Theatre: Phil Coulter Up Close

Phil Coulter (@Carol Rosegg)

How It’s New York: This show takes place at New York’s gem of an Off-Broadway theatre, Irish Rep on West 22nd Street, and also Phil has spent a lot of time here.
How It’s Irish: Phil Coulter has made a huge difference to Irish music, not least because of his brainchild, Celtic Thunder.

Phil Coulter is at Irish Repertory Theatre in an intimate one-man show through Sunday, Dec. 30. Here’s our review of his show, The Songs I Love So Well. Mike Farragher interviewed him before the show opened; read that here.

This article was first published in Irish Examiner USA, on Tuesday, Dec.  18. 

The only time I’ve seen Phil Coulter in concert was in Pittsburgh, at the Carnegie Library Music Hall. It’s a 1,022-seat house, and buses of Irish-Americans were there. Phil played the piano, and gave a dramatic reading.

Seeing Phil Coulter on the intimate stage of Irish Rep is a very different experience. In The Songs I Love So Well at Irish Repertory Theatre, Phil’s one-man concert-show, which runs through Sunday, Dec. 30, Phil sings, tells stories, and leads you through a tour of his life. You probably know many of Phil’s songs even if you don’t have any of his CDs: “My Boy,” “The Town I Loved So Well,” and “Scorn Not His Simplicity” are all his.

And if you don’t know those, you surely have heard of a little group called Celtic Thunder, his brainchild. In such CDs as Classic Tranquility, or Sea of Tranquility, or American Tranquility, or Highland Cathedral, Phil demonstrates a hallmark sound which blends his piano and other instruments with traditional and traditional-sounding melodies, verging on new age. It’s on the sentimental, sweet side, definitely, but the skill is there, and even a rocker may find it very pleasant on a slow Sunday morning. For trad players, Phil is working with those melodies, too—there’s a rendition of “My Lagan Love”—and he told me last year he’s a big fan of Andy Irvine. 

Over the last forty years, Phil has been nominated for a Grammy, has had Platinum, Gold and Silver records, and has seen his songs recorded by Elvis (yeah, that one), the Luke Kelly, Sinead O’Connor. Phil has played at Carnegie Hall and recorded with James Galway. You’ll know all that even if you don’t read the program, because there’s a little film at the opening with talking heads of famous people talking about the Greatness That Is Phil. It’s a little blurry, and Sinead looks young and pretty, so my guess is it was made a while ago. 

It’s appropriate to see the Derry man on the set of Freedom of the City (read our review!), Brian Friel’s play about the Troubles which returns, by the way, in January. “The Town I Loved So Well,” perhaps Phil’s most famous song, which he does at the end, is a lovesong to wartorn Derry, and a plea for its future. That future seems to be upon us: Phil is an ambassador for Derry’s City of Culture, 2013.  

Phil plays some of his favorite songs on the piano, sings in his husky voice, gives a dramatic reading, and tells us some of his favorite stories. He’s like a favorite uncle. I think I’ve even heard some of the stories before—either while doing this interview in October, 2011, when his CD Heartland came out, or in Pittsburgh all those years ago—and so what? It’s the telling that makes them grand. Tell them again, Uncle Phil. “It’s like having you folks round at my house,” Phil says to the audience. He may be dressed up, and it may be a Steinway up there, but the feeling is cozy. 

Perhaps you can tell I wasn’t all that keen on the apotheosis feeling of some of the show, including the film opener although in fairness in a one-man show, a person usually talks about himself. And it’s a talent to list one’s accomplishments and still come across as likable. “I was unprepared for Classic Tranquility to be such a hit,” Phil tells us. “Until then, the biggest selling album was the Pope.” Classic Tranquility came out in 1984. So when during a recording session he and his team kept hearing tracks from the CD wherever they went, it’s hilarious rather than boastful in the telling, especially when it leads to the punchline of someone coming up with the moniker “Coulter-geist” which leads Phil into a little spooky piano ditty. The dramatic rendition of Florence Wilson’s poem about the eighteenth-century United Irishman Thomas Russell, “The Man from God Knows Where” is a favorite of mine. Phil stands and creates the narrative for us. I’d love to see him on “The Highwayman” someday. He’s got a flair for dramatic delivery.  There should be more spoken “party pieces” at seisuús, too, while we’re at it. 

Phil’s “Scorn Not His Simplicity,” a song inspired by having a son with Down’s Syndrome, is truly a moving tune, with its lyrics about a mother not knowing how to help, a boy on the outside, children knowing he’s different. Is it overkill to both hear about how The Dubliners’ Luke Kelly loved the song, and also see a film of Luke praising it and saying how he would only do the other songs if he could get that one? You know? No, it’s not, because I find myself reflecting on it.

With Jimmy Durante (@Carol Rosegg)

As well as on Phil’s story about how Luke used to say the best Guinness was the morning one, because “it gets the taste of toothpaste out of your mouth.”Phil introduced his song “The Old Man” for “anyone who had a special relationship with his father,” and I felt a little misty, I admit. “The Spinning Wheel” on the piano is Phil’s most requested, he said. Phil said he remembered hearing Delia Murphy sing it on the radio, and the night I went, an audience member finished the air-sign from Leo Maguire presenting the Walton’s Programme on Radio Éireann “If you feel like singing, do sing an Irish song.” 

With Geraldine Branagan

And just when you think you’ve got him pegged he surprises you: I really adored Phil’s rendition of a Jimmy Durante number, and so did the O’Suillebheain brothers who were in the audience that night.

Phil’s wife Geraldine Branagan comes on to do a few numbers, including “Silent Night,” with him and with the audience. She’s been out of the public eye for awhile, according to Phil, and at one point she seemed so happy to be back she jumped up and down. That glee was infectious.

This holiday show is full of the warmth of a family party.

Performances of Phil Coulter in THE SONGS I LOVE SO WELL run at The Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street), through December 30. For reservations, call the box office at 212-727-2737 or visit

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