Ray Goggins

First Published October 2021

RANGER 22

Is ULTIMATE HELL WEEK the best show on Irish television right now? The answer to that question isn’t simply a resounding YES, it’s yes by a hell of a way. And one man who plays a major role in making this possible is DS RAY GOGGINS, the Chief Instructor on the hit show. But the Corkman isn’t just a presenter brought in to front the show, far from it. 


With more than a quarter of a century’s service to his credit in the Irish Army, and seventeen of those years spent in the Army Ranger Wing (ARW) as both an operator and leader in a Tier 1 Special Operations Unit, Goggins is the kinda guy that Hollywood’s biggest male stars would fight over to play in the movies. The big difference between them all, of course, is that when RANGER 22 – his number in the ARW – served in war-zones around the world or operated as a bodyguard in Europe, Eurasia, the Middle East and Afghanistan, the dangers he faced on an hourly basis – and sometimes minute by minute – were all too real. 


While situations like those leave little room for error or re-takes if the lighting isn’t just right, they’re definitely the kind of experiences that teach you a thing or ten along the way. And, given that the wisdom gleaned from all of those trials and tests can be applied just as much to everyday life, sports, business, and even politics, they also provide a unique insight that’s worth sharing. That being so, Goggins has gathered it all together to tell the story of his life in RANGER 22: LESSONS FROM THE FRONT, published by Gill Books. 


Mark my words, this is a contender for book of the year and will top many’s a Top Ten list come the year’s end. Whatever you do in life, this book will help you to do it better. That’s just a fact. And, it’ll make you laugh along the way too, because that famous Cork sense of humour doesn’t just disappear when you sign-up to serve your country, ya know. If anything, it just dries out a little bit more and attains an even sharper edge at the same time. And lucky for us, because that helps to make books and TV shows all the more entertaining! 


With the nation glued to their TV sets for Ultimate Hell Week every Wednesday night, I had the pleasure of spending some time in conversation with the man leading the DS as they prove to celebrities like Ryan Andrews, Laura Nolan, Peter Stringer, and Rory O’ Connor that hell can, in fact, be a very real, wet, and cold place on Earth. 


Something I picked up on early on in reading Ranger 22 is that there are many attributes a Ranger needs that most people probably wouldn’t think of straight away. Two that really stood out were a sense of calm and a sense of humour. At the end of Ranger 22, Ray lists a few more of the qualities that have become constants in his own life, so I asked him to tell me a little bit about another one of those – of his own choosing – that people might be surprised would be important to being a good Ranger.


“Yeah, look, I guess the calm one is kind of straight-forward, and the humour, they’re huge in anything you do in your life. I suppose…I’m trying to stay away from resilience, integrity, people would associate all those [with being a Ranger]…I suppose empathy is one that people mightn’t realise is a huge part of it. Not even just when you’re training guys, or when you’re training yourself, but on operations and missions you need to have a cognitive empathy as to what’s going on, but for yourself and outside of what you’re doing, so your teammates and even people you’re dealing with, like villagers, or people who are under a lot of pressure and so on. They could be starving, they could be in awful conditions altogether, and you need to be able to understand that. It’s a hard kind of game to play, because you have to be able to know when to step in, and when not. It’s easier with your team guys, to be able to do that, to be able to read them. So if a guy needs a helping hand, you can give it to him. So I think empathy is a big one there.”

Is there ever a fear or a doubt that a quality like empathy might be seen as a weakness, or become a chink in the armour, so to speak? 


“No. Empathy and kindness are incredibly important in special operations. I know for a fact that through the years where I got a helping hand from somebody when I badly needed it, I never judged that as being a weakness. Yeah, I get what you’re saying, some people might misconstrue kindness for weakness, but a switched-on person won’t. They’ll realise that you’re putting your hand out for a reason, and it’s to help them out. It doesn’t have to be a huge input, it could be something very simple. You could just give someone a minute or two of your time. Or, give them the right word, or the right direction, and that means then that they’ll do something better and work harder at it.” 

And might empathy ever be seen as a weakness by anyone outside of the team who you might be dealing with? 


“It depends. Some people, because of their own failings, maybe. But you’ll find that people who won’t give empathy, or don’t use empathy, are usually weak, and not very good at what they do anyway because they can’t relate to other people. I think personally, from my experience of being in special operations for nearly twenty years, you’d see guys being empathic in all kinds of ways, on a daily basis. And it can be just the smallest little thing, like pulling a fellow up off the ground, or giving a fella a kind word, or just stepping into a situation for thirty seconds but that means that situation completely changes. That person that you’re stepping in to help, you’re basically taking the pressure off them for that thirty seconds, and that could mean the difference in them being able to carry on for another twenty-four hours or forty-eight hours, or a week or whatever it is. because you made that small little gesture.”


Back around January 2019, I didn’t listen to my gut-instinct on something, and it ended up costing me, both in a business and a personal sense. While I may have thought that was a disaster for me at the time, where it rates on a scale of actual life-or-death problems is brought into sharp focus by the fact that at that exact same time, Ray was being blown-up in a suicide bomb attack on the compound where he was stationed in Afghanistan. But when it comes to something like gut-instinct, is there any place for that in the Rangers, given that training for the ARW is so intensive, so comprehensive, and almost always on-going? 


“It’s a good question. You have the processes and procedures that are trained into you, so it is second nature, and when you do make that decision to flip the switch you carry out whatever you need to do very quickly. But your gut has a role to play, as in what scenario you carry out or where you go from a situation. Do you defuse it by being less aggressive? Or do you make that call to be completely aggressive and end the situation by violence, or whatever it is you’re doing. Gut has an awful lot to do with it. And experience only can teach you that. It’s all well and good to have these drills and routines that you slot into, but you have to KNOW then what drill to slot into and when to do it. It’s like that knowledge and wisdom piece. Knowledge comes from the book, but wisdom comes from the experience.” 

I mentioned in my last question how Ranger training always seems to be ongoing. And in the book, Ray talks about doing a diver course, followed soon after by a recon course, a perfect example of how Ray and the Rangers constantly challenge and transform themselves. In life away from the AWR, has he found ways to continue to challenge and transform himself, I wondered – his book, Ranger 22, being one, of course – but are there others apart from that? 


“Yeah, so the book and the show are two of those things. I have a training business now as well, that I started this year. I wanted to do something different. I had still been involved in security and bodyguarding to a certain extent up to last year, but I decided to do something new. Well, it’s not new, I’ve been training people all my career, I guess, but I wanted to do it on my own and step out into that world. I always find that if you’re learning something new, or you’re doing something new, it’s always good to challenge yourself. If you’re sitting on your arse scratching it, you’re learning nothing. You always have to test yourself a little bit. And whether that means stepping into a new type of career or just edging towards something a bit different, it’s really important. It just keeps you going, keeps you effective, keeps you happy. And it keeps you alive too. There are three things I try to feed every day of my life. I feed my body by training, [looking after my] health, and so on. I feed my mind by learning new things, new challenges. And the most important, is to feed your soul, doing stuff that really makes you happy on the inside. Sometimes I get to do all three together in one event. Other times I don’t. But I try to focus on those three things every day. Not just once a week or once a month. Every day.” 

You’ll often hear about professional footballers who come to the end of glittering careers but, while still relatively young, end up needing hip or knee replacements because of what they’ve put their bodies through. Ray mentions in his book that he eventually had to have laser surgery on both knees, because they had never been right since back when he went through the ARW selection process. So what kind of shape is his body in now, after so many years of testing it to so many different extremes? 


“It’s actually pretty good, I still train away. I’m fifty now, I turned fifty this year, and I do a couple of 10ks a week. I have my own gym here out the back of the house, that’s where I train. But yeah, there is a lot of punishment on the body, on the knees and back in particular from the lifestyle I’ve chosen. But I’m probably fitter…actually no, I am fitter than most of my peers my age. I have no serious injuries that have incapacited me. I’m probably operating at about 95% of my best, I’d say, at the moment. I’ll take that.” 

Does Ray have any fear that his desire to, or his willingness to train, might wane as the years go by? 


“No. There’s a saying I heard once, about [training] keeping the old man away! And that’s what I’ll be doing! You’re only as young as you feel. And there’s no reason why I can’t be physically fit up until the day I die. There’s no reason why not.” 


