Irish artists bloom in the Asheville area

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS: Clockwise from top left, Gareth Higgins, Paula O'Brien and Danny Ellis are proud to be from Ireland — and to call the Asheville area home. Higgins photo by James Navé; O'Brien photo by Scott Treadway; Ellis photo by Irene Carrizosa

The Asheville area is home to such Irish/Celtic-themed establishments as Jack of the Wood and Claddagh Restaurant & Pub. But the city has also attracted a few Irish-born artists who’ve put down roots in Western North Carolina.

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Xpress spoke with three such creatives. Singer-songwriter Danny Ellis is a native of Dublin who’s been in the U.S. since 1992. Author and storyteller Gareth Higgins hails from just outside Belfast and came to Asheville nearly a decade ago. And actor Paula O’Brien was born in the city of Waterford in southeast Ireland, then spent time in New York City before relocating to Asheville in the late 2010s.

Below, the three artists discuss their individual paths from the Emerald Isle to WNC, and how their intercontinental experiences have made them the people they are today.

The interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.

What is one stereotype about the Irish that you’ve encountered while living in Asheville, and how have you responded to it?

Ellis: I would often get a baked potato from my English friends for Christmas, wrapped up in fancy Christmas wrapping, because the Irish “like potatoes so much.” But I don’t get offended by stereotypes — I just laugh at them. Most Irish people are able to be self-deprecating about stuff like that. They’re always willing to take the piss out of themselves, so I’ve always found it funny rather than demeaning.

Higgins: There’s definitely a widely held stereotype about Irish people and alcohol — though I concede an agreeable sip of whiskey or a good pint are both part of Irish culture, for sure. But the cliché about drinking and fighting doesn’t take account of the fact that alcoholism and conflict haven’t exactly had the best history where I come from, and sometimes the joke misses the fact that there is, for some people, real pain underneath the humor. And don’t get me started on leprechauns and Lucky Charms!  There’s a depth to Celtic spirituality, and that goes way beyond an imaginary little guy with pot of gold, and it’s all there to be discovered.

O’Brien: Oh, this is a loaded question. Thankfully, I’ve found that the stereotypes I would have encountered years before are around less and less. But the one that is still going strong is the Irish and drinking. It’s a tough one as I believe there is a huge problem with binge drinking in Ireland and a lot of countries. What people don’t understand is that the pubs in Ireland are so much more than places to get a drink. They were the center of Irish culture for so long. They gave people a place to go and socialize. When faced with this one, I simply and gently ask the person to not get caught up in stereotypes.

What experiences from your time in Ireland have most shaped you as an artist?

Ellis: I played in Top 40 bands for 10 years, five to six nights a week. [One was the Miami Showband, though Ellis was no longer a member when three of its players were killed in July 1975 by the loyalist paramilitary group Ulster Volunteer Force.] We traveled to every county in Ireland. Every town that had more than 500-600 people, we’d play there. It was a pretty amazing life — we’d arrive in a dance hall in the country, miles from anywhere, and by 10 [p.m.] there’d be 500 people dancing. We covered every genre imaginable, and I think that wealth of experience helped me hone my craft as a singer-songwriter.

Higgins: My experiences growing up in Northern Ireland shaped me in ways that are unsurprising — the long tradition of storytelling and wordsmithing; the depths of Celtic spirituality and a love of landscape and community; and the painful circumstances of the conflict known as “The Troubles,” [between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland] along with the peace-building process that continues to transform it.

O’Brien: I was the youngest of six kids in a house full of larger-than-life characters. My father was a well-known drummer and singer in a local band. My two athletic brothers competed nationally. I was left screaming for attention! Let’s face it, by the time you get to the sixth kid, the wonder in seeing a toddler take their first steps has kind of worn off. So, I made it to a stage, and when everyone’s eyes were on me, I was at home. But other than secondary school, all my theater experience has been here in the States.

How has Asheville influenced your style and work?

Ellis: Ashevilleans really appreciate music and let you know it. I was inspired to write entirely different songs than I wrote as an in-house writer for a London publisher, “penning” pop songs I thought would be hits but had no soul. The mountains and culture here helped me find my own voice as a writer, as did the authentic Americana and bluegrass music of Appalachia. Audiences are very warm, open and supportive of the arts here and also in Ireland.

Higgins: Asheville is a small enough place for people to get to know each other, and there’s a lyricism to the way people talk that has shaped the way I write. I can say that the way I think and communicate has been influenced by so many artists, writers, storytellers and activists who care about discovering more beauty and meaning, and helping others. I’m so gratefully immersed in Asheville that it’s hard for me to tell if my most recent book, How Not to Be Afraid, is an Irish book written in Asheville, or an Asheville book written in Ireland. I worked on it in both places, but everything’s blended together so well that it’s tough to say if it’s one or the other.

O’Brien: Having the opportunity to work with so many different local directors, theaters and actors has exposed me to some wonderful learning opportunities.  Some of the best and most basic advice I’ve heard is, “Be on time, learn your lines and don’t be a d*ck.” Any actors reading this I’m sure are smiling in understanding, and directors are shouting, “Yes, please!”

From a performance point of view, I was working with N.C. Stage Company on Jeeves at Sea, directed by Angie Flynn-McIver, and had a lightbulb moment when Angie reminded me of the importance to “get” to the end of a sentence. It can be easy to get caught up in the “acting” part of acting, but the playwright has a point to make, and it’s our responsibility to make it. Or, as Shakespeare put it, “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you.”

What ways, if any, does Western North Carolina remind you of home?

Ellis: The green and the mist, the mountains and valleys and the friendly faces all welcomed me in such a way as to find an anchored sense of place for the first time in my life. I wrote a line in a song which went, “And by and by in the land of sky, I touched the ground again.”

Higgins: Of course the mountains and some of the agricultural land remind me of parts of Ireland, and parts of the culture have inherited a Scots Irish tradition. There’s a down-to-earth friendliness and openness, too — I’ve always felt so welcome and included here, and I’m really grateful for that.

O’Brien: Driving down the road and having people wave at you always brings a smile to my face, as that is also such an Irish thing. Just like Ireland, WNC is wonderfully green and bucolic. After having lived in the congested tristate area as well as London, I do so appreciate being able to live in the mountains, yet being able to get to downtown Asheville in about 20 minutes.

How do St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Asheville compare with those in Ireland?

Ellis: For the circle of friends I moved around in in Ireland, Paddy’s Day was never that important to us. But in America, I learned how important it is to those of Irish descent, and I came to enjoy it more here. The nostalgia of the Irish expat is world-famous, and I’ve learned to dance around in it myself when in the right company. I learned more Irish songs in the U.S. than I ever did in Ireland — and I appreciate them more, too!

Higgins: St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the U.S. are often bigger than in Ireland and tend to focus a bit more on revelry than any kind of real engagement with who St. Patrick actually was. I see him as a kind of prototypical human rights activist who left relative safety to return to the place to which he had once been abducted and enslaved, sharing love and compassion with people he might have reasonably never wanted to see again. In some respects, he was the first outsider to consider Irish people equals. So, I’m glad to raise a glass on St. Patrick’s Day and have a good time with friends. And as with how some other holidays have more recently been adapted, I hope we’ll keep evolving toward the point where we take Patrick himself seriously, too.

O’Brien: I wouldn’t know — I haven’t been to a Paddy’s Day celebration in years! If I could get my hands on the equivalent of Irish bacon, I’d make some bacon and cabbage. Any and all leads appreciated.


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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