Wild Irish Woman

  • Rosemary Caine. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Rosemary Caine plays the harp in her home on Colrain Road in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Rosemary Caine plays the harp inside her music room. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • A scene from a Wilde Irish Women performance in 2014. Contributed photo

  • Michael Haley playing Lady Jane Wilde. Contributed photo—

  • A scene from a past Wilde Irish Women performance. Contributed photo

  • This weekend’s show will be the first time Wilde Irish Women has performed since 2016. Looking to the future, Caine said she intends to “just keep going” with the productions. Contributed photo

Staff Writer
Published: 11/14/2019 10:17:34 AM
Modified: 11/14/2019 10:17:24 AM

Three decades in New England hasn’t diluted Greenfield resident Rosemary “Rosie” Caine’s thick Irish accent, nor has it severed her strong connection to Gaelic culture.

Having moved from Ardee, Ireland, in County Louth, to Massachusetts in 1972 to pursue a musical career in America, Caine is still — in her own words — a “wild Irish woman.”

“They tried to beat me down with New England Puritanism, but I’m as wild as I ever was,” said Caine, 74, at her home on Colrain Road in Greenfield. She led the way into a music room where a traditional Gaelic harp — which is Ireland’s national emblem — sat beside a piano. “Part of me is still there,” she added.

Caine’s Irish heritage and her music will be on public display this weekend, Nov. 15 and 16, at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center on Main Street in Greenfield during a musical celebration of radical ladies of Irish history. The performance will be a “best of” montage featuring musical vignettes written by Caine, a professional Irish vocalist who also plays the harp. Every one of the songs — which will be accompanied by theater — originally appeared in a past performance by Wilde Irish Women, a local theatrical-music group that Caine founded in 2002 after reading “Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives from History” by Marian Broderick. The book profiles 71 Irishwomen, both renowned and unknown, such as the love interest of Irish poet W.B. Yeats, Maud Gonne, an English-born revolutionary of Irish descent who was moved to action by the plight of evicted people in the Land Wars of the late 1800s.

“It was as if the title jumped up at me and said, ‘That’s a show,’ ” Caine remembered about the group’s inception. Homemade soda bread sat on a counter in the kitchen — “The food of my childhood,” she said. Irish art decorated the walls, including the cover of “Uylsses” by Irish novelist James Joyce, the characters of which Caine memorialized in a 2014 production. 

Notably, Wilde Irish Women’s inaugural performance, “Wilde Irish Women of Literature and Legend,” which opened locally, was selected to perform at the Acting Irish International Theatre Festival in Dundalk, Ireland, where Caine was nominated for the judicator’s award for the best score. It featured musical “thumbnail sketches” of seven women including Queen Maeve of Connacht, a legendary woman of Irish mythology who may have inspired the fairy Queen Mab found in William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”; and Sarah Curran, the love interest of Irish patriot Robert Emmet, who famously declared at his execution in 1803, “When my country takes her place among the nations of the Earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written.”

Among others in that first show were Lady Jane Wilde, mother of famed writer Oscar Wilde and a revolutionist poet herself who published under the pen name “Speranza,” and Irish pirate queen Grace O’Malley, who defied the English crown for nearly four decades by plundering seafaring ships. In one account, a Turkish corsair is said to have attacked O’Malley’s ship the day after she gave birth to a son. According to lore, she burst from her room armed with two blunderbusses and fought off the attacker.

Inspired by Irish folklore

This weekend’s show will be the first time Wilde Irish Women has performed since 2016, when the group produced “1916,” commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, which was one of the most important events in Irish 20th-century history. An armed conflict that ended in tragedy, it was the spark for Ireland’s eventual independence from Britian.

Caine, who didn’t start writing music or playing the harp until she was in her 50s, says she draws from folklore and Irish poetry for inspiration, sometimes setting them to music without changing the words.

While writing the first musical, “It was as if the melodies came out of the strings — it didn’t have anything to do with me,” she said. This organic songwriting process at one point prompted her to reach out to the family of W.B. Yeats. After “Wilde Irish Women of Literature and Legend” — which featured lyrics by the Irish poet set to Caine’s music — was selected for the international theater festival, Caine says she had to call them to ask for copyright permission because the poem wasn’t in the public domain.

“I remember sitting down on a chair thinking I should do a shot of brandy — do I have the guts, the balls, to call up the son of Yeats?” she recalled. “I actually did it, with a beating heart.”

