Jamie O’Reilly’s childhood sounds like the premise for a Technicolor-drenched 1950s Hollywood musical: a powerful Irish-American, Shakespearean actor father revered in the local theatrical community, a radiant, silver-voiced diva of a mother, and a brood of 14 singing children, each more talented than the next. Put them in a small town in northern Illinois, where they cheerfully perform concerts for needy families and are surprised when the neediest turns out to be their own.
As a movie concept, it’s a winner; in real life, it could be a hard-to-follow first act.
The town was north-suburban Crystal Lake, where O’Reilly’s parents, raised their family in the theatrical and Catholic-activist traditions O’Reilly’s forebears brought with them when they came to Chicago to work on the Sanitary and Ship Canal. Jamie, their ninth child, was gifted with her mother’s lilting soprano and an impressive range. She studied opera at DePaul University, but by graduation (in 1981) had decided she was more interested in folk music. “After college, the best-paying jobs in folk were in Irish music,” she says. “So that’s what I started out doing.”