Matthew Gilsenan of the Celtic Tenors told David Hennessy how surreal it is to not be touring around St. Patrick’s Day, how surreal it was to be in America when the pandemic really hit, the privilege of being in the Dubliners’ gang and returning to engineering due to the lack of live gigs.
Like last year, this St. Patrick’s Day will be a strange one for Matthew Gilsenan. As one third of the Celtic Tenors, the festivities have often seen him play around the world and for some esteemed and prestigious people and events.
Former US President Bill Clinton described The Celtic Tenors’ rendition as “the finest version of ‘Danny Boy’ I have ever heard.” The Irish Examiner says they “combine the high standards of operatic singing with a delightfully informal sense of fun”.
They have also graced the London St. Patrick’s Day festivities sharing the stage with none other than the legendary Dubliners. The trio were on tour in America when the crisis hit last year forcing them to return home making their planned busy year a sudden non-event.
“Normally this time of the year I’m flat out, I’m certainly nowhere near Kells,” Matthew tells The Irish World from his home in Carlanstown, Co. Meath.
“It was about the 12th March when we got the final nail in the coffin to turn around and come home. We were in the states and we had one of our busiest years ahead of us. We had two sold out shows with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, we had big events in California, in the mid west in the US, then an extended tour in Canada. It was just beginning, we were beginning to get a smell of it this time last year.
“It was surreal. We had well over a million euros’ worth of tickets sold for the rest of the year and then in literally one day it went to zero. It was faster than any stock exchange crash. Everything just stopped.”
Matthew is full of praise for Aer Lingus who ensured they got home safe and sound in uncertain times.
“We were really lucky and I have to say I was very proud of our national carrier.
“We had just done a show near Pittsburgh and the next show was knife-edge up in Connecticut whether it was going to happen or not. So we started heading up towards Connecticut and the next thing we get a phone call: It’s cancelled.
“There was a range of reactions from promoters and the venues. Some of them were very kind about it. Others were saying, ‘You better give us our deposit back or else we’re never hiring you again’.
“We got on the phone to Aer Lingus and it was mayhem. My wife who runs our company, she was in Ireland trying to get in touch with Aer Lingus and eventually we said, ‘Sh*g it, let’s just turn left and go to Philadelphia and see what happens’. Because we knew there was an Aer Lingus flight. We just showed up at the Aer Lingus desk. We just said, ‘Can you help us? We’re not supposed to be going home for three weeks but can you help us?’
“They loaded us in, got us on the flight. They didn’t take any more money from us, they got us home and they minded us so that was lovely.”
It was when they arrived back in Dublin that Matthew and the other two tenors could see for themselves how coronavirus had really shut the whole country down. This was shocking coming from America where they could see the virus just wasn’t being taken seriously.
“It really did look like 28 Days Later. It was a very different landscape to the one we had left but at the same time we were absolutely stuck to the news so we had a fair idea what to expect.
“We were literally going around America aghast that it was so not being taken seriously and lots of our friends and fans who had come to our shows might be in the higher risk category age-wise: Not a bother on them. They were all out there very annoyed that we weren’t meeting them for after the show face-to-face which is what we always do.
“The places we had just done they were all very, very laissez-faire about it. They weren’t even that. They were just like, ‘This is nonsense, we’re just going to keep going’. They were a nation of anti-maskers as far as I could see at that point: America has always been so untouched by the world, why would this be any different?
“It was just very, very surprising in some ways that a nation as progressive as America would deal with it in such a way. I was just surprised that it didn’t seem to get it early on, didn’t seem to get it later on too.
“A bit of hubris was very evident then and obviously went on to be the reason it ended up having more deaths than anyone else.”
The Celtic Tenors have been in existence since 2000. While Matthew and James Nelson have been involved from the very start, Daryl Simpson from Omagh replaced Niall Morris in 2006.
Being at home for St. Patrick’s Day last year was certainly unexpected for Matthew.
“It was the saddest thing of all. It was just surreal.
“We have had the most wide and varied St. Patrick’s experiences. We’ve done the Bronx, we’ve done loads and loads of different places and mostly out of Ireland actually.
“We did Trafalgar Square. Ken Livingstone put on a few great St. Patrick’s parties in London over the years when he was Lord Mayor so we were lucky enough to do that. It was the most extraordinary feeling to be singing Irish songs onstage with the Dubliners in front of over 100,000 people.
“When you’re actually making music with the likes of the Dubliners and you get a little bit of a sense of being in their gang for a second, you feel truly privileged to be immersed even for a second in something that is so totally of Ireland and of us in the most sincere and deep way, it is brilliant.
“To be able to say that I drunk way too many pints with Barney McKenna, it’s just absolutely pinch me moment.”
In two decades the Celtic Tenors have become internationally acclaimed and played esteemed venues like London’s Royal Albert Hall, Concertgebouw Amsterdam and Vancouver Symphony Hall, Canada to name but a few.
However, Matthew had a completely different career intended studying and working as an engineer. It is a profession he has returned to since live performances of any kind were completely ruled out by the pandemic.
