasons. I don’t know how any Celt could be a white supremacist. Because pretty much all the Celts have been downtrodden, beaten, and belittled, enslaved. So how could they look at your history and say I could do something like that? I can’t imagine how anyone who’s realized I was that person once, my family was runout of Ireland, my family was run out of Scotland. How could I do that to someone else? I’ve been there! Maybe not me particularly. And that’s where the disconnect is: they haven’t been there. They’re so far removed from that. It infuriates me because it’s so ignorant. It’s so … it’s shameful. 

>>Shannon: Yeah. What’s your town?

>>Marc: I live in Birmingham, Alabama. A lot of this comes from a deep-seated hatred here in the south. And so I worry about this, I guess, that all the Celts down here – the Scots Irish – are following those footsteps. I worry about it. It upsets me beyond belief.

>>Shannon: Yeah, and sometimes, even without the gross racism agenda, projects that use Celtic as a description can feel like they’re exploiting cultural wanderlust. 

Celtic Woman launched in 2005. It’s a big production of song and pageantry:


“Global musical sensation Celtic Woman has emerged as a genuine cultural phenomenon.  … Named Celtic Woman to represent the essence of a Celtic female, Celtic Woman celebrates Ireland’s rich musical and cultural heritage.”

>>Shannon: Right, so the group claims to celebrate genuine culture. But guys, I don’t know of any Irish music circles, where people dance around in ball gowns singing Amazing Grace. And it’s kind of a bummer when people find out that I play Irish music and ask me if I’m like Celtic woman.


Song: “The Call,” from The Greatest Journey – Essential Collection
Composer: David Downes, Artist: Celtic Woman]

Now, I don’t want to yuck someone’s yum, and to all of you listening who like Celtic Woman, I do not judge you. I am really happy that people are hearing and seeing music of any kind. I am. So I usually say, “Yeah. I’m like Celtic woman. Something like that…”

But I’m not like Celtic Woman. And I don’t think anyone is really like Celtic Woman.

I asked Marc what he thinks:

So do you know Celtic Woman?

>>Marc: Yes.

>>Shannon: What’s that about?

>>Marc: Um… we’re going to get to it. Okay. I haven’t listened to as much Celtic Woman. To me it is… I was gonna go mix them … I’m just gonna go ahead and straight out mix them with Celtic Thunder. 

>>Shannon: Ha ha, yes, Celtic Thunder! Because the boys won’t leave the girls alone, there’s also Celtic Thunder. It came out two years after Celtic Woman, with a cast of handsome young crooners singing Irish songs, jazz standards, gospel numbers … all with crowd-pleasing theatrics and backdrops of ancient Celtic mythology symbols.


Song: “A Place in the Choir,” from The Very Best of Celtic Thunder
Artist: Celtic Thunder]


>>Marc: Because Celtic Thunder I’ve had problems with, too, in the past because some of the stuff is … they’re playing jazz, or pop, or maybe a little rock. And, of course, obviously they do some traditional songs as well. But it’s definitely not traditional. I don’t have a problem, these days, calling their music Celtic, because I realize they do an invaluable service to the Celtic community by having Celtic in their name. Their heritage is all Celtic. But whether they’re playing Celtic music or not, they are a great stepping stone into bringing more people to Celtic music.

>>Shannon: That might just be sort of a happy side benefit. I mean I do think there’s a broader mission, of course, with that show, in that it’s a carefully crafted presentation to fill a performing arts center. And so above the music is how is this going to work as a show, right? It’s a theatrical production.

>>Marc: But there’s a lot of heritage that goes into that production, which draws the Celts deeper into the music.

>>Shannon: Meaning it’s a bunch of Irish guys singing and there’s some knotwork in the background?

>>Marc: Well, I mean… I wouldn’t go that far. It’s more than knot work, it’s a production. Yes, you could simplify it like you said. But I think it adds a little more connection to something deeper.

>>Shannon: Marc is finding merit and altruism where I didn’t see it. And he’s calling me on my own biases. I mean, Kieran Jordan’s dance productions—especially The Living Landscape and Little Gifts which featured dance, live music, and incredible backdrops from Vincent Crotty: these are, for me, inarguably rich, cultural presentations of Irish dance and social traditions. Now, Kieran’s not calling it Celtic, she’s calling it Irish. But her shows are costumed productions too.

