IT is an impossible task to pay homage to the tour-de-force that is Evelyn Grant in one article.
Musician, radio presenter, concert producer, promoter, and passionate arts advocate, she has been a glittering and constant star in the artistic firmament of Cork for decades.
While she describes herself simply, and humbly, as a ‘music educator’ or a ‘Swiss-army knife musician’, the impact she has had through her socially inclusive approach to education and performance, and her unstinting devotion to sharing the limitless joy of music to young and old all across the country, ensures the quintessence of Evelyn Grant will continue to defy description.
A social entrepreneur, much of Evelyn’s life work has revolved around the communication of music and ensuring it is accessible to everyone in the community. Whether that is over the airwaves on her hugely popular weekend shows on RTÉ Lyric FM, bringing music into schools and care homes across the county, working with community groups like the Lantern Project or the Cork Migrant Centre at Nano Nagle Place, or entertaining the people of Cork in the forthcoming Lord Mayor’s Tea Dance on Sunday January 29, Evelyn is determined to offer everyone equal access to the joy of music.
Alongside her partner-in-crime and husband of 40+ years, cellist and producer Gerry Kelly, the dynamic duo have helped to shape and redefine the musical landscape of this fair city. They also seem to have a secret repository of passion and energy holed away somewhere, as there is never a time when they are not planning or ‘doing’. Their breadth of vision and positivity is infinite.
“It’s an adventure”, Evelyn explains.
“We both have this sense of determination and a can-do attitude.”
When she decided to retire from her teaching post in the Cork School of Music in 2009, Gerry was as shocked as everyone else.
“I’m not an impulsive person but I felt there was no risk. I was young enough to keep earning elsewhere and I said to Gerry, as we had started young, why shouldn’t we pursue a second career? What made the leap work was that our kids were educated and through college.”
Gerry decided to take the proverbial leap too, and retired with her. And they have had no regrets.
“We had both been almost 30 years in the School of Music, and while I loved every minute of teaching there, I weirdly didn’t miss it at all once I’d left.”
So many fantastic opportunities have presented themselves since retirement, and Evelyn and Gerry are busier than ever with a multitude of projects constantly on the boil.
“As someone like me, who is driven by the worthiness and impact of a project, you need to have someone who is making it commercially successful. The reason any projects we do together work so well is because Gerry is very good on the business end of things. We often clash, and we have to work out the boundaries on that, but we do get there. We know each other’s strengths.”
Sounds like a match made in heaven!
“Well, not everything goes smoothly”, Evelyn quickly adds with a laugh.
“There were lots of near-ulcers along the way.”
“At a certain stage, however, you have no fear.”
Experience does indeed have its upsides.
“We were very lucky to find people who had faith in our ideas,” she adds.
From producing large scale projects like the 1985 celebrations for Cork 800, to running the annual UCC Strauss Ball, the Tall Ships festival, the annual Doc Noonan Ball, to programming stuff for the early days of Triskel and their involvement in the campaign for the ‘new’ School of Music, the Port of Cork Maritime Festival, the Tour de France, the annual Winter/Spring schools concert series, and the Lord Mayor’s concert, Evelyn and Gerry learned the minutiae of their performance and production craft, quite literally, on the job.
“I didn’t know when we started the Lord Mayor’s concerts, that we would still be doing them 17 years later. We absolutely loved them. We called the orchestra the Cork Pops Orchestra because it was celebratory, and it has since evolved into Ireland’s only community orchestra, providing an educational and entertainment orchestra to both the private and public sectors. Moreover, it also runs mentoring programmes for students and young professionals.
“We did everything for the Lord Mayor’s concerts including the musical arrangements, and each year, we got more ambitious until it finally got so big that we had to call a halt. There has to be a time when you stop doing things as well, as your plans expand to occupy all your available time.
“I remember going to the bar after one of the Lord Mayor’s concerts. I was wrecked after the short, intense rehearsal time and then the full-on concert. I asked the bar man for two gin and tonics: one for my right hand and one for my left!” she adds with a laugh.
Evelyn attributes her insatiable determination to bring music to the masses and her incredible work ethic to her wonderful parents.
“My mother wasn’t a pushy parent. She was just someone who believed in hard work and education as the key to a better life for the next generation. A piano teacher, she was very musical and ambitious for all five of us and had us doing elocution, piano, music, and was very strict. But we had great craic too.
“I remember sneaking off to the loo to read my book because we were always expected to be using up our time, practicing.”
“As mum was always at work, we were very independent as kids. But, while she was the driving force behind the education, we all ended up with an interest in under-served populations thanks to my father, who was passionate about social equity. An incredibly good and down-to-earth man, he was responsible for OPW maintenance in the Phoenix Park and always helping someone out.
