Interview with Áine Tyrrell, An Irish Troubadour

By Shauna Stanley

Áine Tyrrell: Irish Troubadour is a documentary written and directed by Dr Enda Murray (2020) which features at the 2021 Irish Film Festival Australia, running online until 12 September 2021. Buy tickets here.

Áine Tyrrell: Irish Troubadour accompanies the Irish-born, Australian-based singer songwriter Áine Tyrrell as she plays the Woodford Folk Festival, just north of Brisbane, over New Years 2019/2020. The documentary interweaves two storylines – Áine’s journey to the festival, and her inspirational story of escaping domestic violence, which involved buying a vintage bus and travelling through the Australian Outback with her three young children.

Shauna Stanley interviews Áine about the documentary, her creative process, and her powerful story of resilience.

Thanks for taking the time to chat to Tinteán, Áine! Tell us a bit about yourself

I am a proud Irish woman from the Burren with strong family ties to Galway City. I am now living on Bundjalung Country in so-called Australia and I’ve been here for 10 years. I am a mother of three kids and in pre-Covid times we travelled the world together. I make music for a living and try, I guess, to capture some of the human experiences of our times through my songs. I feel very deeply, and I suppose my way of processing this thing called life is through the storytelling of my songs and trying to connect us to each other somehow.

You’re also a very skilful multi-instrumentalist – which instruments do you play, and what brought you to music?

I started out on the flute and the tin whistle in Willie Clancy weeks, but picked up guitars around the house as my Dad is a traditional folk musician. He was a tenor banjo player from the start so only learned to play four-stringed instruments; therefore there were many beautiful four-string mandolins, mandocellos, tenor guitars and banjos around the house. So I can strum away at all of them and also play a normal six-string guitar. I also play with a big stompboard as a drum and lots of pedals to play guitars through. During the first lockdown, I learned to start playing with a new sampling pad machine as well, which is super fun. So always learning and adding to the lug in at a gig.

I played music throughout childhood and my early twenties and then gave up when I had kids, but it kept burning away inside me. And I didn’t really choose to come back to it, in a way it just wouldn’t let me off the hook of not doing this. So, I gave in eventually, haha! and I have learned now to just turn up to do the work of making music, what I am meant to do here

Your film, Áine Tyrrell: Irish Troubadour, features in this year’s Irish Film Festival Australia (IFFA), and was written and directed by the founder and creative director of the IFFA, Dr Enda Murray. What was the filming process like?

I first met Enda on my first tour of so-called Australia with my Dad about 10 years ago and we have been in touch since then. If I was coming through Sydney, I’d call in or we would catch up at festivals. As an Irish community abroad, we learn to make family out of our friends and Enda became a family member, so I guess it was very natural having him around with or without a camera. He wove the story together from many different meet-ups over those years, but the most intense lot of filming was over the time at the Woodford Folk Festival. I think it didn’t feel that intense or odd to have Enda as a fly-on-the-wall throughout all the rehearsals, or at the festival and even with the kids because we were all very comfortable with him, Uncle Enda.  

During the Q&A hosted by the IFFA, Enda describes an ‘Irish Troubadour’ as a musician who travels around and tells stories through music. The title of the film is a testament to your storytelling capabilities – what is your songwriting process?

As I said above, I have learned to give into the creative flow; I guess that would be the best way to describe it. I have also learned to trust in that flow and know that not every day is easy and that the best ideas come sometimes when you aren’t looking for them or when you have made a mistake. When I am in a playful explorative kinda mood and not expecting anything of myself is when the gems appear. I know of songwriters who turn up to their desk every day like a nine-to-five job or others who go on songwriting retreats, but for me I can’t structure what comes through me to arrive on a schedule, I have to just try to catch the ideas as they come. Sometimes I catch them, sometimes I have the time to follow that niggling that knows a song is coming. Sometimes I get to sit down and dedicate time to it, but sometimes I have to make the kids’ dinner or pick them up from soccer and I miss a moment. What I have learned mostly is to trust that if something wants to come through, it’ll come through. Creativity is mysterious and also very simple and I love being mischievous with it and just standing back in awe of what presents itself and just learning to trust in it. 

