Cork musician: "The pandemic hit us hard - but the kids kept me focused... the piano was my salve"

Alan Carney is the Musical Director of the Everyman Christmas Songbook’s A Rat Pack Christmas. Here he speaks to Linda Kenny about his hectic 18 months, music, family, and unfettered joy!
Cork musician: "The pandemic hit us hard - but the kids kept me focused... the piano was my salve"

For Alan Carney and wife Gill, life is a constant juggling act.

FOR Alan Carney, the past 20 months, while most of us were handling the traumas of Covid, has brought about a veritable lifetime of changes.

Not only did the musician have his entire diary of concert bookings wiped out by the pandemic, and have his hands full as deputy principal of one of the busiest and biggest primary schools in Cork, but he and his wife Gillian added to their family of three young boys with a beautiful baby girl.

To top it all, they bought a new puppy and a new home too.

And Alan couldn’t be happier!

“Life is very busy,” he admits. “Music alone can be a full-time job without adding my ‘real’ job into the mix.

“I truly am so lucky to have such a fantastic wife, though I’m not sure she realised what she was buying into when she married a musician! But we have four kids and a dog now so we’ve no time for complaining.”

Alan and Gill had three sons - Theo, Alfie and Julz - and had resigned themselves to never having pink or dolls around the house when lockdown happened.

FAMILY MAN: Alan Carney, wife Gill, their sons, Theo, Alfie and Julz, and baby daughter Matilda (Milcie). BELOW: Alan with the Great Singalong Songbook gang, Alf McCarthy, Linda Nolan and Damian Smith
FAMILY MAN: Alan Carney, wife Gill, their sons, Theo, Alfie and Julz, and baby daughter Matilda (Milcie). BELOW: Alan with the Great Singalong Songbook gang, Alf McCarthy, Linda Nolan and Damian Smith

Then, surprise, baby Matilda (Milcie, for short) arrived last spring.

Alan says: “People never saw Gill pregnant, so we laugh at the double takes we get from those who are seeing us for the first time, out walking and pushing a buggy, the three boys tearing ahead on scooters, and me picking up dog poop as we go along!”

Juggling the vicissitudes of the pandemic, while trying to keep the pupils and staff at Bunscoil Rinn an Chabhlaigh in Cobh safe and connected, not to mention minding his own family, can’t have been easy?

“The pandemic hit us hard to be honest,” Alan admits. 

“My sister Kyla passed away unexpectedly the week of the first lockdown. She was in the States where my father and other sister live. There wasn’t even flexibility at the time to travel on compassionate grounds, so it meant no funeral or time to gather as a family and grieve.

“There was so much uncertainty back then, that even my three siblings who are based in Cork and I were reluctant to hug.”

Music helped Alan enormously. 

“The kids kept me focused, school kept me busy, and the piano was my salve.

“For the first time in years, I sat at the piano, not to rehearse anything but to play for pleasure. It was wonderful to reclaim that joy, and so healing. “

“While I missed all the gigs, the theatres, comradery, the stage, and audiences, I feel I got to press a huge reset button on my life.”

Alan’s priority is Gill and the kids.

“Gill is a qualified doctor but we made a decision years ago to prioritise family. It was the right thing for us at that time and we’ve never looked back.

“It’s meant a lot of sacrifices. We don’t have nice cars and, if there was a hotel that welcomed a family of six and their dog, we couldn’t afford it.”

“But nothing makes me happier than walking in home to the sound of the boys contently playing chess, the dog lounging on the rug by the roaring fire, and the smell of freshly backed apple pie wafting from the...”, Alan trails off in a fit of laughter. “Our life is nothing like that. It’s chaotic - nappies, school runs, sports, music, and work, but we absolutely love it!”

In between all this madness, and the occasional 12 cups of coffee, Gill is also a superb photographer, a passionate foodie, and successful digital content creator on social media platforms.

Life is a constant balancing act.

“With 700-plus students and almost 80 staff, school is insanely busy and all-consuming, but the rewards are beyond words,” says Alan.

“Of course, there are the usual challenges of communicating and dealing with thousands of people (students, their parents and staff) but the parents and staff have a shared sense of purpose, to keep the students front and centre.

“They have been particularly supportive during the uncertainties of the successive lockdowns.”

Alan also conducts the Carrigaline Singers. 

“They are a fantastic bunch of people and it is great to be finally back rehearsing with them after our recent global hiatus!”

And, of course, getting back together with his Everyman Sunday Songbook colleagues has been so wonderful.

“I came on board as Musical Director nine years ago. By then, it was a very well-oiled machine, having been together nine years already, and, while I’m not one to usually get thrown by the magnitude of things, I will admit that I was completely daunted in the days leading up to that first rehearsal.

Alan Carney, Musical Director of the Everyman Songbook.
Alan Carney, Musical Director of the Everyman Songbook.

“I had worked with you, Linda a few times so was familiar with you and that standard of expectation. And Damian Smith and I clicked from the get go.

“And it was awesome to watch two legends of radio and stage, Cathal MacCabe (our director and writer) and the late, great Michael Twomey doing their thing with precision, exactness and 100% conviction.

“Michael was irreplaceable so, rather than attempt to do what Michael did, Alf McCarthy brought his own unique style and the audiences all around the country, including all of us on stage, love him.

“He is so entertaining and, even though he served 30-plus years as a hugely successful broadcaster with RTÉ Radio 1/TV, he just still adores every single performance and that interaction with the audience.”

Alan adds: "We are a family, the Everyman Sunday Songbook team, our band, Yvonne Cronin our stage manager. And our audience too. When we meet them at the end of every show, the hugs and handshakes are all from the heart.

“Obviously, the hugs have had to be put on hold for the moment, but the love is still alive and kicking!

“There is craic, laughter and a shared love of music, singing and performing together. That’s what makes us so special as a group.

“Even when we tour around Ireland (the group tour under the name of the Great Singalong Songbook), we all get along so well off-stage as well as on, that that love, that enjoyment in each other’s company, is infectious and reaches out into the audience too.

“Being on stage again with Linda, Damian, Alf and the band was like a reunion of long, lost friends. We picked up right where we left off, even with the bickering and disagreements between the songs and laughter!”

Incredibly, A Rat Pack Christmas on Sunday, December 12, marks the 18th Christmas Songbook in a row, making The Everyman Sunday Songbook one of the longest-running, if not the longest-running, popular music concert series in Ireland.

Celebrating the story of the Rat Pack, who individually were free spirits but together entirely unpredictable, the night is guaranteed fun and laughter, with a sprinkling of Christmas magic, and lots of singing along to those icon Rat Pack songs.

“We’ll even project the lyrics so there will be no excuse not to join in,” Alan adds.

He and his Everyman Sunday Songbook family have a full diary of concerts already booked in around the country for 2022, but Alan admits it is a challenge to keep the momentum moving forward with all the restrictions still lingering in the wings.

“As a group, our focus is to not get caught up in sales, ticket numbers, and deals with theatres, but on making sure we can perform and entertain and continue to bring joy to our audiences through our unique brand of show, melding storytelling, songs and singalong.”

Between moving home, his young family, school, an energetic puppy and his music, Alan Carney looks like he’ll be busy for another while yet…

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