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By Andrea Smith
for Irish Sunday Independent

He's a Celtic Tenor and she's a Celtic Woman. But it all started down on the farm in Co Meath.

While many farm workers around the country carried out their daily tasks with a song, the animals on the Gilsenan farm in Kells, Co Meath, were treated to performances of a world-class calibre.

The eldest of the five Gilsenan children, Matthew, went on to become one of the Celtic Tenors, while his younger sister Deirdre, the middle child, has performed with the tenors and Anuna, and is currently one of the five soloists with Celtic Woman.

"We grew up milking cows and feeding calves," says Deirdre. "Matthew had a golden voice from an early age, and he used to be inclined to sing when he was working on the tractor, to try to drown out the noise."

"It was actually a great way of developing strong vocal chords," adds Matthew. "When I'd be cutting fields or some job that would take a few hours, I'd be bored out of my skull, so I used to sing my head off."

Matthew and Deirdre, who are both in their early 30s, share similar slim frames and striking looks, and they are also both warm and down-to-earth.

With three years between them, the two singers now have a close friendship, but readily admit that their childhood relationship had its volatile moments.

"I remember a big heavy Denman hairbrush being launched from one side of the room to the other when I was about 15, and it hit me on the forehead," recalls Matthew. "So I lay on the floor and pretended to be dead."

"I thought I'd killed him and stood bawling crying over the dead body," laughs Deirdre. "Then he opened his eyes with a big smile, so I gave him another wallop.

I was a bit of a tittle-tattle when I was little, and I would sometimes go to Mum and tell tales on Matthew. I was quieter than him and was always into art, so I spent a lot of time painting as a teenager.

Matthew was a little more extrovert than me, so he was always off going dancing and socialising. I didn't sing publicly like he did, but took piano lessons up to grade seven, and I was always involved instead in painting the backdrops during school productions."

It was this artistic talent that saw Deirdre winning RTE's Live at Three art competition at the age of 12, and Matthew recalls being really proud of his little sister appearing on TV with Thelma Mansfield.

Matthew was a soloist with his choir from an early age, and he had some voice training with his singing teacher, Sr. Dominic. When he came to Dublin to study engineering at UCD, he also did vocal studies part-time at the College of Music, or the DIT Conservatory of Music, as it is now known. He initially went to work as an engineer in England for five years, and, while he was very happy with it, he wanted to come home to live here, and also had a yearning to explore his musical side.

Deciding to take a few months off, Matthew returned to Dublin - to get the singing bug out of my system. He joined the National Chamber Choir, and was approached by the then Celtic Tenors, James Nelson and Niall Morris, at a performance in the Gaiety Theatre.

They invited him to join them in a six-month run with Rebecca Storm in Clontarf Castle, after which the Celtic Tenors were signed up to a three-album worldwide deal.

Matthew now has a very successful career with the Celtic Tenors, he is married to Celestine, and they have a three-year-old son, Sean.

Meanwhile, Deirdre went to art college to study textile design, specialising in weaving. However, she also harboured a longing to sing, and auditioned successfully for vocal-studies training, and studied it in tandem with her college course.

After working as a lighting designer following graduation, she changed tack and became a member of the choral group, Anuna. The purity of her voice saw her joining Micheal Flatley's Lord of the Dance as a soloist, and she toured the world with the show for four years.

When she returned to Ireland, Deirdre, who will be releasing a solo album in March under her stage name, Deirdre Shannon, was invited to join the Celtic Tenors in a one-off performance.

This progressed to regular guest appearances, which left Matthew feeling a bit awkward, initially.

"James and Niall had seen her in Lord of the Dance in Boston and were blown away by her, I was delighted to be able to work with Deirdre, but it was a difficult situation for me because she was my sister and I couldn't be too enthusiastic about choosing her as a guest artist."

"And it was awkward for me, too, in the beginning," Deirdre admits, "because with Matthew being my brother, I didn't want to say anything if I had any issues. But it only lasted for a short while, and then I became part of the furniture."

In April of last year Deirdre was asked to replace soloist Maev Mulcahy on the first Celtic Woman tour, Maev was having a baby. The replacement became a long-term one, as Maev has since decided to pursue a solo career.

As well as being the best of friends, Matthew and Deirdre are also very close to their parents and their siblings, Fiona, John and Peter, and an enormous extended family living close by.

"Matthew is extremely friendly, honest and open," says Deirdre, who is in a relationship with David Munro, the Celtic Tenors' musical director. "Everybody loves him, because he's a really good person. As a brother, he's very observant and you can't really hide anything from him. He is very placid and patient, but he can be a bit stubborn. We both are, actually, so if we have a difference of opinions, we can stay on opposite tracks."

"We are quite different," agrees Matthew, "even in our approach to music."

He then goes on to pay his sister a string of compliments. "She's an extremely caring person, and has so much time for everyone, and has given her time to work with everyone, from the mentally handicapped to the destitute. She has a tremendous imagination, and is a very hard worker and amazingly professional."

"Her only bad quality is her hot temper, and I still have the lump in my head from that brush!" concludes Matthew.