Family harvests rich heritage of Celtic music

When Irish-born Michael Leahy emigrated to Canada in 1825, fiddle in hand, he unknowingly planted the seeds for a musical dynasty. Five generations later his descendants carry on their heritage of Celtic music and dance as the musical group Leahy, which comprises four brothers and five sisters from a family of 13 raised on the very farm that Michael Leahy established near Lakefield, Ontario.

Centered around the fiddle playing of Donnel Leahy, the group's self-titled debut album has attained platinum success in Canada (for 100,000 sold) and the group has won two Juno Awards (Canada's Grammys). Now on tour with Shania Twain, Leahy are bringing their Irish folk-music to the world -- from a French-Canadian perspective.

But that hasn't changed things much back at the family farm. Before Erin Leahy and her siblings joined Twain on the current tour, they were harvesting corn. "Basically, the traditions in our family have been agriculture and music," says Erin, 22. "There was always music being played around our house. Any party that we had at home, music was the main focus. You didn't sit around and just talk. You would be involved musically and be listening and dancing."

The Leahy children were instructed by their father Frank, a virtuoso fiddle player in his own right, and mother Julie, a step-dancing champion. The Leahys began performing at fairs and events around Ontario, eventually catching the eye of a student filmmaker who made them the subject of a documentary, "The Leahys: Music Most of All," which won an Academy Award in 1985 for Best Student Foreign Film.

That film shows the children -- clad in white, Elvis-in-Vegas-inspired jump suits -- in early performances and rehearsals, but Frank Leahy is quick to point out that he didn't envision Jackson Five/ Osmonds-style success for his family. "It wasn't I who had the first Leahy band," he says in the documentary. "It was my dad and my mother, and then my brothers right down to me ... and we still have a band."

The Leahys gradually built upon their success until the six months they spent performing several shows a day at a theme park in Germany. That burned them out and led to a return home for a sabbatical. "We just discontinued professional playing," recalls Erin. "We would just play for leisure, play for ourselves. A lot of the family members took the time to go to university. A couple of girls got married."

Gradually Erin and Donnel began to perform again as a duo, playing small fairs, theaters, and fiddle and stepdance contests. Frank, Siobheann and Maria soon came back into the fold and by 1995 the five-piece band began playing clubs and festivals. But things were different this time. "We definitely had a focus and a direction, and that was to do this professionally full-time," says Erin.

The Leahys' new-found determination manifested itself in new sleek, black stage attire, and they revamped their show to incorporate a mature appreciation for Irish-based folk music. Four more family members came on board -- group members range in age today from 19 to 32 -- and the Leahy concerts became dazzling displays of step-dancing and instrumental workouts. It didn't hurt that Michael Flatley was receiving mass acclaim at the time for his stepdancing extravaganza, "Riverdance." The Leahys finally met Flatley at a "Riverdance" after-party in Toronto, where the family and the fleet-footed showman expressed a mutual admiration.

Leahy released their debut album last year, earning them "Best New Group" and "Instrumental Artist of the Year" honors at last spring's Juno Awards. Twain was in attendance and asked Leahy to be the opening act on her tour.

Erin says she and her siblings have been focused on music for so long that they're not concerned with factors outside performing. "If you have a love of music, then that's it," Frank says in the film. "The future will look after itself, 'cause they won't be able to live without it. It has become a part of their life, so they'll want it most of all."

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