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The healing power of music

January 24th, 2017 7:10 AM

By Southern Star Team

Kevin McNally, front, second from left, performing with members of the UCC Gamelan Ensemble at the launch of the new West Cork Gamelan in Skibbereen in late 2016. Kevin, a lecturer in UCC, is now teaching gamelan music in Skibbereen.

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Skibbereen is now home to an Indonesian gamelan – just part of a broader approach using music and the arts to promote positive mental health in West Cork, writes Aisling Meath

Music is the original mood altering, non-fattening wonder drug. Side effects may include, but are not limited to, spontaneous happiness, increased memory and motor function, connection to others, movement of the feet and head, and the occasional persistence of catchy melodies.

Many recent studies have confirmed the therapeutic power of music. Physically non-invasive, and inexpensive, its benefits contribute to wellness in many areas including post-operative and mental health recovery.

West Cork has the advantage of having a dedicated arts and mental health services coordinator Kevin O’Shanahan, who is both a clinical nurse specialist with West Cork Mental Health Services, and musician. This role has seen Kevin initiating many creative arts and musical projects within the community. 

In 2008, he set up ‘MusicAlive’ along with musician Caoimhe Conlon, providing, developing and promoting music in healthcare and community settings.

‘These short days of winter are a time of year people can sometimes tend to feel isolated or lonely. This is a great time to get involved in musical and artistic activity.’ Kevin told The Southern Star recently.

‘We have just received a Creative Communities Award from the Cork County Arts office, and have a lot of exciting plans in the pipeline.’ 

His work has already been the driving force behind many collaborative projects such as the Bantry Community Choir performing with the West Cork Gamelan Ensemble during World Mental Health Week and West Cork Feelgood Festival last October. 

Since then, Skibbereen is now the permanent home to an unusual set of musical instruments. The opportunity to play gamelan is now available under the musical direction of Kevin McNally, lecturer in gamelan at UCC. Gamelan is a word used to describe an Indonesian orchestra made up of tuned percussion instruments.

‘It’s a very rare thing to have a full set of these instruments in a rural town,’ said Kevin McNally. ‘Skibbereen is the only such place in Ireland to have this access. Gamelan is for everybody. You don’t need any special musical training. I would encourage anybody who might be interested to come along – no age or other restrictions apply.’

Kevin O’Shanahan and John Kearney both play. John is delighted he gave gamelan a try when the instruments first arrived and has been hooked ever since.

‘It’s so relaxing – a real chill out time,’ he said. ‘It’s like therapy. You just concentrate on what you are doing and your mind switches off through the rhythm and patterns of the music. It’s like meditation.’

‘The Gamelan project would not have been possible without the support of our partners Cork Education and Training Board, Cork Arts and Health project, The Cope Foundation and Susia Arts,’ said Kevin O’Shanahan.

Joining a choir is one of the easiest ways to access the great benefits of group singing. Studies have concluded that this is an activity containing all of the five major factors identified as contributors to wellbeing. These are to connect, be active, take notice, and keep learning and to give. Indeed there is perhaps no greater gift than a song.

Ita joined the Bantry Community Choir after going through a difficult period in her personal life.

‘I was at a point in my life when I was feeling very isolated. I was looking to socialise somewhere that was not in a pub setting. When I joined the choir it gave me a whole new lease of life. Singing is a great mood lifter, and afterwards you feel energised. People should just give it a try. Sometimes making the first move is hard, but it really is worth it,’ she said.

Bantry Community Choir will be joining forces with John Spillane at The First Fortnight  Festival event ‘Rebel Rhythms’ in Cork, this Saturday, January 14th. The event will also feature a live performance from West Cork-based The Claddagh Rogues with Kevin on drums and singer James O’Flynn. 

Kevin and James started playing music together in 2007 when they met through Kevin’s work with an artist-in-residence scheme in the Cork Simon Community. James had experienced a difficult early life through illness, homelessness and being in prison and being blessed with a great singing voice has been a lifeline to him.

‘Music has always been in my life, even when I was drinking and in solitary in Cork prison, and in hospital, I’d sing away to myself,’ he said.

Now he is looking forward to the Rebel Rhythms event which will see the launch of The Claddagh Rogues’ new album on vinyl entitled ‘For the Record’, the first release on MusicAlive records. 

It will be launched by Dr Pat Bracken, retired Clinical Director of the Centre for Mental Health Care and Recovery in Bantry, and will be a tribute to another founding band member, Mags Kelly, who passed away in 2014.

‘Dr Bracken always championed the role that the creative arts play in mental health wellness and recovery, based on a robust evidence base.  We are fortunate in West Cork that our current clinical director, Professor Marcellino Smyth has continued to support and develop Pat’s vision and legacy to the West Cork community,’ Kevin concluded.

• Rebel Rhythms as part of The First Fortnight Festival challenges mental health stigma through the arts and will take place on January 14th at the Triskel Christchurch, Tobin St, Cork. 12 noon to 5pm. Admission is free. www.firstfortnight.ie.

• The West Cork Gamelan Ensemble meets every Wednesday  at 7.15pm in The Workshop, Mill Road, Skibbereen.

• For more information on Bantry Community Choir see their page on Facebook.

• For more on arts and health activities including The Open Door music sessions at Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre and the Friday Club, contact: [email protected]

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