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Conversations: Neil Byrne of Celtic Thunder

The country of Ireland is on a roll since the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.

Favourite daughter “Million Dollar” Katie Taylor took home the gold medal in the women’s light 60kg division.

Meanwhile, native sons Celtic Thunder  have been making a global name for themselves with their shiny Irish numbers and covers.

The group is currently in Canada  and will perform at Toronto’s Sony Centre Saturday September 21st.

Vocalist Neil Byrne chopped it up with Kenai Andrews during a break in rehearsals in Vancouver.



MMA Crossfire: Welcome back to Canada, Neil. Where exactly are you?

Neil Byrne: Thanks Kenai. We’re in Vancouver in rehearsals here. A busy time at the moment, you know.

MMA Crossfire: Yes, I can imagine. Thanks for taking the time to chat. I see you guys are pretty much booked all the way up to Toronto.

Neil Byrne: Yes.

MMA Crossfire: What is the proudest accomplishment of the group for you?

Neil Byrne: I think the proudest achievement would be that since the concept seven years ago, it has grown continuously. We started in the States, and we’ve gone to Canada and now we’ve been to Australia. Every time we come back every year to these countries, the shows seem to get bigger and better. We’re taking on a lot more followers of Celtic Thunder. I’m just so proud it’s working so well. We pride ourselves on sort of an honest performance. We have a choreographer and she tells us what hoops to jump through and so on but we definitely go out there and let our personalities really come through in the shows. It’s really nice to see three generations of families. We’re doing something right. We maybe created something for all the families.

Celtic Thunder
Celtic Thunder. Photo courtesy CelticThunder.

MMA Crossfire: You are allowing the world to discover the many facets of the Irish culture through the songs and the storytelling.

Neil Byrne: Absolutely. Especially with these new show Mythology that we’re performing now. We’ve really gone back to tour roots with this show. That’s why we call it Mythology is because it’s based on myths and legends. That’s something we’ve been hearing these stories since we were kids. and now we’re telling these stories through the songs. It’s so nice to do it because the song are beautiful. Some of the old Scottish and Irish ones are absolutely gorgeous with a lot of romanticism attached to it. A lot of them we don’t know who wrote them because they’re so old, but they’re so beautiful. We’re so lucky that we can get out there every night so we can sing it to people. 

We have a fantastic musical director who arranges these pieces for us in ensembles so you might get six of us onstage singing acapella versions of these songs in harmony. We do solos as well. It’s working well. We’re very proud of it.

MMA Crossfire: And you also do covers.

Neil Byrne: We do, absolutely. The great thing about the covers that we do is that we don’t just cover the song. We really put our signature on it.  Now that we’ve sort of grown, six years into the job,  we’ve got a fair bit of experience in the musicality of how it’s all put together. We’re heavily involved in the arrangements and production when it comes to studio and picking songs.We have an incredible musical director that is a great mentor for us. He doesn’t only arrange a different version of a cover song. It’ll be a version that is suited … maybe if it’s for myself … I’m the pop-crossover singer in the band, he will arrange something around the texture of my voice and my personality. That’s not an easy thing to do when you’re arranging for orchestras and bands and stuff but it really works well because it separates us on stage. We’re not carbon copies on the stage, we’re six guys who are different who have learned to work well in an ensemble.

Celtic Thunder
A file photo of Celtic Thunder onstage. Courtesy CelticThunder.

MMA Crossfire: And what personality are you of the group? The joker maybe or the guy who keeps things together?

Neil Byrne: (Laughs). I have become a bit of the joker, yes I have. I suppose everybody loves a laugh, but I suppose even when I was in school, I was hoisted in trouble for distractions. I couldn’t sit still for a few minutes, I’d always need to be having a laugh behind the teacher’s back, which was terrible but it was good fun at the time. On stage, it has developed  and my character has come out and it’s good because it’s a natural thing. It’s not something that’s forced on stage or anything. At a Celtic Thunder show, anything can happen (Laughs). We improvise quite a lot. It’s all good. We keep it within the realms. We don’t go overboard.

MMA Crossfire: I saw some of the cover songs you did on YouTube, including a cover of California Dreamin‘.

Neil Byrne: That’s right, yeah (Laughs). One of my favourite things to do is to take different songs and cover versions and turn it on its head. Make it my own. In Mythology, there’s a song that we do called Perfect. With me being the poppier singer of the group, I take on those kind of songs, the odd time we’ll throw in a pop song with a Celtic Thunder crossover on it. It’s great because David leaves it to me to do an arrangement of it and come to him. It’s much more of an interesting job when you’re so creative within it. It’s the same for the rest of the guys as well.

