LIFE can often involve wearing a mask. We strive so much to keep the façade up of who we are supposed to be that we often lose track of who we are. We hide weakness, insecurity and pain and put on a performance. Like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in The Beatles song we wear a face that we keep in a jar by the door.
Members of the Cork High Hopes choir, who have all been impacted by homelessness, are not inclined to don masks. Walking in to the rehearsal room next to the Holy Trinity Church on a dreary night in December I was immediately met by the raw honesty and sincerity that comes with having lived lives touched by pain.
Men on one side of the tiny church hall, women on the other and director, choral expert and opera singer Sonya Keogh smack bang in the middle with a personality and charisma that iss bordering on infectious.
Sonya has been rehearsing with the choir twice weekly for nine months. In that time the choir members have learned dozens of songs. More importantly friendships have blossomed.
Choir member David Dunne became ill over the summer and later had to undergo a triple bypass. Sonya said David has received a sea of visitors during his stay in hospital because of the strong bonds forged at rehearsals.
“It is the daily routine of some of the choir members to visit him in hospital. They are now all his ‘cousins.’ David will be going to rehab in St Finbarr’s and hopes to be back in the choir soon.”
The choir director says her experience working with the choir has genuinely deepened her faith in humanity.
“People in this room have all experienced a hard time. They have been put upon and none of them want to put upon anyone else. Being involved with the choir has completed my sense of society. I feel extremely grateful for my job. I go into this Christmas and New Year with a great sense of hope. I have been humbled and educated. There is tremendous social good in our city.”
Choir members meanwhile say that being involved has helped them to lose themselves twice a week. During rehearsals there is no talk of suffering or difficulty. They empty their minds of problems, worries and fears and concentrate on getting a phrase right or interpreting a song in the most authentic manner possible.
When we were there, a discussion arose about the correct pronunciation of the macaronic Christmas song Feliz Navidad with member Jimmy B insisting that the correct way to say it involved accenting the z at the end of Feliz.
Much merriment ensued and the Christmas song, which is known throughout the Spanish-speaking world, was given its own Cork twist.
Sonya also jokes with members about turning Christmas songs in to dirges eventually pleading “Lads, it’s Christmas not a funeral.” Members of the choir have performed for President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin and were gearing up for performances in Dublin and Waterford when we met them. They were also filmed for an RTÉ documentary with much banter on the night about how one female choir member loved the limelight.
Choir member Carey Hanover said attending the choir rehearsal gives her a much-needed social outlet.
“It gets me out of the flat. Sonya and her assistant Eimear have just been fantastic. I had a rough patch. It has been amazing. I can’t explain it. We have done loads of songs. Christmas is a hard and lonely time of year. You forget all your problems in here. It’s the small things that make the difference.”
Carey (above) came to the choir having sung in her local church as a youngster. In her early-30s, she spent nine months at Edel House residential centre for homeless women.
“It was the toughest time in my life. Asking for help is so important. Wellsprings helped me so much. The choir has also been brilliant for me. It was amazing going to Áras and Uachtaráin.”
Carey is doing back-to-work training with the Wellsprings service which provides aftercare for young women and helps them in independent living.
She now lives in a Rental Accomodation Scheme (RAS) flat in Cork city.
The back-to-work scheme involves communications skills, childcare, sewing, personal effectiveness, manicure courses and even gardening when the weather permits.
Jimmy O’Brien became homeless at 18. He found himself in a homeless shelter but due to overcrowding, was transferred to an old people’s home for 2-3 months.
“I was only a young fella and going in to that kind of scene was rough,” he says.
Jimmy, left, writes song lyrics as a way to work through problems he he’s had in life.
He says he doesn’t want any more ‘drama’ and stays away from people who cause it telling them ‘if they want it [drama] they should watch the soaps’.”
The 25-year-old’s big dream is to make a living as a songwriter.
It’s all possible, he says, as he never for a second imagined that he would end up singing for the President of Ireland.
“Being at the President’s tea party was a great day out. It was brilliant. Recently life is rough again. But I am jumping the hurdles and getting on with it”. His life motto is to ‘keep on going on’.
“ I often think ‘is it worth it all?’But I deal with anger by coming here singing. Every day I say to myself just ‘keep on going on’.”
For the past three years, Jimmy has been living at Sophia Housing on Cork’s Douglas St.
Choir member Cora Meade, 32, wouldn’t be without the close friends she has met in the choir. She says the twice-weekly 90-minute rehearsals have put a structure and routine on her life.
Cora, below left, says life has been “incredibly tough” since 2009. Having been homeless, she lives in accommodation in the city.
“What happened to me was totally unexpected. Life was fine and then it wasn’t. My life fell apart overnight and I am still picking myself back up. There has been a big improvement in my life. There is always going to be work to be done but when I come in here, it isn’t about bringing what’s going on in here in with me but about taking myself away from it for the hour-and-a-half.”
Blessed with an upbeat spirit Cora says the choir tease her mercilessly as her hair has gone through about 10 colour transformations in the nine months of the choir.
“It has been purple, blonde, red, brown and auburn. I come in and they say ‘you have changed it again.’ We have so much fun in here. I just get away from my troubles.”