Fifty Shades of Gender Equality

Reharmonizing Irish music and dance, one room at a time
Episode Trailer

What do Benjamin Moore paints have to do with Irish bands, modern performance practice, and gender balance? Insights from Karan Casey, Brian Ó hAirt, Laura Cortese, Nic Gareiss, Ellery Klein, and Dr. Lisa Coyne uncover different shades of inclusivity in the Irish tradition, 150 years after house paint titans Benjamin and Robert Moore emigrated from County Monaghan to Brooklyn, New York.


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Scott Maurer, Davy McDonald, Roberta Zukauskas, Billie Neal, and Brian Benscoter

Episode 21-Fifty Shades of Gender Equality: Reharmonizing Irish music and dance, one room at a time
This Irish Music Stories episode aired October 9, 2018 
– transcript edited by Tom Frederick –

Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories, and co-producer of this story
>> Karan Casey: Waterford-born folk singer, songwriter and activist who has appeared on stages and recordings with numerous projects
>> Brian Ó hAirt: Missouri-born singer, musician, dancer, and Irish speaker who came of age in Gaelic communities on Ireland’s west coast
>> Joanie Madden: Bronx-based Irish flute and whistle player and composer who founded internationally acclaimed band Cherish the Ladies
>> Laura Cortese: San Francisco-born, Belgium-based singer, songwriter, and fiddle player with a Scottish fiddle background who spent years in Boston
>> Matt Heaton: Pittsburgh-born, Boston-based guitarist and bouzouki player 
>> Nic Gareiss: Michigan-born acclaimed dancer, musician, and dance researcher
>> Ellery Klein: Boston-based fiddle player and teacher who toured with various Irish groups and teaches a myriad of fiddle styles
>> Lisa Coyne: Melrose, Lisa Coyne: Melrose, Massachusetts-based flute player and clinical psychologist 
>> Liz Carroll: Chicago-based fiddle player and composer who has been named All-Ireland champ, Grammy nominee, National Heritage Fellow, and TG4 Cumadóir


>> Shannon: Before I start the show, I wanted to thank everybody for listening, and for sharing episodes with your friends. And a very special thank you to this month’s donors, read by my son Nigel.

>> Nigel: Thank you to Mark Johnson, Scott Maurer, Davy McDonald, Robbie  Zukauskas, Billie Neal, and Brian Benscoter

>> Shannon: If you can kick in, please visit Your support helps me pull together different voices and views of the world… all through an Irish music and dance lens. THANK you! And…

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

[ Music: “Free the Heel,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artists/Composer: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

Like how Karan Casey thinks more diversity on stage might make it all more interesting.

>> Karan: If you have more women at your festival and genders and diversity; your festival will be interesting and colorful, creative. Of course it will be good. And also it will actually represent the society we live in.

>> Shannon: And how Brian Ó hAirt thinks that commercial festivals and pub sessions might make gender equality impossible.

>> Brian: It comes down to people who can stay up late and play music. People who are boisterous and get responses from the audience.  It’s an economic model that’s disenfranchising women. But as well, disenfranchising the tradition.

>> Shannon: And how Benjamin Moore might NOT always know best.

[Music ends]

[ “Following the North Star,” from Freedom Highway
Artist: Rhiannon Giddens ]

When the Moore brothers emigrated from County Monaghan to Brooklyn, NY in 1872, there was no MeToo movement. Also, there was no pre-made wall and ceiling paint. People couldn’t just walk into a store and buy paint off of the shelf. 

In 1883, Benjamin and Robert Moore developed a wall paint using ingredients like Irish moss and Pennsylvania clay. Soon they had a line of tinted powders to mix right into the paint.

And this was a huge hit. Also, the brothers were genius marketers. They printed decorating brochures. They offered in-person and mail-in consultations. And they ran this weekly radio program for 30 years. The Moores actually GREW their customer base during the Great Depression.

It’s 2018, and we’re still using Benjamin Moore paint. We’re still upgrading our homes. And we’re still making social changes. 

With #MeToo, society is turning its improvement powers on gender relations. We’re blowing the whistle on sexual misconduct. We’re talking about power and systemic bias.

And now Irish music has its own hashtag. A group called FairPlé is calling for gender equality and fair treatment for all, in traditional and folk music.

So, what do you think? Do we need to bring gender politics into the trad world? Isn’t it a meritocracy? Like… if you play, or sing, or dance really well, does it really matter who you are or where you came from? If women— gender queer, gender non-conforming, or trans people—want to lead sessions or form bands, is anything stopping them?

I’m curious. I don’t have clarity. And I’m CERTAINLY not interested in singling anybody out or creating divides in the already marginalized trad world.

[Music fades]

But I’m painting my house. And I have hours to think about inclusivity through an Irish music and dance lens. So for this episode I’m gonna take the plunge and dip my brush into the hashtag pool. 

[ Music: “Free the Heel,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artists/Composer: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

I’ll talk to Karan Casey, Brian Ó hAirt, Laura Cortese, Nic Gareiss, Ellery Klein, and Dr. Lisa Coyne to explore whether there are gendered behaviors and expectations built into Irish music and dance.

My prediction? I won’t find easy answers. I also predict I’ll have some interesting conversations…. and I’ll rock some home improvements in the process.

[Music ends]

Chapter one:  The Kitchen –

[ Music: “Silver,” from Silver
Artist & Composer: Hanneke Cassel ]

Woodlawn Blue… Annapolis Green… Oxford White

If you’ve ever selected paint colors, you know those little paint chip strips. Maybe you’ve taped them to the wall to see how the different colors look at different times of day. We tried this with our kitchen—it seemed vital to choose the RIGHT hue, because this is our KITCHEN. It’s where we eat our meals, and visit with friends, and rehearse and play tunes.

