Monday 23 April 2018

Thank you for the music - ‘When I saw the ad, I knew this was for me’

As the High Hopes Choir prepares for their St Patrick's Festival performance, Tanya Sweeney looks at how the singing group has helped the homeless find their voice

Empowering: Members of the High Hopes Choir during rehearsals at The Lab
Empowering: Members of the High Hopes Choir during rehearsals at The Lab

Tanya Sweeney

Few people would feel comfortable entering a room full of strangers, but for Dubliner Maria Byrne, walking into the rehearsal room of the High Hopes Choir was terrifying.

"I was so scared, but not in a bad way," she admits. "I was just very nervous and very, very shy."

There was more to it than just nerves. Maria wanted so badly to become part of the much-loved choir, made up entirely of men and women who have experienced homelessness.

After a childhood spent in institutional care, Maria had always loved singing. She had used singing and music, amid unspeakable sexual and physical abuse, as a form of solace. Her journey in the High Hopes Choir would prove to be an emotional one, but she knew that as a member, she would have so much to gain.

After forming fast friendships with other members of the choir, Maria is now chatty and confident. So confident, in fact, that she is helping to teach the sign language class in Crosscare College that she recently took herself.

"I'm not that quiet anymore though - now you can't shut me up," she smiles.

Maria Byrne
Maria Byrne

A decade of counselling helped Maria to overcome depression and a number of suicide attempts and overdoses. After she left institutional care at 18, Maria was particularly vulnerable.

Yet hers was a happy ending - in her 20s, she was reunited with her mother via the Aisling Centre.

She found out that her mother, too, had been living in an institution and was unwell when Maria was born. She also found out she had a younger brother.

"Meeting my mother was absolutely fantastic," recalls Maria. "I looked at her, she looked at me, and she ran over to me and gave me a big hug. It was so brilliant and fantastic that I had a mum. I didn't blame her for anything because we got talking about why she gave me up."

Now, Maria and her mother, who is 84, live together on the Navan Road in Dublin. "I'm so happy I live with my mum now," enthuses Maria. "I've moved on from the past and I don't go back there. I'm out of here, I'm a survivor and I just want to get on with my life now."

If you're a viewer of The Late Late Show, or even an Electric Picnic reveller, it's likely you will have already seen the High Hopes Choir perform. And now, the choir is set to become a highlight of this week's St Patrick's' Day festival. Operating in Dublin, Cork and Waterford, the High Hopes Choir has been supported by a wide range of homeless organisations including Focus Ireland, Dublin Simon Community, St Vincent de Paul and Penny Dinners. And given the emotional, complex and often redemptive journeys of its members, seeing the choir sing with such jubilation and joy can prove a very emotional experience indeed.

Initially a series broadcast on RTE in 2014, the High Hopes Choir was set up by David Brophy, former conductor of the RTE Concert Orchestra, and Glenn Alexander, who has worked in homeless services or two decades. Such was the resounding success of the project that the choir continued to flourish even after the series ended.

Brophy and Alexander's objective was simple: the choir was to help the wider public connect with people who have experienced homelessness, and vice versa, through the universal language of song. High Hopes is certainly helping to change the public's perception of what a person who has experienced homelessness looks like.

"You can see the transformation in them," says Alexander. "I've worked 20 years in homelessness and been involved in so many different projects, and I haven't seen anything like the power of the choir. We don't deal with the issues of homelessness in the songs or the music we sing, but for the people who come in to us, it's about believing in themselves, and feeling they can do anything.

"And when we sing for events like Suicide Prevention week, the lads realise there are other people in need of support and, in some cases, groups or families that are worse off. That in itself is very empowering."

Maria is not the only person who has found strength and confidence through High Hopes. Only a few years ago, Alison Sweeney was a married mother-of-two, working full time in nursing. A collision of tragic events - the death of her mother, a back injury that stopped her from working and the breakdown of an unhappy marriage - saw her suffer a nervous breakdown.

"I had been living in denial and living with a person who wasn't very nice to me, and one day, while my son was doing the dinner, I just went 'this is it', and I walked out and dropped everything," she recalls.

"I ended up living in a flat with a friend of mine and I wasn't dealing with the situation too well. I was probably developing an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. I wasn't sleeping too well. I went to visit my brother in Belfast and that was the start of it, when he and I realised that something was wrong, and he brought me to Vincent's (psychiatric hospital) in Fairview."

Before long, Alison became completely institutionalised, afraid and unsure of even how to boil a kettle. Her path to wellness was rocky: after six months in hospital, she had nowhere to go.

After two months of life outside the hospital, she had a psychotic episode and was readmitted, staying for another year. By that time, her confidence was at an all-time low, while her anxiety was skyrocketing.

A friend helped Alison join the National Learning Network (NLN), where she did courses in applied social studies and addiction studies.

A social worker helped to move her into temporary accommodation, and now Alison lives in an accommodation facility in Dublin with 24 other families. She has the benefit of a long-term tenancy, but eventually would love to return to work and move into private accommodation.

"I was a little bit anxious at the start, but I'm used to it now and it's kind of like home to me," she says.

While visiting the Focus Ireland offices with her social worker, Alison came across a notice about the High Hopes Choir.

"I loved singing and had been involved in amateur musicals, although an ex-partner wouldn't let me do it," she recalls. "As soon as I saw the ad, I knew this was the thing for me. A few years ago, I didn't think I'd be in a choir with such lovely people and going back to college. There was no way I thought it could happen. This is definitely a great way back."

And in hearing the stories of others like her who have had no place to call their own, Alison hopes the High Hopes Choir teaches others about the intricacies of the homelessness situation.

"Like everyone in this world, we are somebody," she says. "We have a mother and father, and we're human beings. We all have skeletons in the cupboard, but we still deserve a roof over our heads."

Home by the High Hopes Choir takes place in The Complex, 15 Little Green St, Smithfield, Dublin 7, today at 8pm. Tickets are €10. For more information, see stpatricksfestival.ie.

Irish Independent

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