The Family of Things S2 E6: Steafán Hanvey
Helen Shaw’s guest in this episode of The Family of Things is Steafán Hanvey an Irish singer-songwriter and poet, from Downpatrick, who has long found his home in Finland. Steafán’s father is the well known Northern Irish photographer Bobbie Hanvey, and his poetry-photography book ‘Reconstructions’ (2018) presents his poems as conversations with his father’s iconic photographs of ‘The Troubles’. Today Steafán, as the pandemic paused his music career, has started a new professional life as a photographer, following once again in his father’s footsteps, although his photos are often beautiful portraits and landscapes from Finland. In this episode Steafán shares how lockdown, and the pandemic year, crossed with one of the worst in his life, one of heartache and heartbreak.
I suppose I’m an honorary Finnish man at this stage, you know, I like it over here. I followed my heart, Helen, and here I am, you know, and I would do it all again. You know, it’s I would follow my heart. That’s the kind of me, you know.
Hello and welcome to The Family of Things. I’m Helen Shaw, and in this podcast, I get to meet with people who’ve made their life their own and who followed their own path. In this episode I’m with a man I got to know some many moons ago through his music. And he was, in his own words, born in the worst year of the troubles in Downpatrick in ’72. And Steafán Hanvey found his creative voice in music, song, poetry and now photography.
So Steafán Hanvey, singer-songwriter/poet, has now made his home in Finland and he joins me from there. Morning, how are you and how’s it in Finland?
Good morning, Helen. Good to see you and hear you again. The sun is shining after a few false starts. The spring is finally here I’m glad to say. So the birds are singing. I was out there just getting a bit of fresh air on the balcony before talking to yourself, and the birds were singing very well I have to say. Very encouraging.
I did the same here in Dublin. The sun is out and literally, I’m out talking to my constant companions in the pandemic, I have to blackbird nests in the back garden. I’ve starlings coming in. I’ve blue tits, coal tits and they’re my constant companions. It’s almost like I’ve a relationship with all of them, which is probably deeper than most of my other ones, I’m confessing.
I love the birds.
After, what is it, a year and a half in this crazy world?
Constant companion, I like that. Yeah.
But how has this pandemic year been for you?
It’s probably been one of the worst years of my life, actually, because I’m going through a separation, a protracted custody battle, I suppose you’d call it. I left the family home in January of 2020 and within two months, the pandemic had struck.
And yeah, so I was kind of coming to terms with the end of a six year relationship and the breakdown of the family. And then that happens. And, you know, you’re you’re trying to find your feet as it is. Any ordinary year it would still be hard.
But then you get this wee extra thing thrown in just for good measure. And the pandemic came and yeah, it’s been upside down. But like I say, you know, it’s a I suppose, being born in 1972, I’ve often thought about that. And it’s important, you know, we’re always we’re always on the hunt for the silver lining in the north. And I’m still pretty good at looking for and finding the silver lining. The day of my birth, the IRA had talked about calling a ceasefire if certain conditions were met.
And it looked good for about four or five days. Of course, it didn’t, it didn’t happen it broke down and things started again. But when you go back and check the day that you were born just to see what was going on, I like to think I was born on a positive note. Put it like this. I’m glad to see the sunshine. And this is you know, it should be over this year. So, yeah, it’s been a rough one. I won’t forget this year.
I mean, it’s a rough two years, 2020, 2021. We’re not out of the woods.
I mean, it’s lovely to have this sense for both of us to come out of a dark winter. But my goodness, to have both the global hit of what we’ve all had with the pandemic and then that loss of your family life, because you’ve two lovely wee ones there. You have two small children
With your partner in Finland.
I do. Lumi, which is Finnish for snow. And my surname, Hanvey is Irish for a descendant of the stormy one. So she’s snow storm. She’s got my name. So she’s got her first story sorted out. Lumi Maeve we call her. And I’ve a wee boy, 3, Luca Caolán is his name. He’s a wee devil, but he’s brilliant. The both of them are, they’re just the best thing that’s ever happened to me, you know.
And as they would say here in Ireland, you wouldn’t deny your son. He is like a chip off the block there. Because the poetry book that you brought out a few years ago in 2018, Reconstructions, there’s a great picture of you that you used that your dad took because your dad obviously was a very well known photographer, Bobbie Hanvey. And there’s a very cute photographs of you as a small boy and your young fella looks the spit of you.
He does. He does indeed, God love him. He looks at photographs of me. He picks them up. There’s one I have over here is me as a child and he likes to sit beside it and talk about himself in the picture, but it’s actually me. And I used to do the same with my Da. Like I saw photographs, black and whites of my father’s in the house. And I was like, oh, where was I there?
And my mum said that’s your Da, and I’m going, that’s not it’s me. It’s me. So God love him. Yeah he looks like his old man. Yeah. At least for now. But we still have time that can change, you know.
