By John Jalsevac

To read part 1 of the 3 part series click here.

LAKEFIELD, Ontario, August 10, 2007 ( – It is astonishing how much you can learn about someone in only a few hours, if only you ask the right questions, and, of course, if they are willing to answer. As my afternoon interrogating Donnell and Maria Leahy – of the world-famous Celtic band Leahy – progresses, I feel like I have been given a privileged look into the captivating world of the famous family of 13.

LeahyThe world-view of the Leahys is a rich one. It is fascinating to see how these musicians, who admit that they rarely read growing up, since their energies were almost completely occupied elsewhere (“Reading was a luxury,” says Donnell), have developed a profound philosophical system that informs every part of their lives.

At the center of this system is a foundational triumvirate of values, each value more important than the next: music, family, and most fundamentally, faith.

Carefully, thoughtfully choosing each word, Donnell and Maria explicate their views on everything from farming and environmentalism to the music industry, prayer, fame, and especially family.

Indeed, what is most fascinating of all is how every so often one or the other of the pair will say “we believe,” or “we feel,” about some important matter, and you are immediately aware that they aren’t simply speaking for the two of them present, but for every member of the family, without exception. There is an intimate harmony in this family that is so rare as to be uncanny; the perfect unity with which they are able to execute immensely complex musical pieces on the stage extends much deeper than simply the realm of music.

Even now, the majority of the Leahy children live within a six-mile radius of the home in which they grew up, on the same land the family farm has always been on. And the rest of the family members aren’t too far off, living in nearby Ontario towns, within easy driving distance.

On staying together

In a world where families so quickly disintegrate, often as soon as the children leave home, and where families are so often torn apart by internal feuds and divorce, how has this particular family managed to stay so close, so united? Is it simply the music and the band?

In some measure, yes, admits Maria. “Music is definitely a huge part of that. We spend so much time working with each other, and we’re working with music. That is a big advantage I guess.”

Donnell, however, disagrees with his sister’s approach. “I would tackle it in a different way,” he says. “I don’t know that the music is the biggest part of that.” Music, he says, especially being in the business of music, has allowed them to work together, certainly. “Music has allowed us to be together moreâEUR¦Music has definitely contributed to the lifestyle.”

However, there is something more. After all, there are three of the Leahy children who aren’t even in the band right now, and they are just as intimately involved in the family as any of the others.

“It’s way deeper than music,” Donnell finally states outright. “Take the music out, we believe certain things.”

It is not, therefore, simply the ability to come together and create beautiful art, or the demands of the business of the band, that draws this family in towards some invisible center. Even more deeply it is a matter of unity of belief. And yet, the question remains, what sorts of beliefs?

The list is extensive, and reads like an anachronistic list from an ideal, but long-lost yester-year: respect your elders, say grace before meals, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, show respect for priests, stand up when guests enter your house, always get to Mass on Sundays, have a solid work ethic, follow a certain set of moralsâEUR¦

But above all of these reasons, or values, stands the most vital value of all – “faith.”

The pulse of the Leahy family

Religion is the most fundamental value that all of the Leahys share. Somehow, in the midst of an age of rampant secularism and relativism, this family of world-famous performers, who have seen the world many times over, who have been regaled with awards and countless standing ovations since they began playing as children, have clung to their Catholic religion.

Religion is the heart of the family, the pulse.

Donnell and Maria admit, however, that it is true that they were raised traditional Catholics. As such it is easy to brush aside their family’s religiosity as simply the product of their upbringing, and therefore as more of a cultural phenomenon than something sincere, something chosen, and lived freely.

“As far as church goes, we were brought up traditionally Catholic,” says Donnell. “I was a Catholic because I was born into it.”

And yet, that shouldn’t be considered the end of the story they say. “We all discovered our faith, re-discovered it ourselves,” continues Donnell, describing what many theologians would refer to as the “second conversion”. Maria agrees. “We all as individuals kind of took ownership, became that ourselves.”

This Catholicity of the Leahys even expresses itself in the way that the band tours, such that the band’s tour managers must ensure that they schedule Sunday Mass into the band’s busy schedule. And when the family is back in Lakefield, the local parish is very much a center of all their lives. And, of course, religion gives the Leahys the same purpose in life, the same all-important goal, the goal of sanctity, of heaven.

The answer to the question

And yet, somehow, all of this still doesn’t answer the original question – how have the Leahys stayed together as a family? Many other families generally share the same values, even the same faith, and yet do not manage to keep together.

Of course, answering a question like this is difficult, since there are likely a whole host of factors to consider, and therefore a whole host of answers. And of course, the music, and religion, and farming are all key factors. But Donnell does seem to hit a vital point when he begins to explain the reactions that the Leahys often get to the size of their family, and the fact that they have always spent so much time together, especially on the road playing music.

“A lot of people don’t understand us,” he says. “They see us playing music, and one of their first questions is, ‘Do you ever fight?’ or ‘How do you do it? I would kill my brothers and sisters if I had to travel with them.'”

“That kind of baffles us,” he states. “Because we grew up in a family where we were disciplined and we had to work and we had to do a pile of things. And if you didn’t get along, you better start getting along. Then it became a pack mentality. If you were the one being the jerk, if you will, you had ten other people ganging up on you, saying ‘Smarten up!’ We were in a great scenario. We were always pulled, we were challenged to keep up in all aspects.”

In some ways, it seems, the sheer size of the Leahy family, in conjunction with a life of discipline and hard work, has allowed them to keep each other in check, and, in the process, to ensure that their family always remained tight-knit. While it is often a certain self-centeredness that pulls families apart, in the Leahy family there simply isn’t any room for that sort of thing; everybody challenges the other, and helps the other to stay in line. In this regards a family isn’t simply a collection of individuals thrown together by circumstances, but rather a de-facto support group, designed to ensure the growth of everybody, brothers, sisters, and parents.

This notion that in a functional family each member helps keep the other on track, helps the other along, is a recurring theme in our conversation. Donnell and Maria say the same thing about touring as a family. In the context of touring, Maria speaks of the “protection and strength of each other,” observing that while on tour it is impossible to get lazy, or to become affected by the fame and the glamour of the industry, because all the Leahy members always have their brothers and sisters and parents challenging them to stay grounded.

The result is what we see and admire today in the Leahys – a happy family of grown individuals who are still intimately involved in each others lives, and who can honestly call one another their closest and dearest friends.

Read Part III, focusing on the Leahys’ music. Click here.