Women’s History Month Spotlight: Karan Casey

Seminal Irish singer Karan Casey’s current US tour is intended to coincide both with St. Patrick’s Day and with Women’s History Month. That’s because the tour is a showcase for her new album, Nine Apples of Gold, which focuses on women’s stories from the far distant, even mythological, Irish past up to the present day.

Her first recording since the pandemic, it’s also the first album where she explicitly lays out her feminist perspective as a song collector and songwriter. In one case quite explicitly; she may have the first Irish trad album with a singalong chorus of “F@#% the Patriarchy”!

Working with her longtime collaborator Seán Óg Graham, Casey brought together many of her favorite artists, mostly women, for Nine Apples of Gold.  She built a collection of original and traditional songs that touch on nature, healing, new life, and death from the female perspective, reaching across the spectrum of emotions.

In some ways,
Nine Apples of Gold is a response to the global pandemic, but it’s also an interwoven look at feminism, myth, and nature in Ireland today. With harsh lockdowns in Ireland, Casey’s access to nature was often restricted to a nearby park where she and her family could walk among the songbirds. These same songbirds make an appearance on the album’s title track, recorded by Óg Graham, but part of Casey’s strength has always been nodding to the present from the far distant past, and songbirds also play a large role in the mythology that inspired her on this album.

Speaking to Karan Casey at the Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City a month ago, it’s clear that, for Casey, myth, traditional song, and present day reality are all interconnected. She brought up the mythological character Clíodhna, a goddess of love and beauty, whose three otherworldly birds hold magic apples that could cure all illness. Clíodhna was the daughter of Manannán mac Lir, the Irish sea god, and was so powerful that many tried to control her. To avoid capture, she changed herself into a wren to escape, another nod to the birds in Irish myth. What resonated for Casey? Clíodhna’s ties to the ocean, to the waves, her ability to go from a whisper to a roar. “A lot of that informs the whole album,” she says. “From women being afraid and whispering and talking to each other, to finally going ‘What the f@#%ing f@#%!’ and shouting it!” 

Songs of powerful women and messages of feminism have always been key in Casey’s work, all the way from her early days with groundbreaking Irish American band Solas in the 1990s up to her recent solo albums. She used to refer to these characters as “strong women,” but through the social turmoil of the past five years and through her work founding the organization FairPlé to fight for gender equality in Irish traditional music, she’s been using the word “feminist” a lot more. “I always thought people knew I was a feminist,” she says. “You know, my first song on my first album was ‘Roger the Miller.'” (This is a traditional song in which a young woman rejects a man’s proposal because of his obnoxious neediness).

Cherry-picking the tradition for these examples of female power was enough in her earlier career, but Casey has seen that today, with so much backsliding in our societies, she needs to spell it out for those folks who just don’t get it. And spell it out she does on her new album. The blistering, furious, mostly spoken-word “I Live In A Country” leads the charge, with its calls to dismantle the patriarchy. But Casey also calls up specific and shameful instances from Irish history for the song. She references the Magdalene Laundries, oppressive institutions run by Ireland’s Catholic Church to house “fallen women” that were later accused of abuse, slavery, and even mass graves. Certainly, the church contributed to much of the oppression of women in Ireland, and that echoes into the music.

Interestingly, women have always been represented in the heart of Irish traditional music through the aisling song tradition. These old songs originating in the 17th and 18th centuries cast the nation of Ireland in the guise of a woman lamenting her fate. However, Casey says that seeing the nation as an aggrieved woman does little to help actual women. “Yes, Ireland is often depicted as a woman,” she says, “but as being subservient, submissive, and browbeaten by the oppressor, John Bull England.”

Happily, Casey has always been able to avoid singing Irish songs that excoriate women or treat them as less than men. She says that she’s been helped by song mentors like Frank Harte and Mick Moloney in the tradition who showed her the importance of choosing the songs you sing carefully. “When you’ve been a singer for a long time, the idea is you stand over the songs. If you’re in Nebraska, twenty-five years down the line, it would be great if you could enjoy and like singing all the songs that you’ve been doing.” Casey believes that songs are a way to bring thorny issues into a room in order to open up a discussion, and happily stands over the anti-war and feminist songs she’s been singing for many years.

Frustrated with her experience touring as a professional artist in Ireland, Casey founded FairPlé, a feminist volunteer organization, in 2018 alongside fellow singers Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin and Niamh Dunne. The name is a triple pun, based on “fair play to you,” a common Irish expression, “fair play” meaning equal access to the gigs, and the word plé’s meaning of “discussion” in Irish, which is what the organization is pushing for: a discussion about equality and gender balance in Irish traditional music. Though the organization experienced pushback early on, they’re seen as a success story now, recently securing support from the Irish government to help create the first HR system for Irish trad.

In 2021, Casey spoke before The Oireachtais, the Irish Parliament, along with a sister organization, Mise Fosta, to shed more light on serious allegations of abuse and sexual harassment in Irish traditional music. The impetus for starting this work came from the bizarre experience of being the only woman on a large festival bill, something that has happened to Casey and others multiple times over the years. In some cases, she’d call asking for a gig but the booker would decline since they “already had a woman” for the festival. Despite the frustrations of these experiences, FairPlé has built a community supporting women and female-identifying artists in Irish music, as well as many men who support change in the traditional music scene.

Reflecting on these struggles, FairPlé co-founder Niamh Dunne says, “People can be afraid of change, and people are very protective of the tradition and with good reason, but personally I believe that the music or the scene can’t be worth more than the people in it.”

Though Nine Apples of Gold may be the album where Casey spells it out to the listeners, many of her lessons on how to be a powerful woman in Irish music were learned early on. Thinking back to her early years in the 1990s’ seminal Irish band Solas, Casey remembers her bandmate and Solas’ fiddler Winifred “Winnie” Horan and her fierce spirit. “We’d come up to the gig and people would say, ‘Oh, are you with the band?’ And Winnie would say, ‘We are the band.’”

It’s an important distinction and one that aligns with Casey’s wish for women to move to the forefront of Irish traditional music today, finally gaining the equality that has been denied them for so long.

Nine Apples of Gold is available HERE.

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