BEING a failteoiri at the Cork International Choral Festival can be an all- consuming voluntary job, which involves everything from organising meals for each choir, to sourcing instruments, such as keyboards.
Co-ordinator of the festival’s failteoiri (chaperones), Valerie Sisk had her son Brian — due to turn 21 on May 3 — just four hours after she waved goodbye to the choir she was looking after, all those years ago!
Valerie has been involved with the popular festival for 25 years. She was enlisted to volunteer by the then co-ordinator, Ursula Ramsell, and continued over the years, through having children.
There are more than 20 failteoiri this year for the festival which kicks off this Wednesday. At least one failteoir is assigned to each visiting choir. The failteoir’s job is to ease the choir members’ stay in the city, ensuring they know where they are supposed to be and showing them their accommodation in hotels, hostels, guesthouses and Air B ‘n B.
Valerie’s full time job is as the front-of-house person at Gabriel House in Summerhill North. As it happens, a Swedish choir will be staying there during the festival.
Something of a linguist, Valerie studied French and Italian at UCC. Her knowledge of languages has come in handy over the years. One year, the interpreter for the Russian choir couldn’t speak English.
“So I spoke to him in Italian and he translated that to Russian for the choir,” Valerie says. “When I wasn’t available, a colleague spoke to the interpreter in German and he translated that into Russian. This was because the interpreter’s English was so bad. But by the end of the festival, we discovered that some of the choir actually spoke English. We could have spoken directly to them if we had known.”
In years gone by, it was “a lot more difficult to communicate because a lot of the choirs would have been Eastern European with little or no English. They came with interpreters. Nowadays, it’s far easier and there is very little call for translation skills.”
While most choirs now travel to Cork by plane, they used to mainly travel overland, involving a lot of bus journeys. The bus drivers would rotate. When they were off duty and taking a rest, “they used to sleep in little cubby holes near the luggage area. It was almost a coffin-like thing.”
Valerie says that the biggest “logistical nightmare” is ferrying the choirs to and from different masses on the Sunday morning, where they perform in the city’s main churches. But it always works out on the day.
A failteoir for 15 years, Linda Nolan says the Choral Festival “wouldn’t happen without the volunteers”.
She added: “There are between 150 to 180 volunteers. I normally look after one of the international choirs taking part in the Fleischmann International Trophy Competition. This year, I’m looking after a choir from Finland.”
Linda, who works for a finance company, takes holiday leave for the festival.
“The failteoiri go everywhere with the choirs. We meet them at the airport where they normally give an impromptu performance. It’s about involving everyone. The festival takes place throughout the city, not just at City Hall. We try to hit as many venues as we can, including libraries, banks and the streets as well.”
After the competitions are over, Saturday night is when “the choirs let their hair down”.
Linda said: “In the festival club at the Clayton Hotel (open to the public), there’s a traditional Irish music session. The trad band teaches the choir members how to do Irish dancing. It’s good fun. In the bar section, there’s a piano for a sing-song.”
This year, there are choirs from countries including Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Slovakia and Australia.
Linda recalls an amusing incident in one of the churches.
“A failteoir got caught with an old lady who was saying the Rosary. She couldn’t get away from her even though she needed to go to the choir at the back of the church.”
Linda also reflects on the changes, over the years — including the task for many choirs of navigating the Cork accent.
She said that while most choir members now all speak English, years ago, it would have been broken English.
“We speak very fast in Cork in a sing-song way but when speaking to the choirs, you’d speak very slowly in what was almost broken English. I remember a failteoir going up to the bus driver and speaking to him as if he was one of the choir members. The driver started roaring laughing, as he was from Cork.”
As a mark of gratitude for the work of the volunteers, a dinner is held for them on the Saturday night at the Clayton Hotel. It’s the culmination of a year of preparation, with numerous meetings, and initial communication with the choirs by email.
Everything is in place for them when they arrive in Cork for almost a week. “We have international judges who think it’s a very well organised event in a friendly city,” says Linda, proudly.
MORE ABOUT THE FESTIVAL
The Cork International Choral Festival will run from Wednesday to Sunday, May 1 to 5. A total of 5,000 singers and 50,000 visitors will take part.
The globally renowned choral festival, which is celebrating 65 years, takes place in 90 venues across Cork city and county and will give an estimated €10 million economic boost to the region.
Throughout the festival, more than 100 choirs, including more than 80 Irish choirs and 17 international choirs, from as far as Australia will take to the stages and streets of Cork for an extensive programme of national and international competitions, gala concerts and non-competitive performances. There will also be seminars, workshops, schools concerts and free outdoor recitals... something for everyone!
Festival tickets are available for purchase through the online booking system at www.corkchoral.ie.