Mairead Carlin: 'Hearing my father had only months to live was the worst thing to ever happen to me... I felt the need to fill his every minute with as much happiness as I could'
As part of singing sensation Celtic Woman, Mairead Carlin has sung for Hillary Clinton and shared the stage with Snow Patrol, Don McLean and Carly Simon, but she still can't wait to come home to Northern Ireland, as she tells Lorraine Wylie
We were supposed to be talking about her role with Celtic Woman, Ireland's international singing sensation. Instead, Mairead Carlin, kicked off the conversation with a tale about a Cockapoo named Milo.
"He's so adorable and far too cute for his own good. I just love him to bits," she says of her new puppy.
There's no doubt she's smitten, but Milo isn't the only man in the singer's life. After a whirlwind romance, she married performer Ronan Scolard in September 2016. So how did they meet?
"Well now, there's a story!" she laughs, launching into an explanation. "We met when Ronan joined Celtic Woman's Choir, although he told me later he'd seen me on a website and thought I looked nice, so maybe there was already a little hint of attraction.
"When we met up at rehearsals, it was pretty much love at first sight. The really lovely thing was that my dad, even though he didn't know about us, recognised we were meant for each other. Whenever he met Ronan, he told me I'd met my soulmate.
"It all happened very fast -we met in February, he proposed in April and we were married in September. Now we've bought our first house in Dublin, and I'm very happy."
A new husband, a cute puppy, one foot on Dublin's property ladder and a career she loves. The Derry woman has come a long way since her first teenage gig, although, even that was impressive. While her peers slogged over homework, the then 15-year-old winner of the BBC's young singers talent competition was busy recording with the Philharmonic Orchestra in London's famous Abbey Road Studios.
"That was amazing," she admits. "I mean, any artist would think it a big deal, but for a 15-year-old it was awesome. I'll always remember it."
There have been many notable moments in her career. Sharing the stage with illustrious acts such as Snow Patrol, Carly Simon and The Priests are just some of the highlights.
Singing for Hillary Clinton, as well as recording Derry's City of Culture anthem Let the River Run with her friend and Glee star Damian McGinty are all also safely stored in her treasure trove of memories.
The release of her solo album Songbook in 2016, which she describes as "portraying the more vulnerable side to her sound" proved to be a cathartic experience.
"I guess I was finding myself, kind of growing up through this album. Behind every note there's a story," Mairead says.
When asked to choose a favourite event, she has no hesitation.
"I have many favourites, but supporting Don McLean at the Royal Albert Hall during his fortieth anniversary tour has to be top of the list. It was just fantastic."
Nowadays, Mairead is best known for her role in Celtic Woman. Created and conceived in 2004 by David Kavanagh, Sharon Browne and David Downes (a former musical director of Riverdance) the female singing ensemble has a unique sound. From bagpipes to Bouzouki, the fusion of all things Celtic is a celebration of life. Some describe it as Riverdance for the voice.
"I'd always been a big fan of their music, so when I was invited to join Celtic Woman, I was thrilled," Mairead says. "In fact I couldn't believe it was real. At my first performance with the girls, I had to pinch myself. Fortunately, from the moment we met, we all hit it off and the girls couldn't have made me feel more welcome. The fact that I'm the first woman from Northern Ireland to be part of Celtic Woman makes it even more special as I love this part of the world.
"It's amazing how Northern Ireland has become such an arty, cosmopolitan place, yet it's lovely because at the same time it manages to hold onto that friendly, small community atmosphere. There's always somebody to say, 'Hello, how's it going?'. I love that about the place."
Currently touring North America, Mairead's life sounds exciting. But surely there must be a downside. After all, it can't be much fun stuck in a bus with three other woman.
"Yea, I can understand how people would think that," she agrees. "But, honestly we all do get along. Somehow it just works for us. When one of is feeling a bit low or it's that time of the month, the others rally round and try to help. Even if it's just making a cup of tea, we try to look out for each other.
"Still, being away from home does have its challenges. We all miss family and friends, not to mention my lovely Milo."
Still, the best part of being away is coming home. "I always look forward to seeing family," the singer admits. "As a child, I spent a lot of time at my grandparent's house. Granda Carlin was old Irish - he loved playing with us kids, drawing chalk lines for me to play hopscotch and making me jelly and ice cream.
"I think that many kids today lose out. They're so busy indoors playing games on computer. I have to admit, I'm not really into the internet or social media. I'm more of an outdoors girl.
"Thanks to my family, I have lovely memories of us as all sitting round the fire, drinking tea and singing. Granda Carlin was 91 when he died and I miss him. I'm acutely aware of the passing of time and the need to spend more of it with my loved ones."
At the mention of her family, there's a note of sadness in her voice that says Mairead has had her share of heartache.
"I was very close to my dad," she says. "He used to say that I was a bit of a joker. Losing him to brain cancer, was the worst thing ever to happen to me. It was a terrible shock when the doctors told us he had just months to live. I couldn't bear to be away from him and I wanted to be with him all the time. I felt the need to fill his every moment with as much happiness as possible."
Faced with such a dire prognosis, the family began searching for ways to help. Their decision to follow a vegan diet had an unexpected and dramatic impact on Mairead's health.
"At the time, when doctors told us my dad's cancer was terminal and there was nothing conventional medicine could do for him, we couldn't believe it," she explains.
"Like many when faced with such circumstances, we decided to find alternative ways to help and began looking into diets. My sister, who is a real animal lover had been following a vegan diet. The more I looked into plant-based food, the more beneficial it seemed. Eventually, we all decided to go down the vegan route.
"I was really into it. I even did a course at Cornell University. But gradually things started to go wrong. I found myself becoming more and more focused on food, spending ages researching which food was 'good' and which was 'bad'. My friends must have thought me a nightmare to take to dinner. I'd spend ages poring over the menu, trying to decide the effect of each food group on the body.
"It got to a point where I realised it wasn't good for my mental wellbeing and I decided to stop. Now, I realise there are no good or bad foods. It's all about moderation. I still enjoy cooking and find it therapeutic but nowadays, I don't stress. I eat whatever I want. Although, I try to keep an eye on my portion size. At the minute, all in all, I'm very happy."