Hands of a Farmer & Vanha häämarssi by Rigmaroll (Steafán Hanvey) plays
But in reading your poetry, in reconstructions, so much of those poems, which are in many ways addressed to photographs that your father took, but that you framed them in a story of your own life and of your own place. Their biographical and they offer us insight into where you come from and also who your parents, Bobbie and Hilda, were and are. You grew up with a photographer, but you also grew up with a family who seemed to have such character and personality.
That’s for sure.
Catholics in a time of division and separation. But yet, they really didn’t respond to that level of sectarian boxing because your dad and mum always had such amazing personalities when I read or talk to you about growing up.
Yeah, there was, there was the house I suppose the house that anomaly built. It was unorthodox, that’s for sure. The two of them were were blow ins, townland blow ins from almost border towns up into Downpatrick. And they were both nurses. That’s how they met. My father was a psychiatric nurse and my mother was a geriatric nurse. And they met anyway, very young. And they had us and set up shop literally in Downpatrick in 1972 Downpatrick for me, I was the first sort of one from the family to be of Downpatrick, if you like. They were from Fermanagh and my mother was from down the road near Banbridge. But musical family, lot of song. My mother was a country music fan and my father was a fan of pretty much everything.
The Muttonburn Stream by Bobbie Hanvey & Houl Yer Whisht plays
But there was always music in the house and sessions, and we were often brought down to the Sands family just on the Ryan Road there, just outside Banbridge Newry, Tommy Sands and Colum and Ben and Anne and Eugene. And I learnt a lot of my first songs down there. But at home, you know, my dad was always
What kind of songs?
I was learning stuff like Lassie Go and Carrickfergus and The Star of County Down and My Black Haired Love, The Dutchman, Red is the Rose. I used to sing All God’s Creatures Have Got a Place in the Choir. Do you know that one?
Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
You do. I used to sing that for my schoolmates because I was learning the songs at home and then it would take them into school the next day. And my teacher, I can say this now, Paddy Madine. But Paddy used to go down he liked putting a bet on the horses he would nip down sometimes to put a bet on and he would say Hanvey can you sing a song to the classroom while I nip out for a while here. And I’d say okay. But I’d maybe 10 song sung by the time, by the time he came back and he used to take somebody down to mind the car. And this day anyway, didn’t the young fella who he took didn’t his mother walk past the car when he was supposed to be in school? And that’s where it ended and says, “What are you doing down here. You’re supposed to be in school.” And he’s like, teacher’s in there. And it was like the bookies.
Teachers in the bookies.
Yeah. So Hanvey was up in the classroom, you know, keeping an eye on
Keeping an eye on the kids. Now that could have gone, that could have gone either way but there were there were very encouraging. They wanted to hear more. Now they could have just you know, young kids are unforgiving in Ireland and pretty much everywhere else. But luckily for me, my first audience, if you like, who weren’t, you know, around the house were my peers, my schoolmates.
So it went well. And I think I saw early on around 8, 9, 10, that I could actually do something, you know, that people liked.
So he did you a favour.
He did indeed.
Your your gambling teacher, actually,
And I hope he won
ignited that spark in you to perform and in some ways to get over what often we all feel at that stage, our lack of confidence.
Standing up and saying, you know, here I am. Look at me.
It helped. We went to the next school then De La Salle Secondary and first day of music Ms Coyle, she says right, Who’s the singers? And all the primary schools as you know come together for secondary school. So it’s a bit of like a you’re in a class of people you’ve never met before. And two names were shouted out, Conliffe and Hanvey. So up we stood anyway. And she says, Give us a song. And that was it.
We were the soloists from then on until our voices broke and I didn’t like it, but now when I think back. I think it was good training because she used to, she used to take me out of maths class for some reason I was terrible at maths anyway. Maybe she helped rescue me. But she’d take me out anyway to go through the scales and The Spinning Wheel and The Coventry Carol. Lee. The the the the the the the.The the. The the. That little tiny child that, uh, that, uh.
So I didn’t realise it at the time, but she was actually teaching me, she was giving me harmony and scale and and, you know, she was training my she was training my pitch.
Yeah, she was. So there I was anyway, doing scales, you know, missing out on maths. And it’s no wonder I’m no good at maths today between entertaining Paddy Madine’s class in primary school and being taken out by Mrs. Coyle down down to to do the scales. I don’t know. It’s a wonder I count at all.
And what’s really interesting about what you’ve been doing. And in some ways, despite the combined global and personal tragedies that have been going on, what’s remarkable to me is that you’ve actually launched a new photography business, a new website around that. In looking at this across the arc, I mean, your late 40s now. So you’re at that point, that pinch point we all reach where you get to that 50 year in a year or two
Certainly you haven’t reached it yet Helen.
