Interview with Cathie Ryan

Cathie Ryan has been guiding tours of Ireland for more than 15 years, but she is most widely known for her work as a singer and songwriter. Cathie has been in the vanguard of Irish music for three decades, touring internationally with her band and playing at performing arts centers, folk festivals, and with symphony orchestras. This has led to her being honored as one of the "Top 100 Irish Americans" by Irish America Magazine. Let's learn from Cathie how music, teaching, and tour guiding can merge into a fascinating career.

Cathie, tell us about your childhood, and how it shaped your growing up.

I was raised by Irish parents who moved from Kerry and Tipperary to Detroit for work in the late 1950s. We would visit family in Ireland regularly when I was young, and then I settled there for good in 2005. I loved those trips and always looked forward to them. A large part of it was the freedom of running through the fields on the farm, and the focus on family and community. There was no TV — our entertainment came from shared music and story. My father was a singer and my mother loved Irish music. My father's mother was also a singer and played the fiddle. In her house every weekend the neighbors gathered to make music, and dance sets around the kitchen. She encouraged me to join in and sing. My mother's father was a seanachie (storyteller), who would mesmerize us, and all the neighbors, each night with his stories. It felt nearly sacred to me that what we shared as children came from family, from community — not from a box in the room. That went a long way in informing what became important to me as I grew up — connection and communication. It helps me as a guide. I also think it's a plus to have both an Irish and American perspective while guiding North Americans through Ireland.

And obviously your interest in music goes beyond just the teaching of it.

I first learned about Irish history from the music. The songs of Ireland were my grounding. They became part of me because they were what tethered the immigrant to home, the Irish communities in the diaspora together, and they kept the many and myriad stories of Irish history living and breathing though the centuries. Irish music is a life-force. And if I had to pick a favorite thing about Irish history, it would be that it is carried and reverenced in the music and dance.

What path led you to the profession of guiding?

I was drawn to academia and teaching first, and guiding became a natural evolution. After studying English Literature and Secondary Education at the City University of New York, I became immersed in Irish traditional song, and the myths and folklore of the island. From there I helped create and guide study tours of Ireland with a focus on Irish mythology, folklore, and song. Eventually, I was at a point in my teaching career where I felt I wanted to do more — and reach more people — with all the knowledge of, and love for, Ireland that was in me. Including, of course, the music! Guiding for Rick Steves' tours became the perfect next step in my life to achieve that.

How well does Rick's Best of Ireland itinerary fit your vision of teaching about Ireland?

Oh, I love the Best of Ireland itinerary. It is perfect! We visit every one of the four provinces. It begins in Dublin and moves all around the country until we come nearly full circle with our final days in Belfast — from north to south and east to west. This allows a true immersion into Irish culture, the landscape, and the people.

What is that Ireland immersion like for your tour members?

It is in the landscape, the music sessions in the pubs, the interactions with locals, and the antiquities and historic sites we visit. It is a living history, as opposed to going into lots of museums, so Ireland is always revealing itself. And we get to share all of that together.

I am delighted that there are always a few people on each tour who have chosen Ireland as their very first vacation in Europe. It is the ideal starting point. Irish people are warm and welcoming — they are the biggest attraction! And they speak English!

What is it like to lead in the Republic and then cross over to Northern Ireland? 

I love the Best of Ireland tour because I think it's important to tour the whole island — every province — to fully understand the culture, people, and history. There is a basic thread that ties South to North, but there are definite differences. Northern Ireland is a great destination with Irish roots but centuries of very distinct cultural influences. I do my best to help tour members understand the distinctions. Apart from the obvious things you can see like the road signs changing (moving from kilometers to miles) we journey from the Republic, a country born of a rural agrarian culture into Northern Ireland, with the hustle and bustle of an English and Scottish influenced country focused on industry. In building each of the two countries the vision was certainly different, but, I think the heart is the same. The Northern Irish can come across as a bit reticent at first, but open up fairly quickly. Most Northerners have the same wicked wit of the Irish in the Republic and love the craic, as well as enjoying many of the same pastimes. For me, the joy of getting to spend time in the North is that the tour members get to experience the very unique culture and heritage there, to learn about the Irish roots, the Ulster Scots influence, the Anglican influence, and to understand how their culture is very much entwined with the Republic.  

When you are not guiding for Rick Steves, what fills your time?

I am a singer, so I can't go too long without being on tour with my band. I love the give and take of singing and playing for an audience. It is pure magic. I also love to write songs. And my family and friends mean the world to me. I spend as much time with them as I can.


Here's what Cathie won't tell youbut her tour members will:

"Cathie is a treasure. Her personality fit the group, she was attentive to everyone's individual needs, always followed through, tended to every detail. Her knowledge of the history and politics of Ireland was intricate and her ability to communicate those intricate details was outstanding. Always "on," always happy. And, of course, her musical talent lifted the trip to another dimension!"

— Michael in Bend, OR