Season 2 E1 : Ruth Smith Released April 2 2021
Ruth Smith is well known to radio listeners for her weekly RTÉ Radio 1 show Simply Folk but Ruth is a woman of many hats and talents. She is also part of the female singing trio ‘The Evertides’ with her singing sisters Ruth McGill and Alma Kelliher and her creative work includes writing poetry and fiction.
She was born, as Ruth says, a middle child in a family running a busy and bustling Portumna pub in Co. Galway, she grew up performing, doing turns in the pub playing fiddle and became an accomplished pianist. She went to Trinity College Dublin to study drama and theatre, she still has an occasional life on stage as an actor, and today she lives in East Clare, with her husband, fellow musician Fergal Scahill (of We Banjo 3), and their rescue cat and two dogs.
In this episode of The Family of Things Ruth shares an often deeply personal journey of self-discovery and how a turbulence time in her late twenties, and early thirties, when her first marriage ended, and she felt lost, helped her find confidence in her own voice, and the power to use it for a positive purpose.
I was at probably an uncomfortable truth, dare I say, I was probably an absolute pain in the arse for my family and still am to a certain extent, because my name is Ruth. And like truth has been such a big part of calling things out and having difficult conversations.
And I think how we’ve developed as a country in the last 10 years with the referendums and yeah, I would always want to have those difficult conversations.
The voice there of Ruth Smith, radio host, singer and sometimes poet, my guest in this episode of The Family of Things, I’m Helen Shaw, and in this podcast, I have a chance to sit down and talk with people about their life and how they choose to live it. In this new season I’m seeking out people who’ve taken often dramatic turns in their life in order to find their own path and shape their destiny. And I’m asking them to share their journey. But we’re also in a year when life and the idea of our choices has seemed both strained and limited.
So many of the things we take for granted as part of being human have had to stop, like giving someone a hug, going out for dinner with old friends or even turning up at the funeral of someone we love.
So I’m curious to find out how people have coped with this strange new covid-19 world where so much of what we take as being instinctive to being human has been altered.
So my first guest in this season is a woman who I first came to know through her voice, her voice on radio and her voice in song.
Ruth Smith hosts the weekly RTE Radio One show Simply Folk, but she’s also part of the female trio, The Evertides.
Silence Falling by The Evertides plays
And that’s Ruth’s voice you’re hearing now with her singing sisters Ruth McGill and Alma Kelliher. Now Ruth’s a Galway woman from Portumna.
But today she lives in what seems like an idyllic setting in East Clare.
Silence Falling by The Evertides plays
Well, welcome, Ruth. You know, it’s still only, what is it? It’s gone six o’clock. I can still hear birdsong out in my back garden.
Well, I’ll tell you what I’m seeing, Helen. I’m seeing a beautiful, almost full moon that’s rising up through the, through the trees here in the woods around the house.
There’s something incredibly uplifting about spring. You really feel it captures the mood of begin again. And you know, Ruth, I was saying there that I’ve got to know you through your voice, which is a fabulous voice.
But also when I began to look at what you’ve done, you’ve got so many hats.
I mean, I’ve said you’re a radio presenter, you’re a broadcaster, you’re a singer. But actually at heart you’re a poet.
And in some ways, I’m seeing that in social media and what you’re doing now.
But you’ve been writing poetry right through, I think, and it’s a real touchstone with you.
Yeah, I suppose it’s one that has been with me since I was quite young, probably because I, I identified quite fiercely with an outsider kind of archetype, you know, trying to be understood or trying to understand myself. I remember as a 10, 11 year old, I started to, you know, write in a journal, and then suddenly I found myself writing things that seemed like they were poetic, so I enjoyed that and it became a real practice for me, even as a really young child.
But like, never, ever thought that, I could be a poet, but it’s always been a cornerstone for me.
It’s always been a comfort and a real, I think a real solace for me. It’s helped me find the voices that made me understand myself, you know, and I love the fact that this podcast is called The Family of Things, because Mary Oliver has been one of those poets who’s just really allowed me to find, to find my footing in who I am, even if I’m a little bit of an outsider or feel as an introvert who is quite extrovert in her career.
I mean, for me, poetry is something that illuminates and gives meaning. I mean, I’m similar in that I grew up reading it, but also writing it as a way to express and almost to work myself out.
But one of the things that, it struck me when we were talking about poetry and yourself is that you mentioned a poem that you say you learnt by heart.
You were saying that maybe, what, about 14 or so you learnt this Philip Larkin poem by heart.
This be the verse. And the funny thing is, when you said it, I had to check because I always thought this poem was just called They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
Yeah, I know.
So Ruth maybe I should get you to read the poem before we go any further.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra, just for you. But they were fucked up in their turn by fools and old-style hats and coats, who half the time were soppy-stern and half at one another’s throats. Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself.
And God help my parents. I mean, like the fact that I learnt this so fervently as a teenager, I suppose to give it a bit of context. I grew up in a pub, The Maple in Portumna in East Galway, and there was a very active and still is a very active community arts festival.
But there was a poetry group that ran out of our family pub it was called the Maple Poetry Group.
So having the chance to kind of stand at a lectern, you know, once a month in my own home, essentially because we lived above it, I used to pick out poems that I wanted to read or read some of my own poems as well.
But this one just got me, again, you know, trying to find who you are in the family of things in a big family of seven, you know, being a middle child and a kind of a born performer and a drama queen probably as well, you know.
You were always performing?
I think so. Yeah, I think so. Through music, through wanting to live in a place that didn’t feel so real.
I was definitely drawn to the inner imaginarium an awful lot more than wanting to be in the real world. So, yeah.
So in the pub, would you get up and sing? Were you doing the turn in the pub.
