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US heritage award for musician with strong Clare connection

US National Heritage Fellowship award for traditional musician Joanie Madden

Two weeks ago in Washington D.C., the National Endowment for the Arts funded by the U.S. Government to preserve and promote the Arts throughout the country confirmed what those of us who celebrate Traditional Irish music and dance in America have known for decades. In announcing their selections for nominees to receive a prestigious award known as the National Heritage Fellowship for their lifetime achievements as tradition-bearing Folk Artists, the name of native New Yorker Joanie Madden appeared on the list. The esteemed designation recognizes individuals who in excelling in their personal craft also pay homage to their heritage in the multicultural fabric and roots of American culture and artistry with the recognition also earning an honorarium of €21,000. It is considered the highest distinction a treasured folk artist can receive in the USA.
The NEA created the awards 40 years ago to recognize the role of diversity in the Arts and celebrate the importance of passing on cultural heritage in America and the Irish music and dance community have contributed 15 people to that august list including now Joanie Madden. The awards over the years have been given in the White House and the Library of Congress but during the Pandemic over the past two years, those honored will be featured in a film produced by the NEA broadcast later in the year at www.arts.gov where more detail about the National Heritage history can be gleaned.
People in the Banner County will not be at all surprised to learn of this extraordinary achievement and in fact can boast of her being a local girl making good given her own roots in County Clare. Madden’s mother Helen Madden (nee Meade) hails from Miltown Malbay and Madden herself maintains a home in the West Clare town known for traditional music and Willie Week where she spends a good part of the year and is returning this week as the Pandemic restrictions loosen their grip on travel.
Madden was born in upper Manhattan 56 years ago, the second of seven children reared by Helen and her Galway-born father Joe Madden from Portumna who moved to the Woodlawn neighborhood in the Bronx as the family grew. Joe Madden was an outstanding accordion player in the Slieve Aughty tradition around East Galway who worked hard in construction by day while playing music on the weekends and leading his own band known for powerful traditional dance music.
Joanie Madden was surrounded by outstanding traditional musicians growing up including her first teacher on the whistle Jack Coen from Woodford, County Galway who won a National Heritage Award in 1991 and Mike Rafferty from Ballinakill who earned that prize in 2010 while also polishing her skills on the silver flute through the influence of Mike Preston of the old Tulla Ceili Band who emigrated to New York also. With seminal influences of her father Joe and his musical colleagues, the young Joanie Madden embraced their Pure Drop fireside music and adhered to the sweet dance rhythms and tempo as it careened her to a Senior All-Ireland Championship in 1984.
Around that time under the fine-tuned eye of folklorist and artist Mick Moloney fast becoming the champion and tiller of America’s green fields of Irish music and dance observed the phenomenon of young Irish American women playing trad music around New York mostly influenced by their dads who carried it over from the Old Country. Thanks to sponsorship by the NEA back in 1985, a female folk ensemble was formed and Joanie Madden suggested they adopt the name of a popular jig “Cherish the Ladies” a name that has resonated for 36 years now as the aptly named troupe has graced stages all around the world with its robust celebration of water from the well of the tradition.
No doubt the legacy of Cherish the Ladies organized and fronted by the indomitable Joanie Madden was a principal criterion in the awarding of this latest prize coming her way. The transformation of a young group of women with little stage experience into a world-renown touring group owes much to inspiration and perspiration of a woman who not only loved Irish music but saw its potential as a career proving her doubtful parents wrong as time went along.
Producing 17 albums over the years along with thousands of performances to capacity crowds and over 300 appearances playing along side symphony orchestras attest to a solid commercial endeavor as a life’s work. Adding to her solid resume and her own personal success of over 500,000 sales of her solo albums “Songs of the Irish Whistle 1 & 2 gave her great freedom and income to continue on her chosen path. Her comprehensive mastery of the Irish music and dance scene along with her jovial personality have also drawn many fanatical fans and fellow travelers on the road and high seas through her bus tours of Ireland and cruises.
The commercial achievements of Cherish the Ladies notwithstanding, the overwhelming evidence swaying the National Heritage panel in my opinion would be the body of evidence for Madden as a genuine folk hero in absorbing her native music and determination to pass it on to younger generations as it was handed down to her. She has taught individuals who went onto All-Ireland medals as well as respected summer schools like CCE Scoil Eigse, Catskills Irish Arts Week in New York and the Augusta Heritage Center Irish Week where she served as the Artistic Director for five years. And in doing so she carried the heart and soul of the ould fireside music from one generation to the next.
The Irish American community has been proud to claim her as one of their greatest talents and most popular personalities and for the contributions she has made over four decades with great anticipation for the years to come. The latest acknowledgment in America assures that the wind that blows from the indomitable force of nature that is Joanie Madden whose love of both Ireland and America continues the strong ties between the two countries and long may that be so.

The author Paul Keating has roots in County Clare and has observed Joanie Madden’s career in New York and placed her name in nomination for the National Heritage Award

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