Mindset, which is what Ray was talking about there really, is so often mentioned as being vital to everything, both in Ranger 22 and on Ultimate Hell Week. In one promo for the show, Ray is heard declaring to the recruits not long after the course has begun, that the DS will be “in your souls in one hour!” Darran O’ Sullivan, the Kerry All-Ireland winner, said in an interview that it only took them about eight minutes to get into his! However, because of the way that training can break people down but then build them back up again with a greater sense of self – and, a clearer sense of something bigger than just the self, the team in the case of the show – would Ray think that there might be a place for something like this – or even some kind of national service, maybe – in Irish life in general, or in our justice system? 


“So you’re saying some sort of penal, hard-labour thing, or something like that, something along those lines?” 


Not so much in a punishment kind of way…


“More in a building way? And even as a national service for young guys to go in and do eighteen months? Well, again, look…that’s a kind of a grey area. I used to think that it would be a good idea to do that for guys and girls, eighteen to twenty-one, do national service for a year. But you won’t get that special forces training for people who are conscripts or have to do a year, a year and a half in the military. What you’d get is regular army training, which is pretty good, but to be fair, it’s not at the level that special ops is. It would be very hard to manage that, and expect people to go through that type of training in a year and a half. But look, there probably is scope for a version of it maybe, something that could even be done in secondary school, training days, teams. A lot of the facets of it that are very applicable to normal people. There’s a lot of what I do in my corporate work and with teams, where I bring in some of the mindset of teamwork and effectiveness training that I’ve learned, and I can bring that across to people in the private sector. Not like a Hell Week type of event, but some of the mindset of it. But it’s not as effective. If you get someone stripped down to their bare soul, you can put so much more information into them then where it’s better for them to build.” 

In the ARW Ray and his colleagues would spend so much of their lives operating – so living, in other words – at such a high level of intensity. Now, I know from sport or music events that it can take a few hours to come down from the adrenaline of an event or a gig, and yet none of those things would even come close to comparing to the levels of intensity Ray would be used to experiencing. How does he go from being so switched on to being able to switch off in a short time? Is it just a process that he has to go through like the rest of us? 


“It’s one of the side-effects of the training. You have to get yourself in a position where you can go from zero to one-hundred miles an hour instantly. This is why when you sleep on an operation, you sleep with all your kit on. When you get up you’re ready to fight straight away. On the show, the DS staff, we can take it from being super-calm to being super-aggressive within seconds. But that doesn’t mean that we lose control. It’s all controlled aggression. You bring it up to a level where you’re controlling it, it’s not controlling you. And you can bring it back down as quick. It’s quite similar in operations then, you can step up to be in that mindset quite quickly, and you can step down quickly as well. Now, it doesn’t always work, but it will work most of the time.” 


From reading Ranger 22, and other interviews that Ray has done, as well as watching UltimateHell Week and chatting to a good mutual friend of ours, there’s a part of me that sometimes feels a little bit jealous of the adventure, the excitement, and the challenges that Ray has known in his life. Or, perhaps a better way of putting it is that maybe I regret not trying more different things along the way myself. But has Ray ever regretted joining the Army over the years? Is there any other profession that curiosity would draw him in the direction of if he could try it for a day or a week? 


“I think I’d like to have been an ice-cream man or something like that if I hadn’t been in the army [laughs]. No, I’ll tell ya, I never for one second regretted joining the army, even in the really bad days or when things when absolutely pear-shaped, when your body and your brain are sayin’, ‘What are ya doin’ here?!’ I always had the answer for my brain. This is why I’m here, because it was something I always wanted to do. I know I’m doing different stuff now, but that’s still all based on what I learned and what I did as a soldier. It’s all the same. I’m still doing the same thing I was doing thirty years ago really. I’m just doing it in a kind of instruction mode now, and there’s more eyeballs on it compared to what I used to have. No, I have no regrets. I couldn’t even contemplate being in another job, to be honest. I know I have a training company now, and I’m doing this kind of stuff, but I’m still in instructor and army mode when I go and meet people. It’s the same thing.” 

I’m lucky enough to be speaking with both Ultimate Hell Week recruit Number 1 Laura Nolan, and Number 18 Ryan Andrews in the coming weeks as well. Having interviewed them both before, I wasn’t in the least bit surprised to see how well both have been doing on the show so far. Some recruits on Ultimate HellWeek can probably surprise the DS by eventually revealing a resolve that may not have been apparent straight away. But what I wanted to know was are there any little signs or ‘tells’ that usually let the DS know straight away – or very early on – if someone definitely doesn’t have what it takes? 


“I’ve had this question before, and as long as I’ve been doing this show, and even running the real military courses, yeah, you might get a vision of someone on the first night or first day, good or bad, but bar someone being absolutely completely out of control and flapping so much that they can’t even make a decision…those are obvious signs of someone who probably isn’t going to last too long, unless they learn to control it. But in general, I find that it’s very hard to pick up on anything, unless there’s a blatantly obvious sign with someone in the first twenty-four hours, someone breaking down or not being able to cope immediately, that’s a red-flag. You’ll see those. But other than that, it’s quite difficult. I’ve heard other people talking, saying they can do it, but I’ve never seen anyone who could, realistically. You might have an idea about someone in your head, but that’s the whole beauty of the process. Someone might be completely on their belt-buckle and weak, but then four hours later they’re the best candidate in the group because of a particular thing you’re doing, or they’re just committing to it better, or they’re more suited to it. That’s the beauty of it for me. So to answer your question, it’s hard to pick someone that’s going to finish or not. It’s really hard to do.” 

Again, returning to a recent interview I remember seeing somewhere where Ray spoke about his time in Afghanistan, and in it he talked about learning to switch off his emotions. There’s a moment in Ranger 22 where Ray is talking about the suicide bomber attack that I mentioned earlier. A lady called Shipra had been killed in that attack. But while Ray was coordinating the evacuation of their compound, he and his team not only made sure to take Shipra’s body with them, but Ray writes about, “…gently placing her in the ambulance with as much respect and dignity…” as they could. I found that passage particularly emotional to read, so I can only imagine what it must have been like to live through. But what I wondered was, was his being able to treat Shipra’s body in that manner – in the midst of so much chaos – also down to his Ranger training? Or, was that a moment when the man himself, just Ray Goggins from Cork, happened to shine through? 


“It’s probably a bit of both, to be honest. Again, as I say in the book, I didn’t know that lady at all, she’d only come back the night before, late, and I hadn’t seen her. And when I came in before that at Christmas, she’d already gone home on leave. My point of view is that it’s about everybody else. A lot of those other people had probably known her well, and they probably knew at that stage what was after happening to her, even though we tried to keep it from them as much as possible. Not because we wanted to keep it a secret, but they didn’t need to see that at that particular time because they were going through enough. This was six or seven hours into the event, and they were frazzled at this stage. I just needed to get them out and get them somewhere safe at that stage. And it wasn’t just me. There were two or three other guys with us, so it was all of our decision. The medic had fixed her up and made her more presentable, and we got her into the [body] bag then, and marked that respect for her. I’m not a religious man, but I’m definitely a spiritual kind of person. It’s good to protect people even when they have passed away, but you still have them [with you]. You still need to protect them.” 

Ultimate Hell Week is obviously a very personal and individual journey for everyone who takes part, but is there any one thing that Ray has seen everybody learn about themselves, regardless of how far they make it? 


“Yeah, people understand their reserves of strength. People don’t realise there’s always something left. Even when you think you’re completely spent, you have a reserve if you can just get into it. And that’s of power, of stamina, of anger, whatever it is to keep you going. A lot of people say, ‘I’m at 100%’, but they’re nowhere near it. Most people operate at about 50% in their average day, and they think that’s 100%. But there’s a lot more in our mind and soul to keep us going. It’s rare enough that we get into it. It’s only those extreme events and those extreme cases that get you into it. Then you realise you have that well. And when you know that well is there in your normal day – like for me, for example, having been involved in madness in different parts of the world – I know that well and how to get into it. So I can tap into that on a daily basis for something possibly innocuous. That gives you that amazing ability to be calm and composed when people think it’s chaos. But it’s not really.” 

RANGER 22: LESSONS FROM THE FRONT, by RAY GOGGINS, published by Gill Books, is OUT NOW and available at all good bookstores nationwide. ULTIMATE HELL WEEK airs every Wednesday night at 9.35pm on RTE 1. 

