Rocking out in Galway for Rosabel
The hills of Connemara were alive with the sound of famous musicians performing to honour the memory of baby Rosabel. Barry Egan went along to listen
There can't be many more beautiful places in the world than Connemara at Christmas. When you've lost a child, however, a time of permanent joy like Christmas must feel nothing less than a hell on earth to have to endure.
Sitting by the window of Abbeyglen Castle overlooking the Twelve Bens Mountains, the sea and the village of Clifden on a Sunday night, Suzanne McClean with her husband Gary Monroe beside her explains that she has given up trying to put words to the profound pain they feel...
"It's not just Christmas. Every day of the year is impossibly difficult for us. I have come to accept that life will never be right without her. What is particularly difficult about this time of year is thinking about her loss, not mine. My loss is everyday life now, but Rosabel deserved to know Santa Claus. It is the unfairness of her loss that I can't tolerate.
"Every day is full of suffering for us, but there is also joy. I think people believe that it has to be one or the other, but joy and brokenness can sit at the same table. We have a little boy," she said of seven-year-old Ruben who was also in Connemara last Sunday, "who has already been through so much. We have to keep going for his sake. He is our joy.
"Rosabel's incredible legacy also gives us a great sense of purpose. And look around Abbeyglen tonight. Our friends and loved ones matter so much to us and we matter to them. I am grateful that she was mine. I will always be grateful for that."
Suzanne and Gary's beloved baby daughter died suddenly and unexpectedly in her cot at home in County Galway on April 20, 2017. She was just 16 months old. Suzanne and Gary have directed their grief into Rosabel's Rooms, in partnership with the Irish Hospice Foundation, to help parents in similar situations. The project will provide family-friendly bereavement suites in hospital emergency departments around Ireland, as well as facilitate direct financial support to families and therapeutic supports. Over two nights last Sunday and Monday, some legends of Irish music gathered at Abbeyglen Castle Hotel to show their support for Rosabel's Rooms. And for Suzanne and Gary.
"I'm a big supporter of Rosabel's Rooms charity because these rooms are badly needed for bereaved families. So far, all of the fund-raisers for this cause have been really, really brilliant gatherings of lovely people and always great fun," said musician Sharon Shannon.
"Gary and Suzanne are really close friends of mine, I love them dearly and my heart completely broke for them when their little girl Rosabel died so suddenly. Gary and Suzanne are very much loved by everyone who knows them, and there is huge support for the charity."
"I have huge admiration for Gary and Suzanne," added singer Eleanor Shanley, "because, in the midst of unthinkable tragedy, they made a conscious decision to make the lives of other people in similar circumstances more bearable by starting Rosabel's Rooms."
The X Factor star Brendan Murray continued: "I would have always called to Monroe's [the legendary music venue in Galway city owned by Gary] over the past few years for nights. After I finished in Hometown [the boy-band managed by Louis Walsh] I was doing gigs myself and I got in touch with Gary to see if I could play in Monroe's. Gary told me of the passing of Rosabel and my heart just dropped for him."
On the Sunday night, there was a glorious gala dinner in aid of Rosabel's Rooms at the castle in Connemara. It went on until all hours. This magical repast was attended by actor Kate O'Toole (daughter of actors Peter O'Toole and Sian Phillips), the Mayor of Galway Niall McNelis, TV presenter Jenny Buckley (who is married to Suzanne's brother Garrett), the aforesaid X Factor star from Tuam Brendan (who I sat next to), and many of Suzanne's family and friends from Howth.
Before that, Corina K sang her heavenly composition Sweet Rosabel accompanied by a 20-piece choir, The Tribetones, as everyone looked on, some in tears.
Kate O'Toole told me, accurately: "Rosabel lives on!"
Then, later that night, Sharon Shannon performed a storming spiritual set with her band. Brendan Murray sang Nothing Compares 2U.
The following night Donal Lunny, Eleanor Shanley, Susan O'Neill and many others were added to the mix. It was like Abbeyglen Castle was transformed by the magic of Christmas into not so much the Hard Rock Hotel as the Hard Folk Hotel. A Hotel California in the hills of Connemara - with Sharon Shannon and Donal Lunny instead of the Eagles.
"There was an abundance of talented singers and musicians; I loved every minute of it, and was thrilled to get to play with Sharon," the master himself, Donal Lunny, told me. "Michelle Lally was in brilliant form, and Susan O'Neill's singing of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah was unforgettable. But Suzanne and Gary were the real highlight of the night; they were in everybody's heart, and they gave the occasion emotional warmth which will stay with us all for a long time to come. I wouldn't have missed it for the world."
"The music was absolutely gorgeous, everyone joining in and giving their all to a song," said singer Susan O'Neill. "For me, this is not only a highlight of the night but it is fundamentally what community should be all about."
