Wednesday 26 October 2016

My favourite room: Mountain high... for pianist Veronica McSwiney

Acclaimed pianist Veronica McSwiney designed and built her dream music room with fantastic views of the Sugar Loaf. Then she came to dread entering the room. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin

Published 25/05/2015 | 02:30

Veronica in the music room. There is an awning outside so she and her husband, Chris, can enjoy the landscape in all weathers
Veronica in the music room. There is an awning outside so she and her husband, Chris, can enjoy the landscape in all weathers

The signs at the electronic gates, for incoming drivers - Attenti ai Gatti and Attenti ai Cani - give the first indication that pianist Veronica McSwiney is an animal lover.

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Then, within seconds of the gates swinging open, cats and dogs start appearing, and bounding around the driveway in welcome mode. Veronica has two big 'sloppy' dogs - Charlie, a cocker spaniel, and a retriever called Butler, after Yeats the poet, as he came from Sligo. She also has four cats - Simba, Ziggy, Tinker and Taylor - and a cockatiel called Benji, who specialises in words like 'bollocks'; and five hens.

And it's clear the celebrated musician is mad about them all. "I love them to death. I'm the eldest of seven and we always had pets; mice, cats, dogs, you name it; mine was a pet rabbit," she reminisces, adding with a laugh, "The cats sleep on my bed at night, they wouldn't sleep anywhere else."

Given the affectionate terms in which Veronica talks about them, it's obvious that the animals have been a source of huge comfort in the last three, very troubled years since the sad and sudden death of her beloved daughter Judy from meningitis. Judy was also a pianist, and the two used to spend hours discussing their work/passion in Veronica's music room, a room that she came to dread.

The music room is spectacular, not only in size and decor, but also because of the landscape beyond. Its French doors and huge windows afford wonderful views of her tiered and terraced gardens, now ablaze with colour - a sharp contrast to the looming backdrop of Wicklow's dramatic Sugar Loaf mountain.

The interior of the room is an homage to her favourite composers, their works, and the places Veronica has performed worldwide. It's a room she has lovingly put together over a 20-year period, all the time adding new objects and artefacts carted back from her travels.

Consequently, it's been her special place, yet there was a period of nearly two years when she couldn't go through the doorway. "I couldn't cross the threshold. If something needed to be put into it or if it needed to be cleaned, I'd ask Chris to do it," Veronica explains, adding that it contained too many painful memories of her lovely daughter.

"Judy was living nearby, she was always around here. We talked music a lot and when she died, part of me died with her," she says.

To her husband Chris, and her two other beloved children, Aisling and Karl, Veronica's grief must have been unbearable to watch, particularly as she had always been a person who appeared strong and go-getting; Veronica was the type who got on with things.

Originally from Dublin, Veronica had opted for a very difficult career - that of concert pianist - and succeeded. She mastered the knack of combining career and children, a feat so rare that she says her mentor was livid when she got married. "She said, 'are you crazy, throwing away your career?'" Veronica recalls with a laugh.

The marriage didn't last, but again Veronica showed her mettle by opting for a fresh start. She upped sticks and moved to England with her three children. "Ireland was different then," she says. "I felt the only answer was to go and live somewhere else. The youngest, Aisling, was only eight, while Karl was a boarder at Rockwell in Tipperary."

When the children were in their late teens, the acclaimed musician, who has won major plaudits over the years, got a second chance at love. Her career often necessitated travel and she met Chris on a cruise ship - he was the captain and she was the concert pianist.

"I had been asked to do three concerts, and this man in uniform kept coming to listen to me. I went back to the same ship six months later and he was still there," she says, adding that this time she and the Englishman met and hit it off.

They married in 1987 and continued to live in England, but Chris kept saying that when he retired, he'd love to move to Ireland. "I was perfectly happy working away, the kids were well on the way, Chris was at sea, and he had this dream," Veronica says.

In the early Nineties, they happened to be in Ireland for rehearsals for some concerts Veronica was doing, and Chris went off to meet an estate agent. "I'd always said I'd like to see the Sugar Loaf, and, imagine - the first house the estate agent showed him was this one. Within three or four days, we had bought it," Veronica marvels.

It was just a three-bedroomed cottage, but it came complete with superb views and an acre of ground, which Veronica has turned into a series of nooks and secret gardens that are planted with her favourite flowers - buddleia, wallflowers, campanulas.

There was also oodles of room to extend and Veronica knew what she wanted. "Our house in the UK was Victorian and had six bedrooms and all these stairs. I wanted a house on one level, with three bedrooms, a study and a music room," she says.

She also needed space for two grand pianos, as she often rehearsed for duets; a high ceiling and curved corners in the music room were requirements from an acoustic point of view. The architect designed the changes, and she and Chris settled in.

To her delight, Judy settled in Ireland in the early 2000s. (Karl, who's married with three children is now here too, while Aisling lives in Edinburgh - she and Veronica are in constant touch and are planning a concert in September.) Veronica even gave one of her pianos to Judy, for her home in Greystones. "We became best buddies, I used to be thrilled to see her little red car coming in; I find it hard to accept she's not here," she says.

Veronica was so grief-stricken after Judy's death that not only could she not enter the music room, but she gave up performing altogether. Then, one day around Christmas 2013, Judy's friends came around. "They asked what I was up to, music-wise, and I said, 'nothing really, I closed that door two years ago', and one of them asked, 'do you think Judy would be happy with this?' And something went 'bing'. I related the story to Aisling and she said, 'Mum, I think it's time'."

Aisling suggested they do a concert together, for Judy. Veronica admits it was a struggle to sit at the piano. However, because they were doing it for Judy, she triumphed and is back doing concerts, including a recital at Kilruddery House on June 4, and she's teaching piano to a select few students.

She is also a member of the jury of the prestigious Dublin International Piano Competition, which is currently taking place at the Royal Academy - the final is on next Tuesday, May 26, at the National Concert Hall. It's become so much easier since the first concert, for several reasons. She decided to make part of the music room a celebration of Judy, complete with photos and mementos of the lovely 40-something, and even more significantly, she changed her piano. "We had to sell Judy's house and Karl, Aisling and I got a third of the proceeds each," says Veronica "so I bought a new Steinway with mine. Every time I sit down to play, I say, 'Hi Judy', and I feel she's 100pc there with me."


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