ENDS

Editorial

First Published September 2021

MUSIC, ‘LIVE’ EVENTS, AND A GOVERNMENT THAT NEVER CARED

Anyone who couldn’t have foreseen the current government’s appalling treatment of the music and ‘live’ events sectors simply hadn’t been paying attention. The signs were on it right from the moment Catherine Martin T.D. was handed a portfolio that included responsibility for tourism, culture, arts, the Gaeltacht, sport, AND media. 


The argument can rightly be made that each of these areas needs and warrants a department of its own, given the importance of each to Irish life. At the same time, however, realism, pragmatism -and, in fact, the constitution – dictate that not every area of significance and consequence can be afforded the luxury of a department in its own name, given that our government can have no more than fifteen members (Article 28), including the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, and the Minister for Finance. So in effect, minus the aforementioned, only twelve seats – at most – ever remain to be filled in the cabinet. 


That fact notwithstanding, however, the decision to ask one minister to take on responsibility for six sectors which, each in their own right, play such prominent roles in Irish life, seemed crazy at the time. And nothing that has happened since has shown otherwise. Now, to be clear here, I understand that there’s seldom a perfect way to do anything in politics, and that no matter what any government – or minister – might do, there will be someone on hand straight away to say why they should have done the opposite. That, unfortunately, is the way of politics in general, and certainly in Ireland.


Moreover, when it came to the easing of restrictions, it’s perfectly understandable that a phased approach had to be taken, and that whatever such approach was decided upon, it would end up with some group or section of society having to bring up the rear. A phased approach makes sense. But a phased approach could still have included all stakeholders to some extent. 


What this situation has also revealed – laid bare in no uncertain terms, in fact – is that politicians – for the most part, there have been some exceptions – simply have no idea how the music or ‘live’ events sector. It’s not a matter of turning a key, opening a door, and hey presto…back in business, back to normal all in one move. There are very, very few music or ‘live’ events of any nature that happen without the need for a lot of advance planning. A lot of planning from a lot of people. Artists, their management team, their PR team, venues, sound and lighting experts, ticket outlets, and more. Everything needs to be coordinated on multiple levels. 


To be able to plan ahead, you need to be able to see ahead. And yet, as I write this, with September only a couple of sunsets away, no line of vision on a return to normality for the music or ‘live’ events sectors has even been hinted at in any detail, let alone laid out in black and white. 


For a profession so fond of hiring advisors, the ability of most politicians to communicate is worse than abysmal. A politician’s job, no matter what anyone says or thinks, is incredibly tough. There’s no doubt about that. Yes, they’re well-rewarded, but most of the people who only or primarily focus on that fact wouldn’t put up with the abuse that comes with the job for even a day. And to be fair, if they tried working as a councillor, a TD, or a minister for a week, they’d quickly find out that most in those roles – most…not all – more than earn their living. And that’s across the board, politicians of all parties and none.


A quick word on abuse, while we’re here. While frustration and anger, and a lot of other emotions are all understandable given where we are in this time of Covid, and everything that we’ve already had to deal with and come through, resorting to name-calling – sometimes in a way that’s really vile, vicious, and completely unnecessary – is not to be condoned. That’s just bad manners, childish, reflects extremely badly on those who do it, and it helps absolutely no-one in any way at all. Anybody who acts like that, regardless of who they are, doesn’t deserve to be a part of finding any way through this. 


However, there are many things that politicians could so easily do to make their own lives easier, and the lives of their constituents better. Communication is top of that list.  And right up there with it, is respect. And respect is not shown to anyone by running a so-called ‘pilot’ concert in a way that precisely zero events without further government funding could ever run in the real world. And respect is not shown by overseeing a grants process that sees several artists awarded more than one, while hundreds more received no help at all. That is not respect. Of course it was impossible to make sure that everyone who applied for funding of some kind got something that would help them. But what was always completely within the power of those who ran that operation to control, was making sure that no-one received multiple grants. Simple. 


Anyway, respect is what takes me right back to my opening point, that how little this government thought of the arts was evident from the moment the Green Party’s Catherine Martin was tasked with heading up a department that included six portfolios; tourism, culture, arts, the Gaeltacht, sport, AND media. 


Now, as far as Minister Martin herself is concerned, I admire her for having the courage to take on such a workload, and I have nothing but sympathy for the mess that she’s found herself at the centre of as far as the return to normality of the music and ‘live’ events sector goes. Even at the best of times, in a ‘normal’ Covid-less world, Catherine Martin would still have only twenty-four hours in her day, and seven days in her week, all to be divided between the six different portfolios for which her department has ultimate responsibility. Even at that, her task is monumental. Throw in Covid and its complexities, and it’s not just one magic wand she’d need, it’s a new one for every hour of every day of every week! 


The gov.ie website currently lists eighteen official government departments, and only one really comes close to Catherine Martin’s in terms of the spread of its duties, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, overseen by Minister Roderic O’ Gorman, although there are clearly more obvious links between each of those. There are some departments, which, understandably and for obvious reasons, must stand alone. Health, Foreign Affairs, and Justice. But surely, back when this government was being negotiated, more thought and care could have been given to the overall balance of things? I, for one, believe so. And have done for a long time. The madness and mayhem of the mess that has been the government’s treatment of the music and ‘live’ events sectors over the last number of months have only served to reaffirm that belief. 


So, what could have been done differently then, back when this government was formed? What would have given Minister Catherine Martin a fighting chance of representing artists and musicians with all of her might, which I genuinely believe she has always sincerely wanted to do? Well, let’s have a look…


The Department of Transport, as important as it is, could surely handle something else too. Tourism, perhaps? And do we still really need a Department of Finance AND a Department of Public Expenditure and Reform? Make them one! And, would not the Department of Rural and Community Development be a fitting and natural home for the care of the Gaeltacht as well? These questions give us somewhere to start from. 

With the Department of Finance becoming the Department of Finance, Public Expenditure, and Reform, that immediately frees up one department. The portfolios of Higher and Further Education should also come under the watch of the Department of Education, full-stop. That would mean that we then have a stand-alone Department of Research, Innovation, and Science. From the burden that rests on Catherine Martin’s shoulders right now, let’s actually go ahead and move Tourism to the Department of Transport seeing it become the Department of Transport and Tourism. As mentioned earlier, have the Department of Rural and Community Development become the Department of Rural and Community Development and the Gaeltacht. Now, Catherine Martin is left with just Arts, Culture, Sports, and Media in her charge. But, we’re not done here yet…


By making the Department of Finance become the Department of Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, we freed up a department. This can now become the new Department of Sports and Media, taking two more briefs away from Minister Martin. A possible step further even, make it the Department of Sports, Media, and Communication, leaving us with a Department of Environment and Climate as well, because that’s a portfolio that will certainly need as much time as possible devoted to the growing challenges it will continue to face in the years to come. 


And we’re not done even at that, because there’s one more move which would also make sense in two ways. If we take Heritage from the current Department of Housing and Local Government and Heritage, and move it to what Catherine Martin still has on her desk, we end up with a Department of Housing andLocal Government (and as with a Department of Environment and Climate, a Department of Housing and Local Government will have more than enough on its plate!), while Minister Martin heads up our Department of Arts, Culture, and Heritage. 

To my mind, this paints a much more balanced overall picture. But crucially for the music and ‘live’ events sectors, Minister Martin would, right from the get-go, have been in a significantly better position to champion these sectors. There’s just no question about that. Her workload and areas of responsibility would have been literally cut in half. The time and energy that she’s had to put into dealing with the tourism, Gaeltacht, sports, and media briefs since taking office could all have been devoted to her efforts on behalf of the music and ‘live’ events sector, as part of her Arts, Culture, and Heritage brief. There’s no way in the world that this wouldn’t have made some difference to things, and perhaps even enough for these sectors to – at last – be looking beyond Covid. 


So why would any government in its right mind even attempt to wedge six portfolios – each one so important in its own right, let me stress that again – into the department of one single minister? 
Well, it has to be said that the answer looks simple enough at this stage. For those of us who work in the music and ‘live’ events sectors, the problem isn’t just that this government has been acting like it doesn’t care right now. It’s that now, at last, maybe it’s becoming clearer to see that they never really cared at all. 
This government has already sanctioned the return to Croke Park of 40,000 fans for the All-Ireland hurling final. At the time of writing, public transport is set to return to full capacity next week (from Monday, August 30th), and schools are also due to reopen, if they haven’t already done so. But the music and ‘live’ events sectors? Still waiting on a ‘road-map.’ 


