Ceara Conway


Composer & Singer, Deepest Shade of Green – Viriditas.


This February, the halls of University Hospital Galway (UHG) and Merlin Park University Hospital will echo with carefully selected voices and sounds compiled by artist Ceara Conway.

Like a lush trailing plant, Galway 2020 project, The Deepest Shade of Green, aims to bring music, theatre, poetry and visual art to patients’ bedsides. In her compilation of songs titled Viriditas, Ceara explores the healing properties of music, the link between nature and health and the need for art in hospital environments.

How would you describe the project in your own words?

The Deepest Shade of Green is a yearlong Arts and Health programme for Galway’s European Capital of Culture 2020. Four artists have been invited by Saolta Arts to create newly commissioned works. I was commissioned to compose a song cycle responding to themes explored from my time engaging with staff and patients of Galway University Hospitals and extensive research into the medicinal qualities of plants, traditional healing songs and practices of sound healing. The work will also be shared as a series of intimate performances for patients and as an album. Deirdre O’Mahony has created an online audio-based artwork using a scripted voiceover and ambient recordings to evoke the particular character of the West of Ireland. Sarah Fuller and Manuela Corbari are collaborating to lead young patients and their families through an enchanting garden of stories, combining puppetry, storytelling, and shadow theatre in a tour of paediatric settings in the Saolta Group of hospitals.


What was your introduction to performing in a healthcare setting?

Several years ago I was invited by Saolta Arts (formerly Galway University Hospitals Arts Trust) to be a singer in residence with the wonderful Jonathan Gunning and Miquel Barcelo. We visited Unit 5 and 6 in Merlin Park University Hospital once a week and sang and played music for the residents. Over the years we got to know the long term patients, their characters and personalities and the kind of music and songs that they liked.


How do you go about delivering music to patients in care?

Many variables need to be taken into consideration. For example the health condition of the patient, the specific ward that they are in, the mood that they may be in at any given moment. Attention and awareness need to be brought to these elements before you even begin to consider delivering music or songs. When you are conscious as to what their needs are then you can begin to engage musically, sensitively sensing out of they might enjoy a more buoyant, or quiet or contemplative song or sound. Sometimes you engage and then realise that what they want and need is a conversation or to sing you a song, or to join in. Delivering music in care requires the ability to be sensitive to all contexts and situations


What is the spectrum of emotions that ensues?

When I sang in Unit 5 and 6 in 2008/2009, we would be greeted with a variety of emotions and responses. Mostly joyful and positive, at times patients would sing along or quietly listen, tap a table or a wheelchair in tune or sometimes singing a different version of the song at the same time! Other emotions that would arise would be those of sadness and reflection. But that is to be expected, songs can trigger memories for all of us and so when patients feel teary when I sing, I can empathise as it is something I am able to be with, I understand it and actually think that it’s valuable to have these moments too. On a rare occasion a patient would feel angry, or frustration, my understanding of these responses again relate to knowing that songs can trigger memories of other times, times without illness, or personal memories that we can’t even begin to imagine. When a patient is having a very strong reaction, sometimes I will check in and ask if they are ok. You become versed in understanding when it’s appropriate to stop or to keep going.

What are some of the positive impacts your visits would have on people?

I think the positive impacts are many and varied. Most definitely we provided distraction from the usual pattern of a hospital day, we provided entertainment and engagement. On another level I know beautiful very human moments have been shared. It’s a very humbling experience to be with people in times of illness or at the end of life or at a time of healing. All the social layers are cast off. We are at most most honest and vulnerable in places like hospitals and to sing for and with people in such a place is a privilege. We could see that it also provided some light respite for staff and visiting families and friends.


How do you equip yourself before going in to sing?

The most important element for me is mentally checking in with myself regarding the type of medical context that I am entering and the illnesses of the patients and their needs. Once I have done this I can then prepare the types of songs to bring with an understanding of the kind of atmosphere I will be entering. For example, patients who are in critical care or who are very tired require a contained and gentle interaction. In the day care settings I know that sometimes a mixed approach is required, sometimes, it’s as subtle a requirement as knowing how much or how little to look at someone during a performance. Again I am always aware that I have entered their (the patients) space. They have less choice regarding who enters and leave their space while in care, one must be respectful and aware of this. It’s very easy to be over whelmed in a public care setting if you are a patient. I also try to be aware of leaving my issues and problems that I might be feeling at the door before I engage with patients.



What drew you into performative arts?

My progression into a singer happened very organically. I always knew I loved communicating and in my visual arts practise utilised conversation and dialogue as part of my socially engaged practice in the past. I also used to work in media (light journalism). Once I discovered I could sing it made sense for me to see if I could incorporate it into my art work, and now it has become the core element of my practice. For me it feels like the most authentic medium that I have worked with to date, it works for me and combined with my skills as a visual artist, it feels like it will be a lifelong artistic path.


What was the buildup to you creating Viriditas?

