Today I attended the funeral of Regina O Leary (nee Shine) in my hometown of Kilkenny who passed away on the 17th of March at home. Regina was a remarkable woman: a mother of three talented musicians and a teacher herself at my children’s national school St. Canice’s CoEd NS. As a young teacher Regina had been inspired by one of the then teaching nuns who had introduced music lessons into the school curriculum by asking for donations of instruments. Together, and subsequently with a large team of volunteer parents, teachers and helpers, Regina went on to develop the most extraordinary music school programme at the school. I can’t be sure, but I don’t think there’s anything like this in the country, or maybe anywhere.
The St Canice’s Instrumental Music Programme involves hundreds of children from junior infants upwards, dozens of instrument types and sizes, two orchestras, two jazz bands and a host of other small ensembles, quartets and trios. From junior infants upwards, the children are offered the opportunity to learn an instrument and then by 2nd class join in the junior orchestra. The children learn their instruments at school, but after school, so just when school’s out, the buzz of music ripples through the classrooms. From 3pm until 8 or 9pm, the lights are always on at St Canice’s, transforming the drab buildings into a hub of sound, a different kind of learning.
The two orchestras between them every year manage to reach astonishing standards, bearing in mind the inevitably high turnover of players as they get older, winning a Feis Ceoil trophy in their category every year straight for 26 years. By 6th class, the children – some of whom have by now reached standards of even Grade 6 or higher – are playing the most extraordinary music. Their recent repertoire includes Carl Jenkins’ Palladio, Ravel’s Bolero, the Dambusters March, and their old favourite, Can you feel the love tonight (from the Lion King). Apart from the oboe and bassoon, which are particularly difficult instruments for children to learn, never mind find someone to teach, I don’t think there are any instruments missing. The orchestras have full brass and percussion sections. If you’ve ever been in an amateur orchestra, you’ll appreciate the depth and breadth of sound that the St Canice’s orchestras are capable of achieving as a result. In my own house, we’ve had violin, piano, viola, cello and clarinet. In some houses children might take up as many as three instruments apiece.
But that’s not all. The programme also includes guitar and recorder ensembles, as well as two jazz bands under the inspired direction of Eamon Cahill. Tireless fund-raising by committed parents has funded the purchase of particularly expensive instruments such as french horns and double basses. The pupils hire out their instruments so the costs to parents are very low, regardless of which instrument they take up.
To say that the programme has changed the lives of children and adults at the school, is a gross understatement. Keeping the cost to parents low was always a major priority for Regina, and despite her own passion for high standards, the children were never under pressure to take private lessons (though many did). She had a charismatic and glamorous charm about her that demanded the best from everyone, but she always gave back more herself. She even set up violin and cello classes for the parents, again keeping the standard manageable for even the most wobbly of beginners so that everyone could join in.
It takes time to build up to the standards that St Canice’s have attained. Time, energy, organisation and lots of commitment. Regina’s tireless energy and ambition for the children and the programme are probably irreplaceable. She herself always took the time to acknowledge the key roles played by other key helpers and supporters. But as I take stock of her sad passing today, and reflect on the difference she made in my life, and my family’s lives, I need to express my heartfelt gratitude for the changes that music brought back into my house. Thanks to Regina I learned as an adult to play the violin and viola, joining the local adult chamber orchestra here in Kilkenny and becoming its chairperson in 2014. I was also inspired by her to return to my old beloved piano, finish out all my grades and even teach it for a while. I also took up my classical guitar again, and still play. Regina’s inspiration led me (rather bizarrely) to even complete grade 8 in musical theory in a frenzy of musical obsession. But most profoundly, the whole experience of self-directed music learning gave me the confidence to return to college, do an MA and now a PhD.
If there is a lesson from Regina’s legacy, it is that sharing a passion for music breathes life into us all. Learning to play an instrument at any age is both energising and calming. It focuses and clears the mind. Many kids learn to play an instrument, have fun, make new friends, but that is nothing like the thrill and discipline of playing in an orchestra. You can imagine the educational and learning benefits to children, but Regina would never have crowed about these. She just loved music, and loved to share music with everyone. She will be missed terribly – for her dynamism and vision, her strength and commitment.
Thank you for the music Regina.