Transcribing an interview with Girsa – the all-female, high school/college-age Irish-American band from Rockland County, NY, that is catching ears and turning heads in ever-increasing numbers – is a prospect only slightly easier than, say, reforming the American health care system.
Members of Girsa enthusiastically, and often not a little mischievously, finish one another's sentences – or quickly weigh in with their assessments of what's been said, or not said, or should be said. And there are more than a few fascinating tangents explored on the way to answering a question.
For example, the question of where, when, and how their first actual band performance came about brings the following responses:
"Blaithin's mom got us a gig at the New York GAA, some dinner dance."
"We were only about 12, though."
"It was after the Catskills."
"It was at Rockin' Robin's in Brooklyn."
"No, no way."
"That was before the Catskills."
"We knew only one song, 'Factory Girl.' "
"Yeah, I had to play the bodhran like this: ba-dum-bum, ba-dum-bum. The whole song."
"But wait, I wasn't singing yet."
"No, it was after the Catskills."
"I think Blaithin is making that up."
"This is typical Girsa."
"Ba-dum-bum. Ba-dum-bum. Literally."
But what comes across amid the over-lapping, rapid-fire dialogue is that these are intelligent, spirited young women with great affection for one another, as well as for their familial and community roots, and for the music tradition they ably, and proudly, represent. That strongly-linked combination of friends, family, community, and tradition forms a wellspring capable of sustaining Girsa (Gaelic for "young girls") well beyond their youth.
On a cool, rainy, dreary day last month, Girsa brought its talents and considerable charm to the Boston area, at the Irish Cultural Centre of New England's 19th annual Irish festival in Canton. The band played almost 90 minutes' worth of tune sets and songs, and sold more than a few copies of their debut CD to a highly appreciative audience.
Girsa's repertoire is, to put it mildly, versatile. On the instrumental side of things, they can fire up tunes that fall into the "classic" category – "Eleanor Plunkett," "The Longford Tinker," "Paddy Ryan's Dream," to name a few – and contemporary compositions such as John Whelan's "Ian's Return to Ireland" or Eileen Ivers's "Afro-Jig." Their songs encompass an even greater range: traditional ballads like "I Courted a Wee Girl" and "The Home I Left Behind"; standards from the 1970s/80s Irish folk revival such as "Mary and the Soldier" or "I Live Not Where I Love"; latter-day crowd favorites "Immigrant Eyes" and "Galway Girl," and even a somewhat obscure Rod Stewart hit, "Rhythm of My Heart" – joined to Dave Richardson's jig "Calliope House," no less.
Reviewing their CD in the Irish Echo earlier this year, Earle Hitchner wrote, "Girsa has the ability, poise, taste, diversity, imagination, fire, and finesse to go as far as their commitment to staying together can take them."
However chaotic their off-stage conversations might be, in performance Girsa is efficient yet engaging. Fiddler and whistle player Maeve Flanagan – who, as a student at Stonehill College in Easton, has become the band's New England representative – tends to do most of the stage patter (She declares later, "It's because the rest of you guys are too scared," which is quickly followed by "What?" "Wait a minute."), and the good-natured bickering is kept to a reasonable minimum, especially since many of the band members are busy shifting places and exchanging one instrument for another (the unofficial rule for Girsa appears to be that at any given time you're either playing at least one instrument, singing, or dancing).
And even when they are off and running on a tune set or song, they give each other glances, smiles, or the occasional sotto voce entreaty, as a means of providing encouragement or a cue for the next transition. It's the kind of rapport befitting a group of people who have been playing together since early childhood – "literally," as someone said.
Girsa's ties to the Irish-American music tradition are considerable and impressive. Maeve Flanagan and sister Bernadette (piano, bodhran, stepdancing) are the daughters of Rose Conway Flanagan, an original member of the pioneering all-female band Cherish the Ladies who also taught Girsa's other fiddlers, Kristen McShane (percussion), Margaret Dudasik (whistles, vocals, stepdancing) and Deirdre Brennan (vocals, mandolin). Cherish the Ladies mainstays Patty Furlong and Mary Coogan, along with the likes of Margie Mulvihill, Annmarie Acosta, Eileen Goodman, and Frankie McCormick, also have served as teachers and mentors for the band, whose other members are Blaithin Loughran (accordion, percussion), Pamela Geraghty (accordion, guitar, vocals, percussion) and Emily McShane (vocals, piano, bodhran, percussion), Kristen's younger sister.
