lullaby for my 'miracle' baby
Her musical career was thriving, she had a brilliant relationship with husband John, but there was still an ache in Orla Fallon's heart – she yearned for a baby, but it seemed it was never to be... Today this 'geriatric' mum talks to Ciara Dwyer
ON a fresh spring morning, Irish singer Orla Fallon is bursting with brightness. The former Celtic Woman performer has just released her sixth solo album – Lullaby Time – a charming selection of songs to lull babies, and perhaps their exhausted parents, to sleep. (Fear not, you won't find any irritating panpipes or Barney the dinosaur here.) There is an ethereal beauty to Fallon's voice, but her songs sound even sweeter, knowing that she was pregnant with her first child Freddie (now six months), when she recorded the album. Her little boy came at a time when she and husband John had given up on any chance of parenthood.
Down through the years, people had suggested to Orla that she should record a lullaby album, but it was too raw a wound and she knew that she wouldn't be able to sing those songs. She was emotionally fragile.
When she finally gave up on motherhood and decided that she had to accept her lot and be happy with it, she got on with her life. She found laughter again and it wasn't long before she knew that she was strong enough to record a lullaby album. Just then, she became pregnant naturally. She couldn't believe her luck and so, she sang her heart out in the studio, singing to her boy as he was in her womb. It was a very special time and since then, life has carried on in that happy fashion. She sings to Freddie in his high chair, and the doting mother swears that he is even starting to sing back to her.
In these days of doom and gloom, it's so nice to hear a happy story.
"I'm a geriatric mother," says 41-year-old Orla, "and proud of it." As she says this, her blue eyes dance with glee.
"I think because I'm older I appreciate it so much more. I say that Freddie is a little miracle and I thank God a thousand times a day for him. He has brought so much joy."
On the day I meet Orla, she is brimming with happiness and full of plans. She is all set to showcase her lullaby album at the upcoming Pregnancy and Baby Fair in the RDS on April 13 and 14. But she has had her share of dark days too; days when she was sad with longing for a baby – their own or an adopted one. They had tried both routes.
Orla married John when she was 25. She concedes that not many people get married that young. Adamant that she would get her musical career up and running first, she was in no rush to start a family. She had already been working as a secondary teacher – of music and religion – for five years before she married. One year later, she decided to ditch the permanent and pensionable day job and devote all her energies to her music.
"I was in school early in the mornings and then I'd be there in the evenings doing extra stuff like choir. I loved it but I couldn't keep up the pace and I was in danger of burn-out. I won't do anything if my heart isn't in it."
Besides, the music was calling. It was a risk, but one that she felt compelled to take.
"I'm a firm believer that life is short and you better make the most of it," she says.
She did some work with Anuna and performed as often as she could, playing her harp and singing. One night she sang a few songs in the National Concert Hall as a guest in a show, and David Agnew approached her. The RTE Concert Orchestra oboe player praised Orla for her unique sound and said that she might be suitable for a project his friend David Downes was putting together.
He asked for a CD of her music and passed it on to his pal. She still credits Agnew for his generosity of spirit; something which she believes is quite uncommon in the competitive music world. Months later, she got a call and was asked to join Celtic Woman, the Irish female singing group that went on to conquer the US and beyond.
It was a dream come true and one that she had dreamed about for many years.
Growing up in Knockananna, Co Wicklow, the eldest of five, Orla was steeped in music. As her father would drive along, he would hum songs and she and her sister would have to name the tune. Orla was the little girl who sang into her hairbrush facing the mirror, dreaming of singing to big audiences.
"I was very quiet as a child but you couldn't stop me singing," she says. By the time she got to secondary school – Mount Sackville – she started playing the harp and singing along with it. She became obsessed with the Irish singer-harpist Mary O'Hara.
"I remember Sister Eugene, the music teacher, telling me that I would meet very nice people through the harp and I might even meet a nice boyfriend. But a lot of boyfriends got so sick of me with the harp, lugging the blooming thing around."
When she wasn't in school singing and playing, she was organising children's choirs at home during the holidays. Music was her life. "I'm a big dreamer. You grow up singing in the parish hall in Knockananna and you dream about singing in places like Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall, and then I did."
Being part of Celtic Woman was like a dream come true. Orla was in the group from 2004 until 2008, but as time went on, she found the lengthy tours hard to take. The first tour was only four weeks long but before she left she was in floods of tears at the airport.
"I'm a real homebird and up until then the longest that I'd ever been away from home was a fortnight. That was on my honeymoon and even then, I phoned home every day.
"I didn't want to go on tour but John was so supportive and he told me that it'd be a great opportunity. He was right."
