Talk to natives of Ireland, and they will tell you — and, most likely, will insist on proving to you — that music isn't a mere reflection of their heritage. It's a component of their culture so defining and pervasive that it might as well be part of their diet.
They play it. They sing it. They move to it. In Irish culture, music is exquisitely inescapable.
"There isn't an Irish person you meet who doesn't sing, dance or play an instrument," said Chloe Agnew, one of the founding members of the hit vocal ensemble Celtic Woman, which returns to Rupp Arena on Tuesday for its annual visit. "Music is very much in our blood. It has been for generations. You look back and the Irish always turned to music in the hardest of times and the happiest of times. We've had a song for everything — songs for drinking, songs for milking the cows. And to keep that music alive is a wonderful thing."
In its relatively brief tenure as a group — roughly 51/2 years — Celtic Woman has blended the traditional with the modern for vocally inclined music that has become a consistent hit. In one instance, the repertoire might showcase a poppish Celtic reverie that recalls such crossover artists as Enya. But you're just as likely to hear an a cappella version of an Irish staple like Danny Boy or a ghostly traditional song such as She Moved Through the Fair.
Such far-reaching Irish reflections have yielded two top-10 albums. Three of their recordings have reached gold or platinum status in sales. Celtic Woman's fifth and newest album, Songs From the Heart, cracked the Billboard Top 10 in its first week of release.
"It's been very special for me to travel all over the world these last few years and really see what an impact Irish music and Irish people have made," Agnew said. "It's incredible, really, for such a small island to produce some of the greatest musicians in the world — artists like U2, The Chieftains and Clannad. To follow in their footsteps and make our own little mark for Irish music has been incredible."
A native of Dublin, Agnew was part of a quintet of female Irish artists recruited by David Downes, a former musical director for Riverdance, to perform for a PBS television special in March 2005. Agnew, who grew up in a show-business family and had collaborated with Downes on several recording and performance projects, was 15 at the time.
"I was practically born on the stage," she said. "But heading out on the road that first time ... well, it was a scary place. I was surrounded by people who were twice as experienced. But my parents knew I was in wonderful hands. It was a great group of people.
"But before we filmed that first PBS special, we had no idea the group would become this sort of overnight sensation. We were told back then the group wasn't even supposed to perform anything but that one show. So looking back and seeing all the success we've had for nearly six years ... it's just a wonderful thing to be part of."
Agnew, who turned 21 this summer, is one of the three original members of Celtic Woman, with vocalist Lisa Kelly and fiddler Mairead Nesbitt. Singer Lynn Hilary completes the group. Numerous vocalists have joined and left the group during its short history. Most leave to devote time to families. But Agnew says there's a strong bond among past and current members.
"Once a Celtic Woman, always a Celtic Woman, I say. We have discovered a special blend onstage with the music and offstage with the personalities. From day one, that blend has grown. It's gone from strength to strength."
But one of the demands in maintaining sizeable growth is the ability to perform in sizable rooms. For many of its shows, Celtic Woman performs in large theaters. During summer, the group is often booked into amphitheaters. But in Lexington, it winds up in the big house — Rupp Arena. The arena usually presents Celtic Woman in its smaller, curtained-off seating configuration. Still, an arena is an arena. And for that, the group has to adjust. But that's a challenge that delights Agnew.
"We're very lucky in that we have a show that can adapt. But to bring it into the likes of Rupp Arena, where there is obviously a much bigger feel for the show, is brilliant. Personally, I love doing arena shows. It gets to be like a rock show, almost.
"Despite being in a big setting, though, I think we manage to keep this music intimate. I would like to feel that if you're in the back row at the very back of the arena, you would sense that."