When you factor in the presence of family members like Brian Conway – Maeve and Bernadette's uncle – and friends like, say, Joanie Madden or Billy McComiskey, it's plain to see that Girsa has quite the Irish traditional music DNA. It's something for which they are plainly grateful, and wherever possible they make a point of noting the role of their teachers, supporters and, most of all, their parents in Girsa's collective and individual upbringing.
But biology is not destiny, and nature-nurture arguments aside, none of this lineage would have mattered unless the women of Girsa hadn't devoted considerable time and energy to becoming excellent musicians: They have numerous individual and group awards from various music competitions to show for it. As important as the adults in their lives have been, the longstanding friendships between the band members have been equally sustaining – even if these ties had unlikely beginnings.
"I cried hysterically on my way to accordion class my first time, and I was like, 'I'm not going, I'm not going,'" remembers Geraghty. "I get there, and Bla [the band's nickname for Blaithin] is in the class, and I have no idea who she is – I just thought she was a nut job. Then I missed a class, and my mom made me call Bla so she could come teach me the tunes. And here's Bla, this wild, spontaneous girl who says things like, 'If you die, can I have your house?' – but from then on we became best friends."
Dudasik, meanwhile, actually started out playing classical music, but through her Irish dance activities became friends with the other pre-Girsa girls, and then crossed over to Irish music. "Now we don't let her play classical, unless we need help in orchestra," quips Maeve.
House concerts, visits from musicians from Ireland, sessions in someone's living room – all of these were a major part of Girsa's childhood. "As we got older, every event seemed to be another opportunity for us to play together," says Bernadette Flanagan. "Somebody's graduation party, a five-year-old's birthday – didn't matter, it became a session."
"Of course," chimes in Brennan, "when we actually have a Girsa practice, we don't get anything done."
Girsa may be steeped in the Irish American music tradition, as well as its social component –at Canton, they could be seen waltzing around the dance floor and joining in the chorus to "Wild Rover" as a ceilidh band played – but they make no apologies for interpreting it on their own terms, even if that means occasionally raising the eyebrows of a teacher or mentor ("My accordion teacher will say, 'Too fast! Too fast!'" confides Geraghty).
"Above all, we love and respect the tradition," says Maeve Flanagan. "We still listen to the great musicians. But we like other styles, other kinds of music, too, and that's part of who we are."
"People might have been expecting us to play a certain way, but we've really made it our own thing," says Loughran. "We try to read the audience and think about what sets and songs will work."
"Even then," says Brennan, "we never play a set list quite the way it's written."
Maeve adds, "We can do bar songs, we can do 'Wild Rover,' we can do pop songs, things you wouldn't believe. If it's a traditional festival, we could sit down and do all tunes. We just try to enjoy ourselves and hope everyone else will, too."
"It's actually the competitions where we get most stressed," says Loughran. "Performances are really a lot of fun."
But gigs are also more a labor of love these days, since most of the band members are now in college: Kristen McShane, who attends the University of Scranton, was unable to make the trek to Canton; Brennan drove five hours from the State University of New York at Binghamton to do the concert; Bernadette Flanagan (Fordham), Dudasik (Pace) and Loughran (Iona) are closer to home. Emily McShane and Geraghty are still in high school.
Balancing their college or other long-range plans with the desire to keep Girsa going is no mean feat for these women. As friends, not simply band mates, they face the challenge of respecting one another's wishes, even as they make plain their wish that nobody go too far away.
Maeve says, "We went around in a circle once, talking about what we were going to do, where we were going to go, and when we got to Pamela, I said, 'You don't have a choice. You have to stay here.'"
"It's so true!" says Geraghty. "But I wouldn't have it any other way."
There is a slight pause, and then laughter all around. In two, five, ten years, who knows where these young women will be. But for today, for now, they are all part of Girsa, they just finished one gig and have another tomorrow – and it's hard to imagine anything better.