Yes, there was music. There was always music in the pub. We had a weekly session on Tuesday nights and that was kind of the chance to, I played fiddle from a young age and then piano really came into my life in a big way when I was 11, I won a scholarship to the Royal Irish Academy of Music and that meant travelling to Dublin once a week.
Every Wednesday, my mother would drive me from Portumna to Dublin for my piano and for my theory classes in the Royal Irish Academy. And I suppose that became a real focus. So it was like, Ruth play a fiddle tune, or I would go out and play my latest Mozart or Bach or Little Etudes.
The two never really met, which was a strange, a strange kind of existence. And they didn’t meet until later in life, which I’m kind of sorry about. But yeah, the piano was classical, the fiddle was traditional and music was always a big part of it. Not so much my voice Helen it’s, it’s interesting.
You must have been good. And obviously your mother also must have been so supportive to drive you up and down, but maybe give us a picture about the family. How many is in it. And I think you mentioned middle and the sense of what was the nature of that home and place growing up above the pub and with that level of bustle and busyness around you.
Yeah. Yeah, seven, seven children under 10, I think my mum had. Definitely steps of the stairs like twin boys and I am the third girl of three girls. There’s four boys and three girls. And I was the youngest girl and the middle child. So number four of seven. And you’re right, the bustle, I mean, there’s a reason they call pubs, public houses because there was no locks on the doors. There was you know, people came and it was a busy house.
It was actually a lovely family run pub atmosphere. And I think as you saw the pop culture change around 2006, we saw it definitely before the downturn we got the best out of Irish country pub life, running it as a family. And there were amazing lessons. I mean, literally, you step out from your kitchen table where you’re eating dinner and you step onto a stage, you know, just within a couple of steps, you’re on a stage and you have to entertain people and you have to have a quick answer. You have to hold your own. You have to deal with money. And there was a certain apprenticeship to it, I think.
And you almost maybe have to develop an external face for the world very quickly in your life in a pub, because you’re always on.
Yeah, and it’s, it’s an interesting one, because then when I went into studying performance and, you know, music, drama and theatre studies and then eventually being a presenter and a broadcaster, you kind of look at well, where is the alignment in who you are and what you’re saying through your voice, you know. Do you always put on a face? Is it always something that you have to apply to be that person or that presenter? And I think I’ve worked to try and find where I can be really aligned in the work that I do without, without having to be a persona, if that’s possible.
And sometimes it’s not palatable to everybody, you know, because people want you to be larger than life or they want you to be kind of like a caricature of yourself.
But I’m proud of the fact that over the last few years of my life that I’ve worked to investigate that and how you can be someone who has a microphone in front of them and to really try and stay true to yourself.
And it’s lovely doing something like this, Helen, because it’s one thing presenting an hour long show of music. It’s another thing to speak from your truth, to speak from something that’s very personal to you.
But I’m just going to step back one moment to that poem with Philip Larkin and why it resonated so much with you.
I think many of us, including myself, whenever you read that poem, we all have that sense that it speaks to us in a way.
And yet, you know, when I read it again today. I, again, hadn’t seen it for a while, and there’s that final paragraph, which is. Man hands on misery to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf, get out so early as you can and don’t have any kids yourself. It’s such a dark line in that Larkin isn’t just saying what many of us accept is that we are kind of fucked up by our roots, our parents, and with our things we overcome and things we have to reflect and learn about. But in some ways, he was saying it’s quite bleak. Don’t be a parent.
And I suppose here I am in my 42nd year and I don’t have children. I wonder and I wonder, you know, the power of incantation, like I didn’t have the language back then, but it struck on something that I felt very powerfully in my being was that thing of intergenerational trauma. Again, it’s only a term that’s come into my life in the last, say, five years or so. And it’s very much part of discourse now because of what we as women, but as a country in totality that we’ve had to really look at and be so confronted with our past.
And I think something about that poem struck on that with me.
It’s like. I remember growing up and being very angry at the fact that because I was born a girl, even though I had tomboy tendencies and I kind of felt like I could rough and tumble with my brothers and and even in the pub, you know, I was able to go toe to toe with the older men who’d come in, and it was mostly men in the pub.
But something about the inequality that was just, just a part of the fabric of the culture, be it the culture of a family or in school or society, I mean, I was born in 79, so through the 80s and the early 90s, I remember being quite angry, you know, with the boys getting the bigger part of the chop, they’d get the eye of the chop and we’d get the tail and that sort of stuff. Like I just felt so much fury at it.
And it’s funny because I’m a lot older than you, and yet I resonate with all of that completely. I mean, I was born in 62, one of six. But I would absolutely kind of resonate with the idea that women, in our generation, as I say, I’m older, but that you ended up having to deal with a lot of anger because I certainly felt I mean, I grew up in a family where my mother was Catholic, my father was Protestant, had to convert at the side altar to marry my mother.
But also I was put in Catholic schools. I stopped going to the church by age 15 because of the whole way in which women were being treated. And I do remember even at 15 having that really clear idea that life was not fair.
When you say anger in that, did you feel you were being treated very differently as a girl in the family?
I think I just saw it around me and maybe the anger wasn’t just for me, it was kind of like there was some sort of cellular thing of, is this my destiny because I’m a girl? I really raged against things like having to cook dinner. And I remember, you know, watching Mam like she’d peel the potatoes.
And my sisters were really diligent and they were great, my older sisters. And it was always about, you know, going to the shops and getting the food and again, just really traditional. There was nothing wrong with the family. I mean, I’m in a family of great people. It was just I felt a kind of an anger, I felt
A disconnect, yeah, that I felt it should be different or there should be a conversation or an opportunity where just because I was a girl, I didn’t have to end up peeling the potatoes.
And I do remember saying to myself, like, I’m not going to stand at a sink and peel potatoes. Now, I love peeling potatoes, but I think it’s coming around full circle to doing things by choice rather than by obligation.
