Monday 20 November 2017

Poles apart, but it worked

The love of music has been a unifying bond for clarinettist John Finucane and singer Marzena Ruzak

John Finucane and Marzena Ruzak became engaged six weeks ago in France and hope to get married next year, probably in Pioland. Photo: Fergal Philips.
John Finucane and Marzena Ruzak became engaged six weeks ago in France and hope to get married next year, probably in Pioland. Photo: Fergal Philips.
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Two years after his wife Siobhan died, musician John Finucane visited L'eglise de la Madeleine in Paris while playing clarinet there. He isn't overly religious, but prayed to meet somebody special, as he was sad and upset. He bought a Mary Magdalene chain on the way out and started wearing it, and three weeks later, met Marzena Ruzak from Poland in Walton's music shop in Dublin. He later found out that her full name is Marzena Magdalena Maria.

The ebullient John, 60, was in Walton's looking for a new piano, and Marzena, 36, used to pop in regularly because she missed having an instrument here. They started chatting, and it ended up with John accompanying Marzena on a rendition of As Time Goes By, which drew a crowd, much to their embarrassment. They went for coffee and hit it off instantly, so went for a walk in Stephen's Green, dinner and drinks. They are now together five years.

"It's hard to move on after a partner dies," admits John. "The age gap was also a factor, but we discussed it an awful lot. Marzena and I were both really relaxed with each other and I found her to be quite shy, but in a really lovely way. She is very beautiful, and for me, it was her eyes that attracted me. We met up very often after that, and became serious two months later, but the relationship came in waves, as we both receded every now and again and then came back."

The gentle Marzena is from the village of Charlupia Mala in Poland, and is the second-eldest of Krystyna and Stanislaw Ruzak's four children. Her dad was a lorry-driver and worked on a farm, while her mum was a sales assistant. Marzena studied both youth social work at college and the art of music, and hoped to work as a youth mediator. She came to Ireland in 2008, planning to stay six months, encouraged by her friend Justyna, who is married to Stephen Flynn of The Happy Pear.

"I had split up with my boyfriend of five years and had finished my work experience but there wasn't a job for me," she says. "I never planned on staying here but I liked it."

With limited English, Marzena started working on the checkouts in SuperValu, Churchtown, and now works in the office. She had her voice trained and has sung at over 300 weddings and in choirs. Musical talent runs in the family, as her sister, Edyta, is in a Polish pop band.

John is from Blackrock and is the eldest of Wynifred, now in her mid-90s, and the late Patrick's four children. He played clarinet and piano, and went to Trinity College to study music. He played for various orchestras and was offered the principal clarinet position with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra in 1995. He has conducted the orchestra and is a soloist, and also teaches at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

John met his late wife, violinist Siobhan Ni Cheileachair, in the youth orchestra, and they were married straight after college. They had a daughter, Caitriona, 35, and son Ciaran, 32, and Caitriona has two children, Evelyn, 4, and Oisin, 1, whom John and Marzena adore. Siobhan tragically passed away seven years ago in a fire at the family home in Monkstown, having developed a degenerative brain disease. "I came home and saw our house on fire," John says, sadly. "It wasn't a gigantic fire, but it was enough to do the damage. Losing Siobhan was heart-breaking and very traumatic for everyone, as she was very pleasant and everyone was very fond of her. We were in the situation of first love, which is special."

Marzena found John to be a happy, very positive person. She knew the relationship was serious when she told her sisters about him, but found it difficult explaining that he was older and had a family - understandably, as she's only a year older than his daughter. Luckily, they loved John when they met him in Poland at her nephew's communion and brother's wedding. "John is a very good-hearted man and is interested in many areas of life, like music and art," she says. "I always learn a lot from him because he has so many interests. There are differences in dating Irish men, as Polish people deal with things differently to the Irish. We take things very seriously, whereas Irish people are more relaxed."

Aside from his full-time job with the RTE NSO, who perform every Friday night at the National Concert Hall and some Tuesday lunchtimes, John is the founder of next weekend's three-day Music in Monkstown festival, which is in its second year and is arranged by a committee of people living in the area. This year's programme features five afternoon and evening concerts over three days, ranging from solo piano to string quartets to operatic arias featuring music by Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Handel, Mozart, alongside the ancient music of Java. Performers include pianist Philip Martin, soprano Celine Byrne, and the London-based Navarra String Quartet."Seeing the audience's concentration and enjoyment last year was amazing, and we were thrilled with the positive comments," says John.

The musician proposed to Marzena six weeks ago over dinner on the second-last night of their holiday in the south of France. They're now planning their wedding, which will probably happen next year and probably in Poland. Marzena, who sings in a Polish church choir, says her family is very happy about her engagement, and when asked, replies that she would like to have a family of her own.

"It would be more difficult for me, but I'm not saying no," says John. "We will wait and see, as we both believe we are being guided in life so it isn't ruled out. Marzena has made me enjoy life again and has healed me as much as she could have. We laugh all the time and have a lot of fun. I love hearing her sing and playing piano for her - we do a lot of that at home."

Music in Monkstown runs next Friday to Sunday at Church of Ireland Parish Church. Tickets from or at the door (€10 afternoon/€20 evening) with a special weekend pass for all five concerts for €60.

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