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Dublin: 4°C Friday 26 February 2021

How stories from Ireland's past and present compelled this singer-songwriter to make trouble

Singer-songwriter by night, book publisher by day, Ciara Sidine was questioning her choice of career. But then she found her way to inspiration.

Ciara Sidine

IN THE NEW year of 2017, bedridden with flu, I faced a conundrum in my erstwhile musical life, not for the first time.

I had been close to completion of my second record for a while. It was six years since I’d released my first, at the age of 39 – already a ‘late bloomer’ in an industry where youth is prized over experience. If I was that then, what was I now?

Could I really even call myself a singer-songwriter anymore? Shouldn’t I just do the respectable thing and call it a day?

There was so much to be done to push this long-burning project over the line, and all I could see were trees and no woods.

As an independent artist, managing all aspects of a miniature enterprise, I knew from the first time round just how much was involved. The never-ending series of tasks that goes into creating a small piece of work that will enter a large space amidst clamour and many bigger guns; a space that owes you nothing, can be indifferent, and cold. I know that space from the other side, my day job sitting behind the book editor’s desk.

It’s tough out there whatever artistic medium you pursue, and you have to meet it head on. The dig to find your core strength, to retain the abiding connection to the why of it – it can take it out of you, as all around your head is turned.

One side tells you a dime’s a dollar/the other sells somebody’s dollar for a dime/and I’m just tryin to keep my gaze steady/searching for that unbroken line.

A story inside you

There’s a saying in book publishing, that every person has a story inside them, and in most cases that’s where it should stay. It’s cruel, as the internal ‘knowings’ of any industry can be – unsentimental, clipped. But there is truth in it.

It acknowledges that the story is not enough – it needs a voice to carry it. As a singer-songwriter as well as a book publisher, this idea interests me.

And it’s something that I’ve had reason to reflect upon recently, as I’ve prepared to launch my own voice on an unsuspecting public, with my new album Unbroken Line. How does a voice get heard?

The world can be a clamorous place. There’s the internal voices – the chatter of the ‘monkey mind’ with its chorus of self-doubt and questioning as we attempt to forge forward with purpose.

And there’s the outside clamour, there to greet us as soon as we engage with the world: the awakening strains of the radio, the journey into work, a spell on social media – intermittent, always available – ensuring we don’t miss a beat from our very own echo chamber. A glance at a billboard: buy this food, want this bag, like this film. A read of the paper: accept this political viewpoint, this healthcare directive. Buy the line, “butt out” and don’t question. Stay in line.

It’s not hard to feel overwhelmed. Other voices can get lost – the quieter ones, the shadow-dwellers. And there are many shadows in Irish life. These were the voices that had led me to write the songs on my record. I needed to regain touch with them again.

Seeking silence

For nine months now, I have been seeking silence. In the mornings, before my house has awoken, I have sought the space to sit and be. To breathe. To gaze at a flickering candle in a darkened room, and to close my eyes. A deep need to move beyond the clamour has woken inside me.

To find that the key to completion of my album was the opposite of doing was a surprise.

Through those silent minutes of early morning, a space begun to grow inside me. Sometimes an image of a flower opening passed across my darkened mindscape. A voice told me to trust, and keep breathing – there was nothing more to be done. The breaths became steadier.

I began to rediscover those voices from the shadows that had driven me, over past years, to write my songs. I loved and cherished them again.

Kathleen from the mother and baby home – a breastfeeding mother determined to keep her 11-month-old infant, whose life was cut in two the time she went to nurse him, only to find an empty cradle. Oh the weight of the love you have/but can not hold.

She would never be reunited with her beloved boy, who was stolen from her by Irish church and state.

Each of those women who survived the worst torture in Ireland’s mother and baby homes and Magdalene Laundries has a unique story, but all share in their deep pain the knowledge of an enduring truth. Love can not be broken, nor its bond untied.

Not for one minute of an hour/my finest flower/did I ever let you go.

Women of constant sorrow whose voices have largely remained silent, their experiences pushed aside, form part of a cast of characters in this collection of songs. Those women whose rights in reproduction, pregnancy and childbirth have been tampered with, withheld – they are the shadow-warriors who walk our streets each day quietly holding their burdens, nursing their stories, simmering with barely suppressed, righteous anger as the world tells them to accept their lot; as men in suits pore over the details of what they can and can’t have and do, in lofty chambers that those affected by their decisions will never enter.

‘Our time has come’

I sometimes think that to be a woman is to be a survivor, and to be a survivor, you have to have learned to hold together the pieces. But they’re not always fixed. And therein lies our power.

Our time has come. We no longer accept that from the moment of conception, our right to choose what happens to our own bodies is no more. Our brokenness is what has taught us how to fight, and the victory – and there will be a victory – is taking back the things we own. And that is why we are going to make a hell of a noise until we’re given back the keys to our property.

We’re not asking for the right to bodily autonomy to be granted to us. We are demanding that it be respectfully returned. The song Trouble Come Find Me bubbled up from that place of demand, of justice sought – a battle cry: Let trouble come/better to show us/how to take back the things we own/From struggle/a thing is born.

There are other narratives in Unbroken Line – some of them imagined, some of them my own. The ghostly shadows of the River Road, in a badlands where water flows like a prayer through some unholy ground. The ‘gospel-billy’ joy of crossing the rickety Wooden Bridge at Dollymount, where a song is born in the reassurance to your kids, without conviction, that no, it will not fall down. Songs, like stories, are everywhere, and can be found in the briefest of moments.

The moment now, of releasing Unbroken Line into an unsuspecting world, comes with the bittersweet emotions of any parting. I hope it gets on OK out there. It’s part of me, but it’s not mine anymore. I wish it luck.

What feels more concrete is that nine months ago I did not see a path to here, but somehow, in the spaces where nothing needed to be done, I created one.

There is no time like the present. It can just take a long time to get there.

Unbroken Line is out now. CD available in Tower Records and by direct order on ciarasidine.com. Available for download on iTunes. Ciara Sidine and band will play the Sugar Club on 21 September, booking advised via sugarclubtickets.com

About the author:

Ciara Sidine

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