It’s where we pay our bills, and help our kid with his homework. It’s where we fight about housework, and iron out the details of the week ahead. Because my husband Matt and I share parenting and household responsibilities. Some of our friends have left jobs to stay home with kids. Others have chosen no kids, or no spouses. 

We have chosen to juggle family and career, together. In large part, in our kitchen.

And when we tried to choose the right kitchen paint colors we felt lost. So we asked for input from acclaimed painter Vincent Crotty. 

Little did I know that with Vincent we would sidestep the paint chip process altogether! 

Instead, we sat down to tea with a handful of beautiful home and art books. And then we just started dabbing paint on the kitchen cabinets until we found something that felt right!!

This. Blew. My mind!

And then Vincent started teaching me about paint treatments, like wood graining and wall glazing.  Gang—this is amazing stuff. Just making up your own paint colors and mixing together different techniques. This is WILD creativity… and freedom.

It’s freedom that feminism offers. The freedom to choose what balance works for you and your family alone. And when I’m feeling particularly stretched— like while I’m moving freshly painted chairs to the front of the house… so Matt can get dinner started… so he can help our son with his homework..  so I can interview Brian Ó hAirt for the podcast…  so we can get to our gig later on—

[Music fades]

Well, on crazy days like these, I’m still grateful to design my own days. And my own kitchen. And I am grateful for friends and teachers like Vincent who remind me how great it is to have freedom of choice, in and OUT of the house.

[Music: “Hometown Lullaby,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

When pianist and composer Seán Ó Riada began blending traditional and modern music in the late 1950s, the freedom to do creative projects outside of the house was in short supply for women. It was musicians like Paddy Moloney, Sean Potts, Martin Fay, Vincent Broderick, and Michael Tubridy that O’Riada recruited to make his new kind of music out of jigs and reels.

O’Riada’s approach set the stage for well-known band, The Chieftains. And he greatly influenced 1970s trad bands like Planxty, DeDanaan, Stockton’s Wing, and the Bothy Band.

[Music fades]

 In the 80s a few women guested on albums with those bands, but for nearly a decade it was ALL men except singer and keyboard player Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill and singer Dolores Keane, who recorded this song on DeDanaan’s debut album.

[Music: “Rambling Irishman,” from Best of DeDanaan
Artist: DeDanaan ]

Today you can go to Celtic festivals around the world, and you’ll see women on stages and in sessions. But Karan Casey’s recent study with FairPlé uncovered a substantial inclusivity gap: 

>> Karan:  We did a statistical overview of 11 festivals in Ireland. Basically, 76% of the lineup were men, and the rest were women. I think if it goes any other way, it’s usually worse.

>> Shannon: I suppose, compared to other styles of music—like, maybe jazz or rock—women making up 24% of the workforce isn’t as paltry as it gets.

[Music:“Pound the Floor,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

But of course festival band statistics—can’t show the full picture. There are different nuances, and shades to the inclusivity question. 

And there were many shades of black and brown glaze on my hands. I had to grab an old rag to open the door for singer, dancer, and concertina player Brian Ó hAirt:

[doorbell Foley]

[Music fades]

>> Brian: Right, I’m (come)over talking about gender politics.

>> Shannon: My friend! I’m painting this chair.

>> Brian: Mmhmm, you are, doing a fine job of it.

>> Shannon: Thank you. I am painting this chair and we are talking about the FairPlé movement.

>> Brian:  Yeah.

>> Shannon: What do you make of it?

>> Brian: You know like gender roles in Irish traditional music and how that has offset women’s ability to participate fully in the economic models that we’ve adopted. That, to me, is where, I think, the bigger issues lie.

[Music: “Triumph Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Just look at some of our earliest models that O’Riada used to create the whole ensemble. And then those that came after, things like Planxty, DeDanaan. If you think about when those bands were being set up, when O’Riada was trying to bring traditional music to the world stage or to high art, it was also at a time when women, in general, had less social access to music, and a lot of their music making was limited to the home, if they had time at all to do it. The models that we were supplied with back then have not  evolved. We’ve just maintained their forms in many ways. And we haven’t, kind of, decolonized them in the ways that we should.

>> Shannon: Ok, so the band format itself.  The commercial performance approach. Brian says this model can create behaviors that exploit or discourage women.

>> Brian: The main economic model we are promoting—commodification and market consumption—creates the same issues for women as it has OUTSIDE of traditional music.

>> Shannon: Because women and minorities generally get paid less than men?

>> Brian: Yeah, they’re paid less. The idea that they are of less ability. The ideas of how we think about gender in modern society really stems from an economic model. So, it’s no surprise that women would be treated in a similar way in Irish Music; putting women in a role of revealing clothing, or just being the singer, just the dancer. 

[Music: “Pound the Floor,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton

>> Shannon: It’s not just skimpy clothing. Brian talks about bands that dress their music with stomp boxes and looping pedals—until it’s not Irish music anymore. Musicians, and the music itself, can all be objectified.

>> Brian: Those people that are getting the most exposure at festivals are not even traditional musicians anymore. You know, a lot of them are adopting new models to make themselves more viable to the market. What I see is this genre of traditionally inspired festival music!

>> Shannon: Still, there are many bands like Dervish and Cherish the Ladies who remain focused on the tradition. Here’s Joanie Madden from Cherish.

>> Joanie: We’re playing traditional Irish music. We use the musicians we have, the instruments we have, and we use the dancing. That’s our stomp box, is the dancers.

>> Shannon: So, Cherish the Ladies isn’t stomping on the music. And while the group has brought in male guests, it’s almost always been an all-female act, since 1985. But Brian thinks the all female format can be polarizing.

[Music fades]

>> Brian: There have been several bands who clearly have focused their energy on making music as a full female ensemble. I think it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not, it’s just not as effective as we might have hoped. In many ways it backfires. Because…

>> Shannon: We already have our all-woman band for this year.