Just to be clear as well, very few who work in or are involved in the music or ‘live’ events sectors have any problem at all with the return of crowds to Croke Park or any other sporting occasions in large numbers, if it can happen safely. No problem at all. More luck to all involved. The point is, the exact same thing could already have been happening – in some shape or form – for concerts, festivals, and theatre too, as well as smaller ‘live’ music occasions. And the fault for that not being so, for this delay, and the embarrassing absence of clear communication on all of this, lies, ultimately, with the government. Not with Nphet as some would like us to believe. Throughout this whole pandemic, Nphet have been doing their job, which is just to advise the government. The final call rests with the government. 


And that’s who thought it was a good idea to ask one minister to take on the portfolios of the arts, culture, tourism, the Gaeltacht, sports, and the media in the first place. Those same decision makers are why the music and ‘live’ events sectors are still waiting on a ‘road-map’ instead of being well down the road to some kind of normality again. 

~ This week’s column can also be enjoyed in full at the official OTRT website, www.ontherighttrax.com 

ENDS

Olivia Burke

First Published July 2021

“MUSIC IS COMMUNICATION”

It’s been a while – too long, in fact – since we last had a new reason to enjoy the glorious voice of OLIVIA BURKE. But thankfully that all changed last Friday with the release of her brand new single, YOU’RE ALIVE. A superb songwriter in her own right, You’re Alive sees Olivia take on the role of artist only, as she brings this Keith McLoughlin and Grace Day penned creation to life. 


We had the pleasure of catching up with Olivia last week on the night before You’re Alive officially entered the world, and we kicked off our chat with her explaining how she became involved in this project…


“Well I’ve known Keith for a good few years, he does a radio show on the station Dublin South FM, and I’ve done a couple of interviews and performances on the show. And we just stayed in contact. So Keith wrote that song with Grace, and I believe they did most of it over Facebook video-calls, because obviously with the pandemic and everything they weren’t able to do it in person. Then they passed it onto me and asked would I be interested in singing it. The  minute I heard the song I said yeah, it’s definitely something I’d like to be involved in. I just thought it was really catchy, there’s just kind of a good vibe around it in general. After that, I got involved in the pre-production side of things, and took part in some of those video-calls with Grace and Keith, along with Rohan from Beardfire Studios who produced the track.” 

From the time Olivia first heard a version of You’re Alive, to the finished product that we were all about to hear a few hours after she and I spoke, how much did her involvement change the song? 


“The melody mostly stayed the same, the lyrics and the chords stayed the same. There were a couple of bits, little sections, that were shortened and things like that, instrumentally, when we went into the studio. Over the video-calls, we all had a lot of input in picking out songs that would be good reference tracks, to the point where we were actually listening to tracks and saying do ya know what, we like the drums out of this track, and then listening to something else and liking the guitar out of that. It was a very focused approach to it in that regard. When I did hear it first, though, it was only an acoustic demo with Grace singing and playing guitar. So we did, we changed it a lot. One thing led to another. When we were discussing it we said we might take it a more pop route instead of going acoustic country with it. Although it still has those nuances to it, it’s definitely more kind of radio-friendly…although country and acoustic would be as well…I don’t know, it’s more universal, I suppose? Just because it is hitting the pop scene.” 

I’ve known about Olivia for a good few years already, and always as being a songwriter herself. So I was wondering, with something like this, where she was coming on-board as a vocalist, was it her first time doing that? And if it was, what was her reaction to being asked? 


“Yeah, absolutely, my first time doing anything like this. I went and studied music for four years in college, in BIMM in Dublin, so I was doing a lot of collaboration, but nothing to this level, but just playing with other people and performing original music from other people. And I really enjoyed that collaborative side of it. So when I heard Keith and Grace’s song, I knew I liked it, and that it was something that I’d like to be a part of. I was absolutely delighted to be a part of it. Of course, it was kind of a different experience, coming at it from the perspective of a songwriter. But I thought the song was great, so in that sense, it wasn’t something that felt too far out of my comfort zone just because I’d been used to playing with other people over the last couple of years.” 

So as an artist who is also a songwriter, what was Olivia’s approach to getting ‘inside’ the words of other writers? 


“I think music is a form of communication, more so than anything else. And you really want to communicate with the listener and get the message across. So I suppose I took the same approach as I would to a cover-song, when I was thinking about how to approach the emotion in it. Because you need to connect with whoever’s listening to it. I spent a lot of time reading the lyrics and trying to come about those emotions in my mind, the ones the song was representing for me, and trying to convey that in the way I sang it. In the studio recording it, I think we took three vocal takes for the main vocal. And every time Rohan was pushing me to put more emotion into it! [Laughs]. He’d be saying, you did great in this line conveying the emotion, now push it for the next line. And it worked in the end. In a way, there is a bit of drama to it, I suppose [laughs]. It’s a bit like acting in a way, isn’t it.” 

Was Olivia able to link the lyrics to something in her own life to make that personal connection, or was it – as she had just said – more a case of acting it out? 


“I think in a way, all lyrics – even when it comes to ones I write myself – you want to make them universal so that it’s something that everyone can relate to. But at the same time, this song deals with the feelings around the end of a relationship, or a friendship, and drawing parallels between that and the feelings of grief if you’ve actually lost a loved one for any reason, death, or if they’ve moved away for some reason. So I suppose they are things that I would relate to, but also that everyone would relate to as well. Although it’s a personal song, it’s not very specific. So I was able to approach it from my perspective as well.” 

As Olivia had mentioned, she’s just finished four years studying Commercial Modern Music and Songwriting at BIMM in Dublin. So I asked her to tell me about her time there and what it’s set her up for next in her career…


“Well, first off, I had an absolutely amazing experience there. I’ve been slow with releases and everything the last couple of years just because I’ve been trying to focus on that, and wanting to make the most of my time there. I’ve made amazing connections with other musicians that I know will be life-long friendships, and life-long musical partnerships, hopefully. Covid has put a bit of a spanner in the works because it’s harder to collaborate with people and work with people. BIMM is so great because they teach you about the business side of it [the music industry] and the law side of it. I feel like, as a musician – when all you want to do is play, and write music – you push that more practical side of it to the back of your mind. In the sense of what you need to do marketing-wise, business-wise, what you need to know about the legalities of it all. So learning about all of that, as well as being able to perform, was absolutely amazing. We all like to think that as musicians we’ll be in a position where one day we’ll have people dealing with all that kind of stuff for us [laughs]. But at the same time, I think it’s good to actually have a base in all of it, and know what you’re talking about, and what’s right and what’s wrong. If you’re offered, let’s say, a contract or something like that, to know that you’re not getting screwed over, basically [laughs]. But it was a great experience, and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough for musicians, or anyone else interested in the music business in general, because you learn so much. It was four or five days a week, four years, so a level-eight course, so a proper bachelor’s degree. Which is unusual in itself for a music course which is so modern. As you know, in Ireland most courses are related to Irish music or classical music. So it was really cool, even though it wasn’t all just sitting around and playing music. Even though that would have been great! [Laughs].” 

So when did the thought of going to BIMM first come into Olivia’s head? Was it always her plan for after secondary school? 


“Absolutely! I think when I was in third-year, or transition-year, I heard about it for the first time, and I knew that was definitely what I wanted to do. There were obviously other things I was interested in school, but I said ya know what, I want to go and pursue my passion, and see what comes of it. I believe when I was filling out the C.A.O. form that was the only thing that I actually had written down [laughs], I was just banking everything on that! [Laughs].” 

So now that Olivia has completed her four years in BIMM, how will everything that she’s learned, as well as all of the relationships and connections she’s made, help to lead her into this next stage of her career? 


“Well, I’ve found a new love in music, in production. I love producing music now. A lot of that was through BIMM and what they’ve taught us in relation to demos, and different software to make demos. A lot of the assignments on the course I did would be submitting portfolios of songs. I released a single in May called ‘Anybody Else’ that I self-produced, and just recorded at home. And I have other stuff that I’m working on and I’m hoping to bring out. So it’s benefited me in that way, especially at the minute because even with the worry of Covid, it means that I can still get music out without having to go and record somewhere else, ya know. And it makes it easier to show people your ideas, if you’re able to throw something together at home and say look, this is what I’m thinking of. Rather than trying to explain yourself and maybe not being able to find the words. Music, as I said, it’s a lot about communication. And that comes down to working with other people as well. And BIMM has been great for giving me that knowledge, to be able to show people what I’d like to do.” 

