Danú is unabashedly of its country – don’t call them Celtic. According to band co-founder Benny McCarthy, “The tunes I play are traditional Irish, not from ‘Celtia.’ … The term’s just not specific enough for me. We are all born in Ireland and deeply rooted in where we come from.”
The Celtic regions are spread across Europe, noted McCarthy. They draw from one another but aren’t alike.
“I mention Brittany” — located on the northwest tip of France — “and people think we’re talking about Britney Spears,” laughed McCarthy. “But Breton music doesn’t sound like Irish music, or Scottish music, or Manx music from the Isle of Man. … Don’t put it in a box of Celtic.”
McCarthy talked by phone as Danú prepared for a month-long U.S. tour that includes a Derry show on March 11. The band expects to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at every stop.
“Where better to work,” he said. “For anyone playing this type of music, it’s their biggest time of year for performing.”
The American experience of the Irish religious holiday suits McCarthy fine.
“People go to mass in the morning, have a parade in the afternoon, there’s music of course, and any day off in Ireland is a fun day,” he said. “But when you go to the U.S. it takes on a different level of celebration. We live here and don’t have to prove our heritage, but when you’re abroad you can put on your green thing and show your Irish.”
Danú is nearing its 20th anniversary as a band. It came together in October 1994, a night when McCarthy’s button accordion and melodeon talents won him the All Ireland Oireachtas.
“We were playing for a céilidh [social dance] in one of the hotels in my hometown of Waterford,” recalled McCarthy, and a loose jam session kept getting better. “The crowd got going a little bit wild at what we were doing, and the organizer of this big festival was in the audience. He just came up, said ‘I would love to get you guys.’”
They played the first show at the 1995 Inter-Celtic Festival of Lorient, naming the band after “the Queen Goddess, top lady in Celtic mythology,” said McCarthy.
Interestingly, the six-piece band was all male until 2003, when singer and flute player Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh replaced Ciarán Ó Gealbháin.
The change was less about altering the band’s DNA than acknowledging Gealbháin’s prodigious skills.
“He’d been crowned Irish singer of the year [and] it’s one of the areas that can make or break a band. We were well aware of this,” recalled McCarthy. “What guy is going to replace Ciarán and be told he’s not as good as the last guy we had?”
Amhlaoibh transitioned easily in her role, as Gealbháin left to finish university.
“I wish I could say it was a rock and roll story that ended with a big fight, but it’s not,” McCarthy said with a chuckle. “In March 2003 we were in the studio with Muireann (pronounced MWI-ren). When the album came out in September, it was like she’d been there forever.”
The record, The Road Less Traveled, was an immediate hit; a cover of Tommy Sands’ elegiac “County Down” won a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Best Song in 2004. Another of the singer’s gems is the Danú version of Paul Brady’s “Follow On,” from 2005’s When All Is Said and Done.
“She’s great — and she plays,” McCarthy enthused. “It’s very important that we had a singer who could sit in on some of the music as well. We said it could be a good change because she would not be compared to a male singer and … it was one of the best changeovers possible. She ticked all the boxes.”
As seen in the March 6, 2014 issue of the Hippo.