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Oct17WedCeltic music's power couple Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy keep faith as their centre. October 17, 2018 by Kristin Ostensen
When world-renowned fiddler Natalie MacMaster picks up the phone at her home in Lakefield, Ont., there’s a gentle roar in the background—the sounds of a busy family having a typical Monday morning on the farm.
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“I think Donnell’s let the lions out of their cages,” she says with a laugh. “The kids were practising their music just a moment ago.”
Music touches every part of her family’s life, and it always has. Natalie learned to step dance at five and started fiddle lessons at nine, while her husband, Donnell Leahy, was fiddling at just three years old. Today, they are Celtic music’s power couple with dozens of awards, top-selling albums and accolades between them—including an Order of Canada membership for Natalie.
Not bad for a small-town girl who originally planned to become a teacher.
“I never set out to become a fiddler,” says Natalie, “but I think you have to be flexible. If you follow your dreams too much, you might miss out on what the Lord has planned for you.”
A Way of Life
Born and raised on Cape Breton Island, N.S., Natalie’s love of fiddle music began with her parents, Alex and Minnie, who introduced her to the island’s signature Celtic style.
“We went to many local events that featured the traditional music, such as square dances and concerts, and my mother was always playing records and cassette tapes,” Natalie says. “Most of these tapes were from house parties, recorded on the spot with a home recorder, and then the tapes would circulate Cape Breton. They were my biggest influence.”
Her first violin was a gift from a relative. “That’s what got me started and it just took off from there,” says Natalie, who released her first album, Four on the Floor, when she was 16.
Donnell had a similar experience growing up in Lakefield. “Music was a way of life,” he shares. “Mom and Dad had a band, so they would work all week on the farm, and on weekends, they’d play at weddings and dances. I suppose I just wanted to be like them.”
As Donnell and his siblings learned to fiddle, they started playing at their parents’ gigs. “Over time, we got to be a bigger part of what Mom and Dad did,” Donnell says, “to the point where they stopped coming with us.”
In the early 1980s, the children formed a band, aptly called The Leahy Family, and started touring across Canada and internationally. Before Donnell realized it, fiddling had become a career.
A Good Path
While music was central to family life for both Natalie and Donnell, the only thing that was even more important was their Christian faith.
“My parents had charitable hearts,” says Natalie, who was raised in a Catholic home. “They were naturally giving of themselves, at any time of day, for anyone.”
Her parents’ example of faith in action included preparing meals for people in need on special occasions, such as Christmas and Easter. “Mom always involved me in that—baking the food and bringing it to them—and I always remember those things,” Natalie says.
“There are decisions to be made every day, and God is involved in all of them.”—Natalie MacMasterAt the same time, Natalie’s father impressed upon her the importance of attending church regularly. “So even when I was travelling, I never missed a service. I think that’s what kept me on a good path, because Lord knows there were lots of side roads I could have taken!
“And then at some point in my late teens, early 20s, I really became on fire with my own faith,” she continues. “It transitioned from me being obedient to me seeing the value in loving it and wanting to nurture it.”
As with Natalie, Donnell’s faith was deeply influenced by his family. “Mom and Dad were full of faith and loved God, and my uncle, Father Leo Leahy, was the parish priest in Lakefield,” he says. “As a family growing up, going to church was the most important thing—and it still is for us.”
Now parents themselves, Natalie and Donnell are passing on their faith to their seven children. “It’s the base of everything we do,” says Donnell.
Natalie agrees. “There are decisions to be made every day, and God is involved in all of them.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean their life is all solemn and serious. “We want our kids to have fun,” Natalie smiles. “I believe God wants us to live a joyful life, so we’re not sitting here praying all the time, but when we pray, they never say, ‘Do we have to?’ They all seem to have their own personalized version of their faith.”
Even when they’re on the road, church attendance is a priority. “We love playing music and our whole life is based around it,” says Donnell, “but when we travel, part of our tour manager’s responsibility is to find us a mass on Saturday or Sunday. The way we see it, travelling is part of our thing, but our faith is our thing.”
To their children, Natalie and Donnell are not just parents but also music teachers, and the kids have been enthusiastic students. All but the youngest—who is only six months old—have picked up the bow.
This November and December, the children will join Natalie and Donnell on stage as they tour across Canada performing A Celtic Family Christmas.
As Donnell explains, this concert represents all the joys of Christmas they experienced growing up and the traditions they continue to enjoy today.
“Rural Ontario and Cape Breton are pretty harsh in the wintertime, so music was more than something you enjoyed, it was something you needed,” he says. “You needed your neighbour to drop in, have a hot tea, and get away from the dark and the cold. The fireplaces were in the kitchen, so people would be hovering there where it was warm, and eventually a fiddle would come out. That’s what our show is—it’s a family celebrating the traditions of Christmas.”
For more information about A Celtic Family Christmas and to buy tickets, visit natalieanddonnell.com/tours.