Forever young. But this idea that you started off as a wee boy going out with your dad when he was taking pictures, watching him in the darkroom, and so much of that is in your poems and reconstruction and your memories, those really rich memories of growing up. And now full circle, you’re a photographer. You’ve brought that all back home again. It’s quite incredible. And your photographs are stunningly beautiful.
Thank you. Thank you Helen.
So that eye, that visual eye, beyond your teachers, your bookie teacher nurturing your ear and your performance, that your dad’s nurturing as a photographer has also come to full fruition now.
It has. They’re quite big shoes to fill and that’s why I never went near them sort of in a, in a professional sense. Needs must, you know, like I said earlier, I’m going through a separation and, you know, there’s a pandemic. So a lot of my work
As a musician
Has been cancelled. And I kind of over the last I suppose, when my kids were born, I took a serious interest as a hobbyist again with a camera.
And then I got a camera from my Da. My dad gave me a Nikon when I was a teenager and I sold it. So he said that he would never give me another camera. So he sold me a camera recently. Sometimes he’d sell you things for a pound or a tenner just because you wouldn’t appreciate it if you got it for free. And he was right. So a bought this camera off him anyway a few years ago and I started taking pictures of my own kids and that kind of got me back into it again. I realised that, you know, I love I mean, I’ve never really had a hobby in my life.
You know, everything I’ve done, I was in it to win it. And photography offered me this great kind of release. It’s very meditative, you know. I can switch off and get into it. Whereas everything else I was ever doing, it was always very competitive. But then recently I just I said to myself, you know, I need to do, I need to do something here to earn to earn a few bob, you know?
So I turned to photography and I realised that, you know, OK, this might be the time now to, you know, needs must. People used to ask me as a kid all the time, you know, are you going to follow in your daddy’s footsteps? And I was thinking, I got this impression, you know, that my father was somebody held at very high esteem in the community by people everywhere we met, we were always meeting new people.
So I was thinking, you know, maybe this is something I want to do. But then as a teenager, you start to rebel. My own, my own mother and father then they separated and divorced when I was about 22. So I suppose my dad was the last person I wanted to be or like but now, you know, the metamorphosis is complete. I am my Da, you know, I joke. But there I am taking photographs.
And yeah, he’s been very encouraging of late with the photographs, I have to say very, very encouraging. But recently I’ve sent him a couple and he says this is brilliant are they yours? Is that a compliment or how should I take that? You know. But yeah well, you know.
That’s what our parents will do. You know, I mean, in some ways it’s hard for him to see a transition as well, because if somebody has you in a certain frame as being, that’s what you do. That’s what Steafán does. He’s a musician. He’s a singer primarily. So he’s never going to be the ace photographer. And then when you ace the photography, it suddenly becomes like, wow. But what’s interesting what you’re saying there is becoming your dad. And in many ways, that’s an ageing cycle for all of us. Like that often we have, even if it’s not, as you say, your parents split up and there’s always that tension about whose side you favour and who you feel is to blame.
But we often, when we’re younger, resist the idea that we are so much a DNA mix of our parents and we want quite rightly and naturally and healthily to forge a complete and original self. But then as you get older, you begin to see your parents in you in things you do and things as you age that you become. And in some ways it’s beautiful because like for me now, unlike yourself, both my parents are now dead.
OK, I’m sorry.
And I remember when my mother died. Now, that’s over a decade ago. But when my mother died, my eldest brother, who is since now passed away two years ago.
We share a birthday.
He said to me, he said to me, which was a lovely thing when we were grieving, he said, you know, for us, she’s never apart because we are of our parents. We carry her in our DNA.
And as the years go by, I always find that quite comforting and quite close in a way that you learn to embrace that idea that you are your parents and that you embrace all the positives and negatives of that and you make it your own.
So with that idea of your changing, growing, evolving relationship with your dad, with Bobbie, is that something that you feel now that, when I read reconstructions and that whole ambition of the project you have of writing your first poetry collection to be facing his famous photographs.
I saw that as a love letter to your dad, as a way of also reconciling and changing your relationship with your dad.
That’s a nice way to put it actually. I hadn’t thought about that, a love letter to him. And in a sense it was very astute you know, that’s exactly what it was, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. You know, it’s become apparent that that was my M.O. in a way. But, you know, when I was a teenager, I wanted to grow my hair long. My father had long, bushy hair, and I, of course, had the bushy hair gene.
And now I would do anything to have it back. But I used to iron me hair, would you believe, when I was a teenager so that I wouldn’t have bushy curly hair like my dad. It was just like it had to be the opposite of whatever he was, you know? But it’s hilarious because my mum actually used to do the same. She would say she had her hair on the ironing board and before she went to a dance, she’d be down there and she hadn’t even met my father at that stage.