>> Brian: Exactly. Or, the idea comes down to, well, it’s a trick, or a marketing thing, where you’ve purposely made this all woman band. Whereas for some reason it doesn’t seem to be the question when it comes to all male bands. All male bands are somehow natural. But to create an all female band is kind of going beyond the mark. You’re doing it on purpose. You’re making a point.

>> Shannon: Laura Cortese’s band, The Dance Cards, consists of four women. Laura, a fiddle  player and singer has literally been told,“Sorry, we can’t hire you. We already have our female band for the season.” 

[ Music: “Petronella,” from Dance
Artist: Lissa Schneckenburger ]

OK… Look at your average festival or concert series lineup. How many all male bands do you see up there? More than one? Too many?

>> Brian: We have to look far beyond just saying “oh, well we’ll change it by having more women on.” That’s the easy way out, right, that’s copping, “Oh, they’ll just quiet down if we give them more gigs.” Well, if we have to use the term WE and THEM, there’s still, clearly, a disconnect between, I don’t know, an older way of thinking, a newer way of thinking?

>> Shannon: So Brian and I had been talking about performers on a stage. I asked him about less formal settings, like Irish music sessions in pubs.

>> Brian: I mean, leaders go there. They’re being paid by a pub. They want some sort of outcome. In many ways it’s to increase traffic to their bar; but that’s an issue because once again, what are the personality traits that are going to be most appreciated in a public performance of music? People who play loud. People who can stay up late and play music well. People who are boisterous and get responses from the audience.

[Music fades]

>> Shannon: And people who don’t worry too much about vocal fatigue. When Brian is on tour with his band or when Laura Cortese is on tour they both rely on their voices every day. 

Laura and I were talking about the late night Festival Club at Scotland’s Celtic Connections, and how that annual event features a lot of male performers. I asked her how she felt about it.

>> Laura: You know the Festival Club, that these all boy bands are, like, playing all night at the Festival Club. But when I talked to every woman I knew we were like, “why would I want the two AM slot at the Festival Club, where everyone is drunk and falling over and no one is listening? That is not how I want to even… present my music. Sure, technically, maybe we are excluded, we’re not being hired for that because we don’t have the volume or the energy or the speed. But I also don’t want to be playing. At least, I mean I’m in an all-female band, so we talk about all this sort of stuff,right? You don’t want to do it every night.  It’s not actually your best day. The day where you feel the best and enjoy your time the best might involve waking up early and taking a walk. Not staying up until four drinking whiskey.

[Music:  “Hometown Lullaby,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: And then there’s whiskey… and beer… at 4am. Sexual harassment and assault can happen anywhere, anytime. But adding lowlights and alcohol … well, it adds risks. But then when you side-step the late bar scene, sometimes you miss out.

>> Laura: ‘Cause you’re there and someone is like, “oh hey I’ve got this project. Like,would you want to do it?” They had the chemistry in the moment in a conversation with the person they were sitting next to. And if that happens at midnight, and it’s mostly men, the likelihood of it being a man goes up.  However, if we create more spaces where everyone is fully able to participate, there are just more moments and, you know, it’s actually a more fun event when there are children there. It actually does make me feel more whole as a human when there’s someone who’s 80 and when there’s someone who’s 8. When there are husbands and wives and single people. And if we create a space that has everybody there, I feel more whole. And that I want to feel more whole. We just create more of those spaces, more of those connections would happen. 

>> Shannon: Mmhm, so it isn’t, like, overt sexism?

>> Laura: I more think of it as like… I really do think of it as a little bit like negligence. Like a cultural negligence and not thinking.

>> Shannon: There’s no awareness.

>> Laura: There’s NO awareness. But the problem is that if it’s a session and it’s a bunch of guys there’s no moment or trigger where they realize, “Oh.” That guilt doesn’t click in, they don’t feel responsible. 

>> Shannon: Yeah.

>> Laura: You know, some people are like “it’s not THAT bad.” I’m like, well, eh…

>> Shannon: Yeah, compared to the Bubonic Plague it’s totally not that bad.

>> Laura: No, it’s not that bad. You’re right, it’s not that bad. But, I mean, I think it’s also nicer when it’s NOT like that. So can’t we move towards that? Yeah?

>> Shannon: Yeah. 

[Music: ]

So if we want to avoid the plague and move toward equality and boost awareness, do we have to give up late night sessions, and beer? Do we downsize festival tents and serve tea and sandwiches, instead of Guinness and Jameson?

Brian is insistent.

>> Brian: To reward those who are loud and boisterous and outgoing, and prefer to play their music in loud pubs and on mainstages, and can command an audience by incorporating all sorts of…(sighs), aesthetic points that are not really part of the tradition. Or we change that model.

[Music: “Triumph Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: So until we change that model, the behaviours that are required for that model remain not available to everybody.

>> Brian: Yeah.

>> Shannon: Add into that stew, rampant sexual harassment.

>> Brian: Mmhm. But also, you know, sexual orientation.

>> Shannon: Indeed.

>> Brian: And gender identity, yeah, where you don’t feel, you know, that I fit there.

[Music fades]

>> Shannon: This was a lot to digest. A lot of threads. And… maybe… contradictions.

Both Brian and I are involved in commercial performance of Irish music. Brian plays in an all male band. I do take promo photos wearing dresses. 

[Music: “D Walkdown,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

And I did need to rinse the glaze off my brushes. And maybe that’s the point: progress isn’t tidy. It isn’t linear. We all play different, and maybe not necessarily opposing roles. We all….we all wear lots of hats.

>> Brian: Yeah, wear lots and lots of hats. But, really at…

>> Shannon: Like doing a podcast interview while I’m painting this chair!

>> Brian: While you’re painting a chair, yeah!

>> Shannon: At this point Matt Heaton, guitarist, feminist, and father, comes into the room, “Did you have something to add?”  

>> Matt: No, just that dinner’s ready.

