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28 May 2022

Column: A return to live music and why we need to allow joy into our lives

A View of Donegal by journalist Siobhán McNamara

Column: A return to live music and why we need to allow joy into our lives

PHOTO: ACE Promotions on Facebook

Music is one of the most evocative of the arts, stirring up memories, becoming firmly linked to our emotions, touching us deeply with its energy.

A few notes of a familiar song can transport us back through decades, across continents, reuniting us with those no longer with us, or reminding us to reconnect with old friends.

Live music was something that I missed greatly during lockdown, much more so than foreign travel and other types of events.  

There is a wonderful energy to live music that is fed by the skill and enthusiasm of performers and the appreciation of the audience. When it all comes together perfectly, it far transcends the sum of its parts to create something truly magical and unique to that time and place. 

It was in that spirit that I set off to see Paul Brady play an intimate concert in Ionad Cois Locha, Dunlewey on Saturday evening. And for a first live concert in several years, it was an absolute joy.

For most of my adult life, I went to any concert I could get to if an artist I liked was playing - international acts coming to big venues, Irish acts touring theatres, pub bands, street performers, I loved it all. 

Then when my husband died in 2015, I wondered if I would ever be able to find that same joy in music again. Music was very much linked to our 20-year relationship, and indeed, to our friendship that went back even further.

At one point when he was terminally ill, I wondered if I would even be able to listen to music, never mind opening my heart enough to throw myself into the full experience of a live gig.

Over the last seven years, there have been moments when I have been completely floored by a song coming on the radio. I remember sitting alone in a café in Letterkenny one day and Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here came on. It was completely unexpected for daytime radio and to say it broke me doesn’t even come close. I sat motionless, my food going cold, trying to pull myself together enough to get up and leave and get back to my car. I managed it, though I was in a daze, and I have never revisited that café. That’s how powerful a song can be, how deep it goes. For a while, even driving past the café was a stab in the heart. 

It was an experience that I didn’t want to repeat, and the only way to avoid it was to make myself reconnect with all the music which was tied up in memories of our relationship. If I needed to cry, I did so, and over time, I refound the joy.

It might seem like a lot of hard work, but I’m sure it will make sense to some people. It was just too big a part of my life and of who I am for me to shut it off. And at least that way, I could do it in small manageable steps when I knew I was in the right frame of mind. 

Live music was a bigger step, and that took quite a bit longer. I took my daughter to see Hozier in Belfast for her 15th birthday a few years ago and it was an incredible concert. It rekindled that desire for live music, though I again found myself avoiding artists that had been part of our shared life. 

Then came the global pandemic, and with it, the total absence of live entertainment. 

As two years of varying degrees of restrictions played out, I wanted more and more to get to a really good gig. I berated myself for not enjoying more concerts when I had the chance. And like many people, I had dark moments where I wondered if anything we had taken for granted in the past would ever be possible again. 

And so when I saw Paul Brady’s intimate venue tour announced earlier this year, I immediately bought a ticket. I was aware that with him being an artist that my husband and myself had both really liked, it might be too much for me and so I decided to sit near the back in case I needed to make a quiet exit. I also decided to go alone, partly in case it was too much, but mostly because this was a very personal pilgrimage. 

I needn’t have worried, and I’m glad I ignored any doubts about the wisdom of going to such an event on my own. Dunlewey was the perfect setting for such an intimate performance. With the comforting and somewhat spiritual presence of Errigal rising behind us on a beautiful spring evening, it already felt really special before the doors even opened. 

I had never seen Paul Brady live but had heard great reports about his shows. His song Crazy Dreams would be a strong contender for my Desert Island Discs choices. It reminds me of a time many years ago when I had to dig deep to find the courage to make some really major decisions that would alter the course of my life. Whenever I hear that song, it feels like an affirmation, a reminder that I got it right.

I was really hoping it would be included in the set and it was, and it filled me with as much joy as ever. Indeed, joy was the overall feeling of the evening, from the artist, from the audience, from myself. A joy in performing, a joy in the music, the place, the moment, a joy in sharing a wonderful experience, in connecting with friends and strangers through a common passion, a joy in simply being alive. 

Yes, there were inevitable tinges of sadness, but they were not overwhelming, mainly because I have learned by now to allow myself to feel joy without guilt. This is a big step for people who have lost a partner (or who are experiencing other forms of grief), and I see it come up often in support forums. It can be hard after trauma to feel happiness without also feeling guilty. For many of us, we have to consciously give ourselves permission and it doesn’t always work. It is worth persevering. Life can throw enough challenges our way, and we are ever mindful of the suffering of others, particularly with all that is happening in the world right now and over the last few years. 

But that is all the more reason to embrace and experience joy and happiness when it comes your way, in whatever shape it takes for you. 

It will strengthen and sustain you through the tougher times - sometimes you just need to give yourself permission. 

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