>>Marc: It adds a little bit of connection to something deeper.

>>Shannon: Context?

>>Marc: Context for us, for the people who are listening, and makes them feel a little bit more connected to their cultural heritage.

>>Shannon: Marc gave me a lot to think about. I needed to process Celtic Woman a little more.  So I asked fiddle player Ellery Klein about it. Ellery and I play Irish music together, but she’s also had extra-traditional experiences. I talked to her at her home in Medford. Her kids were playing – very quietly – in the background. 


So that’s an interesting term, isn’t it? Can you help me unpack that word Celtic, like what does that mean for you?

>>Ellery:  The word Celtic, yeah, it’s a funny word, especially when you play Irish music or Scottish music. You always feel this need to explain to people “Celtic”, it’s just kind of some jewelry in a jewelry shop and the soundtrack of Celtic Women soaring through the air of the gift shop, you know? Which is fine.

>>Shannon: So it’s a sweeping, expansive, picturesque kind of a term?

>>Ellery: Yeah, and maybe little simplistic, you know. Maybe that’s the problem we have with the word is, you know, Welsh people’s story is not Irish people’s stories.

>>Shannon: So it’s a catch all? It’s an easy marketing term. 

>>Ellery: Yeah.

>>Shannon: And you know it’s gonna have that “Celtic tang”? 

>>Ellery: Yeah.

>>Shannon: That kind of vaguely Irish, is that kind of the connotation?

>>Ellery: Irish? Yeah. And it, you know, brings up images of the circles, and the Book of Kells illustrations… 

>>Shannon: Like Celtic knotwork?

>>Ellery: Celtic knotwork, thank you. So I think there’s an imagery associated with the word. If you say Celtic, people kind of think of … like there’s a visual aspect to the word, I think, that there wouldn’t be, necessarily, if you said Irish.

>>Shannon: Interesting that this modern, broad term often tries to evoke ancient lands and history and traditions. Right?

>>Ellery:  I think it’s a little bit about people’s need for identity? You know, even as we’re Americans, I think most people feel this need to talk about their ancestors.  Maybe when you go see something that’s like Gaelic Storm or Celtic Woman, then you’re allowing yourself to feel your place in the universe through your heritage and your story. Which, you know … I think we often don’t think about the past in our culture, American culture, right? We think about the future.

So it’s this opportunity to say, yeah, I’m from this country, you know, my people came from this country. And this culture I’m watching onstage is connected to my ancestors. It gives people this opportunity to feel connection, even if it’s kind of a marketed manufactured connection, in some ways.

>>Shannon: So for the creators of this form of entertainment, in a way it’s kind of a… it’s a quick way to lure a bunch of people in. And for the audience maybe in a way, it’s a way of connection, it’s about connecting to something they can feel part of easily.

>>Ellery: Yeah. Like you can connect to your heritage without learning the fiddle and what an Irish roll is and what the nyah of Irish music is as played on the flute or fiddle, like we obsessive Irish types do.

>>Shannon: Maybe sometimes Celtic can lure someone in, and then she can go ahead and learn a little bit more, dig a little bit deeper if she gets the bug,

>>Ellery: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, people often talk about the Chieftains. The Chieftains went for the mass marketing, big sound on the stage with the dancers. I think they brought a lot of people to Irish music.

>>Shannon: Yeah, for sure.

The band Gaelic Storm has also brought a lot of people to Irish music. They played the Irish party band in the movie Titanic, down in third class. And they’ve gone on to win over beer-drenched festival crowds as a “genre-bending Irish rock band” – that’s from their own web-site. 


Song: “Johnny Tarr,” from Special Reserve
Artist/Composer: Gaelic Storm]

Ellery played fiddle with them for a few years, and before our talk, I thought Gaelic Storm was a Celtic Rock band:

So we’ve talked about Celtic Woman, we’ve talked about Celtic knotwork. What about Celtic Rock?

>>Ellery: Celtic Rock? 

>>Shannon: Yeah, what’s that about?

