Rickie O’Neill


Drum Chief, Opening Ceremony.


Have you heard? A fiery, magical experience is set to engulf South Park at the Claddagh on Saturday 8 February, marking the start of Galway’s year as European Capital of Culture.

Rickie O’Neill is a local actor and musician, a sparkling example of the vibrant energy we can expect on the night. As drum chief, Rickie has an insider knowledge of all the sights and sounds that will make up the grand spectacle. When he played his drums for us on a cold and misty evening, the beat was loud, spine-tingling and primal. Now, amplify that by 300 performers, with added costume, chanting, fireworks – you’ve got yourself an unforgettable Opening Ceremony.


How would you describe the show that’s coming our way?

It’s not your standard show; we want to suspend people’s disbelief, almost as if it’s a play. We can’t wait to get the volunteers into costumes. You can see them gaining confidence every week and the costumes will only give them more. We’re encouraging them to perform up and out, big and bold! High energy, strong presence; it should feel otherworldly rather than it being rehearsed. It’s going to be a show of fire, music, drums, poetry – something for everyone, from toddlers to older people. It will shake the world up.


What’s it like to prepare a performance for such an open space?

We have the capacity for 50,000 people and I have no doubt we’ll get them. Everybody is going to be pleasantly surprised; it will be much bigger than we can imagine. We’re immersing ourselves in the crowd, weaving through them and bringing them along with us. Scale-wise, it’s huge yet as intimate as it gets because we’re on the ground with the audience. We don’t have a stage; the people are standing on our stage.


Is there an ancient or modern feel to the spectacle?

It’s half and half. There will be sweeping fireworks which are modern. The way we dress it up will then create this nice little comparison. Because we’re using drums, there is that tribal atmosphere about it. There are fire and orbs that are going to be lit for each town.

What kind of preparations are underway right now?

We have reached the maximum amount of drummers that we can accept, which is around 300. They’re all fantastic, their energy is extraordinary. Every single role is important. Whether you have a small drum, big drum or you’re carrying fire, it’s all a part of the show. Some people won’t even be visible to the public but will be present through the costumes. Everything you see and hear is all thanks to volunteers.


“Drum Chief” is an impressive title. Can you tell us about your role?

I am one of two drum chiefs. We’re the eyes and ears on the ground for our musical director, David Munro, when he’s not around. My fellow drum chief, Eímhín and I divvy up the patterns and put them up on social media for our performers. They can sit at home and look through them. That’s been an absolute hit. You can see they’ve been watching and practicing each week because they come back with questions and they’re stronger players, having gone from not playing ever.


“Every single role is important. Whether you have a small drum, big drum or you’re carrying fire, it’s all a part of the show.”


What kind of instruments can we expect to hear from your giant troupe?

There is a myriad of drums. We have bass drums, deep snares, shallow snares, quads, tambourines, claves, chimes – everything and anything you can think of. We’re actually expecting a shipment this week of 35 more drums. This whole thing is an audition of sound. For Dave and for us drum chiefs and captains, you really have to hear a balance of rhythms. If you feel there needs to be more chime bars in there, you have to put some in. If it’s too top-heavy on snares or base drums, you have to pick them out and replace them. It’s all to do with colour.


How important is each individual’s contribution to such a large, moving apparatus?

There are no small instruments. The chime balls are small in size but there are no small parts. We were in Tuam rehearsing and there was a big group of drums with one woman on a cabasa [an instrument that creates a rattling sound with a steel ball chain]. I had to stop and listen because she was tying it all together with that little thing! It just stood out in a way that made it move beautifully but it didn’t dominate anything.


How have you navigated the training across the county?

We’ve had weekends of rehearsals over the last two months in six towns outside of Galway – Tuam, Clifden, Spiddal, Ballinasloe, Portumna and Athenry. We train the volunteers out there to do the drum patterns that our director, David constructed. The level of enthusiasm they’re coming in with is face-melting!

How has this project enriched the lives of the people taking part?

It’s such a huge thing for the county of Galway and the city. Now we’re into all-town rehearsals, [with casts from] all towns coming to Galway. You have to realise that these people are giving up their time, they’re volunteering and [yet] they’re all coming in with great energy and smiling. I don’t know if it’s because beating a drum releases something; it is kind of like free therapy. If you’ve had a bad day, come on in; we’ll get you a drum.


What has moved you the most in this process?

It blows my mind to see the love and the character of people, and the willingness to learn and be a part of something. This whole thing is bigger than ourselves and we want to serve it. It’s inspiring to see that level of community. It will be something that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives, as it will be for us.


Has this project affected you on a professional level?

It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done. From the word go, it’s been such a learning curve for me. Every day I see myself getting better as a person and as a musician because of the people I’m working with. It’s extraordinary. You have to almost pinch yourself, it’s such a dream job to be doing. On paper, it’s challenging. In practicality, it’s made easier because everybody wants to do it.


“Every day I see myself getting better as a person and as a musician because of the people I’m working with.”


How did acting follow from music for you?

I always wondered what it would be like. I happened to have some time off from touring and went to a few acting classes. I was coming off a lot of tours and was always surrounded by the noise of drums, guitars and keyboards. It was nice to bring it down to just the voice in a scene. It was a different change of pace. I now act and play music in plays; it’s like I’ve moulded them into a ball.


A lot of musicians step into a persona when they get on stage. What’s it like for you?

I was gigging with a friend of mine once and he was playing bass; even though it was perfect, nothing really blew me away. Then just this summer, I did a gig with him and he busted out all his chops and blew my mind wide open. I had to talk to him afterwards, and tell him that was absolutely incredible. He goes, “The first time you gigged with me, I didn’t get to unleash the beast!” That struck me. When you play, you unleash a beast in a sense.


How has being a part of this programme livened your view of Galway as a place for culture?

For such a small city, [Galway] has the biggest heart. There is colour and vibrancy in it all the time – an assortment of languages, writers and musicians that all contribute to it. I’ve lived here for four years now and all of the towns have surprised me. They’re each completely different yet they are all there out of love for Galway and to try something new. I am going to be so sad when all of this is over.

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.

Videography by Lakshika Serasinhe.