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Mayo tale goes global

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IN HARMONY Members of the Mayo Concert Orchestra performing. They will be central players in their conductor Kathy Fahey’s new music and contemporary dance production, Fáinne Óir. Pic: Alison Laredo

Composer and conductor Kathy Fahey is bringing an ambitious new music and contemporary dance production to stage

Edwin McGreal

Sometimes what’s for you won’t pass you.
Belcarra’s acclaimed choral and orchestral conductor Kathy Fahey had written two pieces of music for a project last year when the project faltered for a variety of reasons. Fahey – the multi-talented conductor of the Mayo Concert Orchestra – had put in a lot of work that looked like it was going to count for nothing.
So she talked about it with Mike Hannon – the man who had initially approached her for the project. Hannon encouraged Fahey to not let her work go to waste.
The result is Fáinne Óir – the golden ring – an original orchestral and contemporary dance work composed by Ms Fahey.
“I had composed two pieces of music and a lot of work had gone into it. Mike said why not try something different. We talked about it and agreed to put our thinking caps on and from there we decided we’d do a show,” Fahey told The Mayo News this week.
Fáinne Óir is an ambitious project which will have its world premiere in the Royal Theatre, Castlebar, on September 20. From there, the production will go to New York be performed six days later on Broadway. There has also been approaches from ten other US cities, three English cities and even Mexico.
It is a 90-minute work which through music, song, narration and dance tells the story of an Irish family fighting for survival through the Famine years.
It tells the story of the O’Malley family from Mayo as hunger, tragedy and emigration force parents and children apart but enduring love and the triumph of humanity shine.
It is a behemoth of a production. Choreography is by renowned ‘Riverdance’ and ‘Lord of the Dance’ lead dancer, Ciara Sexton. She also plays the lead role of Saoirse O’Malley.
Musician Seán Keane is doing the voiceover at the start to set the scene while the production will be narrated by accomplished TV and stage actress Sarah Maria Lafferty.
Ciara Sexton will lead a team of dancers and they will be supported by the 40-strong Mayo Concert Orchestra and vocal group, VoxFusion.
There will be solo performances from Stephen Doherty (flute), Diarmaid Moynihan (uileann pipes) and David Doocey (fiddle). The evocative paintings of Achill-based artist Padraig McCaul will provide the backdrop.

Working together
Kathy Fahey and Mike Hannon have been leading the co-production of the show.
Hannon is an accountant by trade and has previously brought Irish shows to New York and Boston. He most recently managed the establishment of ‘County Mayo Foundation’, a US registered not-for-profit established to assist Mayo based charities and organisations looking for support from the diaspora.
He first encountered Kathy Fahey when she was conducting a concert at Ballinafad House, near Belcarra, in May 2018. He was looking for someone to compose some music for the doomed project but every cloud has a silver lining and Fahey put her mind to creating her own show. The Famine has always resonated with her.
“I was always very interested in the Famine. A lot of us when we were at school, we weren’t taught about the Famine. It was almost an unspoken subject. I really hadn’t a clue about the Famine until I went looking. I’ve been fascinated about the Famine since and decided to construct the storyline around it.
“My son Matthew has always been into English and writing. He helped me get underway and I wrote the story then and put the music around it afterwards. So I composed the music for each piece and I could visualise what was happening in each story. I used my own imagination.”
While Fahey has a wealth of experience, this was the first show she composed since some small scale composing when she was 15. It is fair to say, this was on another scale entirely.
“I loved it all. If I did not have so many other distractions, I would do it all the time. I was really overwhelmed when we first came together as an orchestra and they put music to my notes. It is a lovely feeling when people like your music.
“I’ve really surprised myself with this. I didn’t think I was capable. It was more daunting for me in my head at the start than it actually turned out to be. I was so worried I wouldn’t be good enough to pull it off but I have surprised myself!”

Hard at work
The complexities of the production are apparent when Fahey lists them out and it is little wonder it was a daunting prospect at the outset.
“The composing started in July 2018. I had two pieces done by the following September and did 15 more pieces subsequently. We are working on it with the orchestra since February.
“Because it is a dance production, the music absolutely has to be spot on so we have been working on it all through the summer.
“I’m a bit nervous but at this stage of it I’m really looking forward to it. It is a massive opportunity, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine myself doing something like this. It’s mega.
“Female conductors are pretty rare in the world, never mind in Ireland and female conductors/composers are even rarer! So it is a big deal for me, my family, Mayo and Ireland.
“I think it will project Mayo in a very good light. It is not a quaint, cliched Irish show for America. It is modern, it is progressive. It is an ambitious project,” she said.
She is, of course, very familiar with the Mayo Concert Orchestra, having been appointed as their conductor in September 2016.
She describes them as an ‘amateur orchestra playing to professional standards’.
“We meet once a week, on a Wednesday for a two-hour work out. We don’t mess around.
“We’ve people ranging in age from 17 to in their 70s coming from all parts of Mayo. We’ve one man who comes from Carrick-on-Shannon. We’ve been very busy with a wide variety of events.
“What I would say about the orchestra is that they are the people who were down in their rooms practicing when they were children while other kids were outside playing football. They are a different breed of people. They are disciplined and have a very different appreciation of music. The people in the orchestra are trying to nurture their talent even further. They strive for excellence and are very gifted people.”
Among their number is saxophonist Padraig McCaul, also the renowned artist whose work is being used for the backdrops.
“He is just mega talented. I saw his finished pieces this week, they are absolutely amazing. They will add so much to the production,” said Fahey.
The long and winding road
Fahey is no minor talent herself and the journey to this stage has had a few twists and turns.
She first started taking piano lessons at the tender age of eight. She studied Music in Maynooth but on leaving college faced a clash between her dreams and pragmatism.
“I came out of college and got offered a job in the bank. In those days you did not turn down a job in the bank! It was a good, pensionable job so I took the job,” recalls Fahey.
Married to Liam Fahey from Castlebar, the couple have three children. While working in the bank Fahey continued to teach piano and work with local choirs. Then, almost 18 years ago, came a fork in the road.
“I got an opportunity to take redundancy from the bank. So this was it, I could take it and commit to music properly or keep doing what I was at. I left the bank and threw myself into music.
“I bought a set of handbells for myself and I went to schools the length and breadth of Mayo teaching handbells to kids.
“I was getting involved in choral work then as well and one thing led to another. I was asked to work with the gospel choir in Castlebar and have really enjoyed been involved with a range of different choirs.
“Then the job came up for the conductor of the Mayo Concert Orchestra. I applied for the job and got it. And here we are.”

Expensive production
A party of 60 people will travel to the USA for the performance of Fáinne Óir in New York. A sizable €130,000 has to be fundraised and financed to allow that to happen.
“We are open to investors and sponsors all the time. There are 60 travelling and €130,000 is relatively small for a production like this. It could easily cost millions,” said Fahey.
She gave us a run through of how the show plays out. We won’t put any spoiler alerts here, suffice to say it sounds like it will certainly captivate and engage the audience.
Castlebar goldsmith Nigel O’Reilly has made an actual fáinne óir, golden ring, for the show.
It is beautiful. It is square on the inside and round on the outside. There is some ogham writing on it and ‘love and loyalty’ is inscribed on it. It is central to a very iconic moment in the whole show,” said Fahey.
Formal dress is encouraged for the World Premiere in the Royal Theatre on Friday night, September 20. Doors open at 7pm with the show at 8pm. Tickets cost €35. They will play in the Peter Norton symphony space in New York six days later.

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For more details see fainneoir.com.