MMA Crossfire: So what is a day like in the world of Celtic Thunder?

Neil Byrne: Well, when we’re on tour … it’s funny we were only talking about it a few minutes ago in rehearsals. You never know what day it is because every day is kind of the same because it’s routine. We’ll get up in the morning and get to the venue,  have our breakfast, we might have a couple of hours to wander around in the city. Back onstage, if there’s anything from the night before that needs to be ironed out or we’re introducing any new songs  We like to keep it fresh and rotate a lot of songs because we have a backlog of material. Come four o’clock, we’ll have our soundcheck. We usually have what we call a soundcheck party because a lot of people that go to the shows like to come in to the soundcheck too. We have that, then we break for dinner at six o’clock. eight o’clock, the show is on. After the show, we’re back on the bus and headed to the next city. That’s pretty much the routine for the next four months.

Celtic Thunder
A file photo of Celtic Thunder in concert. Photo courtesy Celtic Thunder.

The hardest part of it is right now at the moment before our first show because we’re into heavy rehearsals and the staging. That can be very busy and change from day-to-day. That’s the taxing part of it, I think. Once we get on the road and we start the shows, it becomes a well-oiled machine after a couple of weeks and then you’re into a routine. That’s the way it goes. It’s all good.

MMA Crossfire: Are you or any one of the gang boxing or MMA fans?

Neil Byrne: Well, George [Donaldson] would watch the boxing quite a lot. If it was a big event, I would watch it all right, but I wouldn’t say I’m a massive fan. When I was growing up and Mike Tyson was the world attraction, I would watch all of his fights (Laughs). I don’t watch much television anymore as I don’t have much time.

MMA Crossfire: It’s good to hear that you’re a fight fan even though you might not have the time to watch these days.

Neil Byrne: Oh yeah, I would be a fan. It’s nice after a tour when things settle down, you get a chance to watch it.

MMA Crossfire: Ireland has done very well in boxing. You only had Katie Taylor take home the gold medal at the London Olympics.

Katie Taylor
Katie Taylor. Associated Press.

Neil Byrne: Yes. It’s funny because I know Katie Taylor’s family. She’s from Bray and that’s where I’m from. We’re from the same town and she both went to the same school as me.

MMA Crossfire: Come on.

Neil Byrne: Yeah (Laughs). She went to the same Fargo school in Bray as me. Katie is a few years younger than me, but she trained in Bray. Her father and a few of my friends go to the same boxing coach as Katie so we know her very well.

MMA Crossfire: It is a small world after all.

Neil Byrne: It is a small world, alright. Ireland is a small place (Laughs).

MMA Crossfire: (Laughs). So what can Toronto expect to see from you Saturday night?

Celtic Thunder
Neil Byrne of Celtic Thunder.

Neil Byrne: Well, I’ll be honest with you and you’ll probably think I say this every year, but they will  see the best show that we’ve ever had. This show is a much bigger and expensive production that we’ve ever had before. Just the attention to detail has been next to none. We got quite worn out making the DVD, but the end result was something we were very happy with. Everything people have seen on the DVD they will see at this show.

We recorded so many songs that we rotate them from show to show. You’re going to see us come out and sing the ensemble numbers together. And with the big productions, you’re going to see the band come out and do instrumental numbers. I think they do two throughout the show. We’ll be singing our solo numbers. We like to chat and interact quite a bit with the crowd as well. We have a guy called Peter Barnes that looks after lighting for us and he’s working day and night for us on it. We’ve got three trucks full of PA gear, so the sound is incredible. We get a real boost from it when we’re rehearsing. It’s huge and we have some of the best musicians from Ireland and Scotland in the band.

We have Emett Cahill, who is a classical singer and he sings some fabulous classical songs. George Donaldson is a balladeer and he’s quite the folk singer. Ryan [Kelly] sings the rocky dramatic elements. I’m sort of the poppy-crossover over to Celtic. Colm [Keeegan]  is sort of the romantic of the show. It’s full of light and shades and that’s what keeps people entertained. We really have a mixed bag in there. All very well-rehearsed and ready to go.

We won’t let you down.

MMA Crossfire: Thanks for your time today Neil and all the best at the show.

Neil Byrne: Thank you, Kenai!


Kenai is a former Postmedia Network online news and sports editor. He is the Editor-in-Chief for MMA Crossfire.

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