>>Ellery: Well, I think it stems from the same thing. It’s like, American music is rock and roll. And so you’re trying to connect maybe your heritage with electric guitars and drums and all that stuff. Yeah. 

>>Shannon: So is Gaelic Storm not Celtic Rock?

>>Ellery: No.. No, they don’t have the big drum set. They have like hand percussion. So you might have a bass and a snare, but not all the tom toms and doot-doot-doot kind of Phil Collins stuff going on.

>>Shannon:I guess in my ignorance, I kinda lumped Gaelic Storm in the Celtic Rock genre. Because at the festivals they seem to occupy that same zone.

>>Ellery: I think Afro Celtic pop drinking party band music. It’s not like electric bass and electric guitar with distortion pedals and bagpipes screaming. It’s more about the words to the song, you know.

>>Shannon: Marc Gunn concurs:

>>Marc: Gaelic Storm, I think, as songwriting goes they’ve done some brilliant stuff, and they have some songs like Kiss Me I’m Irish. They’re telling stories about the people that they meet who want to be closer to their Celtic heritage. And that’s what Celtic Woman/Celtic Thunder are also doing. They’re bringing people closer to their heritage, just for a few minutes. And some of them, it becomes a lot deeper than that. 


Song: “Kiss Me I’m Irish,” from Bring Yer Wellies
Artist/Composer: Gaelic Storm]

>>Shannon: So, this is a pub party band with a charismatic lead singer. And they’re courting you to play fiddle for then. You, an Irish fiddle player. Did it feel like an immediate fit for you?

>>Ellery: Well, you know, it’s funny. I invited a friend, he said the trick to being a good salesman is not to make people feel good about you … the trick is to make people feel good about themselves when they’re around you. And he was like, this band has figured that out.

>>Shannon: So not necessarily innovative, and not tradition bearers.

>>Ellery: Yeah, but … super fun.

>>Shannon: Super fun. 

>>Ellery: You know, and it was kind of like, that could be fun! You know, to be part of something where people are going out for the night, and they just wanna have fun. Like, there’s actually a place for that, you know? I just thought why not, you know? So I just kind of jumped on the ship, so to speak.

>>Shannon: Yeah. In steerage. [laughter]

>>Ellery: Yeah, exactly!

>>Shannon: The Gaelic Storm ship has sailed far and wide. And now the band calls itself a “multi-national Celtic juggernaut, forging a unique path in the Celtic world.”

So Gaelic Storm uses the word Celtic.

>>Ellery: Yeah. ‘Cause, you know, their lineup especially is like, we gotta British guy, and an Irish guy, and Canadian bagpiper. So they’re going for that Pan British Isles/Irish … thing. [laughter]

>>Shannon: And Pan Celtic is a really quick way to describe a band. Definitely when I see the term Celtic, you’ve got that image from the start of the windswept, and the Celtic knotwork, and the moors …

>>Ellery: Lord of The Rings.

>>Shannon: Yes!  It’s just some vague place that could be anywhere in the world.

>>Ellery: Even though that was Nordic.

>>Shannon: Exactly! And maybe you’re eating a turkey leg. [laughter]

>>Ellery: And I think, you know, it’s like evoking that spirit of the gods and goddesses being closer to us, you know.

>>Shannon: Right, the Spirituality thing.

>>Ellery: The Spirituality part of it, too, where it’s … you know, yearning for magic. Obvious magic to be in the world. 

>>Shannon: Yeah, and in a way you do find that magic when you get a bunch of people together, maybe because they were lured for some New Agey, mystical thing, or by the turkey legs, or the whiskey before breakfast. But you’ve got them all in one room. And they’re all coming together and having a good time and they’re feeing connection. And there’s magic in that, too.

>>Ellery: Definitely, yeah, yeah. 

>>Shannon: And that was what you felt when you first heard Gaelic Storm in that bar.

>>Ellery: Yeah, yeah. That spirit of just having a good time. Maybe the goal is not to be the best Irish fiddler, but to be the band that, you know, like somebody just got laid off and they come out to your show and they have two hours where they just feel good about life. I think that’s nice.

>>Shannon: Yeah. That sounds very nice. And is anywhere in their schtick claim to be authentic?

>>Ellery: Um, no. They’re not concerned with that, no. 

