Saturday 14 December 2019

Classical: Ronnie Dunne's ambition paves way for other vocalists

All the world's a stage: Veronica Dunne, who starting singing at age 11.
All the world's a stage: Veronica Dunne, who starting singing at age 11.

George Hamilton

Once every three years, Dublin plays host to an international singing competition. So far, so straightforward. But the circumstances of the emergence of what's become a highlight of musical life in the capital and beyond wouldn't be out of place in the screenplay for a movie.

The story of the lady behind it is already the subject of a book, about which more anon.

Veronica Dunne was born in August 1927, very much the youngest of three - there were 14 years between her and the eldest, her brother Bill. A bit of a tomboy when she was young, Bill reckoned her name didn't fit. Their dad agreed, they nicknamed her Ronnie, and that's what she's been ever since.

Though she started singing at 11, it was ponies that were of more interest to her.

In the days when school broke at lunchtime so that you could head home for a hot meal, Ronnie and a pal would mitch off in the afternoon, head for the stables at Tallaght, and go off for a hack in the Dublin mountains.

She was a fierce competitor too, winning her first rosette at an event in Swords after riding her Connemara all the way to the venue with its feed strapped to its back. There was no chance of a horsebox in those days of 1940s austerity.

But Ronnie was serious about her music too, and had ambitions to study in Italy. When a priest from Kerry came calling and heard her sing, happenstance had its day.

Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty was based in Rome, and offered his assistance in helping her find a place there.

Making this dream come true, though, proved a little more problematic than might have been imagined. Funding to get there wasn't the issue - Ronnie simply sold her pony. The £125 she got would go a long way to getting her started.

The difficulty was with paying for her keep once she was there. With exchange controls in place, she could take the £125, but a monthly cheque from her dad would be in breach of regulations.

The Dunnes made a trip to the Department of Finance and met no less than the then secretary, Sarsfield Hogan.

He'd let this allowance go through on one condition - that Ronnie would promise she'd come back one day and teach the young people of Ireland to sing.

At the time, she'd no intention of teaching, but at Covent Garden and beyond, singing alongside greats like Joan Sutherland and Kathleen Ferrier, she developed a desire to keep her promise, and a second career as a teacher at DIT College of Music took off.

When she called it a day, they put on a benefit concert for her. It raised £20,000.

With the Friends of the Vocal Arts in Ireland that she had helped set up, Ronnie put the money together with her retirement bonus, and the competition was born.

That was in 1995, when only Irish singers were involved. It's expanded considerably now, and its eighth edition is truly international, drawing competitors from 22 countries.

Celine Byrne, Cara O'Sullivan, and Tara Erraught are just three of the Irish singers who've made careers in opera with the help of Ronnie Dunne.

After the opening round last night, this year's competition continues in the National Concert Hall next week with the final on Thursday evening.

Ronnie by Alison Maxwell, recently published by Ashfield Press, has more about the competition, and the drama and excitement, not to mention the raucousness and hilarity, of the life of Veronica Dunne.

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