In 2018, I was invited by Saolta Arts to engage in a research phase with a view to developing a larger vocal work for Galway 2020. This research phase was funded by CREATE. It also included my travelling to Georgia/Tiblisi to learn Georgian healing songs with the renowned ensemble Ialoni; this element was funded by the Arts Council and Saolta Arts. The initial research phase threw up so many potential themes to potentially engage with. A hospital is a microcosm and a metaphor for all aspects of life, all the important thresholds such as birth, illness, healing and death. Themes don’t get more profound than that. I decided I wanted to compose a song cycle that touched upon all of these great themes, some sad, some joyous and celebratory and some with humour. All my research for my projects entails reading voraciously across related subject matters and this project was no different. I engaged with medical staff and medical journals, I read about the healing qualities of plants, the effects of stress on the body and so on. All of which started to feed into the development of the work.


There are 10 tracks on the Viriditas CD. Can you talk about some of the songs and the motives behind them?

How Are You? came from having engaged with a lot of patients and staff members in the hospitaland noticing both the flippant and caring ways we ask ‘’How Are You?’’ on a daily basis. The song is about asking someone how they are, with real presence. The second song is called Vital Signs ,this song came about through my own experience of becoming ill through over work and stress. At the time I was reading a book called ‘’ The Body Holds the Score’’ by Gabor Mate , and reading about the signs of stress to look out for in your body. The melody just came to me and it ended up being fun and serious at the same time. The Viriditas melody and words came to me in a dream. Viriditas means ‘life force’ and is a Latin term that was used by the late abbess and composer Hildegarde VonBingen.
For Vox Plantae, I went to visit an amazing herbalist called Marina Levitina in County Clare. She has a machine you connect to plants and you hear them ‘singing’. I visited Marina several times and recorded samples of these plants singing and incorporated the samples into the song.


Can you talk a little bit about visual side of Viriditas and the CD sleeve art?

I work part time at the Clare Arts Office and was aware of an artist called Ann McBride who is an exquisite illustrator. I had seen other works by Ann that depicted plants in Ireland that were becoming extinct. I just had a strong sense that her aesthetic would be perfect for the cover of the CD. Ann and I discussed the medicinal plants that were mentioned in the songs in the album and I decided on using Fox Glove and St Johns Wort on the cover.
The image/photo of the hospital bed in the woods was an idea/vision that just came to me. Again I knew that it would be an image that would epitomise the meaning of this project for me. That healing is more than just modern medicines and tablets and pills. It is about taking time and being connected to nature and to a slower life and a life outdoors. Ultimately given the right weather, I would love to and will hold a series of performances in hospital beds in the woods another time in the future!

What is Galway to you?

I am from Connemara originally and so for me Galway City and Connemara are two distinct worlds because of their distinct languages and culture. Irish was my first language and I recall growing up that Galway used to seem like a big city to me. Having lived all over the world and having come back to Galway, it’s amazing to walk down the street and to know so many people, to clock recognition. One of the positives that are important for me is the proximity to sea – it’s got a vibrancy and energy to it. Living in Kilcolgan, I also have the forest down the road and there are a lot of interesting, like-minded folk livings out here in the county. Being between counties suits me, I enjoy moving between places. When I completed my artist’s residency in Limerick City (2016-2019), I choose to move back to Galway county instead of Galway City. Galway City rent prices are beyond my reach and the traffic is unbearable.


You brought the Irish language into the project in some very interesting ways. Can you talk a bit about that?

One of the songs is called Plant Chant, and every verse eulogises a different herb. Dr Lillís O Laoire recommended a book to me by Niall Mac Coitir which is full of beautiful different names for Irish plants. In Ireland, every herb would have a different name, depending on the locality and local dialect. The poem I wrote, I brought in a lot of those old Irish names.
For example, dandelion is Bearnán Bríde or clog na gaoithe – the wind clock. They also called it Leigheas uisciúl – watery medicine and fíon na greine which means wine of the sun. Whether or not you understand the Irish language, it’s beautiful to hear. The names sound like a spell and I wanted the song to sound like an incantation. In the song called Pizzicia, I really enjoyed bringing an old Irish poem about a spider together with an Italian rhythm that was used traditionally to heal spider bites. Francesco Turissi the renowned percussionist plays percussion on this track.


How have you explored the link between nature and healing?

It’s most obviously explored in songs such as Plant Chant, Viriditas and Vox Plantae. In Vox Plantae I am calling the listener to discover the medicine that resides in their own garden and imploring them to call on the bees. Viriditas, translates into the greening power and life force. I just love how in medieval times they connected both words together; it shows they had a deep understanding that wellbeing and nature are interrelated. I was really interested to learn of medicinal plants that are used in modern medicines to this day. In most people’s minds plants are traditional or old wives remedies, but in actual fact plants still provide effective ingredients for many modern medicines. We are so removed from this knowledge when we sit in sterile hospital environments. I think it’s a great shame and it created a false sense of human power. We need nature and it needs us. The forgetting of this is to our detriment.


