Pianist Fionnuala Moynihan reckons that it's thanks to her soprano sister Deirdre that she's an expert on 1980s music. The sisters grew up in a house steeped in traditional music, but when Deirdre went to her first disco at 11, she didn't know the words to any songs. Anxious to catch up, the radio was permanently playing after that in the room she shared with Fionnuala, who was five years younger. It was probably hard to see it, mind you, given that they also shared the room with over 100 cuddly toys.
Deirdre and Fionnuala come fifth and last, respectively, of Eileen and the late Pat Moynihan's seven children, and grew up in Bishopstown, Cork. "We all got on very well," says Deirdre. "When there are seven of you, there's always someone to pal around with if you fall out with someone else."
Their parents had a huge interest in music, but sadly, their dad passed away from cancer in December, and is much missed, as they were all very close. He was a primary school teacher, like their mum, and was also involved in the music scene in Cork. "It has been a really hard time, but our mum is amazing and she's getting out and about," says Deirdre. "She has great siblings and friends, so she has a lot of support and is doing as well as she can. Dad was always a larger-than-life character so a lot of people miss him. He played the accordion and was a great person for music, and even when we went on holiday, he would book us all into a pub to do a gig. He taught all of us at school and was very popular. He used to teach extra things like science and the school band, so he was fun as well as a good teacher. It was a nice country school, and there wasn't any bullying because we were his children, but obviously we had embarrassing moments of calling our teacher 'Dad' in class."
As well as the tin whistle, which was taught to them by their dad in the car going to school, Deirdre started playing violin at eight. She began singing lessons at 18, which changed her life, as she loved singing classically. She actually studied electrical engineering at UCC, but knew by the end that she would prefer a career in music. Having spent four years with the National Chamber Choir, she left to pursue a solo career, and combines this with working as programming manager with Music Network.
"I admire that when Deirdre puts her mind to something she will definitely do it," says Fionnuala. "We get on very well when we work together and have a good laugh when we're rehearsing. I still ask her advice on things. What I envy about her is that she runs marathons, which is something that I would love to do."
Fionnuala started piano lessons at six, and went to the Birmingham Conservatoire for a degree in music performance. She won a scholarship to the Paris Conservatoire after that, and then got a three-year scholarship to study piano in Budapest. She loved living abroad, and when she came back, she completed a master's in music and a doctorate in music performance. She now combines playing and recording with teaching piano at NUI, Maynooth, and has been in a relationship with her boyfriend Tim, a project manager, for the past three years.
Older sister Deirdre says that the family find Fionnuala's new-found knowledge around sport to be very entertaining because while she was never the slightest bit interested before, she has acquired all sorts of facts about matches and players since being with Tim. "We went to see Real Madrid recently, and while I still wouldn't be into sport, if Tim wants to bring me on holiday to see a match, well I definitely don't mind," says Fionnuala with a laugh.
Deirdre says that Fionnuala is very determined, creative and generous with how she goes about things. She loves that they all advise one another as a family, and are direct in their responses. "Not everything we do works out, so we have to be able to just try something new and get an honest opinion on it," she says. "We're brutally honest, even if we don't always get the reaction we want."
She and Fionnuala both live in Dublin now, and meet up regularly for dinner and a glass of wine. They're also both into fashion and love going into town shopping together. "Fionnuala has a great shoe collection, but she's a size bigger than me unfortunately," says Deirdre. "None of us are too tall so it's a height thing, and all of the girls are mad about high heels, which we got from our mother."
All of their siblings play instruments, and they often get together as a family group. Six of them toured Japan, Warsaw and Budapest together in recent years, which was great fun. Their brother Kieran is also living in the capital, and if any of them are doing a concert, they will go along and support each other.
The sisters will be performing together at this week's KBC Great Music in Irish Houses, Ireland's longest-running chamber music festival, which presents artists who will excite audiences with an array of performances from Beethoven to Brahms, and Ravel to Reich, across 10 unique venues. This year, there's a day-long series of concerts to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of WB Yeats, and the sisters have put together a fabulous recital, based on texts that inspired composers to write about him, like Down by the Salley Gardens.
"It's always special doing a concert with someone you are very close to and you trust as a musician." says Deirdre. "Fionnuala and I are so used to playing together and know instinctively what we're going to do on stage. We were doing a concert in a school in Cork recently, and I noticed one of the students pointing at a huge spider by my feet. I'm terrified of them, but luckily I was able to communicate with Fionnuala through glances and we immediately changed places."
Deirdre Moynihan (soprano) and Fionnuala Moynihan (piano) will perform at noon on Sunday June 14 at the Hugh Lane Gallery, as part of the KBC Great Music in Irish Houses festival, which takes place from Tuesday to Sunday. www.greatmusicinirishhouses.com
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