Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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BY IAIN BERNHOFT
television seems an unlikely place to look for a celebration of large Catholic
And yet, this summer, NBC’s popular
first season of “America’s
Got Talent” proved to be
exactly that as Celtic Spring danced and fiddled their way into
the show’s final round.
Celtic Spring is the Wood family
of Ventura, Calif. — six offspring between 6 and 20
years old who play fiddles and Irish-dance while Dad (Greg) and Mom (Mary)
accompany them on other instruments.
In the end, the group didn’t win
the $1 million grand prize. But they did attract enough votes to earn the
“Viewers’ Choice” distinction. (And they clearly delighted the show’s host,
Though remarkably accomplished
musicians, the Woods lack something all their eight-plus million viewers have:
a television. The irony is not lost on Greg.
friends were going to neighbors’ houses,” he says, “so they could watch the
Given their misgivings about the
small screen, did they blanch at the idea of participating in such an
“Sometimes you have to put good
next to evil so that people can recognize both and choose accordingly,” Greg
“As Catholics, we knew that it was
a great opportunity to bring some joy to Hollywood,”
When Mary Wood began guiding her
children in Irish dancing and music, the lights of Hollywood were far from her mind. She just
wanted to pass on the Irish culture of her grandparents from “the old country.”
Their acumen for performance, along with their musical skills, developed
naturally — if surprisingly fast.
“Since we homeschooled,
we were usually together, and violin and Irish dancing became a normal part of
our lives,” recalls Mary. “From a very young age, each child was eager to
participate. They practiced regularly and advanced very quickly.”
The group’s first performances, at
the local farmer’s market, were to raise money to go to “fiddle camps,” where
the world’s finest fiddlers instruct by ear and cultural immersion. Word spread
about the talented family and, soon enough, Celtic Spring were in demand for
weddings and festivals.
As their popularity and sense of
mission grew, Mary took over the business side while Greg, a licensed marriage
and family counselor, privatized his practice for maximum flexibility.
fame catapulted in the winter of 2002 when they performed on “Good Morning
“After 9/11, the show was looking
for families that could represent hope,” Mary says. “They found us somehow, and
one thing has led to another ever since.”
One thing leading to another led
them to “America’s
Got Talent.” While the Woods declare themselves to be a “normal family,” most
people’s normal doesn’t include multiple trips to the NBC studios, appearances
on “The Today Show,” a feature in TV
Guide or the intense pressure that comes from having international
audiences watching you compete.
“It was challenging, but we looked
on it in part as a spiritual journey,” says Greg. “We really relied on the
sacraments — daily Mass and weekly confession. It helped the kids learn that
you can’t be one bit timid about your faith.”
Before every performance, the
family would pray St. Patrick’s Breastplate, finding particular resonance in
the lines “Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears
“We want to be a vehicle for
bringing Christ to our audiences,” says Mary. “To do that, we have to draw on
all the grace and strength that comes from our Catholic faith.”
Father Tim Alkire,
a longtime friend of the Woods family, has had Celtic Spring perform at his
parish in Lafayette, Ind. “People feel an infectious joy in
watching them,” says the priest. “You see smiles all around. They also provide
the understanding that it’s possible to be a good, down-to-earth Catholic
family. They lead by example, letting people know that they’re formed by study
The fact that Celtic Spring
finished in the top five of “America’s
Got Talent” testifies to their dedication — and their broad appeal.
“People responded to the artistic
quality of our act, to the beauty and joy of Irish culture, but particularly to
our witness as a family working together and loving each other,” Greg says.
Fans frequently approach them
after performances, asking about their faith. “People sense that there’s
something more, that God must be a part of this,” Mary explains. “All beauty
comes from God, and points back to him implicitly.”
One person who did not respond
positively was celebrity judge Piers Morgan, a former editor of a British
tabloid. Following one performance, he recommended in no uncertain terms that
Celtic Spring “get rid of” the parents and the youngest child, 6-year-old
Although taken aback by Morgan’s
vitriol, the older Wood boys defended the family’s unity as central to the act.
“We felt our deepest values were being attacked,” says Mary. “But we’re not
going to compromise our identity because of what someone in Hollywood said. That’s not worth a million
dollars to us.”
Adds Greg: “People saw that we’d
stand together in spite of criticism. The e-mails we got afterwards were
Life in Concert
Even before NBC called, the Woods
had planned to dedicate the upcoming year to recording a new CD, along with
traveling and performing in Europe. The two
eldest daughters, Elizabeth and Deirdre, will take the year off college to
“We really want to explore
Catholic Europe, the living reality of many wonderful convents and
monasteries,” Mary explains. “Traveling in Scotland
will also enhance our understanding of how to play our music.”
The family admits that the
million-dollar prize was a tantalizing near-miss — a lot of good can be done
with that kind of windfall — but Celtic Spring is still very happy with the
net/net of the “America’s
Got Talent” experience.
The Woods were able to share what
they call their “family apostolate” with millions of viewers. And the exposure
is generating opportunities to perform traditional Irish entertainment — and
witness the timeless Catholic faith — for audiences from California
to Cape Breton.
“We hope to provide inspiration to
families, showing them an alternative to some negative aspects of the culture,”
While dismayed by the network’s
editing out of virtually all religious content from their footage and
interviews, Greg reflects: “I don’t think we’d have done anything differently.
We were pleased with our opportunity to put something from the culture of life
up there and come out looking good.”
But while “America’s Got
Talent” was a fruitful experience for the Woods, they’re not rushing out to buy
a television. “At the finale,” Greg laughs, “we were all saying how much we’re
looking forward to not watching TV again.”
Iain Bernhoft is a graduate student in English at Boston University.
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