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The rise of Irish music

Irish ayes find their way to the top o’ the charts

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Will Smith isn’t the only one getting jiggy with it. From million-selling CDs to ethereal-sounding ad campaigns, Celtic music is striking a chord that’s reverberating well beyond Ireland’s borders. — In Hollywood, James Horner‘s Celtic-tinged Titanic CD is the music to beat on Oscar night. Uilleann pipes can be heard in ad campaigns for Mobil and General Electric, which just started using a traditional Welsh folk song in a spot for its aerospace division. You’ll find ”Danny Boy,” that most melancholy of Irish ballads, on the pop charts, where British anarchists Chumbawamba have woven the air into their hit song, ”Tubthumping.” And in a really bizarre twist, a remix of Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt‘s Celtic-inspired ”The Mummers’ Dance” has swung onto the dance floor.

Horner, for one, finds Celtic music utterly irresistible. ”If you have a pennywhistle play a pretty tune, it ends up being terribly melancholy,” says the composer. ”There’s something heartbreaking about it. That’s the Celtic thing.” Adds Fiona Ritchie, host of National Public Radio’s Thistle & Shamrock program, ”If you’re using the uilleann pipes, even in a commercial form, you can’t ignore the sound. It just grabs your attention.”

Much of the credit for this Celtification of pop goes to Enya, the Donegal-based doyenne of New Age whose music has dominated the Billboard charts for almost a decade. Recently, though, even Enya’s influence has been eclipsed by that of Riverdance. The three-year-old step-dancing spectacular has grossed more than $300 million worldwide, spawning a gold album as well as a rival production, Lord of the Dance, by smarmy Michael Flatley, an ex-Riverdance choreographer. It’s also become public television’s fund-raising lucky charm. When Los Angeles’ KCET aired Riverdance during a televised drive last March, it earned $103,000 in one showing — considerably more than the station had hoped.

What sets the success of this Celtic beat apart from that of Irish folk artists like the Chieftains is that instead of earthy jigs and reels, Celtic music has more of an electronic, New Age-y vibe and, consequently, bigger crossover appeal. Enya’s 1995 CD was a paean to the druids called The Memory of Trees, and McKennitt’s top 20 album The Book of Secrets is inspired by the nomadic, nature-worshipping Celts, who bunkered down in Ireland around 400 B.C.

Since the Celts are, arguably, the first New Agers, the Celtic musical connection makes a perfect soundtrack for the current New Age. ”Maybe it is the millennium, but people today are looking inward,” says Cindy Byram, publicity director for Shanachie Entertainment, which distributes Celtic music in the U.S. ”It has a very meditative quality. [It’s] a break from the craziness.”

Yet watching Celtic music become the millennium’s Muzak has traditional Irish musicians getting their you-know-what up. According to Dublin-born singer-songwriter Susan McKeown, who just released a collection of traditional Irish songs, Bushes & Briars, ”Celtic seems to have become this handy catchphrase used to describe ethereal, high-pitched vocals dripping with synthesizers.”