>> Shannon: Dinner’s ready! And on that note of equality, Matt Heaton is parenting right now and cooking dinner for us.

>> Brian: Lovely, Matt!

>> Shannon: So, back to the kitchen, where cooks enable their partners to participate in creative Irish music projects… where friends can debate and design new models for Irish music and dance and where we can play tunes and hear Brian sing sweet love songs about beautiful gardens, surrounded by earthy green cabinets.

[Music: “Dobbin’s Flowery Vale,” from An Spealadóir
Artist: Bua ]

>> Shannon: Chapter two: -The Studio –

[Music:“First Date,” from Lovers’ Well
Composer: Shannon Heaton
Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton]

We have a small house, with a sunroom in the front. It fits the piano, two musicians, sound gear, a desk, and a bookcase. It’s all the space I need to teach, practice, record albums and videos, write music and books, and produce the Irish Music Stories Podcast. 

And it’s where singer Karan Casey and I talked last March, just before painting the studio trim a deep mahogany, and just after FairPlé had formed. That’s F-A-I-R… P-L-E with a fada. Get it? Fair Play.

And it’s about fairness: about the fact that as an instructor at University College Cork, Karan saw many young women involved in Irish music and dance. Yet most of the participants she was seeing at sessions and onstage were men. And then in January 2018, Karan performed at Liberty Hall with 18 other artists—she was the only woman on the roster.

She started a conversation about it and with support from fellow musicians and academics, she began organizing a festival and a series of conferences to celebrate women in trad music. The official FairPlé mission: “achieve gender balance in the production, performance, promotion, and development of Irish traditional and folk music… and advocate for equal opportunity and balanced representation for all.”

[Music fades]

As Karan and I sat on the piano bench together, I asked her more about fair representation, “So why do we need more women on stages?

>> Karan: If a young boy or girl can see that woman on the stage, then they can learn from that experience and know deep down in their bones—which is different to being told something—that women are equal. So they really need to SEE us up there, ‘cause otherwise they don’t understand. You know that yourself with kids. I can talk ‘til the cows come home and make pronouncements. But my kids will do actually what I do, as opposed to what I say. And I think we all know that. And so what FairPlé are arguing is if you HAVE more women at your festival and genders and diversity, that your festival will be interesting and colorful, creative, of course it will be good musically. And, uh, I think we should all be striving toward that anyway.

>> Shannon: What about this: we really want those festivals to have great music and dance- period.

>> Karan: Uh huh.

>> Shannon: I don’t care who’s playing it. I want to hear great music and dance.

>> Karan: I mean to address this merit issue, and I’m not suggesting that the gigs aren’t good- like we practice any less.One fellow from Scotland did suggest that we practice less and that we went out too much and enjoyed ourselves.

[Laughter, together]

>> Shannon: Because men certainly don’t go out.

>> Karan: So I was suggesting, you know, we all do more of that. 

[Music: “John’s Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ] 

>> Shannon: Now, FairPlé isn’t just about more gigs for women. Karan explained that it’s about mindsets. It’s about getting people to examine personal habits and behaviors. When she turned the lens around, she had to face the fact that her own projects have featured a lot of men.

>> Karan: You know, I, for myself, I’ve had to go, oh okay. I can’t be out there talking about gender balance and then not have it. So I think we’re all, uh, making that, em, change. It’s about change in attitudes and us all having the courage to make that change. 

>> Shannon: Karan also talked about the importance of encouraging more women to play guitar or pipes, instruments that more men tend to play.

>> Karan: So we’re about helping women, em, become more confident to get out there as professional musicians and step out onto that platform. But also recognising that, let’s say the guitar, there aren’t that many female guitar players. Or there is [are] not as many pipers, em, so you know there are issues. 

[Music: “The Sister’s Cat,” from Music in the Glen
Artists: Conor Lamb, Brendan Mulholland & Deirdre Galway ]

We are hoping to apply for money to role out mentoring schemes and, you know, help that situation. 

>> Shannon: But whether it’s guitar, pipes, or fiddle, if women only make up a quarter of the roster at Irish festivals, what gives?

>> Karan: Historically, there were more men available. You know, the music industry is geared for men. Even touring, being away from the kids, I think that’s a huge issue for women. It’s nighttime, you know, we can’t be away all night. We have to get up in the morning. Parenting, as you know, has a huge effect on whether you can be out there performing. So we’re taking all that on board. Look, we’re a very small marginalized group, and we’re just looking for more transparency and fairness in our own little world. And I suppose trying to construct the society that we want, em, for the future. 

[ Music: Pound the Floor Reprise]

Also, I think possibly for me, these past two months, while they’ve been a bit mad, it’s been really great for me to speak these things outside of my head. And to have my own doubts and feelings validated. To have the conversation with you and Matt. And to be able to come and talk about these things. And I think, if anything, even that, and my own mental health; I think that’s really positive.

>> Shannon: I asked Karan how it goes from a conversation in the studio to real world change? 

>> Karan: You know, that’s what we’re asking, is one- have the honest, hard  conversation with yourself first. Then have the conversation with your colleagues. And then bring that forward to the stage.

>> Shannon: And what is that conversation, in a nutshell?

 >> Karan: Well, my conversation was, Karan were you part of unconscious bias? I acknowledge that. Yes, and I’m sorry. And then it’s saying, okay, well how can I go about that change?

>> Shannon: Maybe a simple conversation for me is, Shannon, how do you want to move forward with all of your musical peers, after seeing examples of people who are really stretching to be inclusive?

>> Karan: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Yeah.

[ Music: “The Song of the Seal,” from Seal Maiden-Celtic Musical
Artist: Karan Casey]

>> Shannon: Painting projects need paint. And creativity. And courage. And time to develop.

So do revolutions and musicians. If you’re a real live traditional musician or dancer seeking experience and collaborations, noisy pubs and busy backstages at festivals are still important touchstones. 