And I think really rejecting the idea of the martyr, the martyr mother, that’s very much a part even of the iconography of Irish Catholicism, you know, and how that just perpetuated these kind of archetypes of what you could be as a woman.
So, I mean, I was probably an uncomfortable truth, dare I say, I was probably an absolute pain in the arse for my family and still am to a certain extent, because my name is Ruth and like truth has been such a big part of calling things out and having difficult conversations. And I think how we’ve developed as a country in the last 10 years with the referendums. And yeah, I would always want to have
Discussions over abortion and divorce
Those difficult conversations.
And as you say, you see yourself as the outsider from the get go as well, even though you were very much part of the performance and the sociality of the pub and the music.
And you still feel that even though while you’re not back in County Galway, you’re living in County Clare, like your life, as you say, has that sense of coming full circle back to a much more nature based rural Ireland.
And yet you kind of identify as being the outsider in that conversation
Because there is and was a lot of love in that family context.
But if you identify as this sort of lost soul in a way, that’s something that you have to work through and understand. And I feel so much of that introspection as a younger person led to me being more empathetic
Because of your own sense of being outside and looking in, it’s given you the perspective to empathise with people who also might be the outsider.
And I think that was never more obvious to me than it was, you mentioned, you know, having conversations about the abortion referendum and divorce. And I went through a divorce in my late 20s. And that was probably when so much of this really came to the surface for me.
You know, that feeling of having fallen from some kind of prescribed way of being or that I went against a certain idea of what my life should be and being, you know, one of the first people in my friend groups to get married quite young in my mid 20s at the time.
And then one of my first, one of the first people in my peers to, you know, leave a marriage and go through a divorce.
And again, I think that just really layered on that feeling of being alone and being kind of vulnerable and outside of the tribe, outside of the unit. It was really interesting that time. It felt like kind of a decade of a little bit of a wasteland.
Ruth when you were growing up, even before we get to the marriage, when you were growing up, where did you see your life and where did you want to be? Because there was almost that sense that we were all supposed to fit into marriage before 25 and have your first child like 30, 31. But when you were a kid and even when the Philip Larkin poem is embedding in your head, where did you see Ruth in the future?
I, I saw myself in a house in the woods with a cat and a book that I could write poems in funnily enough, and to be able to make music.
So what you have now
Pretty much, which is the mad thing
So what you have now, is kind of what you you envisage
And funnily, my oldest one of my sisters, Judith, when I was going through that wasteland, that’s what she said to me.
She said, I just see you in a room with books and a cat at your feet and you just want different things. Like Judith, wonderful sister, you know, and she knew she wanted to be a mother. She knew she wanted to run a home. And she’s just the most amazing mother and Sarah as well. And it’s really interesting how I fought against type because I thought I had to fit in because I thought to be called a dreamer or a drama queen was somehow just not going to cut the mustard.
And I think maybe you try and conform. And then in doing that, something in your soul kind of fractures
Yeah, it does. And it’s nobody’s fault. Do you know what I mean? This is the thing.
Well, you know, there’s a Mary Oliver poem which always resonates with me is that the only life you can save is your own. You know that there’s that sense in which it’s nobody’s fault and we have to kind of take, which is what you’re describing, which is you almost went back and rescued the dream that you had when you were 14 in this journey.
What I was struck by, you know, I know you went to Trinity and you did that very salubrious theatre and drama degree.
But you also, if I’m right, you were a Rose of Tralee for Galway. You were the Galway Rose.
I was the Galway Rose. I was in 2000 and something.
2001, I think. And you were, I think you were a student or so at that stage. I was curious when I saw that because I thought what was Ruth thinking at that point when she’s in drama school, and it’s also this is a way to get the stage.
Who was presenting in 2001?
Marty Wheelan? It was his very last year to do it. And I was his very last Rose, would you believe and I have a hilarious picture I’m going to send to you after this Helen of myself and Marty on the stage being part of the Rose of Tralee was huge.
Like I mean, there was busloads from Portumna that went down to it. People talk about it to this day like it was one of the best holidays. The weather was cracking, they were all out in Banna beach. They were drinking till all hours. And I was going through my feminist awakening like wave six.
And I’ll tell you how it happened. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t orchestrate it. I was entered as the Portumna veterinary clinic Rose.
I went to the Trinity Ball the night before and with the same outfit that I wore to the Trinity ball, I got on the Kearns’s bus, not in the outfit, the outfit was in a bag to get down to Portumna to go on stage. And I won that. And then I got to the Galway one and I won that.
And then I literally was on this whirlwind of receptions and the support I got from Portumna and from the Galway Rose Committee was just incredible.
It literally felt like I was hoisted up by a whole community and carried down to Tralee.
Because one of the things that I wondered about when I saw that is like when you grow up in the pub and you’re performing almost as a kid and it’s you’re out there in the public and the Rose, I mean, did it give you confidence?
Because where you are now, you’re so front of house.
Yeah, I compared the buzz of going out on stage and doing that and having the chat with Marty. It felt very much like I was in the pub again. You know, it felt like that kind of banter and party piece.
What I did recognise in that time, and it was really interesting because I knew, I wanted to perform I knew I wanted to have a creative life, but I was actually quite uncomfortable with the attention. It didn’t sit well with me. I remember saying to my mam the morning of the final show and the results and I was kind of up there with the bookies.
And there was, there was just a lot of, a lot of pressure and support. And she can’t lose. She can’t lose.
And I remember saying, like, I actually wouldn’t want this full time. It was too much. And I realised something about myself that I need time away from that high. And it’s why I find even, you know, theatre shows, long theatre runs. I find them quite challenging because you have to be on that pitch the whole time.
All the time.
Yeah. And I’m so lucky that my career has, as you say, like, I wear a lot of hats.