“When we came home, I was very deflated of course but I suppose I was quite lucky in that I had a degree in my back pocket in something completely different and some experience in that area. I ended up getting an engineering job straight away. Well, six months in.
“After I had done all the things that everyone else did. I got great at making sourdough bread. I spent a huge amount of time with the family, painting the house, fixing stuff, loads of stuff that was just hanging around, hanging over me for years that was never going to get done got done. When that kind of ran out I felt, ‘I need to deal with this now’. So I put out some feelers and I was very, very lucky. I got a job straight away.”
From a farming family in Meath, Matthew studied in UCD thinking a career in singing an impossibility.
“Who would have thought you could actually have a career singing songs? I had an opportunity to take six months off from my engineering job 22 or 23 years ago. I took it and it grew legs really quickly. We ended up signing to EMI Classics and Decca. We had numerous albums and proper worldwide distribution and all the things you couldn’t even dream of and it all just happened. I decided to stay on that wave and I stayed on it for 20 years and I hopefully will be hoping back up on the wave again in March next year.
“I used to always say to the lads, ‘You know I’m an engineer at heart’. I was saying it half joking but I do think there are certain people who are just curious about nature and the way things work. I don’t think you unlearn that. You might get rusty, some of the technology might be newer or whatever but I think an engineer is an engineer and it turns out that it’s like riding a bike.”
Matthew spent some time as a young man working as an engineer in the UK.
“I lived in Peterborough for a good while. I worked in California in the US. I worked in the New York area. I worked all over the shop from the UK. I spent a bit of time up in Northumberland and I loved it. I really loved working there and like any other Irish family so many of my relatives live and work there. My aunt worked in the NHS.
“I was there solidly for five years. The Irish community where I lived was really just the four Irish guys that were in my company. The sense of Irish community was when I went down to High Barnet or Finchley, down to the relatives. It felt even more Irish than Ireland in some ways down there. Up in Peterborough, it was nose to the grindstone and not much Irish community or culture whch I did miss. It is probably one of the reasons why I didn’t stay there as long as I might have.”
This St. Patrick’s Day brings a different kind of performance for Matthew. Accompanied by renowned violinist Vladimir Jablokov, Matthew presents a St. Patrick’s weekend concert series.
Matthew admits he was sceptical of how the concerts would work at first but became excited to do something interactive and personal creating more of the feeling of a real live show.
“Vladimir essentially approached me at Christmas time so I did a few events with him in this format.
“I was originally fairly dubious as to what it was, ‘Is this just another streaming show and if it is, I’m not really that interested because I think people’s world is getting a bit jaded of people in their sitting room singing a few songs’. I saw firsthand what it actually is so it’s not as simple as a zoom show.
“It’s interactive. This is a great experience.
“We have the craic. It just works and I was really surprised at how well it worked. It’s just like being at a real show except that it’s even closer.
“Family members who maybe haven’t spoken to each other in a while or friends who haven’t seen each other for a while get a chance to do a bit of catching up.
“It will be very interesting to see how this works getting people from different parts of the world all coming together for Paddy’s Day.”
The Celtic Tenors have got to perform before people like Kofi Annan and Bill Clinton and launched prestigious sporting events such as the Dubai Tennis Open, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, NHL Canadian Hockey League, and Munster Rugby matches.
“I remember we had sang for Bill Clinton at an event in Dublin castle. It was marking the fact that the Good Friday Agreement seemed to have stuck so we were singing for Bill Clinton, Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach at the time so he was there. Bono and Bob Geldof were there, President Robinson and all these people.
“Three days later, we get a phone call from Bono’s office to ask if we would sing at a private birthday party for him so he obviously thought our version of Danny Boy was good enough. He asked us to sing five or six songs as a birthday gift for Kofi Annan’s wife. We went in and sang for Kofi Annan and his wife and they were over the moon. He has passed away since but he was a lovely man and his wife was even nicer.”
Matthew has also got to perform at Croke Park where his grandfather, Matt Gilsenan, played in the 1939 All-Ireland final.
It was on a previous tour of America long before Covid came along that an audience member had a profound effect on Matthew when he told him of a connection to his family: “I was talking to this fella one night and he told me a tiny little story and I just had a lump in my throat and tears I could not stop coming out of my eyes.
“An old man came to one of our shows a few years back. He was a typical looking old Irish man. He said, ‘I noticed your name was Gilsenan. Did you ever hear of a man called Matt Gilsenan form Meath, the football player? That’s why I came, I recognised your name’. My grandfather was Matt Gilsenan. He was the captain of the Leinster football team in 1939 and they won the Railway Cup and he was the first captain to bring the Meath team to the All- Ireland final. He said, ‘I played with your grandfather in 1942’. And I said, ‘My God, that’s amazing’. He said, ‘Well, I left in 1945 and I never came home’. He wrote a little note to my grandfather and my grandfather who was made of steel nails, the absolute definition of a hard man was really, really gobsmacked when he got this.
“It’s quite emotional the stories that you come across, it’s unreal.”
Matthew Gilsenan presents St. Patrick’s Weekend Special concerts with Vladimir Jablokov 17- 21 March. To book and for more information, click here.