Helping to answer the call of home

Living

SAFE HOME IRELAND AMBASSADOR Seán Keane put his lockdown downtime to good use, but he’s happy to be back on stage and looking forward to performing in Tiernaur this Sunday.

Seán Keane talks to The Mayo News ahead of his Safe Home Ireland concert in Nevin’s Newfield Inn, Tiernaur

Ciara Moynihan

Few things are more poignant than the idea of a long-time emigrant longing to return to the land of their birth. The aching for home is surely a primeval desire, something so deep and so ingrained that it can be beyond words. For many, a return can also be beyond their means, or the bureaucracy too daunting.
This is where Safe Home Ireland comes in. Headquartered in St Brendan’s Village, Mulranny, and founded by local GP Jerry Cowley, this charity provides advice, information and housing assistance to people who are thinking of returning home to Ireland.
Since it was set up 21 years ago, Safe Home Ireland has directly helped over 2,144 older Irish people abroad return home, as well as countless others with outreach, information and advocacy services. Demand for its services has risen during the pandemic, as Irish emigrants find themselves in even more precarious situations around the globe.
Since the start of the Covid outbreak, as the world shut down and the need for connection grew, Safe Home Ireland started to reach out to these Irish abroad in new ways. It has been running a series of concerts via Facebook Live, with a host of internationally acclaimed artists and performers from Ireland and around the world taking part. These have been hugely successful, both helping the far flung to feel connected to home and raising awareness about Safe Home Ireland’s services. A greater number of people who were thinking about coming home, or who were missing home, have realised they can contact the service for information and support, and demand has risen.
The charity’s amiable and indefatigable chief executive Karen McHugh decided it was time to appoint an ambassador, to help spread the word and raise money. And who better than much-loved, renowned traditional singer Seán Keane? With his sean-nós singing, his soulful melodies, his distinctive voice and his repertoire so steeped in Irish culture, he is a perfect fit. Karen approached him, and the affable singer didn’t think twice. He was in. And now he’s looking forward to taking to the stage in Nevin’s Newfield Inn, Tiernaur, this Sunday, November 7, as Safe Home Ireland Ambassador to help raise much-needed funds for the charity and mark its 21st anniversary.
“I guess what drew me to Safe Home Ireland is, I’ve always had an awareness of the emigration experience having spent time in London in my late teens and early 20s,” Seán told The Mayo News last week.
“I also worked on a show called The Scattering with my late wife, Virginia. It involved a lot of research on Virginia’s part, which uncovered so many stories of the Irish experience abroad.
“A lot of the songs I sing – particularly sean-nós – are emigration songs, with home, loss and a desire for connection with home at their core. Home is such a broad term, there’s the basic right to have a roof over one’s head, but also the sense of belonging, of being part of a community. I think this is what Safe Home Ireland have to offer.
“For those who find themselves alone, in another country, without family, friends or community, not knowing how or where to ask for help. Having no supports, no one to guide or advise… that’s what Safe Home Ireland provide. They are a beacon, a light of hope to take the first steps in belonging.
“Sometimes with our modern way of living we forget how important belonging is, for our sense of worth, our mental health and the simplicity of giving and receiving within a community.”
Throughout the pandemic, Seán has been able to stay connected with his community of fans around the world though his own popular fireside Facebook Live concerts, called the Carragh Sunday Sessions.
“These Carragh Sunday Sessions were a godsend this last year. I’m still surprised at the level at which I could connect with fans and the satisfaction I got from their enjoyment of each show.
“It was so humbling to receive such a wonderful and consistent response from all corners of the globe from Hawaii to Argentina and of course Caherlistrane … we plan to do more.”
For now, the singer is enjoying the return to the stage since the restrictions on live performances eased. Aside from the upcoming concert in Nevin’s, he also has a whole series of concerts lined up in what he is calling ‘The Return Tour’ – with dates in Mayo and around the country, as well as in the UK and Germany, planned (details on www.seankeane.com).
“It’s so good to be back on stage. You don’t realise how much until you’re in it,” he admitted. “It’s great to see and play with the lads again and of course being back in front of the fans. It’s hard to put a finger on what I’ve missed the most. I think for all artists who are passionate about performing there’s something all encompassing about it. It’s fulfilling in so many more ways than just one. Apart from just being able to work again there can be a holistic and spiritual fulfilment in performing.”
But lockdown hasn’t been all bad, he said, and he has enjoyed using the downtime to get into the garden and connect with nature. “I spent the time making some raised beds for vegetables and made a polytunnel using some steel bars I found in the shed,” he revealed. He’s also has some beehives, and says looking after the bees kept him busy too.
Naturally enough, music also came into the lockdown equation, and the singer used the time to pick up the guitar, an instrument he had always wanted to play. “I had a block to learning the guitar all my life, but this time I stuck at it, and I’m still practising away.”
The keen-eyed will notice from the picture accompanying this article that Seán is also sporting a new beard, and the gruaig has gotten a good deal longer. The Mayo News enquired as to whether this is purely a lockdown look and if he plans to get the clippers out. “I’ll keep it for another while, it’ll keep my head warm over the winter!” he joked.
Safe Home Ireland founder Dr Cowley couldn’t be happier that Seán has come on board, highlighting the singer’s special affinity with the cause. “While Seán has long since told the story of emigration through his amazing songs and music, it is his experiences as a young emigrant himself that gives him the great empathy with our work and those we seek to assist,” he explained.
“We are very grateful to Seán for his generosity of spirit in taking up the [ambassador] role and helping to promote Safe Home Ireland along the way. Working together, we will ensure that anyone who may need our help will know who we are, what we do, and how to contact us. Ní neart go cur le chéile.”

•    Seán Keane will perform in Nevin’s Newfield Inn this Sunday, November 7, at 4pm. Tickets (€30 each) are available from Nevin’s, from the Safe Home Ireland office and from Achill Sound, Mulranny and Newport Post Offices. To find out more about the charity, visit safehomeireland.com. Donations can be via the website or on the ‘Safe Home Ireland – Supporting Irish Emigrants’ page on gofundme.com.