Mayor of Galway Niall McNelis said: "I witnessed a piano appearing from nowhere and Dr Sharon Shannon still going strong until the early hours."
"One of the biggest moments of the first night for me," said the aforementioned Dr Sharon Shannon, "was seeing the smiles on the faces of Gary and Suzanne. That was worth a million dollars to me.
"There was a huge number of fantastic musicians and singers there and we played tunes and sang songs for two days and nights. Honestly, the whole thing was amazing from start to finish. And even though we were all there to raise money for a very serious cause, and there were a few very poignant and sad moments, overall it was a hugely uplifting few days and the craic was 90 and we've all been buzzing ever since."
Sharon paused for a moment. "Even though there were several brilliant professional musicians and singers there, one of the highlights for me was hearing Gary Monroe singing for the first time." Gary sang My Way. And he sang his guts out.
"It was fantastic. Lots of people who never sang solo before into a microphone had their debut singing experience that night, including myself," smiles Sharon. "I gate-crashed a duet with the amazing singer Brendan Murray and his friend Tommy." They sang My Lovely Horse.
In the bar of the hotel that Monday afternoon with some children in thrall looking on, Donal Lunny played his world famous left-handed bouzouki with the equally feted Miss Shannon on accordion, as Eleanor and Michelle Lally and Corina K and others sang glorious - and impromptu - versions of Wham's Last Christmas, as well as Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and Silent Night. It was heartbreaking to see Suzanne with a close friend's young daughter on her knee sing along with Eleanor et al the words to Silent Night: "Sleep in heavenly peace."
How will they spend Christmas?
Sharon: "I will be with my family in Clare on Christmas Day. Immediately after that I am starting an Irish tour with my four-piece band."
Kate O'Toole: "I'll be in far West Texas for Christmas, in the Chihuahuan Desert. There's an lovely old theatre there where I'm rehearsing a one-woman show in the new year, followed by a small American tour-ette."
Brendan Murray: "I will be at home for Christmas. Mam will cook Christmas dinner and we'll have dinner at home in Tuam. Can't beat being home for Christmas."
Eleanor: "Christmas will be with my partner Brendan and my family - two sisters, one brother, one brother-in-law and a niece and nephew. We all return to Leitrim and spend Christmas Day and St Stephen's Day together. I do all the cooking and I love it!", adding "the stunning countryside of Connemara is good for the soul. The view of sunrise from the Abbeyglen is spectacular as the sun rises over the town and the sea. Almost every time I go to Connemara my plan is to stay one night but it never works out like that as I find it too difficult to leave!"
Sharon chimed in: "I've been going there regularly since I was about 18. I love the wildness and the beauty of the countryside out there and I absolutely love the people. And I love the Abbeyglen for the same reasons, especially the wildness. The Abbeyglen is my favourite hotel in the whole world."
What did they ask Santa for this Christmas?
Brendan: "All I want for Christmas is a recording contract. I hope Santa doesn't forget me this year."
Sharon: "If the wonderful, magical Santa could grant me a wish to come true, I would ask him to end cruel farming of animals for meat, dairy and eggs all over the world."
Eleanor: "I have just started my list. I hope Santa has lots of time to read my letter. It's a long list this year but if he doesn't get around to it I'll settle for world peace!"
I asked the Mayor of Galway who his villain of 2018 was: "Jacob Rees-Mogg and all his pro Brexit head-the-balls."
Brendan Murray laughing: "Simon Cowell. He wasn't my biggest fan in X Factor, there were a few weeks I thought 'Will he ever give me good feedback?' but the villain turned good and we finally became friends. But you know even though I say he was the villain his negative comments pushed me to do better each week."
What does Christmas mean to them?
Eleanor: "It's a time to be with the ones I love most and to catch up with friends."
Brendan: "I have been so busy with X Factor for most of this year I haven't had much time with family and friends so this year I am looking forward to some downtime."
Sharon: "I actually like Christmas. I love that it brings me back to my childhood. Apart from the ridiculous stress of Christmas shopping, etc, which I absolutely despise, there are aspects of Christmas that I love. I love spending time with family and getting cosy around the fire watching movies and eating all around me, etc. I love the Christmas markets and Christmas lights and decorations and the atmosphere that Christmas brings.
"But, saying that, I'm not religious at all. I hate religion, all religions," Sharon said, echoing what James Joyce wrote in A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man: "No God for Ireland! We have had too much God in Ireland. Away with God!"
The beautiful events last weekend in Connemara made us think of another Irishman of words - W.B. Yeats, who wrote: "The host is rushing 'twixt night and day. And where is there hope or deed as fair? Caoilte tossing his burning hair, And Niamh calling Away, come away."
And Rosabel calling away, come away...
Sunday Indo Living