For most of her life, a crippling lack of self-confidence prevented Susan Quirke from pursuing her music dream. Now having just released her first album, the Limerick native opens up about how the death of a close friend set her on her creative path, leaving Dublin for a life by the sea in Lahinch and how meditation changed her life
Susan Quirke had a dream, but it looked as though it would never be fulfilled. She had sung and played the guitar from a young age, but much as she wanted to record an album, something always held her back — a crippling lack of confidence.
Now that her debut album is finally emerging into the world — in the year that she hits the milestone age of 40 — the Limerick-raised, Clare-based singer can look back at all the insecurities that stopped her.
“I was exceptionally shy as a child,” she says, recalling her early days growing up in the village of Oola, on the Limerick-Tipperary border. “If anybody asked me to sing back then, I would literally start to physically shake. And I think that’s more common than we might realise. We can take that into adulthood — the fear of stepping out of our comfort zone and being seen, and to share our gifts.”
As a meditation teacher, she is comfortable talking about feelings — and articulating them. “I just didn’t have the confidence or the self-belief,” she says, thinking back to her early 30s when the urge to release her own music kept getting suppressed by her own insecurities. “A lot of it boils down to unworthiness — not feeling that my voice had any relevance or importance.
“I’d see other people doing it, but I found it hard to get to the point where it felt realistic that I could do it too. And, for years, I would have been working, supporting other people to create art or to creative stuff. It was something I loved doing, but I wasn’t following my own dream.”
But a comment from a popular American author and motivational speaker had resonance for her: “I love that Brené Brown quote — she says it takes huge courage to get into the arena yourself and create something and put yourself out there. And she’s right, because you’re exposing your vulnerabilities when you do that. When you’re in your sitting room and picking up your electric guitar to write a song; you’re coming from a place of your insides and your soul and you’re not really thinking, ‘Oh, someone’s going to be listening to this and critiquing it.’ It took me time to come to a place of power and connection with my own voice and worth as an artist.”
In a world that tends to elevate youthful endeavours above others — see all those newspaper articles about the best artists under 30, for instance — Quirke’s late blooming is something to celebrate. And her album, Into the Sea, is a bewitching statement of intent, a true labour of love.
“The sea has always meant so much to me,” she says, speaking on Zoom from her home in Lahinch, Co Clare. “Even now, looking out the window, I can see the Atlantic and it brings me great comfort.”
A stint in California next to the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean provided the inspiration for the album’s soothing opener, Lemuria, and her years spent living in Dublin was enhanced by her proximity to the Irish Sea.
“I didn’t write it with the intention of it being a concept album,” she says, “but it’s sort of turned out that way.”
Into the Sea was made possible thanks to collaborations with several leading Irish musicians, including Colm Mac Con Iomaire — that’s his fiddle on the lovely title track — Colm Quearney and Graham Hopkins. The album was partly recorded in Dublin and mastered in France with the ever-busy producer David Odlum at the helm.
Irrespective of what happens to the album — whether it finds an audience or not — Quirke says the pleasure of making it was its own reward. “There’s something lovely with being in a room with such amazing musicians,” she says. “Most of them were men. Like, I’m this green, naive artist coming into a room with her songs, but there was something so gorgeous about being held by all these men. I felt so supported by all of them and that elevated me to shine. For once, I was at the centre of the wheel and people were coming around me to share my gifts.
“That was an experience I had never had before and it was healing — just like I had done for some many others over the years.”
There was another catalyst in helping Quirke to get the album done — the death from cancer of her close friend, Fiona Fay. “She knew that I was singing — I was singing covers and messing about. Fiona was a writer and she was writing a screenplay for a movie. She went, ‘Suze, I want you to write a song for this.’ She told me what it was about.
“I’d never considered writing music before, but one day, I was washing the dishes in the house in Dublin at about 11 o’clock at night and I had this feeling in my body and in my mind that I just had to write a song. I was, like, clawing at the dishes in the sink going, ‘No! I don’t want to.’ I won’t call it silly — it was a very real resistance to picking up the guitar — but then I went into the sitting room and 20 minutes later, a song was there. A whole song just flew out of me — and that was my first one. That was a big moment for me, because it was a case of, ‘Oh — I can do this.’”
