FROM Oklahoma with love... American flute player and music professor, Virginia Giglio, has brought her tunes to the streets of Cork city.
Sitting on a grey, leather couch in her sun-lit apartment in Blackrock, Virginia, aged 65, says she is too in love with her new city to take her music somewhere else.
“My husband and I think it’s heaven, we love it here,” she says.
Virginia has been busking in the city to raise money for Cork’s homeless since last year —using her flute as a vehicle for care.
“And I just don’t give them money — from my experience, they don’t just need money,” she says.
“They want a relationship with another human being, so I always engage in conversations with them.”
Virginia, along with her husband, Neal Dunnigan, who holds an Irish passport, arrived in Cork last summer, and it didn’t take long for them to notice one of the city’s most significant social issues: homelessness.
Driving through the streets of Cork, the music educator says: “No, (homelessness) wasn’t something I read in the paper about, it was everywhere.”
Last October, 9,700 people in Ireland were reportedly in emergency accommodation, with Sinn Féin claiming the real figure was much higher than that.
Virginia, who describes herself as “joyful” on her Facebook profile, has not only taught music in various universities in the US but has worked as a music instructor in a prison in El Reno, Oklahoma.
This woman, who once sold her house to pay for her friend’s costly, lifesaving surgery, says her father’s good-heartedness influenced her to help others.
A respected architect in Atlanta, Georgia, her father invariably reminded his daughter of the importance of not hurting people’s pride when lending them a helping hand.
“Whenever he would see a homeless person, he would say to them, ‘I have a $20 for you, but it’s not a gift, it’s a loan. When you got back on your feet, here’s my card, look me up and pay me back’,” she recalls, smiling.
To Virginia’s wonderment, many men later turned up at their door to pay her father back.
“I saw my father do that, and I think the biggest part was that he made men out of people who didn’t feel like men,” she reasons.
Virginia’s voice and eyes are ablaze with hope and optimism, emotions which belie a tragic episode in her life. After her father died, her mother was murdered by a robber who had entered her home in Atlanta.
Virginia even manages to say something positive about her mother’s killer. “I don’t think the people who broke in knew she was home, she came out of her room, surprised them, and they hit her,” she says.
“But then they took her carefully and placed her on the bed. The police in Atlanta said that it’s a sign of respect.”
Virginia’s mother was a faithful Catholic and her daughter, who aspired to be an altar boy as a child and lamented the gender obstacle, remains religious to this day.
However, she describes herself an “unconventional” woman of faith, pointing to her strong ties to Native American tribes in Oklahoma, as an example.
Virginia carried out her PhD dissertation on Native American music and culture, an initiative that has made her a misfit among her conventionally religious friends, who accused her of turning her back on God by joining a group of ungodly, “sun worshipers”.
The Atlanta-born woman, whose walls are covered with artwork gifted to her by Native American tribes, says she shrugged off the criticism as misguided and remained in touch with the Natives.
“I knew what (Native Americans) were doing was a form of God and not the devil,” she reasons.
“When they haven’t experienced what I’d experienced, how would they know it is something bad?”
She and her husband attend what Neal describes as an “inclusive church” in Cork. “Inclusive, yes, that’s the word I was looking for,” Virginia says.
The Cork-based musician relates that she would not tolerate a church or a priest who would turn away members of the LGBTQ community or rebuke their lifestyle.
“My husband and I both share a great love for everybody,” she says.
Neal and Virginia are now training to be chaplains in Cork. Neal is currently a trainee chaplain in CUH, while Virginia studies chaplaincy at St Luke’s nursing home.
Her views on chaplaincy would also be considered radical among the traditionally faithful. She describes it as sharing a few laughs with people who are on the verge of leaving this world, regardless of their religious convictions.
“I especially find myself drawn to people who are brain damaged or have dementia and try to find one thing to make their eyes and face go bright,” she says.
“If I walked into their room and tried to convince them that their ways are wrong, it will not make them love God more.”
Committed to calming frightened souls, she recalls last Halloween night when she reassured a terrified homeless man in Cork.
“I put my hands on his shoulders and said, ‘It’s all fake, it’s just a funny Halloween play. No-one is hurt, and it’s not your fault,” she recalls.
“He said, ‘Thank-you, it’s me nerves, you know’.”
You can find Virginia playing the flute and raising funds for the homeless outside the Winthrop Arcade on Oliver Plunkett Street.