I’ve been a bit of a jack of all in some ways, and I’ve allowed myself to, to do stuff that’s kind of behind the scenes and production.
I don’t have a huge need to be front, front and centre the whole time.
But when you think about all the hats you’re wearing and you’re now producing, you’re hosting, you’re writing, you’re doing a range of things, you’re in East Clare, you’re down there with a poly tunnel.
From your perspective, what drives your creativity?
I think there’s something about finding out the truth of things. And I know that’s kind of an oblique answer. Like, I’m doing these haikus now in the mornings, there’s something about an experience of a day that you can somehow put through the prism of verse or into a song that other people resonate with. And I see it a lot when I play music on simply folk, you know, people will send me emails and say, oh my God, that song really affected me because, or can you tell me who sang that song because I need to hear it again, because I went through this experience and it’s allowed me to grieve or it’s allowed me to connect with a place that I miss.
And there’s something about knowing that if you create something from a very personal place or from a very individual perspective, that somebody else who you never met or you’ll never meet can have an emotional response to it.
And like whether that’s a poem or a piece of theatre or a song. I think it’s a worthwhile way to spend your life.
Absolutely. Tell us a little bit about the haiku inniu, because that you started that, I think with the New Year and you’ve been doing one in social media every day or so.
I mean, they’re beautiful. Give us an example and just what’s going on?
Why are you doing them?
So the haiku, my uncle P.J., who at the time so last your first lockdown, he was living himself and my Aunt Mary were in Brussels and he is a wonderful letter writer and he would write me letters as gaeilge because tá mé ag foghlaim, fós. But he would send
You’re learning Irish.
Yeah. Yeah. And he would send me beautiful haikus as gaeilge and get me to translate them. And I started just putting them up on social media. And then another friend of mine, Laura Murphy, she’s a wonderful poet and she recently actually wrote an open letter to the Taoiseach about the mother and baby homes. But Laura Murphy shares poems, haikus, and she calls them Haikus for Healing. And I just looked at that practise and also the fact that PJ had been sending haikus.
And I think there was something about just distilling the days or marking the days as well in lockdown.
Have you one in your mind that you could share with us that has stuck with you? Because often they are, as you say, they’re lovely little three line fragments at the beginning of a day.
There’s one that I shared on the 3rd of February on St. Blaise’s Day, the feast day of St. Blaise. All I’d known was the blessings of the throat.
And when I saw that feast day, it made me think of. how fervent I was about getting my throat blessed as a youngster because I lost my voice a lot.
So how does that one go?
So the haiku. Let me see. Here it is. Reclaim your voice, now use it for a higher good, truth ablaze in you.
That really speaks to using your voice, the idea of the blessing of the throat and truth and that kind of resonance between the words themselves of the throat and the truth for us. I mean, when I read your pieces or when I listen to you and that idea that you come back to being a truth seeker as being the essence of what you do.
So much of this is also tied with being a woman in the age we live in in Ireland. And maybe even where you talked about that Philip Larkin poem or even your courage in your own sense of leaving a marriage that had started so early that, like truth seeking for you is intrinsically linked. I would hear to being a woman in Ireland and that these things are what drives you.
Yeah, definitely. And being worried about that in my younger life, because not knowing if that was going to get me into, you know,
Into situations where I would be out of order. Yeah. That I’d get into trouble. And I did because it’s an uncomfortable thing when someone doesn’t act accordingly
Or fit in.
Yeah. And yet, all we want to do is be, you know, loved and accepted. But I found that it was sort of a shallow feeling to be loved and accepted out of obligation, you know, from a place of, if I do this I will be loved. It was kind of like, well, could I be loved for exactly who I am with all of my complexities?
And I have found that in the people I have in my life now. There’s another thing from that Haiku as well. Helen, reclaim your voice now use it for a higher good. And I think looking at even the term truth seeking, it can be quite an introspective thing for a lot of people, you know, when you start therapy and I did in my early thirties going into talk therapy and that was great at the time because it kind of helped me unravel or get through the rubble
After your marriage ended
Yeah, but what I found, you know, more recently in my life, going to sematic therapy, you know that, rather than sticking in an old story, you actually get it out of your sematic cellular memory, and I think that’s why the Philip Larkin poem, again, you know, this thing of like what have we inherited in our bones, in our bodies and how can we shed that in order to be of use to other people like it’s the higher good, that it’s not just about you fixing yourself. And I think that’s the uncomfortable gap.
That is so interesting because that almost resonates completely back to that end line again in Larkin that, like, get out as early as you can.
So if we, if we take it there, actually, you’re going beyond his last line because his last line is almost get out and don’t repeat it. So don’t have kids yourself that we don’t repeat what we’ve inherited.
But you’re actually saying, no, get out, but make it so that there is resolution, there is reconciliation, and that there is a sense that there is healing.
And in many ways, it gets back to that idea that there’s a particular nature to truth seeking and truth telling in the female journey in Ireland, that it is more about healing.
You mentioned your friend and the mother and baby home report and the idea that even for those of us who are not directly descended from those survivors, that part of us all feel akin to that story because we’re all maybe just one step removed from it. If you were born at a certain age in this country that you feel well, your mother or you or your sister could have been there.
So maybe partly what we’re getting at here is that
I completely, completely agree
There is a difference to the truth seeking in the female journey. And it’s not just that we all have to become mothers because no more than you, I’m not a mother, I am an aunt. But there’s a sense that you want to leave things better.
It’s not just about getting out that you want to leave things better for the next group, whether it’s as you have no more than I nieces and nephews, that you want to have a sense that the cycle is actually broken, that it doesn’t mean that we keep repeating some of the things that we have experienced or grown up with.