After they were seen on PBS television in the US, Celtic Woman played to packed houses and standing ovations became the norm. Orla was living her dream, but she found the six-month tours the toughest of all.
By that stage, there were other things going on too. Orla wanted to start a solo career and also, a family. She left Celtic Woman to pursue these goals.
The career took off and many people who had been fans of hers in Celtic Woman followed her new career. She stopped being on the road with the group but ended up going back on the road with her solo career. She had done two PBS shows on her own and knew that she had to work hard touring if she wanted to crack America.
"Someone once said to me, there's a big stage for you in America and I always had itchy feet to go there. America is a place of great opportunity and they love the Irish. If you're willing to work, you'll do well.
"My parents have always been great workers – my father was in the meat business and my mother was a school principal – and I got a great work ethos from them."
All the while her yearning for motherhood grew stronger. While with Celtic Woman, she would see families in the audience, with their sweet children smiling up. She wanted a slice of that life.
"You'd get this ache in your heart," says Orla.
Friends and colleagues were becoming pregnant too.
"You're delighted for everybody but every time you'd hear that someone was pregnant, it was hard. Everybody presumes that you'll have a family, but it just wasn't happening for us. I was dying to get pregnant and each month I'd almost imagine that I was. It was tough."
Sometimes people's comments would wound her to the quick.
"Some would just presume that you had children and ask me how many did I have. Others don't care what they say to you. I remember one person saying – 'What's the story with you? Are you just not going to bother having kids?' I remember getting very upset. I would never ask anybody about children because I've been there, done that.
"People think it's the easiest thing in the world to have a baby but I think that a lot are finding out that it isn't at all easy."
They toyed with the idea of doing IVF, but Orla tells me that she is a nervous patient who faints at the sight of a needle for a simple blood test. In the end, they decided to try to adopt a baby.
"We thought at least at the end of adoption we'd definitely get a baby," she says.
"The adoption thing was a long and gruelling process and it took us six years. It was very invasive."
Once they got the declaration to say that they were suitable to adopt, they thought that it would only be a matter of time before they'd get a baby.
Instead they were blighted with bad luck. Each country they tried – China, Vietnam and Thailand – closed down for adoptions.
Time was passing and they were told that their declaration would be out of date, so they would have to endure the process again.
"I was working away, trying to keep busy and distract myself but it became all-consuming. We were on holidays in France and we were worn out with the whole thing. We'd always talk about the day when we would be parents, but you're nearly fantasising about it. I remember saying to John, I don't think it's to be. We were lucky that we had a great relationship and we decided together that we wouldn't talk about babies any more.
"It was very hard because you do grieve for the things you're not going to have. We were both really sad but eventually we ended up having a laugh again. We never let it take over. There are plenty of couples who don't have children and are happy. We decided that we would be the same. "
"My mother was amazing. We used to have long chats and she'd say, 'Put it out of your head but you never know.' My aunt Marie, in Kerry, said the same."
And so, life carried on.
Orla's singing career was soaring and then the lullaby album was about to happen. She became engrossed in the preparations, finding a variety of interesting songs, including Coldplay's Yellow.
In January 2011, Orla felt strange and had a suspicion that she might be pregnant.
"I didn't say a thing to anyone. I just felt different but then I had imagined myself pregnant so many times before. I did a pregnancy test three times just to be sure and then I went to my GP to confirm it. I was bursting to tell people. At first I was worried by how many glasses of wine I had over the Christmas, but everything was fine."
When she passed the three-month mark, Orla flew to Kansas to record her lullaby album. She carried a picture of the scan and a prayer to St Gerard – the patron saint of pregnancy.
"I felt nervous flying on my own but then I thought I'm not alone, I'm with my baby.
"My producer said that I sang better than I ever sang in my life. It was really special. They dimmed the lights in the recording booth and they really minded me. Of all the things that I've ever done, this project is the closest to my heart."
Freddie was born on September 3, 2011. Since then, Orla and John have been pinching themselves.
She is giddy with excitement as she tells me about their new life.
"In the evenings, we race each other up the stairs if he wakes up. And if we're out, we almost fight over pushing the buggy. I'm covered in baby sick all the time but I don't care," she says, with a hundred-watt smile.
"I've heard amazing pieces of music down through the years but nothing compares to Freddie's chuckles."
Sometimes there are happy endings.
'Lullaby Time' with singer /harpist Orla Fallon is available at www.orlafallon.com, in Celtic Note, Nassau St, Dublin and on iTunes. Orla will be at The Pregnancy and Baby Fair in the RDS on April 13 and 14, 9am-6pm