[Music fades]

There are afternoon sessions. And house sessions. There are Comhaltas classrooms. There are online options. There are quiet performance environments.

But mostly it’s loud out there. So… IF you can get to those venues in the first place, and IF you can thrive in those settings, is it a meritocracy then?

Dancer Nic Gareiss says maybe not.

>> Nic: I think it is really important that we don’t let Irish music become this utopia that we imagine where everything is a meritocracy and everybody’s together. Because there are subtleties that come from the outside world and underpin what we’re doing in the session. Irish music isn’t disconnected and Irish dance isn’t disconnected from society at large. We need to incorporate our thinking about the ways that marginality and a lack of human rights, a lack of opportunity, a lack of life choices are offered to people.

>> Shannon: The 79 cents to the dollar study has shown that women and men do NOT enjoy the same opportunities. 79 cents is the 2017 figure of what women make compared to men in the U.S., And it’s less for women of color. So it’s inevitable that gender inequality is going to follow us everywhere we go, and that Trad music and dance are not going to be immune to social forces.

Which brings us to….

– Chapter three:  – The Bedroom –

[Music:  “Shady Spot,” from Blue Skies Above
Composer: Shannon Heaton
Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton]

Nic and I met at our friends’ beautifully painted apartment. The guest bedroom was quiet, so we chatted there, with lavender and ginger tea. And this inspired my own bedroom painting project—muted lavender walls with ginger woodwork… and a formerly white laminate armoire that now looks like rich mahogany. I am telling you: paint techniques can change the world around you.

As Nic and I held our mugs, we talked about those outside forces that can make traditional music and dance less rich.

>> Nic: This sometimes occurs both in Irish traditional music and Irish traditional dance where your ability or your stamina or your prowess as an artist has to do with how masculine you are.

So I’m saying masculinity in inverted commas, I’m talking about a Develarian, an Eomonn DeVelera masculinity.

>> Shannon: The former prime minister of Ireland.

>> Nic: Correct. In which he says The Ireland that we’d always dreamed of where there’s the laughter of comely maidens, the contests of athletic youths, the romping of sturdy children. This paints a very particular gendered perspective and follows through this music is a cultural music

Ireland is connected to Irish music. And there can be a patriarchy that follows through this. Even in the sense of, like, “Good man, Shannon!” You played a great tune, good man, Shannon. Your prestige is always calibrated in terms of traditional masculinity. 

I think there is a prestige associated with men who can sit for long hours, and drink lots and lots of alcohol. And play music in a way that is, like, cathartic. And perhaps at a higher dynamic. People will say, oh they’re WILD, they’re WILD, those players are amazing. People who have that, em…

>> Shannon: That volume? 

>> Nic: Yeah, a particular kind, a set of musical aesthetics. The same is true for dancing, right. So if you have a dance session, if I bring the shoes that I usually wear in a performance situation I might just use a leather soled pair of shoes, that instrument is not going to be heard essentially the same way. And It’s not going to garner the same kind of prestige.

[ Music: “Thunderstorm,” from Riverdance
Artist & Choreographer: Michael Flatley and company ]

>> Shannon: Not the same prestige as, say, Michael Flatley, the flute player and dancing superstar whose Riverdance projects completely transformed Irish dance—and music.

>> Nic: So people who dance especially hard and loud, those things are connoted with traditional masculinity. We know that people’s bodies, irrespective of their gender, can be just as strong as another person’s body. But those traits have become, for whatever reason, associated with big strong men.There is a kind of swagger and charisma with somebody like Michael Flatley, (he) is able to cut through space in a big way. But I think that there is something in the performance  of  commercial Irish dancing shows as they have evolved post Riverdance, post Lord of the Dance that has recycled and reiterated this performance of traditional gender. And we see it, for example, in the moment the trop in the show, where the Irish dancer has the bodhran solo and then the Irish dancer comes out and there’s a Duel

[Music: Pound the Floor Reprise ]

>> Nic:  I have a colleague who is an incredible Irish dancer. Who, his specialty is light shoe dancing, in which the dancer doesn’t wear tips on the toes of their shoes. Instead…

>> Shannon: So there’s not the click?

>> Nic: Exactly. He has the ability to fly through the air as a mover. And he was prohibited from doing a light shoe solo, because for him this particular choreographer that he was working with insisted that male Irish dancers must hit the floor hard and wink at the ladies in the third row.

>> Shannon: Wow. 

Dancers who stomp hard. Fiddle players who dig in. Flute players who drive the low D to its tonal edge—these are usually the people who get noticed. They set the tone at sessions. They get hired for festivals. 

And many savvy musicians and dancers follow their lead. Because that’s where the market is going, that’s the winning side. 

And musicians and dancers who don’t conform are often overlooked. Or discouraged. Or they move on to indie folk music. 

Or,  like Nic, they make up their own show and they find their own performance settings

>> Nic: I just made a solo show called solo square dance which is based upon the 1935 Public Dance Halls Act that occurred in Ireland, when people were banned from dancing in their homes. And it is a one hour solo dance performance for houses, which is not that new of an idea for music, right, this happens all the time. People host music in their home. They have a concert, they have their neighbors over. Maybe there is something to eat or something to drink. But for a dance performance I keep interacting with dancers and people who want to hire this show and they’re like how are you going to light it?


[Music: John’s theme reprise ]

>> Nic: Yeah, the thing is, it’s the lighting that’s in the house. As it would have been at a party. So it’s really bringing dance back into that sense of being quite close to the people you’re performing for and with. I think it’s a little bit of a sea change to have people quite close to dance. Dancers in competitive Irish dancing move acres. But for me, I guess that, my interest is mostly about the relationship between my body and the surface, and that surface is the floor. And people get to be up close to see that in the solo show.

[Music fades] 

>> Shannon: Nic sees quieter, more thoughtful possibilities for public sessions, too.