Olivia is still only twenty-two, but even six years ago, at just sixteen, she released her debut EP, Notes On My Napkin. I remember being at that launch in Hugh Lynch’s in Tullamore, and being blown away by just how special a talent Olivia already was, even at that very, very early stage of her career. But to end up with an EP at just sixteen, means her writing career itself began even earlier…


“Ah, thanks so much! [Laughs]. Yeah, I started writing when I was just a kid. I always loved music. I was writing songs that were basically rip-offs of Britney Spears songs [laughs]. I’d take whatever I heard on the radio and try and make something [else] of it. But when I was about twelve, I think, I learned how to play the guitar. I started writing lyrics then, and I’ve been at it ever since. It’s second nature to me now at this stage, I suppose.” 

Staying with Olivia’s writing, and her time at BIMM, I wanted to know how much that had helped to change, or develop, her approach to songwriting. By ‘changed’, I wondered if her approach now was completely different to when she first went to BIMM four years ago. And by ‘developed’, I wondered if her approach was perhaps the same, only now honed much closer to perfection…


“I think it’s a bit of both, to be honest. Because I would look at songwriting in a different sense [now], because I’m well-aware of all the theory around it, the practicalities of it, and the things that are in place that songwriters have been doing for years. Even taking thematic approaches to songs rather than just writing down lyrics that come to my head straight away. I don’t think my approach has necessarily changed, because I’ve always been someone who would write lyrics, melody, and music at the same time. But I definitely feel like I’ve become a more rounded songwriter. I can write songs now from other peoples’ perspectives as well, or about things I haven’t necessarily gone through myself. I think things like that are always positives for a writer. And as well as that, the practise of having to write songs specifically for briefs and assignments, has pushed me more. But in my mind, it’s always going to be quality over quantity anyway, so if I go through a bit of writer’s block, sure that’s all part of it [laughs].” 

Olivia had briefly mentioned Covid earlier in our chat. I was wondering how it might have affected her life – not being able to perform, not being able to see people, all of that – and in turn, how that might have affected her writing? 


“Environmental factors are always, always going to be a part of it, whether you’re even conscious of it or not. But I think music has shifted to becoming more…emotional in a way, I suppose. People want a little bit more substance to lyrics instead of just easy-listening on the radio. Not to say that stuff from the last couple of years isn’t good or anything [laughs], I love listening to pop music. But I think people want stories right now. With Covid, because it is such a universal thing, honing in to those emotions and those feelings that everyone has known; being stuck at home, or feeling a bit lost, that’s something a writer can use to try and connect with people a little bit more than maybe they could before. Because there is that solidarity about what we’ve all been going through.” 

With You’re Alive due out only hours after we spoke, I asked Olivia what the rest of 2021 looked like holding in store for her…


“Well I’m hoping that as soon as things start to open back up for ‘live’ music that I’ll be out doing open-mics and stuff back in Dublin, and hopefully a few gigs. I’m working on a new single that will hopefully be coming out at the end of August as well, called ‘Graves’, which is an original. So hopefully that will be out around the end of August, early September, I’m not entirely sure yet. But that’s another self-produced one. There’s a lot of ‘hopefully’ involved in looking ahead right now [laughs]. ‘Graves’ is a song I wrote when I was in my first year in college, it’s about people using different vices to survive in life, whether that’s drugs, alcohol, toxic relationships, that kind of thing. It’s a song about self-sabotage. It’s written as a love song. It’s an interesting one, it’s an interesting one [laughs]. I’ll be sticking with the pop route, but it’ll be a little bit heavier than ‘You’re Alive’, but still radio-friendly. More Billie Eilish than any country kinda vibes! It’s a little bit more hip-hop inspired, I suppose.” 

If Olivia wrote Graves in her first year in college, four years ago, does that mean that she probably holds onto a lot of songs for a long time? Until she feels the time is finally right to finish them and send them out into the world?


“Absolutely. There’s songs that I’ve written six and seven years ago that I’d be happy recording and releasing now. But at the same time, the last single that I released back in May, ‘Anybody Else’, I only wrote that one over the pandemic. And it was to do with what we were just talking about, those feelings of loneliness, grief, and everything people were feeling over lockdown. Feeling a bit detached from yourself, ya know. I wrote that and released it very quickly afterwards. So it just depends really. I’m only getting to a stage now where I feel confident enough with my production to actually release things properly. So I have a lot of things built up. Folders upon folders of lyrics and songs that I’d like to get out into the world. Look, it’ll be a long time before they’re all out there [laughs], but hopefully we’ll get there someday!” 

YOU’RE ALIVE, the brand NEW single from OLIVIA BURKE (written by Keith McLoughlin and Grace Day), is OUT NOW, available on all digital platforms and to request from radio. 

ENDS

Stephen Travers

First Published June 2021

A GENT AND A GIANT

July 31st will mark the 46th anniversary of one of the darkest nights – in every meaning of that term – in Irish history. The Miami Showband Massacre. Even as a child, when hearing those words mentioned for the first time, without knowing any of the details, without having any context in which to place them, they chilled me to the bone. A showband? But they’re musicians, right? How could musicians become the victims of a massacre? And how could it happen here? In Ireland? It didn’t make any sense to me. 


It doesn’t make any sense now either, of course. Even less so now that I do know so many details, now that I realise the horrible, heartbreaking context. Nor did it make any sense on that summer’s night, not long after 2am almost five decades ago. What doesn’t make sense is HOW such an atrocity could be allowed to happen. How some people could actually sit down and plan for something like that to happen. How some people were prepared to live out the remainder of their own lives forever accompanied by the knowledge of what they had been part of. None of that makes sense. Nor will it ever. And it shouldn’t, because for it to do so, you’d need to have an understanding of evil that could only leave the darkest of imprints upon your soul.

 
However, we can understand WHAT happened on that night because – by the grace of God, surely – there were survivors. While Fran O’ Toole, Brian McCoy, and Tony Geraghty perished in a torrent of unprovoked violence, Des Lea and Tipperary man STEPHEN TRAVERS managed to escape the same fate. Getting to and revealing the truth about what unfolded on the Buskhill Road that night, as he and four of his famed and adored bandmates simply endeavoured to make the journey home from a show at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge, is something that Stephen has dedicated his life to. 


That work, and the events of the night of July 31st 1975 itself, are stories unto themselves, and they more than warrant any time and attention you can give them. A few years back, when Stephen was getting close to embarking on a nationwide promotional tour in relation to some projects in this regard, I had the pleasure of spending some time in conversation with him ahead of the announcement of those dates. However, as can happen from time to time, unforeseen circumstances lead to that tour being rearranged, and as a result, our chat was never published. 


But now, in honour of Stephen and the work he has done to make sure the truth about that night is known to all, and indeed, as a tribute to his fellow survivor Des Lea, and to his bandmates who never made it home – Fran O’ Toole, Brian McCoy, and Tony Geraghty – we are finally sharing that chat with our OTRT readers. So it is, ladies and gentlemen, our privilege to present this conversation with Stephen, not just an inspirational musician, but an inspirational human-being, and a gentleman of the highest order. 

When we spoke, I began by asking Stephen about how his own interest in music first began to arise and develop? 


“Well, I was born in 1951, so my formative years musically would have been the sixties. And they really only began in 1963 with the Beatles, with that whole musical and fashion explosion that happened. So that hit me right between the eyes when I was twelve years of age. There were an awful lot of young guys picking up guitars, and of course the showbands were there, so all of the stars aligned and came together and I decided to give it a go.” 

I wondered if there happened to be any one particular moment that hit Stephen right between the eyes and made him think, ‘Right, I know what I want to do with my life from here on…’? 


“There was actually. I was in school, and every year that school would put on an operetta. It was the Christian Brothers school in Carrick-on-Suir. They’d put on a show for all the parents. One of the lads in my class, a lad called Jim, his mother was actually a choreographer, and she came up to put us through our paces. I can’t remember what the name of the operetta was. Anyway, her son, Jim, had been learning drums, so she got him to bring along the snare drum. When he started to play it I was fascinated by the fact that a young kid of my own age could do this. And I thought, you know what, I’d like to do it as well because everybody was dancing to his tune as he was playing. I think it was ‘The March of the Toy Soldiers’, or ‘The March of the Tin Soldiers’, something like that. It involved the lads in the play marching around and doing their thing, and I was fascinated by it.” 

