Sisters are doing it for themselves
Roisin and Cliona Maher are putting on a festival of women composers through the ages for Clonmel
When Roisin and Cliona Maher were children, they loved pretending they were Mary and Laura Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie. They took it too far one day and burned a patch of the bedroom carpet with candles - well, Walnut Grove didn't have electricity in the 1870s. Although they did their best to disguise it, their younger sister Derbhile, aka Carrie Ingalls, let slip to their dad that they had a secret. He soon wheedled it out of her and the jig was royally up.
The family lived above their dad Seamus's pharmacy in Clonmel, which had its advantages. The girls got to try out make up samples and were able to whisk the old cosmetic stands upstairs when new ones came in to replace them, which their pals loved. Then again, everyone knew the family, so they didn't get away with much, as people calling into their dad or mum Kathleen, who ran a Montessori, could always tell them where they'd been.
Like older siblings everywhere, poor Roisin had to pave the way around discos and curfews while the others glided effortlessly behind in her slipstream. "I had to wear a very traditional cream dress for my debs and be home at 1am," she laments. "Cliona went two years later wearing a black, strapless fishnet dress and she didn't have to be home until 4am. Derbhile went in a red and purple kaftan two years after that and she didn't come home until midday!"
The sisters did music, drama, choral singing and dance growing up and all three pursued careers in the arts. Roisin is a lecturer on the degree course at CIT Cork School of Music, Cliona is manager of South Tipperary Arts Centre, and Derbhile, who lives in Illinois with her husband Chris Fabie and to whom they're also very close, is a musician.
Roisin (49) and Cliona (47) have come together to put on a festival in Clonmel called Finding a Voice, which comprises classical music concerts by women composers. It begins with Hildegard of Bingen in the Middle Ages, through to the Baroque and Romantic eras, and on to the many talented women composers working today. "Women have been writing music for centuries, and I find it strange that, even now, it feels quite radical to programme a concert series featuring music entirely by women," says curator Roisin.
Administered by Cliona, the festival will be hosted by South Tipperary Arts Centre as part of its programme of events to celebrate International Women's Day 2018, and will take place in various venues in the town. Highlights include performances from Voice, a vocal trio from the UK, and a concert double-headed by cellist Kate Ellis and pianist Isabelle O'Connell. Other featured artists include the RTE ConTempo Quartet, Ensemble Dagda, Marie Lemaire and Cappella Lyrica with Mary Hegarty. There will also be a panel discussion on women in the arts.
Working together is going great, they say, and although Cliona teases Roisin for her perfectionism, she has a huge admiration for her sister's "intellectual rigour" and great taste in music and literature. "Roisin always wants everything to be exactly right, which can be infuriating too," she laughs. "She's a fantastic cook, and if you stay with her, she wouldn't just throw up a plate of pasta - you always get the full works. The term 'Kitchen Nazi' has even been used."
Working on the festival together particularly appeals as they spent almost two decades living in different countries. Roisin studied music at UCC and then went to the UK to work and complete a master's degree in opera studies, followed by teaching music for two-and-a half years in Sierra Leone. She worked in arts administration in Dublin and Cork, and now lives in Cork with her husband Michael Kilkelly, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, and their daughters Aisling (11) and Orlaith (nine).
Cliona trained at the Gaiety School of Acting, and worked as an actress before moving into directing. She lived in Chicago for five years, and then worked as an education and outreach officer here and did a master's in modern drama at UCD. She met her Polish husband, Bogdan Wierczynski, who works in IT, and they moved to France for 13 years, where he was raised, They have a son, Killian (eight), who is only five weeks younger than Roisin's daughter Orlaith. The two families get on like a house on fire and holiday together, and Roisin regularly visited Lyon when Cliona lived there.
Cliona was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and thankfully all is well now. Roisin was an amazing support, she says, and she is very grateful that her sister flew over for the operation to look after her and help take care of Killian. Having been ill made her think about the direction she was going in, and Cliona decided to return from France with Bogdan and Killian to be among family and friends and take up the arts centre job. They now live in Clonmel and the sisters' mum Kathleen lives with them. Their dad passed away 18 years ago from cancer.
Even aside from the festival, Roisin and Cliona talk to each other all of the time. "I consider Cliona to be my best friend and admire her energy and positivity," says Roisin. "I would tend to second-guess myself a little bit and am a bit more introverted. I sometimes say she's Frasier and I'm Niles!"
Finding a Voice runs in Clonmel, March 8-10: www.southtippartscentre.ie
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