Yeah, and in many ways, it’s easier to repeat, to kind of out of a sense of respect or obligation of honouring our elders that we don’t challenge or we don’t change. I love the phrase, you know, being an ancestor in training. And it’s something I’ve investigated a lot in, especially in the last, say, five or six years of my life. What does it mean to mother in your life? You know, what does it mean to have a mothering or a nurturing, encouraging aspect to your life?
And I really feel the role of being an aunt, a godmother, an altramas is one of my terms that I have for one of my goddaughter’s, I’m her altramas, which is an old Irish word.
Tell me about that. I don’t know that, Ruth, what’s an altramas?
So it’s a word that I got from P.J., actually, funnily enough, again, P.J., my linguist, wonderful uncle, who I pester all the time,
PJ Mac Gabhann.
Correct. He gave it to me because I asked him, was there a word in Irish that could kind of take the place of godmother? And it was a person in the community that a child, when they had learnt as much as they could from their parents, they would be sent to this person like for an apprenticeship, you know, if they were skilled in a certain way, be it a craft or in the arts or in agriculture or whatever it might be.
And it was so that that child could get a well-rounded education for the world.
And I just love that. And it makes me sound a little bit like a superhero, like altramas, altramas Ruth.
That is gorgeous. altramas Ruth, there’s a sense in which, you know, having an alter ego gives us space to grow as well right through life.
Hmm. I would love nothing more than to have a nice or a nephew or a son or a daughter of friends of mine to come to me with a question or a problem or to share something that’s in their heart and that I could be of some service to them. And I think that’s why I take that kind of mothering part of my life, I don’t see myself as not having a mothering nature just because I haven’t had a biological child. I see it in how I can be, how I can mother myself first and foremost, that kind of inner child part of me, but also in the world to nurture, like to really nurture things, because I think that feminine presence is really important in helping people heal, helping people feel loved for exactly who they are.
So let’s just explore that a little bit, because in a sense, what’s really interesting is how you ended up in this very wise it sounds place as an altramas.
So that journey from getting married quite early in your 20s, feeling that you were on a particular path and then that falling apart. And there’s that wonderful phrase about what do we do when things fall apart? And sometimes that’s very creative, but it’s also often quite destructive because you have to put yourself back together again.
So where you are now, I mean, you’re in East Clare, you have the rescue cat, you have two dogs, and you’ve this wonderful partner who’s a musician, Fergal, so this sounds like everything you dreamt about, as you were saying when you were 14. But what really is interesting for us, who will often seem trapped or blocked, is how did you get there? How did you work that path from almost being lost in 20s, early 30s and finding yourself and doing that work?
It sounds like you did a lot of work to figure out what you wanted and where you wanted to be and to be true to yourself.
But what was the journey from, say, your early 30s to where you are now?
I had to get comfortable with upsetting people. And being frustrating. And I think bless my parents, you know, my dad said to me at one point, you’re like a moving target, you know, you can’t be caught I can’t pin you down to fix you, you know? And I did that intentionally.
Like, I literally I ran away with the Volvo Ocean race for 12 months. I lived in London. I went from job to job. I kind of was, I was such a good teenager, Helen.
I didn’t rebel in my teens. And I think if there’s anyone listening, if you have teenage children, let them rebel because there was something in me that
Let them rebel in their teens.
Yeah. That needed to define myself, that needed to have that individuation
Yeah. I think getting married so young and again, there’s no blame there like in a way. I think in choosing to leave my marriage in my 20s, I not only saved my life, but I actually I saved a lot of hurt down the road for two people who just weren’t right for one another. You asked me how did, how did that all move or how did I get to where I am now? I kind of had to be OK with not pleasing people.
And my dad, who’s fromm he’s from Monaghan he’s from Clones, he was always a bit of an oddity down in East Galway, this strange kind of borderland wit, you know, the dark wit.
And I remember he said to me when I was younger, if everybody likes you, you’re doing something wrong. Like you have to get comfortable with people not liking the decisions you make. And I think I was in that sort of pleasing mode of how do I be a good girl, you know, how do I be a good girlfriend? How do I be a good wife? What do I do to fit into this mould? And you end up being a pleaser and slowly but surely feeling like a caged animal, which is
There’s very little of you left.
Yeah. Which is where that burst came from for me, it was like, I actually can’t work through this. I need to, I need to rip it all apart. I need to burn it all down and run away and find my feet on my own, not being told what that should be or what that should look like. And thankfully, what grew from that, those ashes was something very loving and very wholesome, not only in how I feel about myself, but the relationships that repaired within my family, the upset and the kind of the worry and then finding someone who really loved the complexity and the oddness of who I am.
And I’m very, very lucky that I did find that when I did. I never thought I’d find it in an Irishman. This is the truth Helen. I honestly, I’m still shocked this day that I met a man from Galway, from the county I was born in, who has the qualities that I knew I needed to complement.
He makes me feel held and free. He gives me a great sense of love without feeling like I have to be anything other than myself.
Well, nobody could wish for more than to be held and free, which is such an incredible way of putting it.
The fact that he comes from Galway and you’re both musicians there’s that weird sense of coming full circle because, you know, you seem from the outside that you’re just well matched, that you do have that shared sense of philosophy and interest. And sometimes that’s almost incredible that it was right at home.
But there’s an element in which you talk about what was happening then and that, again, if the Philip Larkin poem was a trigger for capturing where you were at 14 and feeling an outsider, not fitting in, that there’s a song from Julie Feeney which triggered with you a sense of what you were experiencing and maybe also motivated you. Life’s Nudge.
Yeah, Life’s Nudge
Life’s Nudge by Julie Feeney plays
So it’s a lovely song. And yet you know no more than other things that Julie does it’s when you read the words on their own, without the music, it becomes even stronger. I mean, how did it speak to you and why do you think it became the turning point for you at that time?