Stephen mentioned the fact that so many people were picking up guitars back in the sixties. It happened to be the bass guitar that he reached for himself. I wondered if there was a particular reason for his choice? 


“Yeah, my schoolmates had formed a little group, they had about two years start on me. I had a guitar at home that I never bothered with, but I went to hear them rehearsing and I was fascinated that they were playing The Shadows and the Beatles, and all that kind of stuff. And they said to me, ya know we need a bass player? I didn’t really know what a bass player was, but I found out pretty quickly! [Laughs]. At that time, a bass guitar would have had four strings, so I thought well this will be easy enough! But that’s not the case! Anyway, I started to play bass, and happily it was MY instrument, ya know. It’s the one that, to this day, I love to learn more and more about all the time, even though now I play a five and a seven-string bass. I just love it. And then, of course, Paul McCartney I consider to be the greatest bass player that ever walked the face of the Earth. He was such a cool character. So it was no problem playing bass in a band! If it was good enough for him, then it was good enough for me.”

Stephen joined the Miami Showband when he was about twenty-four, and they were already massive at that stage. Was becoming a member like landing a dream-job, or as a musician, was it just another job, albeit, a pretty cool one all the same? 


“I had served my time in country bands, and what they called big bands, jazz bands. From day one I was very interested in blues and jazz. Of course, the only game in town if you wanted to earn a living was – back in the late sixties – country, when it began to become very big, as it is today. That’s when I went and joined a country band called The Cowboys. One of the lads that had been in the earlier group, Gay Brazel, later went on to become the band leader with Tweed, he was in The Cowboys. And Billy Byrne, my friend. So I learned my chops, learned my trade in bands like The Cowboys and in school, in young beat groups and that. But when you need to earn a living, or buy a new car, or put a deposit on a house, you join a showband. So I set my sights on the one that was going to pay me the most money! I got a call from The Miami Showband in September 1974, to ask me if I’d like to go up and meet them to talk about joining. As it turned out, I didn’t join them. I waited until the end of May 1975, and I took the job then. I quickly realised that these guys were phenomenal musicians. Tony Geraghty on guitar, it was arguable whether he was more influential than Gary Moore when he was playing in his rock days. He had gone and joined a showband because he was getting married, and the usual thing, he wanted to buy a car and a house. Fran O’ Toole, I think everybody knew, was one of the most sensational vocalists as well as being an incredible keyboard player, a great jazz player. So when I joined, it was a bit of a reality check that I was among guys who were every bit as good – if not better! – than myself. This wasn’t just about joining a band to earn a few quid. It was an honour to play with these guys.”

I didn’t want to get into what happened to Stephen and his bandmates in the Miami in July of 1975 without first showing the courtesy and respect of asking if that was something he would be comfortable talking about. I knew it was something he’d been asked to talk about on countless occasions before, and regardless of how much detail any of those conversations might go into, even going back in time to that fateful night to any degree must bring with it memories that none of us will ever be able to comprehend. Displaying the generosity of spirit for which he has always been known, however, Stephen agreed. 


What happened on that July night almost fifty years ago now, changed the course of Irish music history. I don’t think there’s anyone who doubts that. I asked Stephen how he thought Irish music would have developed had that tragic night not come to pass…


“Just referring to what you said there at the beginning of your question, that night didn’t just change Irish music history. In fact, it had very little effect, a temporary effect, on Irish music history. But it changed Irish history [itself]. And the reason being was that it was an attempt by a neighbouring, so-called friendly government, to influence Irish politics. They felt that security was lax on the southern side of the border, so they set up a plan – a brilliant plan, even though it was evil – to make it look as if all innocent Irish people should be suspects. And had they succeeded in doing that, the whole world would have shrugged its shoulders and said let the British deal with the Irish whatever way they want to now, because every one of them is a potential terrorist. So had we been successfully framed as terrorists when they attempted – unbeknownst to us – to put a bomb in our van, nobody would have known about the road-block, and we subsequently would have blown up fifteen minutes down the road, and been accused of being terrorists. So thankfully, Des Lee – or Des McAlea, as his real name is – and I survived to tell what happened, [because] that had the potential to turn Ireland into another Gaza. Our young people, instead of having a friendly nod from Immigration in Australia or wherever, as they do now, had we been successfully framed as terrorists, then like the Palestines today our young Irish people would be called aside at every airport, or searched vigorously or whatever. So that was a massive, massive thing to happen. So it’s wrong to think that it was just something that happened to a band, or a small story. And this was pointed out to me when we were doing the screenplay of the movie by a world renowned director. He said, ‘This is not just a story of a local band, and a local terrorist attack. This is an international crime.'” 

“Apart from that”, Stephen continued, “from the musical aspect of things, it caused a temporary lock-down, a close-down, as George Jones, the musician and broadcaster in the north said [at the time], ‘You look at a ballroom and expect to see tumbleweed.’ As to the development of Irish music, the showbands had had their day. When I joined the Miami, it was called The Miami, it wasn’t actually called The Miami Showband. They had shortened it, they didn’t want to lose the value of the name. But it was more a pop group than anything else. Along with a number of other bands, the Miami was writing its own material. I think the Miami is probably the link between the old and the new. We’re frozen in history for this. Fran would have gone on to be a singer/songwriter in America, because it was planned to take him out to America. I think he would have perhaps written for lots of other people. Because he wasn’t a kid anymore, he was twenty-eight, and that in the pop business – even then – was getting on a bit. So I think he and Des would have concentrated on their writing. Tony Geraghty and I would have formed a jazz/rock group, I think.” 

Stephen had mentioned the screenplay of the movie about his life, upon which pre-production had begun at the time we were speaking. I asked him how that project was progressing, and, on a project like that, how involved does Stephen himself get to be? Or at what point does he have to hand over artistic control of what happens? 


“Well, I was very careful with that. We’ve been doing this now for five years. And that in itself, apparently, isn’t too long when it comes to the making of a movie, I believe. Great films like ‘Lincoln’, and other Oscar winners recently, have taken up to ten, eleven years to make. But we had the screenplay done almost three years ago now. When we met with some directors from Hollywood to talk about it, we became aware that it was much more than just a local event, so we went back to the drawing-board. About last September, we finished that screenplay, and now they’re all very, very happy with it. They’re now in that phase that’s pre pre-production really, because the finance is together now and a lot of other things. So we expect to be full hammer-and-tongs at it within the next two or three months. And hopefully it will be filmed. The actual filming of any movie only takes about six weeks, that’s the short part. It’s all the work that goes on before and after it. With regard to artistic license, that was something I was very careful of. I have a great responsibility to the truth, and for the portrayal of the lads. This is one of the reasons that we asked the producers to do everything in their power to keep this an independent movie. What they call an independent movie, rather than handing it over to a studio. Because once you do that, then you don’t have any control over it. Whereas in an independent movie, and because I was part of the screenwriting team, I have an official credit, which means I can remain on-set and can keep an eye on things and make sure they don’t lose the run of themselves and make it into something that we’ll find either objectionable or embarrassing.” 

I wondered if Stephen still taught bass guitar, as he did for a while?


“I did, I was a bad teacher! I expected people to know what I knew. Whereas a good teacher doesn’t have to be a great player, but is somebody who’s methodical. Having said that, I had some great students. One in particular stands out, which I just recall now as we mention it. John Walsh, the original bass player with Stockton’s Wing. John would have been a star pupil for me. And also I had some very interesting encounters with Aubrey Oaki from the Hugh Masekela band, called Kalahari, that I met in the UK. He would teach me a lot about Africian music. His guitar player, in fact, is the same guy that you see on the Graceland tour with Paul Simon. I would teach him jigs and reels on the bass, would you believe! This was at a time when he was recording with Peter Gabriel, who left Genesis and did the thing with Kate Bush. So Aubrey would leave the studio and we’d meet up and trade licks and all that. So, apart from teaching, there’s still an awful lot to learn about bass guitar for me. As I say, the great master will be there every time I turn on a Beatles number, when I hear the immaculate playing of Paul McCartney. He’s just a man who knows the right note to put in the right place. I have great heroes as well, people like James Jamerson that did all the Motown music, and Joe Osborn that did all of the early American California stuff by the Carpenters. Just beautiful people, beautiful bass players. I’ll teach, but I learn as well. I learn far more than I teach now.” 

