Irish Singers bring a touch of authenticity to region

Staff photo by Nicole Barker The Irish Singers (from left) Scott Sager of Pilot Rock, John Doherty of Portland and Paul Green of Pilot Rock perform at the Elks Lodge during the Wee Bit O' Ireland celebration Saturday in Heppner.

None of the founders can remember exactly when the Irish Singers were born - but they can remember where.

The group, which boasts musicians from throughout Umatilla County, came into being sometime in the early 1980s when John Doherty and Scott Sager were enjoying a break from the lambing shed.

"As Scott strummed his guitar, the men sang songs they remembered from their youth," Bonnie Sager wrote in "Brief History of the Irish Singers." "John had a few copies of the music his brother, Joe Doherty, used to sing so they tried their luck on the Irish tunes."

As St. Patrick's Day 2008 proves, Doherty and Sager had good luck with those tunes. The band began the weekend with an appearance at Great Pacific in Pendleton and then performed a pair of two-hour concerts at Heppner's Wee Bit of Ireland Festival Saturday. Monday, they will pack their gear to Kelly's Bar on Highway 11 in Milton-Freewater where they'll take the stage around 7 p.m.

The full-blown expansion to Irish music began in 1985 when John and Doris Doherty traveled to Ireland to visit family and friends. He purchased a few tapes by the Clancey Brothers there and found sheet music in Portland after John promised his cousin, Kevin Doherty, he'd learn Irish songs, if Kevin would visit the United States.

Numerous players have come, gone and returned as the Irish Singers continued to thrive. The group is now comprised of Doherty and Sager, Paul Green, Mike Duffy, Roger Harwerth, Dan Emert, Ron Emmons, Lori Broggoiti, Jim Beard and Allen Feves. Scott's daughter, Kelly, also is playing with the group this year.

Many others have added their music to the mix over the years. Some suddenly appear again, others are dearly remembered by today's members, like the voice of late Kreg Hawkins, who was killed in a four-wheeler accident after six years of performing with the band.

"I miss his voice so much," Bonnie Sager said. "I can still hear it."

Their practice venue also has changed, as the Doherty sheep ranch was sold in 1993 after the sheep were sheared in May.

"It was a heart-breaker," Scott Sager said of the band's last gathering at that shearing.

However, the band found other places to rehearse and has opened its arms to new members and new sounds. That's the reason why Bonnie Sager believes the band has lasted more than two decades.

"They're such a flexible group with a wide variety of musicians and instruments," she said. "They've tried new things. Like the mouth harp. You don't think of an Irish band as having a mouth harp. Or, Alan Feves' dobro - that's a gorgeous addition. They've had some fine voices too. They're open to having new voices and new instruments. That's why I think they've endured. They've kept it vital and alive."

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