>>Shannon: I mean, so there’s that too. Nobody said they were.

>>Ellery: Yeah.

>>Shannon: Nobody’s trying to prove anything.

>>Ellery: Yeah. They’re out to show people a good time. Put on a good show. 

>>Shannon: Bringing people together and just having a good time. Maybe using the C-word to lure people in, in the first place. But mostly just engaging people, letting them in. That was a huge lesson that Ellery learned from Gaelic Storm:

>>Ellery: You know, so you’re not just performing for people, you’re playing with people. Allowing the audience to feel like they’re part of the show. I think that’s valuable, to spend some time thinking about. ‘Cause I think if there is one criticism to be made of traditional Irish music it would be that, you know, it used to be a social music, right? It was played in someone’s house, or maybe the local hall, and everyone got together and danced to the music. You know, and then it became listening music and there is a little bit of elitism about it sometimes, where it’s like, oh, if you don’t like what I’m doing you just don’t know enough.  So I think it’s, you know, it’s good sometimes to think how could you conjure up the old, you know, fireside community feeling? Bring a little bit of that Celtic spirit to my show.

>>Shannon: So, if you like Enya, or Celtic Woman, or Gaelic Storm, or Book of Kells prints, or potato nachos, I suppose you’re rockin’ Celtic culture. 

And maybe it doesn’t mean you don’t know or care to go into flute style from Roscommon, or Scots Gaelic singing, or fiddle tunes from the Shetland Islands. But you don’t have to know these things, either.

Maybe Celtic can be that deliberate, shorthand term that radio shows and festivals use. 

Maybe it can also be a catch all for traditional stuff. And for anybody who just wants to dabble, and enjoy a la carte offerings from the great earthenware plate of Celtic goods.


Tune: “Marie’s Cabin, Rachel on her Feet,” from Salt & Pepper
Artist/Composer: Ellery Klein]

Maybe it can all feel just a little richer, knowing and owning the C-word. 

Thanks for going on this journey with me, folks. 

This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Thanks to Seamus Egan, Neil Pearlman, Marc Gunn, and Ellery Klein for the great conversations. Thank you to Matt Heaton for script editing and providing underscore. And also to Ryan Beveridge for the wonderful Celtic music fantasia made to order. Thank you, Nigel, for naming this month’s supporters. Thank you Laura for reading Celtic Woman’s promotional blurb. And thanks again to Kevin O’Neil, Rex Edwards, Hannah Derusha, and Brian Benscoter for underwriting this episode.

If you can kick in with a show of support, it helps me pull Irish music stories together, to share with everybody. Just visit and click the donate button. You’ll also find playlists and links to videos of my featured guests.

Next month’s show on vintage dance halls will air on Tuesday March 13th. 

I hope you’ll tune in. Thanks again for listening, everybody!


[Basketball sounds with a jig]

>>Shannon: Boston Celtics? Selltics… The C-word. Or the soft C word? Boston Selltics, Boston Celtics, wait …

Celtic Nachos!

PREP 4-10 hours in advance:

Slice 3 russet potatoes into 1/8 inch thick slices.

Mince a clove of garlic.

Soak potatoes and garlic in a bowl of water (at least 4 hours, could soak overnight)



Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). 

Drain potatoes and pat dry.

Combine potatoes with 1/4 cup vegetable oil. Toss to coat. 

Arrange potatoes on baking sheet (spread potatoes slightly apart)

Bake potatoes 25 minutes, or until golden brown

Assemble baking toppings: 1.5 cups shredded cheese, 4 green onions, 1/4 cup jalapeño pepper slices

Sprinkle baking toppings over potatoes in layers

Bake another 10-15 minutes, until cheese melts

Top with diced tomato, salsa, sour cream (or plain yogurt)

Bonus Content

Related videos

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Seamus Egan


Philadelphia-born multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer who led the band Solas for 20 years, and recorded for film scores

Neil Pearlman


Maine-based multi-instrumentalist, stepdancer and host of podcast TradCafe

Marc Gunn


Alabama-based Celtic-style singer, songwriter, and Sci-Fi fan who hosts the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast

Boston-based fiddle player and teacher who toured with various Irish groups and teaches a myriad of fiddle styles

The Heaton List