[This blog is a transcript of the YouTube vlog of the same name, which is linked at the bottom of this page]
My first paid job out of college was at 27 Lower Hatch Street, a 5 storey, Dublin Victorian building.
It housed two independent production companies: Tyrone Productions which made programmes for Irish television, largely, and Abhann Productions. Now unless you knew that Abhann stood for ‘river’ in Irish, you might never connect Abhann Productions with Riverdance and yet it was Abhann Productions that had created the international extravaganza and phenomenon that is Riverdance the Show.
Passing the musical torch
In January of 1997, my father died, aged just 61. I took the call in the reception area of 27 Lower Hatch Street, and by the time the call was over, a few of the team members had gathered together to make me tea and to support me. He was, mainly, a musician; a talented singer. He was, I suppose, a bit of a hit in his 20s and 30s when he was a part of the Irish show band called The Clippertones. They performed all over Ireland. He was, like many of the musicians of his age, someone who drank too much.
It’s taken me a long time to see him as a whole human being: flawed, hurt, hurting… but also a person capable of love and hope, a talented man, and he loved me.
I followed that thread of musicality into becoming a classical/choral singer… first as a seminarian or student priest in the Maynooth Seminary Choir, and then later at the Maynooth University Chamber Choir. After I left College, I joined Christchurch Cathedral Choir as a bass.
A fateful Christmas Party
Abhann Productions held its Christmas Party in December 1996 in the penthouse suite of the Clarence Hotel in Dublin, which was owned at that point by U2. It might still be: I don’t know!! I was a “runner” at Abhann Productions, which meant (literally) that I ran around, making tea and coffee, making sandwiches, answering phones… whatever was needed. It is an entry level job in most production companies. But even I was invited to the Clarence Penthouse! The food was delicious, the wines even more so and before long, somebody at our table had ordered a round of brandy and port (yes, brandy mixed with port) for everyone to enjoy.
Before long, the Riverdance Director, John McColgan had a mic in hand and was encouraging people to get up and start a sing-song. I’m easily embarrassed as a singer, so I’m not normally the first to jump forward, and on this occasion, I wasn’t either. The receptionist, who was called Regina, was the first to get up and do a Michael Jackson number, and she was hilarious. And then maybe it was the brandy and port talking, or something else, but I had 2 songs in my back pocket… I wasn’t sure that anyone would want to hear two kind of ‘older’ songs…
The first song that I did sing was “Old Maid in the Garret”, which is very funny, and the second one was “She Moved Through the Fair”, which is a kind of an Irish standard, if you like, but quite sad. I got a great reception… I wasn’t expecting a round of applause. Over in the corner of the room, Moya Doherty (creator and producer of Riverdance) stood up and said “Let’s get him in the show!”
Next morning, all with sore heads, we were headed back into the office. I started making coffees again and sandwiches and that felt like it was the end of that.
A long memory
Soon afterwards, I went to work in what’s now called Today FM, what was then called, Radio Ireland. Things were going really well and then, a few months in, I got a phonecall from a colleague back at the Riverdance office, and she said “I know you’re doing really well at Radio Ireland, but… are you interested in auditioning for Riverdance?”. And I said “are you crazy??”… I’m not sure I said that but I was like “yes, yes, yessity-yes”!!
I called my friend Lorraine Cotter, almost immediately, only to discover that she also had landed an audition with Riverdance and that our auditions were going to be back to back just a couple of weeks later. I didn’t sit still until the day of the audition, and it was led by a man called David Hayes, who was a well-known musical director on the Dublin scene. Now you had to prepare two songs: one of which was from Riverdance and then you had to take in a song of your own. There was no way for me to pretend that I was a ‘musical theatre’ singer, I wasn’t. I was classical and choral. A former choral colleague of mine, Elmear Quinn had just won the Eurovision Song Contest with a song called ‘The Voice’ and so that was the song that I brought in to sing.
There had been so much build up that I was prepared for there to be this tension that I had learned to live with for a couple of weeks, until I would learn about the outcome of the audition. But to be fair to Riverdance they let me know within a couple of days and so the build-up was instead to moving to London to train in the West End at the Hammersmith Apollo. If you’ve been watching the YouTube for a little while, you’ll know that a couple of vlogs ago, I pick up the story in Hammersmith.
This is a happy story. I was a young man of 23, making my way in the world in Dublin, doing my first paid job. I had just come out a couple of years earlier and I was learning how to navigate that world. I was learning who I might BE in the world.
Falling into Riverdance
All the same, I want to talk about why I called this video (and blog), “Falling into Riverdance”. Look, if I’d been a doctor, or a missionary, or a plumber, or a civil servant, and if I felt settled and determined to follow whatever that path was, the idea of joining a tour like Riverdance, would provide a fun idea, even a distracting one, but it would not pull such a determined person off their path.
At the same time, until Riverdance, few people, few Irish people worked internationally as Irish musicians and with regard to those that did, our world is blessed by hearing their names. People like The Chieftains and The Dubliners, Sinead O’Connor, Johnny Logan, Enya, Luke Kelly and U2. I could go on and on, but they all made it and they made it big. I’m not placing anything that I did in that stratosphere. At the same time, as a dance show, Riverdance created a space for voices choral and classical Irish… a soundscape with tendrils and tentacles into groups such as Anúna… who were built in the great traditions of Irish song.
So when would a choral/classical singer like me ever have had the opportunity to perform on the world stage?
There’s no doubt that Riverdance ‘happened’ to me. When it came up, I fell face-forward into it, gratefully and whole-heartedly. I’ve never ever regretted it. It’s also true that I was available to fall into it, because my path was indeterminate.
Creating space out of nothing at all
Perhaps Riverdance and shows like it created a demand for talent where no such demand had ever been before. So the show was filled with people who had thought that their passion for dance or for song would always be a bit of a side gig. That they’d have to something else to make money and then maybe do a bit of singing or dancing on the side.
But perhaps we didn’t know, none of us knew, how to translate this professional opportunity, truly on the world stage, into meaningful, long-lasting careers. Especially when we had never been able to dream of it. That we had never seen ourselves reflected in a long tradition of professional stage performers from Ireland.
The closest professional performer to me was my father. If I come back to being 23, I couldn’t have told you the positive things that his skillset as a musician could have taught me and so, when I fell into Riverdance, I fell into it with a set of conditions of which I wasn’t even conscious. Who would I be as a performer? How would I relate to this fabulous, but scary, new world?