“If we were kicking up about practicing, he would insist that just because we had talent, that didn’t mean we were something special. It was a God-given thing and we had a responsibility to use it properly.
“He also had a great respect for those who played by ear. If you were having a party, he didn’t have any ‘meas’ on someone if they couldn’t sit down and play something.
“I’m in awe of the amount of work my mum did. But then people say to me ‘I don’t know how you can take on as much as you do’. Maybe we are just blessed with lots of energy.”
Evelyn’s motto is “I don’t say no to anything.”
“You get used to making things work. It was the same in our childhood home. Things had to be made to work as there was always so much going on. It was a really good start.”
The Irish Youth Orchestra in Dublin was where Evelyn and Gerry got their start. Evelyn was 14 and Gerry 17.
When Gerry left for Germany five years later, to study with the celebrated cellist Paul Tortelier, he wrote to Evelyn to invite her to join him.
“At that time, you couldn’t go anywhere unless you were getting married. My mother thought it was a great idea to get married, so we did.”
Evelyn was just 19.
“I left UCD and went to music college in Essen, Germany. It was amazing.
“We had access to every opera house and theatre. Culturally, it was just a knockout.”
Evelyn had her oldest child Jean in her final year at college but felt they needed to move on after she finished her degree. Gerry answered an ad for a cello teacher in Cork School of Music and moved there instead. Evelyn stayed on with baby Jean to finish her degree and then followed Gerry to Cork.
“I thought I was coming to Cork temporarily. It was not my idea to come here. And, in the beginning, I had to fight quite a bit to get a full-time job. When something good happens in a city, however, you can always connect the threads.
“Gerry came here because Bridget Doolin was growing the teaching staff of the School of Music. But, she had also persuaded Dick Langford (a fantastic CEO of the VEC back then) that it should grow through attracting international people. She was ahead of her time, as was Dick Langford. He was an enlightened man about education and so approachable. Dick was seriously one of the reasons Gerry and I remained in Cork.”
Three more children followed, as well as multiple college qualifications, including a Masters in Community Music from York University and a PhD exploring a community music approach to social inclusion in music education in Ireland. Combining the tasks of mamahood and study was “easy. Particularly when they were younger. You just hauled them everywhere!”
As they got older, Gerry and Evelyn had to juggle teaching hours between them and shared the job of child-minding. Unsurprisingly, all four of their children have made their careers in music.
While doing her PhD, Evelyn was introduced to concepts like Equality of Opportunity and Equality of Outcome by Professor Aine Hyland in UCC.
“This was the big thing for me: you give someone an opportunity, but how do you guarantee them the same outcome as my own children?
“During Micheál Martin’s tenure as Minister for Education, they standardised the Framework of Qualifications to allow for a structured move from vocational education access to adult learner. I was trying to translate this into access to music education.
“Interestingly, it was not necessarily the people in music that were open to access. CIT were incredibly supportive as was Ted Owens of the VEC and Denis Barrett.
“I also set up a charity called Cork Music Works in 1999 to look at performance opportunities for people with disabilities. I worked with an amazing therapist called Judith Brereton. When I closed it down in 2012, Eoin and Eamon Nash in Cope and the people in the Lavanagh Centre continued doing fantastic work in this area.”
Much of Evelyn’s life’s work has been dedicated to this end.
“Last year was very busy with digital projects for the Cork Pops Orchestra’s schools programme and with live performances in care-homes all over the city and county. These performances were supported by the Live Performance Support Scheme.
“While we know all about the power of music, we are constantly knocked out by the impact of it on older people and the staff in care homes.
“Two very special projects for us through this scheme were in collaboration with the Lantern Project and the Cork Migrant Centre at Nano Nagle Place. The first was the launch of a currach in the River Lee. That had been made by the Lantern participants and Meitheal Mara. The second was for the certificate awards-ceremony for members of the migrant centre in collaboration with the Glucksman Gallery.”
Having served on more than 14 boards during her career, as diverse as the Forum for Music in Ireland, Sexual Health Centre, Cork Opera House and Cork Association for the Deaf, Evelyn now chairs the programming committee on the board of Nano Nagle Place and was thrilled to be part of the team in Strasbourg last year when they were awarded the Council of Europe Museum Prize.
“That’s one of the key things about Cork city. It is a wonderful place to work in partnership with others.”
Her work with Nano Nagle Place seems to be a marriage of the social justice values and the inclusive approach to education and opportunity that have propelled Evelyn Grant through her life and career to date.
Like Nano Nagle Place, Evelyn Grant has left a lasting impact on Cork and Corkonians.
“I adore it”, she insists.
And we adore her.
The Lord Mayor’s Tea Dance takes place in Cork City Hall at 3pm on Sunday, January 29. Tickets €10 from Pro Musica