>> Nic:  Maybe what we need to do is think through, in an intersectional way, what it would be like to have a session where there is childcare provided. Maybe we have a session where, different, we have a different  kind of lingua franca in terms of what we consume—alcohol is the kind of thing that is the center of this currently. Maybe there’s a different thing that has less of a gendered background.

>> Shannon: Curry chips? Ham sandwiches?

>> Nic: I don’t know. I’m not sure what it will be yet. It will take some reimagining. And I think it’s worth it to do that work. 

>> Shannon:  So another way that masculinity gets reinforced in Irish music and dance, of course, is through the narrative of a lot of these traditional ballads.

>> Nic: Yes.

>> Shannon: And the gender roles that people play. And in fact you sing a lot of songs where there is not a gender that’s named, right?

>> Nic: In the case of a song where there is a linear narrative, it’s NOT very difficult to switch pronouns oftentimes. In fact, there’s a song that I sing called the Apprentice Boy, in which it took only a few pronoun flips to turn it into a kind of queer love story.

>> Shannon: Maybe just by understanding and owning an interpretation of a song, so that it supports something that is important to you, maybe that’s a small shift.

>> Nic: Yes.

>> Shannon: Like this song, The Injured Shoulder. It’s a poem by Cathal Ó Searcaigh, which Nic set to music. It’s beautiful, and maybe a little tough to hear—because of the subject matter, but also because O’Searcaigh (O-Shark-ig) was recently defamed in Ireland for his relationships with teenagers in Nepal. (Which is not against the law in Nepal… but it is in Ireland.)

I’m gonna play the first verse and then cut to the last verse. But you can hear the whole Injured Shoulder song on Nic Gareiss and Emma Beaton’s self titled album.

[ Music: “Injured Shoulder,” from Emma Beaton & Nic Gareiss
Artist: Emma Beaton & Nic Gareiss]

Singing songs from perspectives beyond Willie and Mary. Re-gendering our songs… offering childcare at sessions… and performing dance quietly and intimately. These acts are, in a way, revolutionary. 

But they’re not taking opportunities away from anybody else. They’re not argumentative or aggressive.

>> Nic: I’m not so good at a hard nosed refusal. But I’m maybe a little better at a puckish suggestion.

[ Shannon laughs ]

>> Nic: I’m maybe better at slyly winking and saying “what if it would be like this, could it be the other way?” That feels for me like a nice way to, with a smile and a wink, suggest alternate possibilities, aesthetically and ethically.

>> Shannon: Yeah. This is an inspired approach. In life. And in the lavender ginger bedroom.

[ Music: “Sabai Sabai,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

– Chapter four: The Hotel Room –

For professional performers, a major obstacle to serious home improvement is TRAVEL. Sometimes we’re not home long enough for the paint to dry. And when we are, we have more pressing basics to take care of. Like laundry.

And most musicians don’t live in big homes, so there’s the challenge of where to keep the luggage and the Caulton flight cases and whether to have separate toiletry bags for home and on the road.

In the middle of my home improvement streak, I wondered how I could rejuvenate my travel set up. Travel with a painting? Wear only lavender or mahogany on the road? 

Maybe if I had found beautiful strategies when I  HAD been more of a road warrior, my husband and I wouldn’t have had such a hard time, especially when our kid learned to crawl, on a cruise ship in Alaska; or to climb stages, at Stadt Halle all over Germany and Switzerland. THAT nearly broke us.

Fiddler Ellery Klein toured with the band Gaelic Storm for four years. She told me about her travel experiences. And how they inspired her own career overhaul.

>> Ellery:  I left the band because I had my first kid. And I toured until I was 6 months pregnant. That was kind of fun. It was fun to get onstage with the big belly and rock it, as the pregnant woman. And then people would ask me if I was coming back? And I would say NO!!

>> Shannon: Wow, so you knew! And you were just up front about this.

>>Ellery: Well, we were on the road 250 days of the year. When I left the band the white van had turned into this giant RV. Like, it was constantly broken down at the side of the road. At one time it actually lost power in the middle of the Houston freeway, which, I don’t know if you’ve ever been on the Houston… like there’s five lanes on each side of the highway. So there’s ten lanes of highway and we’re in the 4th lane in. And the thing like, the battery went freaky. It felt like the Millennium Falcon, people were pushing buttons and hitting the side of the RV and I’m pregnant with this band, sitting there going well, this could be the moment me and my unborn child die in a fiery wreck. And then it, like, came back on, just like the Millennium Falcon. And we continued on our way. 

But that moment stuck in my head like, yeah, just THIS is NOT…you know? People do it. I always like to say even the Dixie Chicks tried it. They did it for a year. They brought the yoga teacher and the nanny with them on their tour busses. And I think at the end of the year they were like, this sucks. And I just think, I don’t know, no matter how hard we try, I just think there’s something different about being a mom vs. being a dad. Because most of them are dads now. 

>> Shannon: And their kids don’t go on the road with them?

>> Ellery: Um, no. Well, they might show up occasionally, but .. no. Generally not. 

>> Shannon: And did their spouses then stay home with the kids…. 

>> Ellery: And the woman that replaced me had a baby and left after about four years. It’s the same situation she didn’t go on the road with her baby either. So, you know, I think there’s something to that.

>> Shannon: And what about women who don’t have kids. They end up staying out on the road longer, do you think?

>> Ellery: Maybe. Yeah. But I think sometimes men kind of don’t notice the annoyance of the road as much as women. But also, I don’t know, the road is kind of a lonely place. You know sometimes you’re sitting on the side of the road in a Motel 6 for 3 days in between gigs. And there’s this sad mall you visit three days in a row just to get out of your hotel room, because you’re in Wisconsin, and there isn’t really that much to do.

>> Shannon: Except go to the Chinese restaurant at the mall.