Looking back, she believes Fiona Fay was instrumental on putting her on the creative path she has been on ever since. “I’m constantly blowing her kisses and sending her love. I was very privileged at the time [of her death] because I was one of the people she wanted around her. It was very beautiful in that the closer she got to her death, it’s like the ‘lighter’ she became — her eyes were sparkling and her skin was almost radiant. And in the last weeks before she passed away, I was playing her songs from the album. I was able to show her that I had heeded her call — I was making music.”
Quirke’s husband, the social justice advocate Ruairí McKiernan and founder of the youth information website, SpunOut.ie, is a key part of her story too. “The album wouldn’t exist without Ruairí. He is just the most beautiful person I’ve ever met — he’s just constantly supporting me and guiding me and giving me kicks up the bum.
“We’re together 13 years and when he first heard me sing, he loved my voice. ‘You’re cool!’ he’d say. ‘Keep that up.’”
Last year, McKiernan wrote a book, Hitching for Hope — part memoir, part travelogue. In it, he talked candidly about burnout and wanting to escape the rat race. He and Quirke managed to do that two years ago, when they left their lives in Dublin behind and forged a new ones next to the wild Atlantic.
“I absolutely love Dublin and had so many great memories there,” she says, “but it just became such an expensive place in which to live. You’d feel that all your disposable income was going on rent. And when you add up all that you had paid [in rent], it’s just…” Her voice trails away.
“We were just under too much pressure — and bad as our rent was, we knew people paying much higher rents — so we took the leap and came to Clare. It’s been really good to us.”
The couple found a house to rent in Lahinch for a fraction of what they were paying in Dublin. Quirke says they are saving diligently and hoping to own their own home one day. “Ruairí and I both love travelling, but I think there comes a point in life when you want to drop an anchor and buy your own home.
“The housing crisis isn’t just in Dublin,” she adds. “Clare has that problem as well. I mean, there are some cases where people rent houses here for nine months and then they’re kicked out for tourists.”
The pandemic has upended the lives of so many, but Quirke says it has opened opportunities for her meditation work. All her classes are taught online now and she is grateful that technology has allowed her to connect with people from all over the world.
Quirke is passionate about wellness and mental health. “I’ve been meditating for a decade,” she says. “I had just been dabbling in it, but then a few years ago, I went though a bit of a burnout, so I decided to explore it on a deeper level. I learnt this technique, and the lovely thing about it is, you don’t need anything outside of yourself and you don’t need anyone to guide you; you just get your bum on a seat and you close your eyes to start the practice.
“Daily meditation has had such a radical and profound impact on my life. I know those words are overused, but I was able to look within myself for power. Quite often, we look outside of ourselves for answers. In school, for instance, we’re never taught how to turn inwards — it’s all about external validation. There’s something about closing your eyes… you’re diving into yourself. And when you do that again and again, you’re laundering so much stress and anxiety from your system and you’re just connecting with yourself. Everyday, you’re filling up your own cup.”
Buoyed by the impact this simple daily practice was having on her life, Quirke decided to train to become a meditation teacher. She travelled to New York and Australia to undertake classes. “I’m constantly training to deliver the technique that I learnt.”
Her website is full of glowing endorsements from students all over the world. One of them is from the Munster and Ireland rugby player, Andrew Conway: “I am delighted to say Susan has been a massive reason in the improved quality of both my professional performance, but more importantly, in my life. She’s been incredibly influential on me, as a player and a person.”
She believes meditation can help everyone, but acknowledges that many are sceptical. “There’s a lot of rubbish about what meditation is — that you just fall into this blissful space. That’s not always the case — sometimes, when you’re meditating, your mind can be flying and racing.
“For me, meditation drops you down into a very deep-felt sense of the present. It cracks open the heart and you can feel a deeper sense of love for yourself, for those around you and for the earth. Ultimately, it cultivates a flow of love through the heart — and that can only be a good thing.”
Susan Quirke’s debut album, ‘Into the Sea’, is out now