Matthew Gilsenan

Celtic Tenor coming to Athlone for John McCormack show this weekend

This Saturday evening (September 21), Matthew Gilsenan will be in Athlone for a special performance paying tribute to Count John McCormack in the legendary tenor's native town. 

Matthew, who is part of the internationally renowned Celtic Tenors, will be performing his show 'Count John McCormack - A Life In Song and Story' in the Dean Crowe Theatre at 8pm. 

He took time out to answer these questions for us ahead of this weekend's show, tickets for which are priced €18.

For bookings, visit or call: 090 64 92129.

* Who or what first inspired you to start singing?

The whole singing thing didn't really come from inspiration at all. I was six or seven and my singing teacher in Moynalty (Meath) realised that I could carry a tune. We came from a happy house where my Mum and Dad chirped bits of songs all day long, so the apple didn't fall too far from the tree.

School mistress Murchan, who still runs the Parish choir in Moynalty, essentially collared me to do every solo singing job in the school or church from then on, and I still sing there most Sundays. 

* How big of an influence is John McCormack on you?

Overall, huge. But It didn't start out that way. I didn't come from a house where McCormack was played on a gramophone, We didn't own one. I was more interested in Simon and Garfunkel, Queen, Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Some of the more senior people in the parish said I was a lot like a young McCormack - I didn't know what that meant. 

It was only when I began third level that (my interest in him developed). I wasn't a great sight-reader at the time, so I cheated a bit and learned loads of the art songs from recordings. Many of these were inevitably John McCormack recordings. I found myself in places like the Ilac Centre library, which had an excellent archive and listening station.

I was fascinated that he sang effortlessly, he was fully in the songs, he sang with his own accent (at this time, I was struggling with my vowels and it seemed to me that the whole classical world was singing English song in a very English-accented way). I found myself drawn in, making cassette tape after cassette tape compilations of McCormack songs.

It seemed amazing to me that an Irishman singing English songs in such a natural Irish way, could then turn around and sing beautiful German, Italian or French, with perfect accent but still a certain Irishness to it. 

* What can people expect from your Athlone show on Saturday?

A very simple show. Two of us on stage, Mairead Hurley on piano, and myself. The show is around an hour and 20 minutes long. I don't use a microphone for the singing, just for the spoken bits in between. I try to make the experience as close to the forces used back in the day, pre-microphone.

I have kept the choice of songs as fun and beautiful as possible. Actually, they're pretty much all my favorites. The talking is not so much fact after fact, but more trying to put his voice, his life and his legacy into context from the point of view of someone like me.

* What was your most memorable performance or career highlight to date?

I have been very lucky with the Celtic Tenors. I've performed in some of the finest venues in the world. For me the most memorable was when Bono hired us to sing for Kofi Annan and his wife in a mini concert, just for them in the just rejuvenated Farmleigh House.

* You're not just a musical artist: How long have you been involved in painting and other forms of art?

Only a few years, maybe five. I'd call myself an experimenter. I absolutely love painting and would love for the days to be about twice as long so I can paint more.  

* What was the best concert you ever attended?

Michael Jackson, Páirc Uí Chaoimh, 1988.

* What is your current state of mind?

I'm a happy guy generally. Like with everyone, there are ups and downs. This music business is particularly notorious for general harshness. But I have found that if you really take ownership of your path and do what you do with passion, and work hard, you will be ok. I tend to see the bright side always, even if it's only a hue of grey among the black.

* Name one thing you can't live without?

My family

* What is your favourite place in the world to visit?

Zion National Park, Utah, or the Dingle peninsula.

* What are your hopes and plans for the rest of 2019?

To develop my solo projects like this John McCormack show and my own solo ideas, plus songwriting. I also have a full time job with The Celtic Tenors with my wife Celestine, so we keep that show on the road too.