>> Ellery: Yeah, exactly. You might go out and find a bar at night and have a beer with the bandmates, whatever, but you know. And occasionally you’d meet people after a show and have a great conversation. And you take their phone number and yeah, the next time I’m in town maybe we could hang out and have a bite to eat, and you’d come back to town and they’d be like, oh really, whatever? It was very hard to build up any kind of lasting connection or community. 

[ Music: “Meaning of Life,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: What about local music opportunities? Like it does seem that in order to play a lot, and to stay out late, you do need to be available which isn’t necessarily the purview of the parent.

>> Ellery: Mmm hmm. Well I definitely built up my Irish music in my 20’s when I was free of obligations. Able to stay up late and show up at work like 4 hours of sleep not, and actually function. You know. Now that I’m over 40. [laughs]

>> Shannon: You look beautiful.

>>Ellery: It’s harder to function on 4 hours of sleep.

>> Shannon: And you value sleep maybe more, too. 

>>Ellery: Yeah. Since I’ve been home, especially since having kids. You know, I have this great community full of all kinds of people. And we’re working to build some arts in our town. And that’s, that’s really satisfying, too.

>> Shannon: Yeah. Whether on the road or at home, it’s about the people IN the places, right? The point of the kitchen and studio, and bedroom painting—or the new upholstery in the tour bus—is to enhance the human experiences in those spaces.

But some spaces are more public than others. Which brings me to…

Chapter five: -The Front Porch –

Our front porch is not in great shape.  The paint is peeling. There are rotten floorboards. The railing is a little wiggly. And this is the gateway to our home, for our neighbors and our guests. But also, it’s our own little outdoor snug.

[ Music: “Abbey Reel,” from Kitchen Session
Artist: Matt Heaton (guitar) ]

It’s like being in a pub session. You’re relatively sheltered and insulated. But societal expectations and dynamics hover, in and out of the circle of musicians, and neighbors. 

I asked fellow flute player and front porch owner Lisa Coyne to help with a diagnosis. As we sat in Dr. Coyne’s beautifully painted Melrose office, we talked about how small acts of attention or neglect can really add up. 

>> Shannon: For the most part I’ve had GREAT experiences playing Irish music.

>> Lisa: Yeah, me, too.

>> Shannon: But I think that there is sort of a physical edging out sometimes that I’ve felt.

>> Lisa: The whole physical edging out. Yeah. Like it’s just that whole, you know, you’re in a small snug. And like, I often feel like I’m trying to physically make myself smaller. Or tuck myself literally under somebody’s fiddle. 


Because I’m a left handed player and I want to sit, just because people do kind of spread, they man spread. What’s the word for that? Manspreading!

>> Shannon: That’s  a different kind of podcasting.


>> Lisa:  But it happens right?

>> Shannon: It happens, it really happens!

>> Lisa: I think that sexism follows us into Trad. It’s part of our culture more generally, so trad’s not immune to it. So it does happen. And there are little things that I think are really subtle. Like, you know when you start a tune? Do people play and you, kind of, match what they’re doing? Do you try to blend with them or do you lead the tune? And does that change depending on gender? A lot of the time I’ll sit back and let myself be led. That’s not how I am in work. And that’s not how I am in my career. So it’s like a really interesting sort of counterpoint where I take on this more like…I hate the word submissive that sounds so gross, but like you know what I mean; like a background role and let other people take care of things. 

You know a lot of sessions are dominated by guys. It’s just there are a lot more guys. It seems to be shifting a little bit these days which is really great. And I really love seeing that.  

>> Shannon: But when the balance isn’t there…

>> Lisa: It can suck.

>> Shannon: And sometimes that balance is not there, I think, because of inadvertent behaviors, maybe patterns that really aren’t welcoming to everybody. 

>> Lisa: I think sometimes it’s ego. It’s a little bit of narcissism, too. Maybe just being set in your ways and not being really terrific at perspective taking. Sometimes, like, seriously? You’re going to like stick your knee there where I’m sitting? Or just, you gonna man spread? 


(We’re back to manspreading.) But you get it. Like, could you not, are you not noticing that you’re talking over this young woman? But then there’s the whole, “we’re a bunch guys, and we’re just going to do what we want to do and you can come along or not.”

>> Shannon: Yeah. If those guys hear later, “oh that didn’t feel very cool.” Maybe their perspective is “Yo, I didn’t say you couldn’t be part of it!

>> Lisa: Right. They’re just not aware. 

[Music: Never Gonna Be Alone,” from Dark Horse
Artist/Composer: Nickelback ] 

>> Shannon: Like the front porch. Storing trash and an old sofa there, and blasting Nickelback out of speakers aimed at the street, and then if any neighbors complain you just say, “well, go ahead and put trash and sofas on your porch too, nobody’s stopping you!” Well, that wouldn’t make the world an easier place.

>> Lisa: Those are the things that come in from the culture that can erode that 50/50 balance: talking over each other, taking too much space, leading too often, kind of forgetting you have somebody next to you who maybe doesn’t have the volume or something like that. 

And think about the effect of that it diminishes the quality of the music. You’re going to kind of sit back and suppress your own self physically; and your voice and all of this stuff. You’re not going to get to participate as fully and the music is not going to have the nyah, maybe,  that you want it to have. It takes everybody. It takes everybody participating fully.

[Music: Meaning of Life reprise ]

>> Shannon: Just like a healthy neighborhood. It takes everybody participating and looking out for each other and shoveling snow together; and maybe repainting the front porch is a small thing that can inspire a bigger welcome and commitment to community.

So maybe aiming for a bigger representation of sweetness and gentleness, and sarcasm and biting wit. Taking a turn driving the bus, and taking a turn really deferring to the player beside you.

>> Lisa: That’s perfect. That’s just perfect. And the more we can have that kind of thing in sessions and you all value each other equally. That’s fantastic. 

>> Shannon: If we’re aiming for fantastic, critical thinking and workshopping is key. It’s not about blaming and judging. It’s about making things even better.

