For some people, hitting the open road and leaving it all behind is a lifelong dream, but for Clare-born musician Áine Tyrrell, it was a necessity as she took her three young children into the Australian Outback in a vintage bus to escape domestic violence.
“That was six years ago now,” says Áine, a successful folk musician who has performed at Australia’s Woodford Folk Festival, which attracts about 125,000 people every year.
This story, of her music and mothering alone on the open road, is the subject of a documentary showing at Galway Film Fleadh this weekend,
“When I was at one of my lowest of lows I said, ‘I just want to take off in a bus with my kids.’ Then it turned out my friend knew someone who was selling a bus and it went from there. I just couldn’t sit in the trauma we were in and I needed to be moving."
Her three children were aged 3, 5, and 7, when Áine — whose father is well-known Galway singer Seán Tyrrell — made the decision to take them on the road, as things had become untenable with her partner.
Her children are now aged 10, 12, and 14.
Áine had trained and worked as a primary school teacher and had never planned to live in Australia let alone travel it in a 1960s bus as a single parent.
She had bought a house in Gorey, Co. Wexford, when the recession hit. Australia held the promise of a better life.
“I had both my girls in Ireland, and it was at the time of the financial crisis and we had bought a house in Gorey. We were one of those people who had to hand the keys back.
“My experience with domestic violence began prior to us leaving. The promise was, ‘If we go somewhere sunny and I have a job, it’ll be better.’ We came over here and I got pregnant, and it was very clear things weren't going to change," she says.
“I completely lost myself. If he had said ‘the sky was purple’, I would say ‘OK’. I was dealing with the abuse of myself,” explains Áine.
"But with music and the road I was able to repair my connection to myself and my kids."
It was only when her partner returned to Ireland for a “break” that her children spoke out.
“It took for them to tell me. I wasn't willing to leave the relationship for myself, but when they told me their fear and things he tried to explain away, that’s when I got the courage to try and leave."
Survivors and statistics show it’s a difficult path out of domestic abuse, with family law, court orders, personal safety, and housing all issues that must be navigated.
“You don't just leave, the hardest part is leaving and the boundaries afterwards. I will never feel 100% safe in the world,” says Áine, adding that there was one other issue.
"The Irish Catholic training that you get from Ireland — not from my family — that you forgive and stick by your man; that was really hard to overcome."
But with Australia’s state and court services involved, after her children’s school were made aware of the abuse, the old training didn’t have much of a say in the end.
“The court processes helped me to get myself safe, but they are only a piece of paper, because he'd come back, he'd go away, there would be threats, online abuse, and the reality that I am a musician and you're telling people where your shows are.
“There were 76 breaches of the order before he got charged with breaking it, and the judge who gave me full custody said, ‘How has he not been charged yet?'
“But people like him are very good at keeping things in the grey area."
Even now with Áine’s documentary coming out, she feels physically vulnerable.
It’s the same feeling as when she had just left the relationship and they had to wait several months for the bus to be ready. When the 1966 bus was finally fixed up with its bunk beds and shower, her family of four’s new life began.
"Getting on the road and looking into horizons literally meant we were looking into the future too. We became so close.
“We met ‘grey nomads’ — they’re older people who sell up their homes to live on the road and we’ve met families who reared their families on their road too,” says Áine.
The resilience and strength she needed to survive the abuse was the same resilience needed to rear her children on the road too.
“Being a single mum on the road, I was picky about choosing where we would park up. That’s one issue.
“Then people forget you're dealing with an automobile that can break down and it's also your home. Sometimes we have had to leave our home at the mechanics — you can never tell what's going to happen with an old bus,” says the singer.
“We once lost the back door in the desert."
Schooling has been a mix of home-learning, with Áine able to rely on her primary school teaching; traditional classrooms when the family is settled in an area; and the school of life.
“People have said, ‘Your kids were just incredible in the film, they were so articulate’, but they’ve seen so much and their learning has been guided by their interests and they learn real life, like when we break down and they see how much things cost. That’s learning maths in real life.
“Then when they’re off the road their teachers will say, ‘They’ve all gone up in their reading and maths’,” says Áine.
“They've met incredible people and seen incredible places. There's one thing flying into a town and another thing about driving in."
The man with the frontrow seat to this family’s nomadic life over the last six years is fellow countryman Enda Murray, who proposed the documentary to Áine and then directed it.
Enda, from Co. Louth, is 33 years out of Ireland — 10 in London and 23 in Australia — so he has a particular interest in immigrants’ stories of resilience.
He originally knew Áine’s dad from the music world and then came across Áine in Australia from the music scene there.
“I reckon we’ve been making this for on and off for five years," he says.
“Then the second half of 2019, she was playing Woodford — that’s the equivalent of Glastonbury of Australia, except it doesn't get as muddy. The plan was to go with her, be the fly on the wall for the festival, and then talk to her about her backstory.
“I wanted her story of domestic violence to feature in it too and I like the balance now. While she does discuss it at length it doesn't define her,” says Enda.
He sums up Áine's story, from his external perspective, as simply a woman who wanted to be both a mother and an artist as well.
“The biggest thing that comes across for me is she wanted to be a mother and an artist, and the things flow from that, the hurdles she has to cross in order to do both."
Enda had been, up until the pandemic, back and forth to the Galway Film Fleadh since 2015, so with this documentary he applied for the festival hoping it might have a chance of premiering there.
His application was successful and he now hopes it’ll reach a wider audience and be picked up.
For Áine, her wish is for even one person experiencing abuse to see it and be helped by it.
“There’s a part of you that feels it's hard to let all that out into the public. But if even one person watches it and finds hope and finds strength to be who they really want to be, to get out of an unsafe situation and reclaim the dreams they've lost along the way, that’s why I think I’ve done it,” says Áine.
“Our stories are there to share, people can look to them. There are not enough stories of women told in Ireland, and l’m proud our story has a resilient strong ending.
"That’s a good thing to put out into the world — it comes with bravery on our part, but that’s nothing compared to what it might do for some people watching."
- Áine Tyrrell — Irish Troubadour premieres at the Galway Film Fleadh online from July 23-25