World Class Music on Our Doorstep: Talking with Róisín Maher, Curator, ‘Finding a Voice’ Festival

Rosin and Cliona

L to R: Róisín,  Alexina Louie,  Clíona

It is hard to believe that it is almost two years now since I launched my blog here at Greenville. Even harder to believe that in those two short years, I lost two people from our family, that were so loved.

I was delighted in May 2017 when the newly appointed Director of South Tipperary Arts Centre, Clíona Maher, agreed to do the launch. Clíona had returned home from France with her husband and their son, to Clonmel, where she grew up, to take up the position in 2017. I had not met Clíona before, so it was wonderful to have someone launch my blog who was so energetic, enthusiastic and committed to the Arts and in particular their development in Tipperary.

Shortly after meeting Clíona I had the pleasure to make the acquaintance of her sister Róisín who is the Curator of ‘Finding a Voice’ – the Clonmel festival which just celebrated its second successful year in Clonmel.

Maher Pharmacy Clonmel

Róisín and Clíona (and their sister Derbhile) are the three daughters of the late Seamus Maher and Kathleen Maher. Their father owned a pharmacy in Clonmel on O‘Connell Street, and while the Mahers no longer manage the business, the new owners have retained the Maher name over the door, which Róisín tells me, the family have really appreciated.

Their mother was a Montessori school teacher and she established a pre-school in Clonmel in the 1980s with a Gael Scoil element – a very innovative educational concept at the time. Róisín tells me her mother was ahead of her time, in many respects.

Following your Dreams 

Not surprisingly then the Maher girls were encouraged to follow their dreams and their educational passions. Their home was one where the arts were supported and appreciated, and their late father was a founding member of the Clonmel Theatre Guild. The late Brendan Long was the first Artistic Director and the Guild is currently celebrating their 50th anniversary.  Their father regularly was involved in different roles, sometimes growing a beard for a part he might be performing.

In light of their upbringing then, it is understandable that all three girls pursued careers in the arts – Róisín is  a lecturer in CIT Cork School of Music – though she has a ‘portfolio career’ having worked in different roles in music: arts administration, concert organizing and course development and lecturing; Clíona’s background is predominantly in theatre but she is also very knowledgeable about all aspects of the arts and as mentioned is currently Artistic Director of South Tipperary Arts Centre and is soon taking up a new position as Festival Director at Clonmel Junction Arts Festival. Derbhile, the youngest of the family, is married to an American – she is a keyboard player and vocalist and her husband is a drummer and they moved back to Chicago about eight years ago from Ireland.

The Inspiration for the Festival ‘Finding a Voice’

For this blog I wanted to chat to Róisín in her capacity as Curator of the festival – a title that always interests me. It comes from the Latin word ‘cura’ meaning ‘to take care’ – it also involves interpretation and selection, a ‘keeper’ of cultural heritage. I ask Róisín how the idea of ‘Finding a Voice’ festival arose.

The festival is a celebration of female composers both living and dead, but also a celebration of women involved in different aspects of the classical music world, as musicians, conductors, patrons etc. Róisín tells me she was always ‘aware of the lack of inclusivity, in terms of classical music programming, in relation to women composers’.

Róisín continues to explain to me that about ten years ago she introduced a new module at Cork School of Music on women composers. This was not something being taught in other third level educational institutions, in Ireland, at the time.



Illustration by artist Shona Shirley Macdonald for Festival Publicity

Róisín tells me that it is her belief from experience that ‘the way to change things is to be really practical about it’ and for this module her students were asked to either write an essay or perform a recital of works by female composers. This really left a positive and lasting impression on many students, who, by performing a piece by a female composer or studying it in detail, would grasp its importance and perhaps build on the experience after leaving third level education.

When Clíona returned in 2017 to take up the position as Director at South Tipperary Arts Centre, she and Róisín would sometimes brainstorm about ideas that might work or be developed and, among the many possibilities they discussed, was the idea for a festival for Clonmel around female composers, something Róisín, after her years of teaching in the area, was highly knowledgeable about.