When my painting guru Vincent Crotty suggests sage green cabinets and a WOODEN beam on the ceiling instead of the existing white one, he’s helping us imagine a way to make our home, and hopefully, our lives, just a little sweeter.

So as I paint walls—and yes, as I talk to fellow musicians and dancers about the fairness and inclusivity of sessions, and festival stages, and feises, and playlists— it’s helping me value Irish music and dance even more. And all of the people who keep the tradition alive.

Like Liz Carroll said two months ago on the show

>> Liz: People have different skills. People have different things. The person that plays a million variations, the person that plays none, the person that plays one. Ya know, they’re all different people in the world, uh, and I could find myself appreciating all of it. 

[ Music: “Mr Oconnor-The Broken Pledge,” from A Sweetish Tune
Artist: Noctambule]

>> Shannon: All of it. All of us. We all play a part. We all evolve. And our living traditions grow and change with us.

When I started out in the 90s, there was more diversity on stages than the Sean O’Riada days. It was really important for me to see the Josephine Keegans, and Mary Bergins, and Liz Carrolls, and Catherine McEvoys out there, playing concerts and and writing tunes, and recording albums. And it was inspiring to hear people talk about older influential musicians like Lucy Farr, Julia Clifford, and Eleanor Neary.

But there were still lots of sessions where I’d be the only woman. There were festivals I’d play, and I’d look around backstage and see just guys.

But things changed around me. More and more women started playing in sessions. I knew more and more women on the road with bands. 

And I guess I’ve changed along the way, too. Now there are lots of times I can’t make it to the late, loud sessions. Now I’ve got a little guy to raise, with his own concept of gender equality.

Now I am less tolerant of TOXIC masculinity. I’m not talking about energetic, muscle-y music (that lifts me up). I’m talking about leaders who disenfranchise and discourage others players, while they are making that muscle-y music.

It’s dawning on me that I have discouraged musicians on the edges, too, by NOT always listening with care. I’ve hired lots of men and not as many women. I haven’t always taken the space I need in a session, or taken the opportunity to play MY songs or tunes in big collaborative concerts. I haven’t turned all of my songs inside out to consider their messages. 

I have started to do a solo show, which feels scary and exposed. But it’s been good for me. And putting together this episode was also a big personal step—and I’ll admit, I was really scared to do it. I don’t think it will be appreciated by everybody. And, I don’t know, maybe I’ll get blacklisted from some festivals or bands or whatever. 

I mentioned my concerns to Nic, and he offered comfort, and a much broader perspective.

>> Nic: That is going to make the world the world a better place for everybody. I want there to be more diversity within the music and dance worlds that I interact with. I want there to be less differential between prestige and human rights; and credibility between genders. I think it makes for a richer place. It’s something that I care about. 

[ Music:  “Mouth Music,” from Factory Girl – EP
Artist: Rhiannon Giddens ]


>> Shannon: If you’ve got an ugly laminate cabinet, and you can’t afford to buy a beautiful wooden one to replace it, you can paint it. 

If the tiles you inherited in your kitchen are liver-colored, you can paint them a shimmery bronze, to go along with your sage cabinets and pine woodwork. 

[Music: “The Chair Dance,” from An Irish Homecoming
Artist: Cherish the Ladies ]

You can scrape away old layers and try fresh new approaches—in your home, in your local session, and onstage. And you can keep adjusting along the way. 

Because, regardless of the excellence and convenience of the Moore Brother’s paints, sometimes you gotta go beyond paint chip samples… and experiment… and pull in lots of new ideas…until you find just the right blend.

* * * * **  *

[Music fades]

Thank you, dear listeners, for tuning in and making the world a richer place. Thank you to Karan Casey, Brian Ó hAirt, Laura Cortese, Nic Gareiss, Ellery Klein, and Lisa Coyne for the colorful conversations. Thank you to the FairPlé team for assembling the helpful web-site, which is

And thank you Vincent Crotty for showing me these amazing painting techniques, and for talking with me about all this stuff. You can find Vincent’s work at – It’s worth taking a bit of time, so make a cup of tea and check out his paintings. And then commission your own landscape or nocturne.

Irish Music Stories is produced by me, Shannon Heaton, with underscore and script editing from Matt Heaton, underwriter acknowledgment from Nigel, and additional counsel this month from Ellery Klein.

My thanks again to Mark Johnson, Scott Maurer, Davy McDonald, Robbie Zukauskas, Billie Neal, and Brian Benscoter for supporting this episode. 

If you can kick in… it REALLY helps me keep the show going… Please visit and hit the donate button. Thank you.

Next month I’ll have a cuppa tea with Irish music’s John Williams. I hope you’ll tune in on Tuesday November 13th.

Thanks again for listening, everybody!


[Music: Nickelback reprise ]

>>Lisa and Shannon: We hear loud sirens: Yeah, the cops are coming! They’re calling you on that behavior! Manspreaders!

Bonus Content

Related videos

Companion Chapters

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Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Waterford-born folk singer, songwriter and activist who has appeared on stages and recordings with numerous projects

Brian Ó hAirt


Missouri-born singer, musician, dancer, and Irish speaker who came of age in Gaelic communities on Ireland’s west coast

Joanie Madden


Bronx-based Irish flute and whistle player and composer who founded internationally acclaimed band Cherish the Ladies

Laura Cortese


San Francisco-born, Belgium-based singer, songwriter, and fiddle player with a Scottish fiddle background who spent years in Boston

Matt Heaton


Pennsylvania-born, Boston-based guitarist and bouzouki player

Nic Gareiss


Michigan-born acclaimed dancer, musician, and dance researcher 

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

Lisa Coyne


Melrose, Massachusetts-based flute player and clinical psychologist

Chicago-based fiddle player and composer who has been named All-Ireland champ, Grammy nominee, National Heritage Fellow, and TG4 Cumadóir

The Heaton List