By John Jalsevac

See Part II of this series here.


LAKEFIELD, Ontario, August 9, 2007 ( – Some stories just seem too good to be true. Take the Leahys, for example. A family of 11 children who grew up working hard on the family farm, every one of them learning to play any number of instruments and mastering the art of Irish dancing in their spare time, who go on to form one of the most popular Celtic bands in music history, touring the world to consistently sold-out venues, and yet who somehow retain their down-to-earth, country-folk simplicity. This, however, is the Leahy story, and it is as true as the sky is blue.

Several weeks ago Leahy performed a benefit concert in Walkerton, Ontario, which staff attended. The proceeds of the show went towards a new medical center for the area, and especially towards Business for Life, a small business group that financially supports Campaign Life Coalition and a few other pro-life organizations – a cause dear to the heart of the Leahy clan.

Despite the humble venue – a hockey arena – the group, which is accustomed to performing in world-class venues before packed houses, put on a powerful performance, crackling with the energy for which they are renowned. But what struck so many of those in the audience was not only the incredible skill of the musicians, but also their refreshing honesty, humility, and, what is more, the moving witness of their love for their family life and their faith.

The result of the experience was that this past Tuesday I sat down with internationally renowned fiddler Donnell Leahy – the closest thing that the family band has to a “front-man” – and his younger sister, guitarist Maria Leahy, on the front patio of Maria’s house. With a rich spread of fresh Ontario fruit (whether from their own farm or not I don’t know), and home-made butter-tarts and cookies before us, and the hum of cicadas to set the mood, Donnell and Maria spent the next two hours reminiscing about their lives growing up in their large and talented family, and their time as members of the renowned Celtic band, Leahy.

An Unusual Childhood

As the pair talks about their time growing up on a farm, it becomes clear that if anything can be said about the Leahys’ childhood, it’s that it wasn’t boring.

“We were very energetic people,” says Donnell, whose soft-spoken, thoughtful demeanor belies his intense stage-presence. Maria concurs: “Our childhood consisted of a lot of music, work on the farm, a lot of traveling and sports. And then, it revolved around the church. Our uncle, Fr. Leo, was our parish priest, right here in Lakefield. So his house was a second home for us. And then school, of course.”

The Leahy parents were themselves musicians, and supplemented the income brought in from the family farm by doing gigs at local bars and hotels. Being constantly surrounded by music evidently had the effect of osmosis on the children, and as Donnell admits, “We are genetically compelled to do this (play music).”

Spare hours in the evening were spent, by the children in playing numerous sports and in learning how to play the piano, fiddle, guitar, bass guitar, and the drums. As children, “we were never told ‘no,'” says Donnell. “Our environment was such that everything was, ‘Sure. Yeah. You want to go get dirty? Go. You want to play the fiddle? YeahâEUR¦'”

As instruments were in short supply, the kids often wrangled over who could use what instrument when. However, when one instrument was being used, it only seemed natural to simply pick up another and practice that, and as such, most of the Leahy children can play multiple instruments with comfortable aptitude, though most of them have their own particular specialties. During their shows the groups’ members often dazzle the audience by changing instruments as one might change a pair of socks, or simultaneously ditching the instruments to break into blistering dance routines.

As the Leahy family grew to its current size of 11 children, and as the children developed their natural aptitude for music, it seemed inevitable that they would join their parents in the music business. And indeed, The Leahy Family, as the band of young child-musicians was originally called, seemed destined to fame from the beginning. Soon enough, therefore, the business of touring to various gigs across the country was added to their already busy schedule.

On the Matter of Time

The obvious question at this point is how on earth did they find time, in between the hard work of keeping up a successful farm, and time spent at school, for each and every one of them to become such proficient musicians, and to tour, and everything else?

“There was no television, that was one way,” says Maria. After a few moments of reflection, however, Donnell points out that the real reason why they were able to accomplish what they did is even more fundamental than the simple lack of television. “Years ago,” he says, “and I’m old enough to say that. Years ago, there was lots of time, because life was more focused, and less crazy.”

This is evidently a theme that is dear to the Leahy pair, and they warm up to it. This sort of focus, says Donnell, has been very much lost in the current age, to everyone’s detriment. “I don’t mean to be preachy here, but we’re told, ‘You have so many choices. You can be this, this, this, and this.’ And so you become nothing. We’re focusing on, it seems, the wrong things.”

“A very smart man told me one timeâEUR¦I said to him, ‘Boy, you guys had it way tougher back in my dad’s era, all the hard work.’ And he said, ‘No, we had it easy.’ He said, ‘You guys have it so hard, because you have so many choices, or you think you have so many choices.’ We’re presented with the notion that you can do whatever you want. And that’s why a lot of lives get lost. There’s no focus.”

“I would say there are more distractions,” adds Maria. “People with all of these different options, and choices, and distractions, then time is lost there.”

During their childhood, Donnell says, “there was, as Maria mentioned, church, farming, music. And family is involved in all of that. You woke up and that’s what your focus was. You didn’t realize it. You just got up and participated in what was happening that day, and it was always those threeâEUR¦Was it hectic? I think every child’s life is hectic. You make it hectic. But we were lucky to have such good honest things to focus on.”

“As far as our lives, our lives were abnormal, I suppose, to the way people live now. But not for a moment did we feel that we were anything other than normal. And we were, just as crazy as everyone else. But, I don’t think we wasted time, that was it. Never wasted time.”

A Question of Happiness

Donnell and Maria, however, point out, in all sincerity, that they don’t want to sound as if they are telling people that the way they have done things as a family is right, and everyone else is wrong. “Nobody could do it like we did it,” points out Donnell. “Who had 11 kids on a farm playing music? It was kind of a unique scenario.”

“The last thing we want to be doing is telling people, you’re wrong, you should do it this wayâEUR¦But we certainly have opinions, and I don’t like a lot of things going on in the world out there, and a lot of things that are now accepted as normal. We think what we’re doing is right, just like everyone else does, I suppose,” says Donnell.

“Except,” I point out to them, “from what I’ve seen of your family, you guys are all extraordinarily happy, whereas a whole lot of the world is very unhappy. So maybe you have a reason to think that some of the way you’ve done things just might be right.”

Donnell laughs. “Yeah,” he says, “I guess there is that.”

Read Part II of this series here.