Tuesday 27 September 2016

In praise of song... the joy of being in a choir

A dynamic choir in Co Kildare is giving many people a new lease of life. Peggy McManus, an enthusiastic singer, tells Joy Orpen about her overwhelmingly positive experience of being a member of the musical ensemble

Published 19/10/2015 | 02:30

Peggy McManus with her husband Matt. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Peggy McManus with her husband Matt. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Peggy McManus (76) loves to sing. She has been filling the air with her sweet voice ever since she was a little girl. These days, she's a member of a special choir based in Naas, Co Kildare. She also bursts into song at home in Lucan, where she and her husband Matt (77) reared their four children.

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Peggy grew up in Galway. Her father, Peadar Duignan, was not only a TD, he was also a popular Irish singer and dancer, and it was from him that she got her love of music. Sadly, he died when Peggy was only 15; Eamon de Valera attended his funeral. Her mother, a popular teacher in Galway, was left to raise the family of six.

After school, Peggy worked as a typist in the civil service in Dublin. One fateful night in 1964, she went to the Olympic Ballroom, and met Matt McManus. They fell in love, and married two years later. In a photograph of their special day, Peggy did indeed, as her husband says, bear a striking resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. "She was, and still is, very sweet," he says. There is no doubt that their love still endures. Following their marriage, Peggy had to give up work. Matt says that back then, a woman employed in the civil service was obliged to resign when she married. Fortunately, Matt was gainfully employed in the insurance industry, so he could take care of Peggy and their children. Three of them now work in creative environments, while the fourth is in business. There are also three grandchildren.

Matt says Peggy was a good, hard-working mother, who loved to go to the cinema. But it was the old romantic films that appealed to her, with stars such as Cary Grant and Grace Kelly; not the current crop of racy, high-tech movies. Their daughter Marion (the only child remaining in Ireland) says Peggy was a fantastic mum, who sang all the time. "When you came home, she'd sing a song that related to whatever you were doing. She always made sure we had fun," she says. Marion adds that Matt, her father, is also extremely "accepting" and has a good sense of humour.

About three years ago, Peggy began to forget things - where she'd put her keys; why she'd gone upstairs; the name of a person who was familiar to her. "At first, it was basic forgetfulness," says Matt. "Then it began to include simple domestic chores; she gave up driving, she started to lose confidence, and eventually she stopped going out on her own."

So Matt took charge, but it didn't bother him in the least. Since his retirement 17 years ago, he had increasingly taken over the care of the house, and he seems to enjoy the challenge. While we chat, Matt brews a pot of tea. Peggy is content to watch; then she smiles, and says, "He's a great fellow altogether. I don't know how I was so lucky to find a man like him. He makes my breakfast, and tea. He's good with the dinner, too; he has everything fixed. I used to do it when the children were here; now I leave him at it."

But when it comes to her beloved music, Peggy has no problems. She eagerly puts on CDs, and plays videos without the least hesitation. So it seems that while her memory is a little clouded at times, she's an ace when it comes to techie stuff.

Last year, some researchers from DCU, who were dealing with issues concerning elderly people, came to the house to see if they could help Peggy. When they discovered she loved music, they searched for a programme that might interest her. They came up with the Past Times Community Choir, which is based at McCauley Place, a residential and community centre in Naas, Co Kildare. It's run in conjunction with the Alzheimer Cafe, which is situated in the same premises. Matt encouraged Peggy to go. "She sings with great gusto at home and is still a good singer. So I thought she should try it out," he says.

According to Carolann Courtney, an arts and well-being specialist in Kildare, this inter-generational choir supports people living with dementia, their families, carers and the greater community. "We have a core group of about 55 members," she says. "Our musical director, Sharon Murphy, has a wonderful way with the participants. The ease with which they socialise is amazing. I can honestly say this is the most successful project I've ever been involved with."

The sessions are musically accomplished, with sometimes complex harmonies; they are also full of enthusiasm and vigour. There is absolutely no doubt that everyone involved in the choir, young or old, loves the experience.

Carolann says that the Alzheimer Cafe used money from the Tesco Community Fund to set up the choir. "This is a new way for people to come together and relax," she says. The initiative was assisted by the Kildare County Council arts team, and other community-based organisations.

Peggy is no less enthusiastic about the success of the project.

Talking about her first visit, a year ago, she says, "I didn't know what to expect. As soon as I walked in the door, two girls greeted me; they sat beside me, and linked my arms and they were great fun. Now, every time they see me, they call out, 'There's Peggy'. We sing Scarlet Ribbons and songs from musicals like Annie Get Your Gun and My Fair Lady. I'm as happy as can be, when I'm in the choir with the girls, and the men are nice too."

Matt says joining the group has restored some of Peggy's confidence and enthusiasm for life. "She loves going, she loves the singing and being with the group. The people who run this put in a lot of effort. It's a perfect environment for someone like Peggy. In time, I'd like to see more initiatives like this," he says.

Their daughter Marion agrees. "The choir has been fantastic for mum," she says with deep conviction.

For more information, contact the Past Times Community Choir, tel: (083) 170-9589, or see Facebook 'Past Times Community Choir', or email pasttimescommunitychoir@gmail.com

The Alzheimer Cafe is just one of 3,500 good causes that has benefited from the Tesco Community Fund. Customers are given blue tokens, which they can assign to one of three local causes, which change regularly. Every eight weeks, nominated charities receive a percentage from their local Tesco store of up to €1,000, which is donated by the retailer. The amount they get depends on how many blue tokens they have received from the public. Organisations wishing to be nominated should contact their local Tesco

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