Forget about Tinseltown. On behalf of our loyal readers I went to the real Hollywood. Actually there are two such places in Ireland, and the one outside Belfast has a good session. But for our purposes it was the one in Co. Wicklow that was indicated, just up the road from Dunlavin of 1798 fame. A scatter of houses. Two pubs, one of them a former stage coach inn, a blacksmith's forge with a horseshoe-shaped door. The late Georgian doorways betray the age of the place, when the British were trying to capture Michael Dwyer in the mountains after the '98 rising. The gleaming paint and French menus recall the French did arrive in the place, 200 years late with loads of bikes for the Tour de France.

But it was with a native of the place I wanted to talk. Peter Harney grew up here. Musical country it is too, with piper Ronan Browne up the road and Kevin Coniff of the Chieftains to be sighted in season. The church up the road towards the Wicklow Gap is noted for its acoustics and has been used by the Voice Squad for a recording.

Peter is now blessed among women, since he is the only male in the group called Maca and he is surrounded by the pulchritude, vocal and visual of Caron Hannigan, Tara O'Beirne and Yvonne Woods. However, since he was married to Caron before Maca was even thought of, ye tabloid sleaze-pack can desist.

Maca happened by accident. All the members are now working with Riverdance - the Liffey show concentrates mostly on Europe - and when they arrived in Edinburgh, two years ago, they found a thriving scene and many invitations to sessions after the show. So they arranged some songs and others they got from singers like Keena Campbell for the four months they were there. Keena has a great wealth of songs in Scottish Gaelic; there are two songs in that language on the CD (TARACD 4006).

Soon after, they were on an extended tour, which brought them to Australia and New Zealand and they were getting so much encouragement from other musicians that they decided it was worth recording. So did Chris Kelly from Reeltime. So we now have a ten-track album recorded in Auckland, New Zealand, mixed in Menlo near Galway with Aidan Reid, and mastered in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh. Two guest musicians are on it, Paul Moran, percussionist, ex-Clannad and Davy Spillane band, and famed harmonica player Brendan Power. He had often heard the tune of My Lagan Love, but never the words, and when Caron came up with the goods, he was very keen to be part of it. It was a chromatic slide instrument for this one.

Brendan Power is a perfectionist and genius, says Peter. He can have up to 20 different mouth-harps in the briefcase, and a toolbox as well. He's always experimenting, and there are a couple of developments he is now patenting. The big development for Maca was when John Cook of Tara Records heard their material and signed them up. They now have all the expertise and marketing power of a known label behind them, something that other artists have to seek for years 'A grand label to be with' says Caron. In America they're using DNA - no not genetically modified anything, just a company called Distribution North America.

Maca PhotoHow did they get the name Maca? Caron confirms it's from the famous Ulster saga, the Táin (The Cattle-Raid of the Cooley Mountains). Early on, we hear of the woman called Macha who is forced to give birth to twins while running a race. And, Peter reminds me; all the men of Ulster suffered lengthy birth pangs as a result. Call all ye anthropologists and research the word "Couvade". Anyhow, they dropped the H to avoid complications at the birth, and here we are. As Peter says, they have to do things in reverse, organising material and performances around the name. It's simple, easily remembered - and nobody else has it.

The Present CD, Blood and Gold - the title comes from an anti-war song which was a reworking by Andy Irvine of a Romanian folk song originally collected by Bela Bartok at the turn of the century. The Maca CD of the same name represents the turning point for the band. Ten tracks featuring the trained voices of Caron and Yvonne, (who studied in the Royal Academy of London) against the untrained voices of Peter and Tara. There's an emphasis on Scottish Port a'Bheul, the Celtic answer to scat singing, often used to provide music for dancing when instruments were not available.

Caron's own career started in the Loreto school in Crumlin with Mother Cecily: she has been playing fiddle since she was six. She also sung in the Choir and later studied in the College of Music in Dublin: violin with Michael MacNamara and singing with Evelyn Dowling. She went on to Maynooth University and graduated as a teacher, specialising in adult education. In this incarnation she developed the Vocational Training and Opportunities Service in Tullamore and Athy. She taught music as well as the Communications and Literacy course. But even at Maynooth, when she was singing in the college chamber choir, she had heard from Evelyn Dowling about a fellow musician called Michael McGlynn who had an idea for a choral group. That's how Anuna started. It was through Caron that Peter joined Anuna too, when Michael heard Peter singing in the Ballyshannon Folk Festival. It was a great session, Peter recalls. A friend of his who was there, Tony Davoren, who played mandolin also ended up in Riverdance: he's with the Lee show right now. That was all unaccompanied singing that night, the singing groups are coming into there own, Peter agrees. They can remember having to juggle the demands of work and singing, often to less than full houses. That was before Riverdance happened. They have also collaborated with Sinead O'Connor and The Chieftains.

Peter studied mechanical engineering, "and I hated it," says he. Maybe if it had been sound engineering, it would have been all right. He changed to homeopathic medicine and has only one year of the course left to finish. But Riverdance has intervened, and they all had to make a choice whether to leave steady careers or go for it. They went. That was three years ago now; nobody could have foreseen it. It's a demanding life, touring and performing, often for long periods with only one day off in seven or eight. Deputies can be arranged for home base, but when you're on the road, it's a very full-time job.

The show is so big that they normally charter a plane and a couple of floors in a hotel. But it is a huge cultural phenomenon, and in places abroad the audience are often coming back for second and third helpings. It's almost a mystery to those involved, but it has taken on a life of its own, like Agatha Christie's Mousetrap in London's Theatreland, and is proving the gateway to the Irish experience for all the world. It has a very dedicated following and has allowed the musicians to meet many wonderful people. Some have offered them access to material, though Caron loves Alan Lomax collections which Seamus Ennis compiled in Scotland.

Gigs planned? Certainly one for Portlaoise on September 23rd in the old Courthouse, now called Dunamse House, after the nearby rock of the same name, where stand the battered remains of the castle of the O'Moores (Cromwell has a lot to answer for). There are also gigs in Belfast and Drogheda being arranged, and the Copenhagen Irish Festival in November, courtesy of bodhran player and organiser Martin O'Hare.

With a great deal of kindness she opens her fiddle case, and I take hold of the instrument. Beautifully balanced, but thickly varnished, and dark, that's because it once belonged to a former missionary who lived in India, where instruments need to have a thick skin to survive the climate: he gave it to Caron's father on condition it should never be sold for money. It's much too valuable for that. And to keep the humidity at correct levels she uses an old trick of a potato in the case, with a thin slice cut off about twice a week: it's a cheap way of saving of way of saving an instrument from cracking.

A small regret is that their diary won't allow them to be at home for their own festival, Music under the Mountains, organised by Eric Greaves and Lar Roddy in mid-September. They'll probably be in Zurich, so they have to wait until January to try the acoustic in the local church. I'll risk the snow to get there.

Interview by John Brophy, Reproduced by kind permission of the Irish Music magazine.

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