Given the journey that Stephen has travelled in his life and music career, I couldn’t possibly have brought our chat to a close without asking him if there was any advice he’d pass on to someone who might be starting out in the music business today. Were there any words of wisdom that had always stood him in good stead? 


“Yeah, play with guys that are better than you. It’s difficult if you join a band and you’re all starting off at the same time. Because you’re only going to progress at the same speed as the slowest person in the band. This is one of the great tragedies that the showbands aren’t around anymore because it was the best apprenticeship that you could possibly get. I remember, for instance, when I joined the Mick Delahunty Junior Orchestra. His father was Mick Delahunty Senior, and he was a very famous band leader. But when Mick Junior started the band, he had the cream of his father’s band when he retired and all of these guys were much, much older than me. I learned more from these fellas than you could if you went to university. These guys were street-wise. They knew every twist and turn that it took to be a professional musician. They were fabulous players, world class. Young fellas should beg, borrow, or steal an opportunity to get into a band with seasoned musicians, or guys who know more than them. And learn from them. The other thing would be to play a pure style. Something like country or blues or reggae, something like that that teaches you what a bass guitar actually does. As opposed to learning gratuitous sort of riffs from rock or pop numbers. To learn the basics is very important. And I suppose finally, learn how to read music, that will definitely stand to ya in good stead.” 

~ The documentary, Remastered: The Miami Showband Massacre, is available on Netflix. 

ENDS

Eímear Noone

First Published December 2020

A BRIDGE FROM IRELAND TO THE WORLD

Part 2

It’s a rare privilege indeed to have the honour of interviewing someone who you know – without even the slightest shadow of a doubt – has already written themselves into the cultural and artistic history of your country. And make no mistake about it, Galway woman EÍMEAR NOONE, one of the world’s most esteemed, respected, and phenomenally talented conductors and composers, has done just that. And in no small way, either. 


Eímear is many things, all of them fuelled by a fierce passion, a soul that has the deep, instinctual wisdom of many lifetimes, and a creative spirit that is in constant, poetic motion. In time, when her name graces the pages of histories of Ireland, it won’t be reserved simply to the sections on culture, art, music, or entertainment, although none of those will truly be complete without acknowledging her impact on and legacy in all of those areas. 


Eímear Noone is a trailblazer. A pioneer. A leader. A teacher. A superhero who walks among us, as one of us, but as an inspiration to all of us. She is, as I pointed out when Part 1 of our chat was published back at the beginning of November, a real-life Wonder Woman. Her gift to Irish society as a whole, but especially to young girls and women of all ages, will be deep and lasting. It will, I’m sure, provide the spark that ignites passions and the self-belief and faith that weaves a fearlessness to be worn as armour around the heart for dreamers to come who will either whisper to themselves or scream at the top of their lungs: “Eímear Noone did it! So I can, too!” 


Perhaps the most brilliant of all the many brilliant things about Eímear Noone, however, is that she carries this destiny as if it were  but a feather upon her shoulder. 


Never, for a moment, believe that ridiculous myth so often rehashed that just because someone might possess a fantastic talent in some particular area, that it gives them free-license to be rude, or disrespectful, or ignorant, or arrogant in any other areas of their life. It does not. Anyone with some great talent but who is also all or any of those other things, is just an nasty human being with their talent being perhaps their one redeeming feature.


Eímear, however, from the village of Kilconnell in the land of the Tribes, perfectly balances the brilliance of her musical gifts with a generosity of spirit and a humanity so wonderful that it slays forever the myth referred to above. We’re all flawed in our own ways, but those who possess a capacity for genius that carries within it the force of a supernova, can also be human beings whose capacity to bring light, laughter, love, and kindness to others is potentially endless. And this we know in large part because Eímear Noone walks the earth, among us, and as one of us, while inspiring each of us to be more, be better, be authentic.  


Today, Part 2 of our chat begins by taking us back to 2011, when Eímear put together a St. Patrick’s Day concert in L.A. called This Is Ireland. Given the monumental amount of work that goes into putting on any ‘live’ event, I’m sure this is something she wouldn’t have done without a genuine love of her country. But Eímear has also spoken about how at the start of her career, she “couldn’t even get a chance to screw up in Ireland.” And remarkably – and somewhat disturbingly – how one lecturer in Trinity College even referred to her once as, ‘Little Miss No-One.’ If Eímear was beginning her career in Ireland today, I wondered if she thought the country had grown up enough to love her back in a far more positive way than back then? And also, did she think she would be afforded those chances – to even screw up – today? 


“Well, I’m excited to do some things at home soon. We just released a film called Two By Two: Overboard!, and we recorded the score here in Dublin, and it was just an absolute blast to do it here at home. There were players in the orchestra that I haven’t seen since music college, ya know. It was just way too much fun. It was a massive, massive dose of positivity, and I loved every second of it. And I do have some concerts coming up here that I’m excited about, but I can’t really speak about because they’re a moving target at this point [laughs]. But I see a lot of wonderful green-shoots [in Ireland]. I see a lot of old attitudes being dropped. They’re just not appropriate in 2020. And the other thing is, I’ve been very frank about these things because I feel like the younger ones coming up behind me, by me being vocal about it…it’s not a weirdness or a bitterness or anything like that. I look back on these things with a kind of curiosity at this point, because they almost feel like they’re something out of a movie. I’ve been vocal about how inappropriate those things are. When I told my brother about that lecturer saying, ‘Well if it isn’t Little Miss No-One’, my brother goes, ‘Well No-One’s perfect!’ [laughs]. And I was thinking well why weren’t you there?! [laughs]. So I can joke about it. Everything like that, I’ve always turned it into a joke or a gag, because it’s so ridiculous. I’d be initially stung by it, but then I’d go, well hang on a sec. This is just mental! So I’m vocal about it purley so that the ones coming up behind me, when they find slings and arrows coming their way, they know they can say that’s inappropriate. Or just that it’s irrelevant! I was told that I didn’t have a chance at a career because of my gender. And someone from The Irish Times asked me that recently, what would I say to a young woman who was told that today. And I said, actually, you can’t tell that to a young Irish woman today! Because there are already a few of us out there doing it. So it’s no longer relevant [to say something like that]. And that’s wonderful, where something like that is no longer relevant, or has no basis in fact. It never did have any basis in fact. Those are energy-drains to me, those kinds of things. They drain a creative person’s energy. And that’s not helpful to anybody. That’s not helpful to the audience. You want a young artist putting their energy into creating beautiful things for the audience. By draining their creative energy, that’s just a complete waste of energy on every level.” 


Eímear continued, “Now I have to say there are certain things that I love that are happening in Ireland right now. I absolutely love that the National Concert Hall has a female conductor’s program, which I’m very proud to be a part of. They have a wonderful colleague of mine, Alice Farnham, they brought her in to set up the program. I’m thrilled about that. And also, I have to say IMRO does amazing work, and Screen-Skills Ireland in terms of preparing people to work in films and video games. We have some amazing groups of people doing wonderfully positive work  here. And I’m getting to know more about that since we came home. We came home for a year so that I could do all my European tours, but also to work on that Irish animated film, Two By Two: Overboard! I became reacquainted with the industry here, especially in the world of animation in Ireland. It’s just stunning what people are coming out with, the level that they’re creating at. I feel like the attitudes in the music world are changing. I feel like we need a bigger platform to get the work of female Irish singer/songwriters out there onto the world stage. I feel like that’s an area that needs a big kick in the pants. Because you’re no longer competing in Ireland, you’re competing with the whole world. When I’m in L.A., I see my colleagues from Finland and Iceland and they have such a massive presence for their population size. But they definitely work together to build together a bridge from home to the world for their artists, in a very consolidated way, and a very targeted way. It’s absolutely amazing, the kind of penetration they have in both arts and entertainment. I feel like we have more of that in the film industry, than we do in the music industry at large. And that’s not the fault of the music industry, it’s that the music industry as a whole has been taking a massive hit since the early 2000s, so it’s a smaller industry in general for us to play in.” 

