Destined to sing Christmas

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Irish-born Katie McMahon spreads holiday cheer at USCL

By Greg Summers

Katie McMahon has been called the “world’s most famous unknown singer.”

That’s not an exaggeration, either.

As the former lead vocalist for “Riverdance,” millions have heard her sing or own a video or CD featuring her voice. But very few know her by name.

Locally, that should change after this week.

A classically trained harpist and singer who studied at the Royal Irish Academy of Music and Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, McMahon is bringing her “Celtic Christmas” show to the University of South Carolina at Lancaster at 7:30 p.m. Saturday as part of the 2009-10 See Lancaster SC Performing Arts Series.

The show is a mixture of traditional and sacred holiday selections bearing the imprint of her youth.

McMahon said music – especially Christmas music – played a huge role in her childhood.

“I think the first song I ever sang was ‘Silent Night,’ which was taught to me in German by my German mother,” she said. “I was about 3 years old.”

While her mother taught her to play the piano, her father – a hypnotherapist – was constantly encouraging her and her brother, Peter, in whatever career paths they chose.

“I always really loved the traditional, choral-type Christmas music and was really into it growing up. It was a big part of things,” McMahon said.

That love of traditional songs was evident in 1991 when McMahon joined Anuna, a 14-member Irish choral ensemble. With its blend of ancient Celtic music and contemporary Irish songs, Anuna is credited with starting a new musical movement and following in Ireland. McMahon eventually became one of Anuna’s main soloists.

Anuna became forever linked to Irish step dancing when one of its songs, “Cloudsong” (sung by McMahon) was selected as the opening song for “Riverdance.” That prompted the choral group to travel with the show and record many of its tracks. By the mid-1990s, “Riverdance” had become a global sensation, putting McMahon in the international spotlight. She sang with the cast until 1999, when she moved to Minneapolis to marry her husband, Ben Craig.

From music at home, to rehearsals and shows, McMahon said her young son, Michael, is constantly surrounded by music.

“My husband plays rockabilly, so Michael has all these different genres coming at him all the time,” she said, laughing. “He is so exposed to music that he is either going to love it or really, really hate it.”

McMahon was recently named one of the most influential Irish women in America by Irish Voice, the largest Irish-American newspaper in the United States. That’s because she weaves Irish storytelling and tradition into every concert. She protects her roots by sharing them.

“So many Irish Americans are proud of their heritage,” McMahon said. “It’s important that they know there’s more to their Irish roots than leprechauns and folk tales.”

McMahon describes Cel-tic Christmas as a family-friendly mixture of well-known carols and traditional Irish tunes, along with Gaelic, German, French and Latin Christmas songs. The songs are performed in four voices and accompanied by a full band. There’s even some Irish dancing.

“It’s old-fashioned in that it has to do more with Jesus’ birth and the real meaning of Christmas,” she said. “One of the things that sometimes turns me off about Christmas in America are the songs about presents and the like. I grew up with the old carols and that’s what we concentrate on.

“The funny thing is that people tell us it’s quite refreshing to hear,” McMahon said. “It’s an opportunity for them to enjoy the classical stuff they remember from their youth and also a chance to introduce their children to it.” 

Since settling in Minneapolis, McMahon has been performing across the Midwest. She is now starting to branch out more, but hasn’t had many chances to get this far south.

She said Saturday’s stop in Lancaster is the last one before a holiday break in Minnesota with her family. She hopes Celtic Christmas makes a lasting impression.

"This is our last concert for the year, so it’s going to be really fun,” she said. “We’re really looking forward to it. We’re really gonna celebrate Christmas.”

Want to go?

WHAT: Katie McMahon’s Celtic Christmas

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 19

WHERE: University of South Carolina at Lancaster’s Bundy  Auditorium

HOW MUCH: Tickets are $50 each and are available at the See Lancaster office inside the Springs House, 201 W. Gay St. Tickets can also be purchased online at      plittle@lancastercity.sc.com.

INFORMATION: (803) 286-1145 or (803) 285-6207 (fax)