Folk Tales

An interview with sound installation artist and musician Fionnuala Fagan

Claire Savage

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“The aim of my artistic work is to document and give voice to important stories that may otherwise be lost.”

So says Fionnuala Fagan – a Belfast-based sound installation artist and folk musician whose most recent work, Dreaming Protected Me, saw her compose a CD of songs which portrayed the personal stories of people who lived through the Bosnian conflict and the Troubles. The compilation was launched at the MAC in Belfast last December, and followed two similarly successful projects – Homebird and Sailortown.

It is an intriguing and highly emotive way in which to story-tell and Fionnuala, an experienced musician from Craigavon, has developed a knack for fusing such real-life stories with original music to create pieces of living history. She is a sound installation artist, a musician, a singer, a poet… She is, ultimately, a teller of tales which might otherwise be swallowed into the past if she didn’t make the effort to unearth and preserve them.

So, just what inspired her to go down this route and what, exactly, is a sound installation artist…?

“The nature of the work that I’m doing, is looking at oral history and using it as a basis to develop sound art projects,” she explains. “By interviewing people and re-telling their stories through soundscape, song and visual depictions of the narrative, I provide audiences with new platforms for engagement with oral history. These come in the form of live performance, installation, audio CDs, conference presentations and on-line archives.

“When I refer to myself as an installation artist, I am referring to the installation of objects as well as sounds. For example, in Stories of the City: Sailortown, as well as installing sound into the space via headphones and speakers, Isobel Anderson (my co-worker) and I installed objects either sourced by us or given to us by the community. This enabled installation participants to engage with the newly composed songs, whilst simultaneously interacting with objects and photographs, which gave another layer of meaning to the stories they were listening to.”

Fionnuala’s first installation project was Homebird, for which she interviewed her grandmother - re-telling the story of how she was left behind in Cork as a 19 year-old girl when her family emigrated to America in the 1940s.

“She was the eldest of a family of ten children – but she refused to go, and her family left without her. She stayed in Cork in the house which she grew up in,” says Fionnuala.

Homebird takes you through the journey of her experience. I actually did it word for word – like somebody doing verbatim theatre. It’s edited, but I try to stick to the words as spoken.

“That’s how this method began. That turned into an album and a performance and installation piece which took place in a house, with sound installations and objects that (invoked) 1940s Ireland. I used recordings as well.”

It was a project which garnered much positive feedback for Fionnuala, as audiences immediately connected with and were moved by the story. Three shows were subsequently performed - at The Ulster American Folk Park, The Pic ‘n’ Mix Festival 2011 and The Cathedral Arts Quarter Festival 2012. An artist residency at the MAC in Belfast then followed in 2012, as part of the Sonic Arts Research Centre’s (SARC) program of residencies. During this time, Fionnuala worked with the MAC’s Learning and Participation department in collaboration with Isobel Anderson on Stories of the City: Sailortown –a  second sound installation project saw the pair interview a group of people who used to live in Belfast’s Sailortown community, near the docks.

“Sailortown was a really bustling area in Belfast before the 1960s,” she says. “They knocked down the majority of the housing there, where the sailors’ families would have been living. They shipped people out and told them that once the M2 was built, they would rebuild better housing, but that never happened and the community became displaced in north Belfast.”

The Sailortown CD subsequently captured the memories of the former residents – putting their words to haunting melodies and once again, preserving another part of local history.

“My intention from the beginning - with my grandmother - was, I knew her story was so interesting and it was part of my history and the country’s history,” says Fionnuala. “I felt it was an important story to save and I wanted to give it value. In the same way, the Sailortown community and their stories have an extremely important place in the history of Belfast.

“When I write songs using peoples' words, I shine a light on a certain part of their story. The addition of melody and harmony to the crafting of their words into a lyrical structure emphasises the emotions of the narrative, or my interpretation of these. This magnifies the content of the original spoken text to highlight it and perhaps make engagement with the narrative more emotive for the audience.”

It is a process of real-life storytelling which has worked to great aplomb and, inspired by the stories she was told and the reactions she received from her first two projects, Fionnuala was keen to do more of the same.

Her third and most recent project followed in the form of Dreaming Protected Me, which came about after she visited Bosnia two years ago with Primecut Productions. Fionnuala, it should be pointed out, has also worked as an artist, teacher and facilitator with a broad range of companies, including the Grand Opera House, Kabosh Theatre Company, Tinderbox Theatre Company and National Museums NI, to name but a few.

Primecut Productions were running art workshops at the time, and taking artists in Northern Ireland to work with the Bosnia theatre company, East West. The backdrop to the week away was a book – The Conquest of Happiness, by Bertrand Russell – which was published in 1930 and leads the reader through the causes of unhappiness and ultimately, suggests the way to a ‘good life’. It was the original self-help book, before self-help books became commonplace.

“I worked with Bosnian and Northern Irish artists - discussing lots of really really difficult subjects - conflict and world atrocities,” says Fionnuala. “When I came home from it, I felt really quite devastated and quite shocked. The workshops were putting us in the same box as people from Bosnia, because both countries are coming out of conflict and from different struggles. For me, I had went through my whole life saying I was largely unaffected by the Troubles. What I discovered in Bosnia was, I could relate to what the Bosnian artists were saying of their experience of society.

“I came home feeling so shocked, because it was the first time I realised I was affected by the conflict. I might not have been affected the way others have been affected but, just because of the society we’ve grown up in, we’re conditioned in a way that we might not have been if the Troubles hadn’t been there. I realised I had been repeating this sentence – ‘I’m not affected’ – which is an impossibility. For me, it was the start of a very big journey of self-reflection.”

Inspired by her experiences and keen to pursue a new project, Fionnuala decided to interview people from Northern Ireland and Bosnia who had experienced conflict first-hand. She had discovered a commonality between the two groups of people during her time away and wanted to confirm if those stories crossed cultural boundaries.

“Even though the wars are so different, there are similarities,” she says.

Interviewing three of the Bosnian artists from the trip, and two people from NI, Fionnuala created a double-disc album – one CD with the songs, the other with extracts from the interviews, “to emphasise my interpretation of those words”.

“For me, throughout the narratives, there was a common thread - the strength of human resilience and the inner strength people find in darkness,” she says. “So, I (made it) to do with darkness and light, and we ended up using projections onto the performers at the launch.

“I then wrote my own story into the performance, through a poem, and the five verses were played at different points. As the narration went on, it was more and more obvious that of course I would be affected. I was really happy with the discussion that happened afterwards. Many people seemed to relate to it.”

As part of her PhD at the SARC, the hope is that, once her thesis is out of the way, Fionnuala will get the chance to perform Dreaming Protected Me again.

As someone from a very musical family – her grandfather had a ceili band in the ’60s, her aunt is a singer, her parents are musical and her older brother plays guitar and sings – Fionnuala grew up surrounded by both music and stories. A talented violinist and guitarist, she grew up in Craigavon after her parents decided to leave Belfast to try to “move away from the worst of the Troubles”.

“I’m interested in ongoing projects that look at storytelling,” she says. “I have been heavily influenced by folk singers and songwriters since a young age. These are my equivalent of story-tellers and include: Mary Black, Maura O'Connell, Dolores Keane, Christy Moore, Shane McGowan, Andy Irvine, Paul Brady, Jimmy McCarthy, Donal Lunny, Kate Rusby and John Spillane, to name a few.”

As for her own remarkable talent for creating evocative musical stories, she simply says, “I am truly inspired by and interested in the incredible stories and experiences which can be told by ‘ordinary’ people.”