Eímear had mentioned in her answer to my previous question the people who would be coming up behind her, and that reminded me of something she had said about Oscars producers Stephaine Allain and Lynette Howell-Taylor. She said, “They’re amazing producers and when they’re having their moment in the sun, they’re reaching back to pull somebody else up – like me – and then I have my arm out for someone else, and that’s a chain of events that they’ve set in motion.” One of those for whom Eimear has reached out her arm, bringing her and her work to an even wider audience, is the incredible Irish designer, Claire Garvey. I asked Eímear to tell me about the connection she and Claire share…


“Claire and I met through a photographer friend called Frances Marshall, he specialises in photographing classical musicians. She just felt that we’d hit it off. At the time, I was sort of sick of the black jacket, I wanted to do something better. Especially for video game audiences, half the audience were showing up looking like they were going on stage! And here I was, I just didn’t feel like I was doing enough to meet the support that they were giving me. So I wanted to do something extra. And also I wanted to break out as an artist. I wanted to express who I am on the inside as well. So I met Claire, and we just hit it off instantly. She has a way of getting into my mind that is just a little bit scary [laughs]. So we’ve worked together many times over the last few years, so much so that when I got the call about the Oscars – after letting my mother know – the next person I called was Claire Garvey! I was like, ‘Claire, we’re going to the Oscars!’ [laughs]. I really felt a responsibility to her work that when I was there – because basically what Claire creates is a piece of art – and I really, really felt that I was the stick inside the piece of Claire Garvey art walking on the red-carpet [laughs]. And we had this weird moment, Claire and I. I was talking to a producer friend in L.A., and my friend said, you know what, it has to be gold, you have to wear gold. And I’d never done that before. I don’t think I’ve ever worn anything gold in real-life. But my friend said, ‘No, no, no, it has to be. It’s a symbolic moment…’, and all of this, and she convinced me. And this is the thing that Claire always does with me, she pulls me a little bit more out of my shell all the time. Classical musicians, sometimes it’s hard for us to do that because we feel so much in service to the music. So I called Claire, and I said, ‘Claire, you’re gonna think this is a mad idea, but my friend Juliette said it has to be gold.’ And Claire started laughing on the phone, and she said, ‘I can’t wait to tell my husband!’ She said, ‘I’ve started it on a mannequin in the living-room…and it’s gold!’ So she had already picked that up from the universe, which is typical Claire. I brought my aunt Marian with me for the first fitting, and my aunt just put her hand to her mouth and gasped when she saw it. Claire had outdone herself again. It was just the right person, ya know. Designers were offering me things from all over the world, but this was the right person for this moment. It wasn’t because she was Irish, it wasn’t because she was a female designer. It was because she was the right designer for this exact moment for me. When I tried on her work, I felt like I could embody that moment. I felt strength from it. I felt strong when I was wearing it. And the other thing is that we’re both influenced by Grace O’ Malley. So there was a little bit of that in there as well! [laughs]. Claire is amazing. There’s only one Claire Garvey!” 

For Warcraft, Eímear created a piece called Malach, dedicated to her son Aaron, whom she sadly lost in 2012, and she described it as being, “the epic adventure he might have had”, a most beautiful and tender way of explaining Malach and why it came to be. I wondered if her work often presented the kind of space or opportunity to put as much of herself into what she creates as Eímear did with Malach?


“Well, I think, like a lot of creative people, I work through things. Through psychologically and emotional hurdles. I work through it in music. Artists from every discipline do this. Sometimes for me, it’s the only way I can work through it. One of the things that came up recently is for the film that we just did, there’s an end title song. And writing in lockdown, and creating in lockdown, was like trying to create with weights on. It was just so hard. The negativity around this awful pandemic, to any sensitive person it was overwhelming. I found that the end-titles song, the lyrics, all of it – everything pertained to the film and the story of the film – but every single line was about the situation that we were in as well. I’ll give you an example. And I can tell you because the film is out in the UK and it’s out in Germany, we’re waiting for the cinemas to open here. We have the beautiful Sibéal Ní Chasaide singing, and Frank McNamara on piano, and we have a music video to go with it. But the chorus goes, ‘When all around us has come undone/ Our dreams on hold, and our songs unsung/ We can’t go back to what we knew/ But I stand for hope when I stand with you.’ That last line is absolutely 100% inspired by us standing on the doorstep and clapping for our frontline workers. And for us, that was extra hilarious because we were out in the middle of the countryside and the only people who could hear us clapping were the crows in the trees! [laughs]. But we did it anyway. And that’s where that line for the song came from. Even the music video for it, for the big choruses, we couldn’t get a choir together. So I said to Moe Honan, the producer – our fearless leader [laughs] – I said, ‘Listen, why don’t we have everyone who worked on the film be the choir?’ So our choir is all our animators and their families, and our director and our producers. All of us that worked on the film, we all recorded ourselves at home with our families, and our dogs, and our babies, singing the chorus of the song. Because it really is a gift from us to everybody. We all went through the wringer to get it done, because getting locked-down delayed the film by months, of course. Strangely enough, the writers captured the spirit of the zeitgeist, and there’s this unbelievable correlation between the theme of the film and what’s going on right now. It’s incredibly hopeful and uplifting. It’s kind of one of those things where this giant metaphor is unmissable in the film, but it came before the pandemic, and before all of this political turmoil and the stuff that’s going on. The political turmoil in the U.S. of course, I mean. Yeah, that’s my way of working through what’s going on. And I couldn’t believe it took me like two days to write every line of the lyric. It was just so hard to create in that time. But then, I had this song, and every time I played it on the piano, I felt like I was expressing what I was going through, what I couldn’t really find the words to describe or adequately convey what I was thinking. But I worked it out in the song. It’s called ‘Stand For Hope.’ And the theme from the chorus is throughout the movie. When we were writing the score, myself and Craig [Stuart Garfinkle], my husband, I wrote this theme we called ‘The Hope Theme.’ And we didn’t know there was going to be a song at the end, it just came out of the Hope Theme. It was a very organic process. And then we called our beautiful friend Sibéal, who we’ve worked with since she was fifteen. And of course I called Claire…that’s just a hint, that’s all I’m gonna say [laughs]. She gets dragged into everything around here. But you’ll see everything when it comes out.”

One of the things I noticed when preparing for my chat with Eímear was that she says so many things that are worth paying attention to, and giving serious thought to. Again speaking in relation to the Oscars, Eímear had said recently, “Little girls everywhere will see this and say, ‘I think I’ll do that.’ And that’s what we want.” So, I put it to Eímear that she’s obviously aware of how big a role-model she is, and that being so, I asked her how does she carry the weight of that responsibility? 


“I think if you’re in the public domain, if you’re out there in public doing what you do, you have to be aware of the repercussions of how you carry yourself. It’s not that I want to be a role-model, or that I’m looking to be a role-model, nothing like that. It’s just about [having] an awareness of how you carry yourself in the public domain. When I was growing up…and I love the expression -which isn’t mine – ‘if you can see it, you can be it.’, and that’s especially poignant for me, because when I was growing up I couldn’t see anyone who looked like me doing what I wanted to do in Ireland, in my home country. And what I didn’t know, was that she had existed! And it wasn’t even that she’d been written out of history, but she hadn’t even been acknowledged in Irish music history in the way that I think she should have been. A woman called Alicia Adélaide Needham. I posted something on Facebook when I was putting together a program of women composers, and one of my brothers teachers from Garbally College in Ballinalsoe, Johnny Johnston, said ‘Don’t forget about Alicia Adélaide Needham’, and much to my shock, I had never heard of her! I thought have I just been completely blinkered, what is this?! So I asked some other composers that I know, and none of them had heard of her either. She was the first woman to conduct at the Royal Albert Hall, and she’s from Dublin. She won a massive international composition competition, that was championed by King George. But if I want to study her work, I have to go to Oxford to get a hold of it. So, all the while that I was growing up, there she was! And when I was told that I didn’t have a chance of a career because I was young, Irish, and female, I could have said well if Alicia Adélaide Needham did it as a suffragette in the early 20th century, why on Earth wouldn’t I do it now? But I couldn’t say that, because I didn’t know she existed. And that really hits me in the heart. So being out there, and being visible, is important purely because I don’t want that to ever happen again to a young Irish girl who has this mad imagination, and this mad dream. Because if you can see it, you can be it. But also, if you’re very visible out there, it takes away the power of the naysayers as well.” 

~ The animated movie, TWO BY TWO: OVERBOARD!, from Moetion Films, and featuring Eímear’s song Stand For Hope, is out now. The official music video for Stand For Hope, performed by the magnificent SIBÉAL NÍ CHASAIDE, and showcasing yet another awe-inspiring creation from CLAIRE GARVEY, is also available to enjoy now on YouTube. 

ENDS