Clíona decided to apply to the Arts Council for a Music Project award to fund the event. You could say the rest is history! I comment that both Róisín and Clíona have a unique skill set – they are highly creative; supremely competent at arts administration given their success to date – and have another key skill so necessary to get things off the ground – diplomacy.

‘Finding a Voice’ Festival takes place in conjunction with International Women’s Day and the quality of the performances is nothing short of world class.

Main Guard Clonmel and the Irish Baroque Orchestra

Main guard clonmel

Main Guard Clonmel, photo Courtesy Office of Public Works

The Irish Baroque Orchestra were a key component this year and they performed on March 8th in the stunning location of the ‘Main Guard’ and played an entire programme of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century female composers. The performance was breath-taking, complemented by the amazing acoustics of this old and deeply historic building in the centre of Clonmel town, which was built about 1675 by James Butler, Duke of Ormonde for County Courts and Officials of the then Palatine County of Tipperary.

baroque orchestra

Irish Baroque Orchestra performing in the Main Guard

Róisín explains the festival committee hope to work with the Irish Baroque Orchestra for the next three years in performing the works of female composers, so for those who may not have heard them perform this year, put a note in your diary for March 2020.

Alexina Louie Composer

alexina louie

Alexina Louie                                  Image Credit:   D Kelly photography

In this year’s festival the Canadian composer Alexina Louie, who will celebrate her 70th birthday later this year, attended the festival and her works were performed on the opening day. She was  very impressed at the quality of the performances she experienced in Clonmel over the course of the weekend. It is wonderful, I comment, to see living composers like Alexina Louie meet the musicians playing her work and meet those attending the event, in particular for younger generations – the experience of talking to a living composer is so important in instilling the idea that such career paths are open to all those with musical ability.

Composers with Mary Dullea

Female Composers with Mary Dullea
L-R: Jane O’Leary, Rhona Clarke, Marian Ingoldsby, pianist Mary Dullea, Amanda Feery, Carol Hayes, Anna Murray
Photographer: John D Kelly photography

I can’t help thinking often of the late Professor Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, born in Clonmel, whom we lost only last year. He would be delighted to see an event like this in his former home town. Róisín tells me he lectured her in UCC in the 1980s before he left for his position at the University of Limerick.

Clara Schumann Bicentenary

Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann

Among the wonderful performances at this year’s event was a day dedicated to the work of Clara Schumann (1819-1896), composer, concert pianist and wife of fellow composer Robert Schumann, including a panel discussion about the process of composing by four of the seven women who had been commissioned to write Reflections on a Scherzo by Clara Schumann, one of two world premieres inspired by Clara Schumann (the second being Jane O’Leary’s Clara) for her 200th anniversary.

Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016)

This year Joseph and I brought the boys to the Sunday afternoon event, also at the Main Guard, to hear ‘The Quiet Music Ensemble’ – a Cork based experimental music group, performing a piece which they had commissioned from the late Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016) called ‘The Mystery Beyond Matter’. The boys loved it – the sound was just amazing in this old building. Some of the audience choose to sit on the window sills (as I did); some lay on mats on the floor; some sat quietly in their chairs, some walked peacefully around – as this haunting music echoed through the building. Róisín’s two daughters Aisling and Orlaith were there, as was Clíona’s son Killian and we both agree it is so important to see the younger generations partaking in and experiencing live performances such as this, giving them an understanding, not just  in the works of traditional classical composers, but of more recent compositions that challenge us to think about music and how we play it and hear it, differently.


Image Credit:   D Kelly photography

sunday afternoon

Image Credit:   D Kelly photography

I look forward to attending next year’s event scheduled for 6th to 8th March 2020 and to interviewing Clíona, at a later stage, to look retrospectively at her achievements as Artistic Director of South Tipperary Arts Centre and when she takes up her new position as Festival Director of Clonmel Junction Arts Festival.

In the meantime, I once again commend both Róisín Maher and Clíona Maher for what they have achieved with ‘Finding a Voice’. It is an event now firmly on the Irish cultural calendar – a first of its kind certainly in Ireland. It is world class music on our doorstep here in Tipperary. Support it.

For more information on Finding a Voice see:

tel: 353-52-6127877

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