Sharon Shannon: still pressing the right buttons

By John Fitzgerald

She was hailed as a national treasure on RTE’s Late Late Show tribute, broadcast before Christmas.  An accolade well-deserved by Sharon Shannon, the super-talented Clare Girl famed for her playing of The Galway Girl. For three illustrious decades the familiar sight of Sharon, with her radiant and captivating smile, playing the button accordion, has gladdened the hearts of music lovers.

Sharon was born in Ruan, County Clare in 1968. From the day she took her first baby steps she seemed destined to make her mark as a musician. She was born into a musical family. Her parents loved dancing and traditional music, passing on this attachment to Sharon and her three siblings. Her brother Gerry, having learned the tin whistle, proceeded to give lessons to everyone else in the household. Sharon was playing the instrument when she was eight. She joined a local band, Disirt Tola, and her talents shone.

When she was eleven she got her first accordion. By age fourteen she was playing throughout Ireland and touring the United States. Also in her early years she became enchanted with the animal kingdom. A brief stint as a competitive show jumper fostered a love of working with animals that continues to the present day. Her father had been a breeder of Irish Draught horses and Connemara ponies.

But equestrian pursuits had to take second place to her musical calling. At age sixteen she dropped the show jumping to concentrate on developing her special talent. Academic studies too were put aside as her musical skills came to the fore.

She learned all there was to know about the button accordion from Karen Tweed, and Frank Custy tutored her on fiddle-playing. She soon found herself excelling with both instruments when she co-founded the band Arcady and gave dazzling performances across the country. She was equally at ease with an accordion, fiddle, tin-whistle, or melodeon, switching from one to the other with a jaw-dropping dexterity.

Her talents confounded many an aspiring musician and professional player, enthralled as they were by the Darling Girl from Clare, as some fans dubbed her; a reference to a song of that name.

Her recording career commenced in 1989 and she performed alongside musical greats like Adam Clayton and Steve Wickham. She played for a year and a half with The Waterboys, giving critically acclaimed and wildly popular renditions on fiddle and accordion. Then she went international, having her first world tour with the Waterboys. She quit the band, after it reverted to an increasingly rock-and-roll format, to embark on a solo career.

Though she is fondly identified with the Irish folk tradition, Sharon’s work incorporates a broad spectrum of melodic influences, including reggae, Cajun, hip hop, and French Canadian music. Her 1991 debut album made history as the biggest selling Irish trad album released in Ireland.

Her second album in 1994 was notable for its reggae style but trad lovers were equally mesmerised by it. She went on to record several more albums through the 1990s, notching up a succession of number one albums, singles and DVDs in Ireland.

In 2000 Sharon was certified “triple platinum” for her Diamond Mountain Sessions album, which included a phenomenal line-up of singers. Her recording with Steve Earle of The Galway Girl in 2000 was a runaway success. In 2007 a live version of the song recorded with Mundy proved to be the most downloaded track that year, scooping a Meteor award. In 2009 it was again confirmed as the most downloaded track. The same year, she played Galway Girl live at the Meteor Music Awards, where she also became the youngest ever recipient of a Meteor Lifetime Achievement Award.

Sharon has wowed audiences large and small across the globe, taking her unique brand of musical expression to Australia, continental Europe, and Japan.  Politicians such as President Bill Clinton, Mary Robinson, Poland’s Lech Wałęsa and our own President Mary Robison have lined the front rows of some of her numerous sell-out shows.

The artists who have worked with Sharon over the decades read like a who’s who of musical talent: Moya Brennan, Christy Moore, Sinéad O’Connor, Kirsty MacColl, Jackson Browne,  Dónal Lunny…to mention a few from a very long list of household names.

Among other memorable milestones of her career was her inclusion in a compilation album titled A Woman’s Heart, the Late Late Show tribute to her musical achievements, and the awarding to her of an honorary doctorate in 2018 by NUI Galway. This was a poignant occasion for Sharon as she had sacrificed academic ambitions early on to focus on her music. 

In recent years Sharon has entertained at a breathtaking pace, winning new fans whenever she performed with her band, The Woodchoppers. Yet, despite all the glittering fame and fortune Sharon still enjoys playing informal sessions in houses or at small parties in pubs and village halls and the benefit events that have aided many causes.

Side by side with her musical career she finds time for her other passion: animal welfare. All her dogs and cats are rescued animals. She considers the love of a dog one of the best forms of therapy as “mans best friend”, she believes, offers unconditional love and loyalty. Though she has a soft spot for working collies, she subscribes to the view that ALL dogs go to Heaven.

She has rescued many animals herself and works with organisations that promote the welfare of our four- legged friends. She feels strongly about the prevalence of commercial puppy farming and advises people who want a pet to adopt one from a pound or rescue centre. Sharon also champions wildlife conservation causes such as the campaign to protect our iconic Irish Hare.

Two year ago, Sharon found herself entertaining the animal kingdom. On her way to Youghal in Co. Cork, she felt inspired to stop when she saw some cows in a field. She wondered how they’d react to an auld tune. When she played, the animals came running over to the fence she was sitting on, all of them listening intently to her music.

She recorded the bucolic episode and the video became an instant YouTube sensation, attracting over 120,000 views in less than twenty-four hours. Sharon continues to record and write music and though the Covid Pandemic has put all her public performances on hold, she looks forward to the day, hopefully not too far off, when she can resume her stellar career.

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