Maria Leahy will never forget the times her parents would load up the family car with her 10 brothers and sisters and drive hundreds of miles to fiddle contests, step-dance competitions, and outdoor festivals all over Canada and the United States.
"We lived two different lives to a certain extent because our music would take us around the world, and we would have to leave school for weeks at a time," says Maria, via telephone from Whitby, Ontario. The third-eldest, Maria plays the fiddle, piano, guitar, and mandolin.
"When we returned to school," she says, "it would be hard to communicate or explain our experiences to our peers, so we left that part at home and tried to live normal lives."
Simply called Leahy (formerly known as The Leahy Family), the pop-Celtic band of nine (two members dropped out) Irish-Canadian brothers and sisters are all grown up now. They are no longer a novelty act. Instead of frilly white shirts, they dress in sleek all-black. Instead of playing other people's tunes at farm fairs, they write their own music, which expresses a newfound maturity, according to critics.
"When we were younger, music was something we had to do," says Erin, the youngest of the bunch. "Often we wouldn't be interested or want to perform. But now it's our own choice, and we really enjoy the music we are playing. It's coming from us as opposed to through us."
Leahy family bands stretch back two generations, but this group is an anomaly: It is the first to make it onto the music charts and sign with a major label, Virgin Music.
In Canada, Leahy's self-titled album entered the Top 50 retail chart last year and rose to No. 1 on the country album chart published by a top Canadian trade magazine. TV and radio have also embraced Leahy's first single and video, "Call to Dance," which made it to No. 1 on the Country Music Television Network. The single is also included in a compilation called "Celtic Moods," featuring tracks from Sinad O'Connor and the Chieftains.
Even though the band's music landed on the country charts, you won't hear any honky-tonk or achy-breaky-heart songs.
"It landed on the country charts in Canada because there are a lot of new country stations and it's very progressive country," Maria says. "The Celtic folk-new country is sort of all being grouped together."
When listening to Leahy's music, you hear razor-sharp fiddling; step dancing (which the band sometimes uses as percussion); piano, mandolins, and banjos. There is no singing, but the next recording will feature the oldest sister, Julie, on lead vocals.
"We play traditional Celtic music from so many vantage points," says Maria. "You might hear a traditional Celtic melody played with a rock beat or with a jazz or blues feel. Our influences range from French music groups to Def Leppard and James Taylor."
Growing up in the Leahy family meant you were practically born with a fiddle in your hand. Their father, Frank, is a fifth-generation Irish-Canadian and a fiddle master. Their mother, Julie, a step-dance champion, has Celtic and Scottish roots from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
Theirs was a winning combination. In between farm chores, Frank would teach his children to play fiddle, while Julie provided step-dancing lessons. Although the parents don't perform anymore, they attend some performances and still run the family farm.
After months of touring, the siblings usually return to the 400-acre Leahy farm in Lakefield, Ontario, for some R & R. After taking January off, they are back on the road performing in Europe, Canada, and the US.
With the international success of "Riverdance," the Irish step-dancing and musical extravaganza, a resurgence in Celtic music seems to have swept North America. Leahy is riding high on that wave.
"I think it's everybody's dream to keep doing this for the rest of our lives," Maria says. "But we refuse to submit to conventions to achieve short-term popularity. We're learning as we go, while at the same time, trying to stay true to our music."