I remember getting the album Pages, wasn’t it, yeah and Julie’s music there’s something like there’s something quite worldly about it. You know, it has that kind of classical nuance and structure and approach. And then she’s got this quirky kind of way into the human experience that, because she’s from Galway as well, I think there was just something that excited me about that, you know. And maybe there was part of me looking at her going, wow, I’d love to be Julie Feeney, you know, but nothing prepared me for the effect that that song had on me.
. Significances cling to ordinary things, peculiar superstitious comforts.
Life’s Nudge by Julie Feeney plays
And it felt like there was something nudging me constantly nudging me like a little soul voice or little soul calling, and I was like, why does this feel so wrong? Why do I feel so out of place? And why do I feel like such a failure in a marriage, in my life? You know, yet on the surface, it was all how sorted I am, you know? And I just knew that
It looked good.
Yeah. And again, she says in the song, you know, life’s unexpected nudge’s come, can’t blame anyone. It’s like there’s no one that I can blame for who I am.
Who I am is the thing that was uncomfortable in the straightjackets that I felt I inherited.
Life’s Nudge by Julie Feeney plays
And another pearl of wisdom that I got at that time was a wonderful woman that I, through the work I was doing in home care, that I used to spend evenings with and she was just a fascinating woman because she was so peaceful in herself and so kind to people. And I asked her, I said, like, what’s your secret?
Like, I’ve met so many people who are more able bodied than you, who resent family members, who are bitter, who feel like their lives didn’t go the way they wanted them to go. And, Emily was her name, and she said, Ruth, I have owned all of my own choices. And that phrase has stayed with me like I couldn’t own my choices because I felt like I was doing things out of.
Obligation or, yeah, expectation, and I was like, can I live with the person that I am now?
Can I live with them? Never mind someone else living with me, be they a partner or children or family. And I knew I couldn’t live with myself because I actually couldn’t say I own the choices that I’ve made. And it’s been a really powerful thing that stayed with me and Julie’s song was like this kind of little mantra, there’s something quite hypnotic about it and almost fatalistic in a way.
It’s like if you don’t listen to this little nudge, it’s going to keep nudging and it might come out in addictive behaviours or it might come out in depression, you know, and it did to certain, to a certain extent at different points in my life.
You can silence it for years, but it doesn’t go away that voice. In a sense, if there is a disquieted voice within you, you can silence it through busyness, you can silence it through other things, but if there’s something saying that this is wrong or you’re not, you’re not being true to yourself, eventually it’ll start screaming.
I didn’t want to kind of look back and say, well, I could have done that, but I didn’t because
Don’t have regrets
Of you, or you, or you. And it feels better to not say that, you know.
And do you think, Ruth, that in beyond the idea of hearing the nudge and moving, there’s that saying about the Paulo Coelho that tell the universe what you want, that this idea of being clear after you went through, you know, working in London, going through loads of different jobs that you were actually starting to say, what is it I really want to be and to do and to represent, in a sense, your values.
Do you think once you started to move in that direction, that things started to happen for you, that as you began to say clearly to yourself where you wanted to be, that things also changed?
Yeah. Yeah, and by, you know, just getting comfortable with not pleasing everybody, and also there’s something really powerful, like I said about that thing of incantation, you know, the things we learn or the things we write down or the books we keep or the pages that we earmark.
And there’s a picture in our toilet that I drew, a little watercolour, that I drew when I was in school, but I kept it and there was a reason that I kept it and I didn’t know why. But when we moved into this house here, it’s close to Lough Rainey in East Clare. And it’s called Gortavrulla, you know, which is the field of the undulating, the breasts, essentially, you know, Gortavrulla because there’s all these beautiful undulating hills.
And this tiny little watercolour that I painted, I’m not a painter by the way, but I kept this for some reason with blues and greens and the blue of the lake and a little cottage, tiny little house kind of nestled into it. And when I found it I said, I have to put a frame on that, because that’s essentially, it’s kind of like this vision board of what it is I wanted. And my sister Judith saying to me when I was so lost, when I was so really broken and felt outside of myself in a way, her saying to me, I just see you in a room with books and a cat at your feet.
And now we’ve got Paudie, who’s a gorgeous little cat. And I buy way too many books and I don’t get to read them all. And I have this luxury of working in a job that is really varied and isn’t one thing, doesn’t make me feel like I’m defined by it. I get to be a presenter, I get to listen to music, I get to make music if I want. And I think there’s something about that not wanting to feel caught, I don’t know if I react very well to feeling like I’m defined by one thing which is frustrating for people, it really is. They can’t say, well, what do you do? What are you? I think there’s there’s something in me that doesn’t really want to be just one thing.
And the move to East Clare and to where you are, because it’s not that long ago and in a sense, you’ve now had the one year of the endless nights of lockdown since March 2020.
But tell us about that, because that was the completion of this, of almost really finding that place that your sister saw you in and that the watercolour that’s in your bathroom there references that. The decision then to move and to make that almost very physical change about location and lifestyle, growing your seeds and being in a sense much more the good life like it often sounds to me that you’re now living that manifestation of the good life after your move.
Well, yeah. Yeah. Just to kind of scrub the rosy tint off all of it there was a trailer of horse manure outside that we had to shuffle onto all of the beds, you know, so it is lovely having a lot of wildness around you. We’ve got bats in the attic, literally.
The move to Clare happened purely because when we went to look to buy a house, the house prices around Galway were just too crazy. So we just cast the net a little bit further. And I’ve always had a soft spot for East Clare because I’m from East Galway and I think it’s kind of like an undiscovered haven for very interesting people who kind of creep out of the woodwork slowly but surely. And I think that suited the two of us.
Give us a sense of your life there, Ruth. I was saying in the opening that we’re in a year where a lot of the stuff that we take, a simple pleasures have stopped. So what has your year been like? Because, again, what I’ve seen or what I glean from social media is also about wild swimming and rivers and in a sense, a very creative and nature based life. Probably being in the country has been a little bit easier than being stuck in a city.