My favourite song of yours is the feminist anthem ‘Born To Do This’ – I remember you singing it to a room full of Repeal the 8th activists back in 2018 during a gig in aid of Together for Yes – it really gave us the fuel we needed in that final week of the campaign. What is your view on songs as a form of activism?

I never set out to be an activist, but I saw the power of music as an act of community power from day one with my Dad so I guess ‘she didn’t lick it off the stones’ would apply here. He was ahead of his times in what he said and sang about, and I got to see how powerful music was in being able to allow people to feel things from different perspectives in a way that sometimes politics can’t.

To me, I write songs about what I am passionate about and what I am feeling at the time, but what I am feeling is normally a reflection of something we are all going through. Singing it out helps me process the world. We, as Irish women, are collectively united across the world on an issue that has affected us and the women in our ancestral lines for so long. So whilst ‘Born To Do This’ started off as a song about the personal, about claiming myself back, it quickly became about what we were all going through at the time in claiming our rights as Irish women to govern our bodies and be trusted to do so. That moment at the Melbourne Gig for Choice was incredibly powerful for me too. Cara Robinson sang at the event too and the next day we went into studio and added the last layers of vocals on the ‘Born To Do This’ recorded track. And I can tell you we brought the full Repeal power to that recorded version. Ye were in my heart. 

Speaking of favourite songs, what is your favourite song?

The most recent track that I released, ‘We Call You Now’, was one of the most incredible songwriting experiences I have had, like nothing else I had written and in some ways I don’t even feel I wrote it. It is a seven-minute spoken word track which is not a genre I have ever written before and even at the time of writing, I was not sure what I was going to do with this beast of a piece coming through. Luckily, I just trusted the process and let it come out as it was, and I feel it was kind of a download to something that landed in my lap and the song basically looked at me and was like… what are you going to do with me now? After consulting with some creative friends, I knew I had to release it. It challenged me in a way. That track was the culmination of the 10 years of experience I have had as an Irish person on stolen land here and all the complexities we hold of the generations before coming to this land and how we should be the best of allies in the struggles for truth and treaty and a brighter future on this land.

The music video for your song ‘In This House’, directed by Dara Munnis, featured as as a short film in the IFFA 2019 and was added to the Australian school curriculum as a way for students to explore conversations around colonisation, reconciliation, belonging, and respect. These themes are further examined in your documentary, with both ‘In This House’ and ‘We Call You Now’ included in the film. Tell us more about the importance of Irish people in Australia standing in solidarity with the fight for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander justice.

The conversation I had in ‘We Call You Now’ wouldn’t have come about without the journey the song ‘In This House’ brought me on. Songs sometimes become little guides in your life. ‘In This House’ came about in a conversation about what a Welcome To Country meant with a beautiful Indigenous friend, Dane Kennedy. He explained it to me as a knocking on a door and how you wouldn’t rock up to someone’s house without knocking. When he explained it to me in that way, it just shook me as someone who came from a land and people who also didn’t have a whole lot of knocking. Standing in solidarity to me is the only way to stand and live on stolen land. We as Irish people are still learning and unlearning our own history and becoming empowered as sovereign people; how can we not see the similarities here and stand up for basic human rights? As a society as we grow, we will look back at these times and wonder how we ever could have become so disconnected from the land and from each other as people. I feel change coming all over the world and at the centre of that change are Indigenous voices reminding us of our connections to country. I struggled massively with the lack of culture and connection to land in white Australia when I arrived here first and I was so lucky that through music and touring with Indigenous artists I got to listen and learn. My experience in this country is immeasurably richer from listening to the oldest living culture in the world and it has also helped me connect back into my own Irish Indigenous culture and remember who we were before Christianity and colonisation.

Your 1960s bus features heavily in the documentary, and has given me some major van life inspiration for post-lockdown travel! What does your typical day on the road look like?