In each of Wilde Irish Women’s past five performances, Caine says the shows have followed a strong narrative path coalescing with theatrical performances. This time, however, because each song has been selected rather than created, the music itself will be the show’s central theme. Threading the score together will be a dramatic monologue by Michael Haley, of Conway, who is reprising his role as Lady Jane Wilde. Originally, Caine says she cast Haley, a retired Hollywood assistant director who played the umpire in “A League of Their Own,” as a way to challenge gender norms.

“Michael Haley swished into a fundraiser I was holding wearing a kilt,” Caine recalled. “I said, ‘That man wouldn’t mind wearing a dress.’ He is the wildest of our Irish women.”

When asked if he’d take up the dress again for this weekend’s Wilde Irish Women revival, Caine says Haley replied, “‘Yes. But I’ve gone up a bra size since then.’” This time, Haley’s performance is assured to be “hilarious, just wonderful,” Caine said. Returning to the stage with Haley will be his wife, Joan Haley, and actors Charlene Scott, Ann and Brooke Steinhauser, Moe McElliott, Stephanie Carlson, Alannah Martineau, Sean McMahon and Matt Haas. Joining Caine, on the harp and piano, will be multitalented musicians Chris Devine, Michael Morgan, Robin Pfoutz, Rob Terreden and Lynn Lovell.

Keeping culture alive

For Caine, who performs in other area music groups including The Mother Plucker Trio, bringing wild women to life through music isn’t about making money. “Naturally, we haven’t made a penny off Wilde Irish Women,” she said. Instead, it’s a way to connect with Irish heritage and share her culture with the Franklin County region at large — which is something she’s been doing for her entire life, ever since dropping out of law school at University College of Dublin.

“I left in my final year and never regretted it,” Caine said. Instead of law, she performed with the signing group Burren Flora beginning in the 1960s, touring Ireland and Europe before coming to America in her mid-20s.

“We jumped out of a larger group on the cusp of Irish cultural tourism,” she said, explaining that Burren Flora, known as the “Shannon Castle Singers,” performed mostly “at castles in the west, in an attempt to boost the tourism economy.”

When the group dissolved in Boston, “each went their separate ways,” Caine said. In the United States, she met and married her husband, Howard Natenshon, a radiologist at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, and managed Rosemary Caine’s Dress Design & Bridal Studio, a boutique in downtown Northampton, for a number of decades. She wasn’t involved professionally in music from then until she read Broderick’s book, beginning a musical-immersion process that helped to “renew my identity.”

“My grandmother played the harp, but not during her era with me,” she said. But while Caine’s grandmother didn’t play, she passed her musical legacy down in another way. One of Caine’s five instruments, a McFall Harp built from bogwood in Belfast in 1885 (which, notably, was one of the first to incorporate key-change levers into its design), was previously owned by her grandmother.

“When I was a child, this harp had two rusted strings and woodworms,” she said, running her hands over the smooth wood and remembering how it was kept in an upstairs bedroom. After her grandmother died, Caine had the instrument refurbished as a keepsake.

“It’s a very important harp historically,” she said.

Since immigrating, Caine says she’s returned many times to Ireland, at one point studying the harp at Cáirde na Cruite (Friends of The Harp) in Termonfeckin, Ireland, with her daughter, Jennifer Chibani.

Ireland is always close to her heart. But had she not left her homeland, Caine says she’s not sure if Irish culture would have inspired her in the way that it has. Wilde Irish Women might never have formed. These days, her focus on Irish heritage is as prominent as is her accent.

“There’s something about not taking it for granted — I’ve had to work to keep it alive and share it with other people,” Caine said.

Andy Castillo, features editor at the Greenfield Recorder, can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com.

How to connect

“Best of Rosemary Caine and Wilde Irish Women,” a musical celebrating radical ladies of history, will open be performed at Hawks & Reed Nov. 15 and 16. Doors to Friday’s show will open at 7 p.m. with a start time of 7:30. Saturday’s show will be a matinee, with doors opening at 2:30 p.m. and a start time 30 minutes later. Admission is $18 in advance, $22 on the day of the show. Tickets can be purchased at bit.ly/2pLwwwF. For more information on Wilde Irish Women, visit the group’s Facebook page at facebook.com/wildeirishwomen.


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