Yeah, we both feel very lucky for where we live, and especially in the last year. I mean, like Fergal has been a touring musician for his whole adult life. So that stopping was a big thing. And also I married someone who was gone for half a year. So we got to live this kind of when we were together, it was lovely. He’d be off the road and, you know, he’d have time off. We’d get to do things around the house and fix stuff and build stuff. And he’s very handy with all that kind of work.
And then he’d go on the road and I’d have my space, you know, here in the house. So even just getting used to that change of the arrivals and departures. And for him especially, you know, that loss of livelihood and loss of identity and
Yeah. Yeah. So, I mean, there were definitely points in the year where we felt incredibly lucky, you know, to be surrounded, especially during the summer and, you know, the early lockdown when the weather was incredible. And then sometimes you can kind of feel like you’re in a violence of green, you know, when the trees really come to life and you’re kind of stuck in this little place that doesn’t have a lot of immediate neighbours and lockdown in the countryside is definitely less taxing, but, God, you really miss the interaction and the just the sense of bustle and the sense of life still happening, you know.
We had this great experience of working together in December for the winter solstice, but what was so moving about it was what you were dealing with at the time because, while I was in the producer head just trying to juggle all the manic detail of bringing together something very quickly for that programme, you were dealing with really the last days of your beloved Aunt Mary.
And in many ways, I think loss and grief, even if it’s not a covid-19 death, have been so accentuated in this time. And I then was learning how significant she was to you and for you and that sort of legacy, this handing over of tradition and music that she seems to represent for you.
Yeah, Mary. It was really interesting that my own mother, who’s also Mary, said to me, you know, I’ve always known that I’ve shared you with Mary, your aunt, and in a way, she was in some ways, she was a kind of a chosen mother figure because she didn’t have, PJ and Mary didn’t have a daughter.
And I mean, I lucked out because, you know, I was their flower girl and she showered a lot of attention and encouragement in my direction and was just a formidable person, incredibly kind and gentle and ladylike in so many ways. And yet it wasn’t until I was older that I realised how successful she was in the world of business as an accountant with IBM. You know, she was the first female chief financial officer with IBM and all of these things that she managed to just beautifully orchestrate in her life.
I think I’ve become very interested in the idea of the masculine and the feminine that we all hold in ourselves, you know, the masculine in ourselves that allows us to achieve and strive and complete and then the feminine that has that nurturing, you know, loving, encouraging quality.
And regardless of what your gender is, you have both of those things in play the whole time. And I think, Mary, I was fascinated by her as a young girl, that she had all this held within herself. And I felt very privileged to be in receipt of her love and her encouragement and her wisdom as well.
And then the music. I mean, she she just had the most incredible voice, a very emotive voice, almost like had a soprano, she was a soprano, beautiful soprano, but had a genteel kind of element to her singing.
And Fergal suggested a couple of years ago that we record her. So we started to record songs with her and incredibly, January 2020, they were home from Brussels and we recorded an album of songs here in Clare and then during the first Lockdown, we edited the songs and Mary released it as an album for St. Francis Hospice in memory of her own mother, who had received care from St. Francis Hospice.
And I don’t know what the final figure was, but she raised over 10 thousand euro for this album while she herself was receiving hospice care at the end of 2020.
And as you mentioned, we were working on the Shine Your Light Winter Solstice show and that show, it felt like everything that we did for that show, you know, the conversations that we had with people about the necessity for winter, for grief, for bottoming out. Dolores Whelan said, you know, until we bottom out, until we really feel the depths of grief we can’t actually renew. If we resist this kind of deepest, darkest night of the soul, we can’t grow back into our strength or into the brightness of summer.
The Wispering Hope by Mary Mac Gabhann plays.
So that song, The Whispering Hope from the album, very powerful, but you also then in an environment where almost, as I referenced in the opening, so many of us have had to grieve or go to funerals on zoom or virtual is that you were actually part of her final day and in her funeral because I think you were singing for her then. Well, that must have been tough. What did you sing?
She asked me, so she arranged all the music herself. She asked me to sing Billy Joel’s Good Night, My Angel, his lullaby song. And it was the final song she wanted. And I remember speaking to Ruth McGill, my wonderful Eventide song sister and beautiful friend. And Ruth is she’s not only an amazing vocal coach because she trained with Veronica Dunne, but she’s also just done so much work herself on vocal coaching.
And she’s also a death doula. And I spoke with Ruth a lot in the lead up to it because, again, my insecurities with my voice as we spoke about, you know, this kind of chink in my armour, you know, how can I trust my voice to deliver?
And she said, you will never sing the song the same way ever again. Something will come and it’ll just carry you through. And I literally don’t remember singing it. I don’t know how I sang it, because every time I sang that song to practise it, I would break down at a certain point, you know. But again, something about the fact that I was singing it on Mary’s behalf.
You didn’t feel you were singing it alone?
Good Night, My Angel by Ruth Smith plays
I mean, just in case somebody doesn’t know what like, what Ruth does, so this idea of a death doula, that she’s almost like a midwife for the passage out of life in that we’re used to the idea of somebody being somebody who helps us into this world, that that doula is also the person who will help us out.
It’s a very precious and beautiful idea that you’ve somebody who is present with you when you’re dying and that’s one of the things that she’s doing now.
Yeah, she’s an incredible person.
And so much of the opportunity to be with Mary in her final weeks, because I was in Dublin and I had to be in Dublin for work. It kind of worked out in such an amazing way because I was the only person out of my family who got to see her before she passed. And again, it’s such a privilege. And I know so many people have had to, have had to watch loved ones pass away, as you said, whether it’s from covid or not, not being able to grieve with family members is just huge and I feel very lucky that we got to have those conversations and those intimacies. Yeah.
