“Wherever I go, I am super proud to tell people I am from Donegal,” said Máire McCallion.
A daughter of Inishowen, currently living in Auckland, New Zealand, where she teaches Irish dancing, Máire said there was “no place like home”.
Speaking to Donegal Live, Máire said she missed her family dearly and wished she could be back in the peninsula during “these difficult times to help out”.
Originally from Tullydish, Buncrana, Máire comes from a large extended family.
Laughing she said: “My late dad, Liam McCallion from Tullydish, was one of seven siblings and my mother, Frances (née Harkin), from Clonmany, was also one of seven.
“So, as you can imagine, I have lots of cousins, aunts and uncles. I also have three sisters, Elaine, Sinéad and Nicole, three nephews, two nieces and a grand niece, all of whom I am proud to call family.
“I am currently living in New Zealand, having arrived here almost four years ago. I am an accountant by day and a dance teacher by night.
“I run the McCallion Irish Dancing Academy, in Auckland, teaching children and adults the basics of the dance. I chose to settle in New Zealand as it is very similar to Ireland in many ways. It is an island, which is steeped in a rich culture. It is also English speaking, left hand driving and has four seasons. It can be quite rainy here but it is also very green, so even looks like Ireland.
"I felt very homesick when I first arrived in Auckland, so I joined a Gaelic football team and headed towards the Irish Society. It was a great way to meet other Irish people abroad and get involved in a team sport.
“Unfortunately, after a few red cards, I decided Gaelic football was not the sport for me.”
At that time, Máire said she wished Auckland had had an Irish Dancing school for older or returning dancers, she could have joined.
She added: “However, there was nothing around for my age group. So, after a month of thinking about it, I decided to hire a hall, for one night only, and put up an advert to see if there was any interest in Irish dancing classes.
“To my complete surprise, thirty-seven people turned up on the first night, from 13 nationalities ranging, from 18 to 80 years of age. I think I knew then I was onto something and I felt a great buzz around it.”
Going back to her Inishowen beginnings, Máire danced from the age of three and competed at the World Championships every year.
Máire recalled: “I auditioned for Riverdance and was accepted to the flying squad at 16. I spent months travelling up and down to Dublin for workshops over the next few years.
“My dance teachers were the McConomy sisters from Derry. They were a fierce duo in that their classes were strict but they also produced the most world champions, so it paid off for them.
“I was fortunate at the age of 13 to be asked to travel with the McConomy's to New York to do a workshop for an American Irish Dance school. That was my first taste of travelling internationally.
“In the early 2000's, my mum was asked to assemble a group of local girls from Buncrana who could travel to India to represent Ireland at an International culture festival.
“Under the direction of Deirdre Brennan, sister of Enya and of Clannad fame, myself and a few local girls put together a routine and off we headed to India. A few of those locals were Donna Elliot, Charlene Hegarty, Rose-Marie McCallion and Tracy Gallagher. It was recorded by TG4 for airing later in the year back in Ireland.”
Máire moved to Leeds in England and completed her degree in 2005.
“Following my qualifications, I toured the world with a few different Irish dance production companies. I danced in Taiwan, Canada, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, France, Belgium and Denmark. At the age of 24, I decided that my final tour of China and Mongolia was the right time for me to hang up my Irish dancing shoes.
“Little did I know then, 10 years later, I would be teaching and have my own Irish dancing school at the other side of the world.
“I started teaching adult dancers in Auckland and putting on events to showcase their talents. The classes continued and demand grew. I was surprised that there was a market for Irish dancing in New Zealand but last year it peaked at seven classes a week. It was a great feeling for me to be able to facilitate and bring other Irish people together and to help them reconnect with their homeland.
“It was win win as I love Irish Dancing and was thrilled I could keep it up whilst sharing my love of it with others. This was secondary to getting heaps of endorphins and stress release throughout Covid times.”
A thoughtful Máire said when she first arrived in New Zealand, she was stunned to find out people from Donegal had been travelling there for years and leaving huge legacies behind.
She said: “The first was a man from Ramelton called David Gallagher who happens to be the founding father of The All Blacks Rugby Club. His statue of remembrance is at the main entrance of Eden Park Stadium, which I pass quite frequently and still gasp at him in awe.
“Another legend was Donegal man Hugh Green from Raphoe, a philanthropist who has funded many projects and donated millions to charities and worthy causes, both in Auckland and back in Ireland. It is hard to believe that little Donegal has made such an impact on the map here in New Zealand.
“New Zealand is a great place to live. The lifestyle is laid back and the landscape is dramatic, which makes it a real playground for adults adventurers. There is a real sense of community here, where everyone works together. Covid is the perfect example of this.
“Whenever our leader, Jacinda Ardern, announced a full lockdown over a year ago it was a lockdown like no other.
“There was a real social acceptance here that everyone had their individual part to play and when we all do this then we could achieve a great outcome and return to a normal life again.
“We have been fortunate here to remain Covid free but it has not been easy. What people do not see is the level of commitment behind this and the practices in place here in New Zealand.”
Máire did 14 days quarantine last year, on her return from Ireland to New Zealand.
She recounted: “The 14 days quarantine was in an isolation facility in a confined hotel room. All areas of the hotel were off limits, no swimming pool or gym to hang out or spend time in. The facility was manned by air-force military with several security guards in and around the hotel.
“It was a sign in and out system, with guards at every entrance. It felt like a maximum security prison. Trips to get fresh air were allowed daily between the hours of 8am and 4pm, allowed, in a single file, two meters behind the person in front, walking in a one-way system, around a 100 metre circuit.
“There was no chatting or mingling with the other isolators or the 14 days quarantine started all over again. This was just my experience of it but, overall, we have to be thankful for Jacinda's 'go hard and go fast' policy, which has proved successful to date.
“Because of this, we were fortunate to be able to celebrate St Patrick's day in New Zealand this year. We had a parade down Queen Street, the main shopping district in Auckland and it was great to see so many Irish come together for the day. That said, there was guilt around the day knowing that our families and loved ones were in lockdown in Ireland. We wished they could be with us but hopefully next year we can all celebrate together.”
It has been a particularly tough year for Márie's family.
Poignantly she explained: “We lost my dad suddenly in August 2020. For anyone who knew him, dad was a true gentleman.
He was so well liked and respected by many in Buncrana. People may remember him as Liam the taxi man or Shaky.
“I will always remember him as the cool, calm and collected dad who was a great storyteller and loved a good yarn. The suddenness of his death really shook me and it is still very raw. It is fair to say we are still coming to terms with it all. It is during times like this that the distance from little Donegal seems so so far away.
“What I miss most about Ireland is the craic and the warmth you get from Irish people. When you visit a relative there is always a cuppa on the boil, and a glowing warmth that you get from kind Irish souls.
“The craic that you get from old storytelling and sitting around with a brandy or having a sing-a-long and a good jive. It is hard to get that or recreate that anywhere else in the world. Wherever I go I am super proud to tell people I am from Donegal.
“I miss my family dearly and wish I could be there especially during these times to help out. It is difficult to be so far from home and I guess the saying for me rings very true 'There is no place like home'. Maybe one day I will return again.”
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