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Celtic Woman becomes U.S. sensation

Brian McCollum

On their recent fifth album, the members of Celtic Woman sing about New York's Ellis Island, celebrating the 17 million Irish who passed through on a quest for the American dream.

The group can relate: With virtually no attention in their homeland, the Irish quintet has become a cultural force in the United States, where a series of high-profile PBS specials has spawned five hit tours, albums and DVDs.

And no citizenship tests required.

"The demand here has been really huge, and we're really grateful for it," says Dublin's Chloe Agnew, who at 20 is the youngest member and one of three remaining from the group's 2005 debut. "This is like our home now. There's nowhere else we feel more at home. We've spent more time here the last few years than in Ireland."

This time the tour is in support of "Songs From the Heart," the group's fifth project. It's been a typical Celtic Woman success, with a pledge-event concert special on PBS, a Top 10 album and a chart-topping DVD.

Agnew, Lisa Kelly and fiddling dynamo Mairead Nesbitt are now joined by singers Lynn Hilary and Alex Sharpe, who both became permanent members last year. And the 2010 show features some new twists, including a soaring "Amazing Grace" with award-winning bagpiper Anthony Byrne.

"Irish music is so connected to our heritage and culture, where we come from," says Agnew, a buoyant and earnest personality whose enthusiasm pours through the phone. "You look back to our history: In the hardest times and the happiest times, Irish people turned to music. There are drinking songs. There are songs for milking the cow. Without a doubt, it's in our blood."

But Celtic Woman brings a new spin to the party: Amid the uilleann pipes and ancient Gaelic tones is a big, glossy pop sensibility, where Sting covers and Disney songs sit side by side with centuries-old folk songs. It's Celtic music by way of globalization — a recognition that the group operates in a music marketplace where Hollywood sizzle sells.

If that sounds a little like "Riverdance," it should: Celtic Woman was formed in 2004 by that show's musical director, David Downes, who astutely foresaw a market for Celtic music with a girl-group twist. The concept, explicitly designed and packaged for PBS, was an instant hit in '05 and the group's self-titled debut album spent more than a year atop Billboard's world music chart.

Celtic Woman is often described as Irish music in Spice Girls packaging. But a better analogy might be modern country , with its pop-coated, personality-driven approach to a traditional music form.

"All the songs chosen for this show are songs that mean something to us," says Agnew. "\u2009'Galway Bay,' which I sing in the show, is a song my mother, my grandmother, used to sing. I remember sitting on the carpet in front of the fireplace. People can feel that. It doesn't matter whether the music is in Gaelic or English, they take something away from it."

And Agnew quickly learned that the American fascination with Irish culture isn't just happenstance: At the tour meet-and-greets where fans proudly rattle off their genealogical stats — a quarter Irish on this side, one-sixteenth on that one — the young singer has gotten a primer on a unique branch of her own heritage.

"You look at America, and because there are so many people with Irish in them, coming out and listening to two hours of music connects them to their culture, to their ancestors," she says. "There are people at our shows who've never been to Ireland, and may never get there. But listening to us they can get a feeling of their history."