Do you see your art as a way of bringing nature into hospitals?

Yes, I do. Even if it’s a temporary act, it’s an act that will live on in people’s memories. Part of my live performances with Anna Mullarkey included the use of props such as hospital trolleys that contained plants. I wanted to bring plants into the space, bringing a burst of green and colour and also to trigger a conversation. In seeing the plants travelling around with us, most people were reminded that plants are no longer allowed in hospitals.

“I was always very aware that when you walk into the foyer of UHG, any number of people are going through a life-changing moment. The person sitting beside you having a cup of tea, might have lost their mom or their dad, sister or brother.”


How are you introducing your compositions to hospital audiences?

The project has a number of outcomes and engagements. The first engagement will be a series of performances over four days. These will take place in Merlin Park University Hospital and University Hospital Galway . I will also be undertaking singing workshops in hospitals in Roscommon and Ballinasloe. Patients and staff will receive copies of the CD and all members of staff and members of the public who participated in the research phase will receive a copy. The album is also available for free online on the Saolta Arts website.


How is this project important to you on a personal level?

Four years ago this February, my father died in UHG, so to do this in the hospital around the same time that he passed away means a lot to me. Doing this project from day one, I was always very aware that when you walk into the foyer of UHG, any number of people are going through a life-changing moment. The person sitting beside you having a cup of tea, might have lost their mom or their dad, sister or brother. That’s why you always have to be really sensitive when you’re performing in a hospital. You don’t know what moment you’re interrupting or becoming a part of.


Do you have a memory from the time spent in the hospital that stands out to you?

From the position as a member of the public, I have a memory of when I was in ICU with my father that I found myself focusing on this one painting in the room. I was just thinking, how in those moments, your level of attention is intensified. Anything that is happening in your field, whether it’s visual or oral, is magnified. It really made me aware of how vital it is that the right thing is in front of you. The painting I’d been looking at was faded and old, but I would rather that it was there than not. It was the only thing in the room that wasn’t a frightening machine.


The idea of healing frequencies is fascinating. How have you observed it in your work?

As part of my research I delved into reading about healing frequencies, but not in too much depth. We all know that if you’re around too much noise it impedes your energy and your concentration. On a long term basis, anything that affects your immune system and a general sense of well-being will affect your health on different levels. There are certain frequencies in songs that are melancholic, some that are bright or contemplative. A frequency is a universal language. You don’t have to speak a literal language to feel what’s going on. I had great fun engaging with the amazing Galway based sound healer Mara O Grady, she was so full of knowledge regarding different healing frequencies, with her assistance I recorded some of these frequencies which were then incorporated into some of the songs.

I also engaged with senior physicist Frank Kirrane in UHG and he helped me record sounds of hospital equipment, some of which can be heard in the song ‘’White Noise’’. Frank is doing a lot of research around how sound and noise levels in hospitals impede healing. They’re looking at how they can reduce noise levels in hospitals and how premature babies are affected by sound. I found the research absolutely fascinating and necessary and I hope that new policies and practices are introduced in response. Hospitals today are not healing environments; they are too noisy and bright. When I interviewed staff and patients as part of this project and asked them all what an ideal hospital environment would be, they all said it would have to have quiet places. Places to heal and sleep and reflect.


How would you like the legacy of what you’d started with this project to continue and develop?

Being invited to respond to a healthcare system, specifically the Health Service Executive (HSE) is a huge privilege because it’s an amazingly rich subject. Having done nearly six months of research, I found that I could spend my life making work about the variety of themes I uncovered. What I feel I’ve touched upon in this compilation of songs, is the healing element. There is an element I feel I haven’t gone into yet, and that is exploring how a broken system can create failure. Without a doubt despite the health systems efforts it is a system that is failing. I would love to do a more political piece of the effects of a system on staff and patients who engage with it on a day to day level.


Having walked so many hospital hallways, what are some ways that we could make these spaces flourish?

I genuinely feel that an entirely new hospital model needs to be introduced, structurally and managerially and medically. UHG is a hospital that is bursting at its seams, staff are over worked and tired and stressed and under resourced. The good will and medical expertise is there but not the resources. If the resources could be found, we need to start anew with a vision for larger hospitals with more space and quiet spaces. Hospitals that are more holistic in their healing methods, it would be great to have modern medicine more aligned with creative arts and alternative therapies. I would love to someday see hospitals where the right to care and medical support is a human right and the standards are the same for everyone and accessible across the board. Other cultures are on the path to such models. There is no reason why we can’t follow.

Hundreds of creatives have been involved in the making of the Galway 2020 programme. In our Meet the Makers series, we meet the people who are making it  happen.

Photos and interviews by Julia Monard.


More from Ceara:




More from The Deepest Shade of Green:


Listen to Viriditas online

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