Ah, I miss the road so much. We have been sat still a lot longer now than usual with COVID and most of my touring has halted, so it has been a big adjustment for me and the kids. But typically we would be on a loop around some part of so-called Australia that would take in a few festivals over a few months. In between festivals, I’d normally have some ticketed shows and then we’d always plan a new place to visit or return to a favourite spot for a few weeks in the in-between. A 1960s bus is slow going. Top speed is about 120 going downhill on the Hume Highway. So, it’s a different kinda touring, a slow touring, driving in the night missing the hottest parts of the day, stopping off at a watering hole to cool us all down, stopping off to take in some sites or places of interest and always planning for a breakdown. If a map says a car would take seven hours to get there, I’d plan 14 between bus and kid time. But, I love it. I love rolling into a town and I love meeting new people and spending time getting to see their community. It’s very different from flying in and flying out and the usual fast-paced tour life. In the last few years pre-COVID things had gotten so fast, the bus couldn’t keep up with my schedule, so I was flying a lot more and I missed the bus pace. The bus pace was much more a real-life speed that I think the world is demanding we should be on now. I really want to get back to that slower paced touring again. Meeting the people in a town and a community and knowing what land you are on and the stories of that place.

As we see in the film, the bus also symbolises your escape from domestic violence, which you discuss in your Blog from a Bus. How do you feel about sharing this aspect of your story in the film?

I somehow have a voice after what I have been through and now with some distance, I do feel safe and strong enough to speak about these things. For years I would avoid questions and try not to get into the details about why I had bought the bus or took off with my kids on this adventure, but to me integrity and truth are everything so I felt a bit of me dying every time I had to tell a half-truth about my story. Who I am is who I am everywhere; I don’t have an artist persona or a stage personality, so I felt the weight of being incongruent and decided to step out from the darkness of secret and just release the truth about my journey on that blog post and let it be there for whoever wanted to interview me in the future. I had no idea at the time that because of that blog post I would be in a documentary or speaking about these things openly on national newspapers or radio. I have said yes to the documentary and then subsequent interviews because I am not an exceptional story; my story is way too common. There are so many of us, one in three women who have or will go through this and we need to hear stories of strength and resilience alongside the stories that break our hearts. I know I needed to hear a story of thriving and survival after abuse and I am somehow able to be that strength right now. As we learned during the Repeal campaign, we collectively release the shame we all hold, when even one person speaks about an experience that we can relate to. I am in a way trying to stand for those of us whose voices might still be shaking. If I can use my voice and platform to shine a light into those dark places, I will.

Crowdfunding is a fantastic tool – I contributed to a crowdfunder for this film, and I’m so glad to see it come to fruition despite cuts to Arts funding during the pandemic. How can the Australian government best support the Arts going forward as we emerge from the pandemic?

Thank you for contributing. I am humbled and honoured by Enda’s determination with the telling of my story as I had nearly given up on him getting it funded. He never did. Enda had tried for years through Irish funding and Australian funding but kept getting knocked back. Turns out the story of an Irish person in so-called Australia doesn’t seem to fit neatly in either country’s funding tick-boxes. We, as Irish people who left, are really a collection of untold stories in our new homes or old home. Crowdfunding was the only way this story was going to be told and I am so thankful for all who helped bring this story out and I also challenge both Ireland and Australia to consider us in their funding.

I do see the difference in Arts recovery in Ireland and the Arts recovery in so-called Australia and it is no wonder that Ireland punches above its weight in terms of artists out there in the world doing their thing, because we respect the Arts a lot more as a community and you can see it in the response to COVID. But there is a lot of work to do here in terms of Arts and Culture. How can the government respect the Arts when it barely recognises the original storytellers and artists of this land? I do think that the way forward for this country is by handing the reigns over to the oldest surviving culture in the world to let us feel culture here and build from that.

Watch Áine Tyrrell: Irish Troubadour as part of the the Irish Film Festival Australia.

Follow Áine Tyrrell on Patreon

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

Shauna Stanley is a member of the Tinteán Editorial Collective.

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