Above: Kevin Shanahan with James O'Flynn, Claddagh Rogues
I first met Kevin O’Shanahan two weeks ago on a sombre morning at the gates of Cork Prison. Kevin is a musician, a trained psychiatric nurse and the coordinator of the West Cork Mental Health Services. He was there to facilitate a concert inside for the prisoners, which was marked to be quite the occasion with the Claddagh Rogues performing – a band that started in Cork Simon Shelter where Kevin led a music workshop. The band is fronted by James O’Flynn, a former street person and recovered addict, who spent time in Cork Prison.
However, on arriving at the prison for the performance, with reporters clustering around outside, it was obvious something was up!
Unknown to us, an inmate had escaped from his cell the night before and had stationed himself on the roof. When we arrived, he had already been there over 12 hours. As the prison was locked down to the public, there was to be no performance in the prison on that day. James and the rest of the Rogues did well to hide their disappointment and Kevin remains optimistic about the concert happening in the future:
“We’re very much looking forward to rescheduling our performance at Cork Prison in November. At the heart of The Claddagh Rogues is the idea that no matter how dark times get, there is always hope. James expresses this sentiment through his songs and for him, returning to Cork prison as a musician, rather than an inmate, is particularly special.”
In lieu of these changes, I turned my attention on Kevin, who agreed to sit down for a chat after the Rogues subsequent show at Levis’ in Ballydehob.
Kevin’s background in music is rather unique, in the 90s, he was a musician, drumming for bands such as the Freudian Slips and The King Kong Company. He was also heavily involved in the Waterford Spraoi Festival for many years, which is when it all started to change for him.
“I worked with Waterford Spraoi for the festival and by chance I was asked to work with some teenagers who were too young to go to prison and to facilitate a music workshop around drumming. I was just amazed with the reaction and the children’s response to the music. At the time there was a music therapist working with them in this detention centre and he told me later that the kids were wetting the beds less after the music classes and they were much more settled and less aggressive. It just really got me thinking around music and how we use it.
“Around that time I was recording music and was with Solid Records who were probably Ireland’s largest Independent label at the time. We were kind of getting air play, so I was involved in a sense with music making on a commercial level. The more I got involved with that, the less of a passion I had for music…seeing the business side of it really and what was involved. Something went missing for me really!
“Then through work like this (youth workshops), I was really inspired. Looking back on it now, it completely changed me. So I went and studied mental health nursing. I went back to UCC in 2013 to do a Masters in Music. That really brought the two elements together, looking at research from around the world about how music is used. It’s fascinating that there is so much robust information about how things like singing is so good for you. We have a gamelan project in Skibbereen and that’s based again on the idea of that when we make music we feel better. Even there tonight coming together as a group, something special just seems to happen.”
Kevin wasn’t wrong – on the night, I witnessed the Claddagh Rogues win the entire room over during their heartfelt gig in Levis, Ballydehob. Accompanied by members of the West Cork Choral Choir, who chimed in on harmonies, and the audience, who were as much a part of the show as the band, there was a real communal spirit in the room, which is precisely what Kevin strives and he credits the work of Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger as big inspirations.
“I’m kind of fascinated by shows like the X-Factor, where people feel you have to be trained before you can even open your mouth. In Ireland we have a really strong tradition of music; for generations ordinary people gathered in houses to sing and tell stories. Of course you still had really good singers, but there was room for everyone. I think people played music perhaps not just to be the best but to share with each other. In tradition of this, we have a monthly session in Uillin, the West Cork Arts Centre. It’s called The Open Door – anyone who passes can come in and whatever a person offers is fine.
“I’ve met lots of people who come along and who don’t particularly want to talk or to say much…I think the magic in music is that almost without noticing the foot starts tapping and then maybe someone starts humming along, then almost without knowing it, people themselves volunteer to do something…It’s difficult to explain, it’s a very small thing but it can have huge consequences. One person said to me that music gave them a little bit of hope the day they called in. Being brave enough to sing a song in a group setting can give a person hope that they are capable of doing somethng else. Anything that gives hope is really valuable.
“When you’re feeling very vulnerable you can really feel like the world has gone against you, that there is no hope or love or that you’re kind of out here and the world is passing you by, but research shows that music really brings people together as an art form…it’s like a glue.”
Open Door takes place on the first Tuesday of each month, 7.15pm – 8.30pm at Uilinn/West Cork Arts Centre Skibbereen and is run partnership with West Cork Mental Health Services.