The story of the group begins back in 1975 when Mick Moloney was commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution to carry out research in several major American cities to locate the finest Irish musicians and dancers in the country to perform at the Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife in Washington D.C the following year. For one unforgettable week in July 1976 in the nation’s Capital in front of the Lincoln Memorial twenty six of the finest Irish American musicians, singers and dancers in the United States performed alongside an equal number of performers visiting from Ireland.
The response was overwhelming. The artistic brilliance of the performances was an obvious attraction but there was something else going on as well – the kind of excitement that comes from discovery. The audiences knew that what they were seeing and hearing was a sort of hidden Irish America – the kind of grassroots, community based, culture that had always been ignored and misunderstood by the mass media.
Irish Americans at the time had developed a fascination with their own cultural roots, and in response, The National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs applied successfully to the National Endowment for the Arts for funding to do a national tour of Irish traditional musicians, singers and dancers. In January, 1978 the group became the first ensemble of traditional ethnic performing artists to tour the United States under official U.S. government sponsorship. The original members, Liz Carroll, Jack Coen, Father Charlie Coen, Michael Flatley, Sean McGlynn, Mick Moloney, and Bill Ochs decided to take the name The Green Fields of America, the title of a well known Irish jig and reel, and also one of the most famous songs of Irish emigration to America. It symbolizes not only the literal reality of the rich pastures of North America but also suggests symbolically the promise of a new life for the emigrants in their adopted country.
Supported by the National Council for the Traditional Arts the Green Fields toured again in 1979, 1980 and 1982, establishing itself as the leading group of touring Irish traditional artists in the United States. It introduced many brilliant traditional musicians to the national concert stage and introduced Irish step dancing at its finest to general American audiences for the first time. Fittingly, the group's members were always either Irish immigrants or American-born musicians. Since then, the group has continued to tour all over the United States. Its most recent eponymous album was the product of a series of concerts at the Irish Week in the Augusta Heritage Festival in Davis and Elkins College West Virginia.
The Green Fields was never designed to have a permanent lineup that would perform and tour in a conventional way. Many individual members of the group at any given time had regular jobs outside music and were unable to tour full time and often, younger members of the group went on to develop their own separate full time musical careers. However, scores of the finest Irish artists in America have performed with the group over the past three-plus decades and many, including Seamus Egan, Joanie Madden, Eileen Ivers and John Doyle have gone on to achieve international stardom. Six Green Fields members, Liz Carroll, Jack Coen, Michael Flatley, Donny Golden, Mike Rafferty, and Mick Moloney, have been awarded the National Heritage Award, the highest honor that an American folk artist can achieve. Fewer than fifteen awards are handed out in the nation each year and it is astonishing and indeed unprecedented for five members of the same musical culture, let alone the same musical group, to get this most prestigious award.
The musicians who have been members of the Green Fields of America are: Tim Britton (tin whistle, flute, uilleann pipes), Denis Cahill (guitar), Liz Carroll (fiddle), Karan Casey (vocals), Fr. Charlie Coen (Tin whistle, flute, concertina, vocals), Jack Coen (tin whistle, flute, concertina), Brendan Dolan (piano), John Doyle (guitar), Jimmy Eagan (fiddle), Seamus Egan (tin whistle, flute, tenor banjo, mandolin, bodhran), Siobhan Egan (fiddle, tin whistle, flute), Frank Harte (singer), Ivan Goff (uilleann pipes, flute, whistle), Winifred Horan (fiddle, dancer), Eileen Ivers (fiddle), James Keane (button accordion), Jimmy Keane (piano accordion), Tina Lech (fiddle), Donna Long (piano, fiddle), Dana Lyn (fiddle), Joannie Madden (tin whistle, flute), Billy McComiskey (button accordion), Sean McGlynn (button accordion), Zan McLeod (guitar, bouzouki), Mick Moloney (guitar, tenor banjo, mandolin, vocals), Michelle Mulcahy (harp, concertina, fiddle, button accordion), Brendan Mulvihill (fiddle), Andy O’Brien (guitar, vocals), Robbie O’Connell (guitar, vocals, songwriter), Eugene O’Donnell (fiddle), Kieran O’Hare (tin whistle, flute, uilleann pipes), Eamon O’Leary (guitar, tenor banjo), Jerry O’Sullivan (tin whistle, flute, uilleann pipes), Bill Ochs (tin whistle, flute, uilleann pipes), Al Purcell (tin whistle, flute, uilleann pipes), Mike Rafferty (tin whistle, flute, uilleann pipes), Tommy Sands (guitar, vocals, songwriter), and Athena Tergis (fiddle).
The dancers who have appeared with the band are: Kieran Barrett, Kevin Broesler, Jean Butler, Cara Butler, Darrah Carr, Melanie Deegan, Heather Donovan, Joe Dwyer, Katherine Dwyer, Michael Flatley, Donny Golden, Eileen Golden, Steve Gallagher, Deirdre Goulding, Katie Grennan, Ciara Greene, Liam Harney, Deirdre Harten, John Jennings, Kieran Jordan, Sinead Lawler, Tara McHugh, Sheila McGrory, Chloe Mullarkey, Tim O’Hare, Niall O'Leary, Mairead Powell, Pat Roche, Sheila Ryan, Michael Smith, John Timm, Regan Wick, and Linnane Wick.