Entertainment Music

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Making sweet music together

The worries Aoife Nic Athlaoich and Cian O Duill harboured about the age gap between them proved unfounded

Violist Cian O Duill and cellist Aoife Nic Athlaoich met when they were in a string quartet. Photo: Doug O’Connor
Violist Cian O Duill and cellist Aoife Nic Athlaoich met when they were in a string quartet. Photo: Doug O’Connor
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Cian O Duill proposed to Aoife Nic Athlaoich on her 25th birthday, by bringing her a tray in bed containing breakfast, a sunflower and a ring. She said yes and as they were living in London, Cian phoned her dad Micheal to ask for permission.

"It was hilarious as I had never phoned him in my life, so he thought Aoife was dead," laughs Cian. "I speak Irish to Aoife's parents and was nervous, and he was panicked and worried and didn't understand what I was saying for the first few minutes. We got there in the end though and he was delighted."

The moment is even more special, in retrospect, as Aoife's dad, Micheal Mac Athlaoich, passed away aged 70, six months after they got married. "Dad used to do a lot of charity work, and was an amazing, generous person," she says. "He was in India working for Childaid when he had a stroke and died and it was very traumatic to lose him. It's sad that he never met our son Cillian, but he had a very full and meaningful life. He had an amazing impact over there and raised something like €30,000."

Aoife, 32, grew up in Portmarnock in Dublin, and began playing cello when she was six. Her parents were secondary school teachers, and her mum, Orla Ni Annrachain, also played cello, which she taught at Alexandra College in Dublin.

Cian and Aoife met in 2001 in Cork, when they were part of a string quartet giving education workshops. They developed feelings for each other that week. "Everything was very easy and effortless," says Aoife. "Cian is very generous and loving, and I thought he was very handsome. I was falling for him, but was worried because I was 17 and he was 24. I didn't expect that I would end up going out with this guy, especially as Cian's group were the people we looked up to in the senior orchestra."

Cian, 39, is from Wilton in Cork, and is the son of Siobhan, who works for Gaelachas Teoranta, and retired garda Sean. He started playing violin and piano at six and knew by the age of 13 that he wanted to pursue a career in music. "I changed teacher at 15, and he said I should try the viola," he says. "I was horrified because the viola gets such bad press and there are many jokes about viola players, so my dignity as a violinist was offended. I took it home that week and loved it straight away."

At 19, Cian went to do his BMus at the Royal Academy of Music in London for four years. He worked for a year with a string quartet, and then returned to Ireland for a few years. He met Aoife during this time. "Aoife was a lot younger than me but I felt a very strong attraction instantly," says Cian. "She is beautiful, but also beautiful on the inside, and we had such a laugh together. I was very struck by her drive and intensity and her passion for playing the cello. She had a fieriness while playing, and it's in her personality as well."

Aoife felt "heavy-hearted" when the week was over, but something clicked between herself and Cian on the train back to Dublin. They are now together 15 years and have a four-year-old son Cillian. Shortly after they got together, Aoife moved to London for two years to study music at the Royal Academy of London. She then went to Italy for a year to take lessons, and moved back to London to finish her studies, at which point Cian moved over and joined her.

They started living together in 2004, and were freelancing and playing with different orchestras and groups. They got married in Kinsale in 2009, and moved back to Ireland in 2012 along with baby Cillian. They are currently in the process of buying a house in Douglas, Cork, and say it's wonderful having family support on both sides around Cillian, particularly as they work freelance and are members of the Irish Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra has concerts this week celebrating a three-year collaboration with Russian-born pianist Igor Levit, as well as April concerts, 1916 - Revolution & Rhetoric, directed by violinist Katherine Hunka and narrated by Des Keogh.

"This week's concerts are a project with one of our artistic directors, Jorg Widmann, who is huge in Germany," Cian explains. "We play some of his wild crazy music, and we 'kill' the cellist in the end, so Aoife 'dies' and there's a lot of shouting. It's pretty crazy and great fun. Jorg has invited the whole orchestra to play in Germany every April for the next three years, and it's a big honour for us."

Aoife says that while she is still as fiery and impulsive as she was when she first met Cian, he is more laid-back and level-headed. They are good for one another, as he helps her to step back and think of the bigger picture, while she spurs him on when he's being over-cautious.

"Cian is an incredible dad, and such a caring, generous and loving husband," says Aoife. "He always puts other people before himself. We love nature and the quiet outdoors, as music is quite an indoor and a noisy pursuit - even though it's incredible noise. We also love cooking, and while it's hard for all parents to juggle work and children, we get a lot of time at home too, which is a bonus. We hope to have a sibling for Cillian, but just need to sort the house-buying first."

The Irish Chamber Orchestra perform Mendelssohn, Widmann and Weber at UCH, Limerick, on Tuesday at 8pm, and Round Room, Mansion House, Dublin, on Wednesday at 7.30pm. They will perform 1916 - Revolution & Rhetoric in the Mansion House at 7.30pm on April 6, St Mary's Cathedral at 8pm on April 7 and Glor, Ennis, at 8pm on April 8. www.irishchamberorchestra.com

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