I mean, where you are now, beyond that, that sense of almost the completion of the circle or feeling that you’re connected to that image that you might have had as a teenager or to the place that your sister saw you living in. Where you are now, you’re you’re growing, you’re gardening.
You’re also really interested in medicinal medicine. Like that sense of being grounded in the earth or in nature seems very much twinned with your sense of your creativity being about digging and finding truth and the nurturing of that, that it’s plant based as well. That you’re growing things that heal. That there’s an element in which you’re creative in the ways in which you write, but you seem very much to manifest that in a very physical sense as well. Do you feel that that’s maybe is the gift of where you’re at that there’s some kind of, God forbid, balance in it?
And I resist that a lot. This is the really interesting thing. I know it’s the thing that is most healing for me to be out there, to be digging, to be tending, to just being out in nature. And yet it’s the thing I resist the most. It’s almost like I know this is the best thing for me. So when I do it, it’s almost like a remembering again, like I don’t want to paint a picture, like I’m some sort of earth goddess, you know, living in the woods.
You mentioned about medicinal herbs and growing plants. And again, I’m a total hobbyist at the start of my journey with it. But there’s some amazing people living around here who have dedicated their whole lives to it, I’m learning so much from them, just little titbits or they’ll send me cuttings of plants or it’s almost like you’re taking control back, you know, by making your own tea from plants that you’ve grown. There’s a lovely connectedness.
The balance here is also that you have this, I suppose, RTE life, which in a sense does occasionally pull you into wearing posh gear and dressing up. And then, you know, you have this other world where you still have that sense of being the performer and actually being grounded in your true self in East Clare and getting your hands dirty and your fingernails dirty in the earth.
And I would hope that there’s some way to align the two that it’s not a performance. I think that’s something that I really strive to, you know, whatever I do that I can, there’s truth.
Maybe just to round things off, we started with Philip Larkin, and in some ways I have this vision of you in Portumna in that pub singing the song and like music is this rhythm that is there throughout your life because there was something very beautiful, the song I used in the opening there that a silence falling that you came together again, the three of you, and sang together. It seems to me that music and singing is ultimately the healing force for you as well, that it’s something that is there from the beginning and it’s something that connects you both in your work with things like the music programs that you’re doing, but also your performance, the voice.
And even though there may be that insecurity with the throat, that idea of singing together seems to be something that has real solace as well. And again, all good songs are poems set alight
Mayfly by The Evertides plays
Do you think that music and song has had that grounding throughout your life and that even though you talk about that weakness and insecurity sometimes that you’ve had in your own sense of it with your throat and your voice, that partly this story has been about finding confidence in your throat and your voice, and even if it’s not that you’re singing every day, that it’s part of who you are. I mean, do you sing at home?
I do. I do. And whatever about the singing voice, you know, I’m finding comfort in that because that’s an aesthetic thing. It’s like, you know, you listen to why birds sing and birds sing just because they want to make a statement.
They want to take up their place in the the family of things and that they’re seen and heard, I think as much as using your voice for adornment and decoration and the beauty of singing, finding your voice is as much about what you will stand up for, what you will believe and what you will fight for or what you champion, who you’ll give a voice to because you have a voice, and I think if you can be a voice for someone, you know, if you’ve been given the platform to have a voice, who can you then help through that?
Because I think it connects with your idea of also nurturing and of being this the ancestor in making for the nieces and nephews, you use your power to enable them.
Yeah, and not only when the mic is in front of your face, but like what you can champion every day. And isn’t it an amazing time to be alive and quite a challenging time, too, because we’re constantly being confronted with how we can repair the ills and the, and the faults of past generations.
It feels like a lot of work, but it’s choosing to be a consistent voice for people who don’t have it. That’s an important part of knowing your voice, reclaiming it and using it for that higher good as well.
Ruth, it’s been an absolute pleasure to meet with you, even if it is virtually. Thank you so much for joining me today. And best of luck with both your writing and your music, as well as the day job, which is obviously presenting simply folk.
Helen, thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure.
And that’s all for this episode of The Family of Things. I’m Helen Shaw. So thanks for listening. And if you’d like to find out more, do check out our website, TheFamilyofThings.com. And if you like what we do, do support us on our patreon there and share our podcasts with your mates on social media and give us a review. Thanks for listening.
You can find out more about Ruth follow her on twitter twitter.com/theruthsmith, so you can see her haikus and you can hear The Evertides music on Spotify https://open.spotify.com/artist/3KORys5YygyWKuTocK1mbB?autoplay=true
In the episode Ruth uses the Irish word ‘altramas’ – which means to foster, to take care of someone, to nurse, so an altramaí is a foster person, foster parent, in the idea that it takes a village to raise a child.
The music you hear in this episode includes:
The Evertides – Silence Falling, in the opening & Mayfly in the closing
Billy Joel – Goodnight My Angel Sung by Ruth
Mary Keane/ Mary MacGabhann – Whispering Hope (Ruth’s Aunt)
Julie Feeney – Life’s Nudge
You can hear, and buy, the songs Ruth’s Aunt Mary recorded to raise fund for St Francis Hospice here: marymacgabhann.bandcamp.com/releases
Ruth reads The Philip Larkin poem ‘ This Be The Verse’ and you find the text here : https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48419/this-be-the-verse
The Family of Things is an Athena Media independent podcast production. The host, and producer, is Helen Shaw. The digital editor is John Howard.
The theme music is ‘The Old Haunt’ by Ana Gog – composed by Michael Gallen.
The Family of Things is an independent podcast without other sources of funding. If you like what we do and want to support the creation of Season 2 consider becoming a member of our Patreon community for just a euro a month. Help make things happen.