But it’s funny how that goes. My sister and I, she still straightens her hair.
But not with the iron on the ironing board.
I don’t know how she does it to be honest with you, I don’t know how she does it.
There’s all kinds of gadgets now. I mean, that idea of you must have very long hair, Hilda. You must have had very long hair to put it on
The ironing board. I know. I know. I don’t know. I used to, I used to use a crimper, but just put it kind of up straight.
But yeah, Reconstructions it was Look Behind You was a multimedia project that preceded Reconstructions. And in a sense it lay much of the groundwork for, you know, Reconstructions to happen without really thinking it or realising it at the time.
I, when my mum and dad separated, I came back from Helsinki. That was my first stint as a post grad student at the university here. When they separated, I came back and helped my mum move out of the family home. And, you know, I was telling my dad, you know, in one breath I was saying, look, dad, I don’t wanna get involved here, but would you stand back so I can get the couch out of the house.
You know, so it was a bit, you know, I don’t want to get involved here, but I’m helping my mother move out, you know, whereas that should have really been no place for me to be at all. You know, I had no business being in there. So it whatever whatever they had, you know, between them, I think, you know, that the kids should never really have to have to go through that.
You know, we became kind of estranged and we grew apart and I didn’t really know him that well. And I think I’ve been trying to to get to know him, I suppose. And, you know, a lot of fathers would have football and we never had, you know, your conventional holidays away, you know, or we didn’t holiday at all as a family we didn’t. Any quality time that we could get with our father you know, we took it and that usually meant with him on one of his jobs and whatnot.
So in a way, I suppose, the work, if you like to call it that, is a conversation that we have. It’s our football. You know, I suppose it’s just a case of keeping that conversation going. And it hasn’t been easy now, to be honest with you. It’s been it’s been tough, fractious, and son of the stormy one, descendant of the stormy one, that is for sure.
And to mend bridges and to impress upon him, you know, a shared experience, you know, and I think ultimately to connect with him.
And for him to see you as an artist.
Well, that, too. You know, he did. He did, after hearing me on the radio one day, he did say that my playing, because he used to play himself, you see, he recorded two records with my mum in a folk group called Houl Yer Whisht.
All Around the Loney by Bobbie Hanvey and Houl Yer Whisht plays.
And he said to me one day hesays, I think you’re better on the guitar than I was, you know? And again, that was safe in a way for him because he was no longer a guitarist. So I was fine. I wasn’t in his territory, if you like. But, yeah, it’s just trying to connect, I suppose, and to get him to look at my work. I think that’s definitely there’s no denying that. I can see how important it is and how important it’s been to have his, his OK or his encouragement with my, especially with my photographs.
So here I am actually as of last summer as a working photographer now it’s it’s quite incredible, to be honest with you, I don’t believe it myself.
And so much of what you’re saying in that idea of becoming your dad and also haven’t been brought in to your mum and dad’s, separation as a young man. Partly what we’re both getting at there is that when we run away from our genetic parental family, sometimes we’re running away from the things we don’t like in them and we don’t want to become.
That’s very true.
And yet, I guess when we run away, even if it’s to Finland or wherever, we eventually have to face them, that you can’t escape them and you make peace with them.
The stormy one has to be reconciled and brought into our body because in the end, the things that often we resist that we’ve inherited, they’re still there. Have you had that sense of having gone through that turbulence with, say, your parents break-up and as you say, the sense now in hindsight, looking back, that possibly you shouldn’t have been moving your Ma out of the house, that that’s helped you to see a little bit of distance with your own separation now and with your very small children and how they confront it?
Yeah, I think it’s easy to point the finger at your parents when you’re growing up. But, you know, the truth the truth of it is that they were young, very young people, 20 and 25 when they had me and my mother had a miscarriage before me and a miscarriage after me and then she’d my brother and eight years later, my sister. So I think I embraced what I am of them a long time ago. At least, I started to embrace it.
And now actually you know what to do. And maybe more to the point, what not to do as a father with my own kids. I’m very conscious of that. I think I might be, you know, one of the first generations of men because I can only speak as a man that is OK with talking about how they feel, you know, and telling my kids I love them every time I see them, I can’t tell them enough.
They’re probably just looking at me. Yesterday I said it, you know, I said do you know what I love more than anything in the whole world. I said, do you know what I love more than anything in this whole world? And they looked at me and Lumi was on top of the slide, about to go down. I says, you and Luca, I put my arms out as wide as I could stretch. And I said, you know, see this? I love you even more than that.
And I can’t, I can’t remember that coming from my father. And it wouldn’t come now, I’d hardly say. But I’ve heard it from two people. My, ex chemistry teacher. We called him Cosmic Ray. He’s no longer with us. I loved, I loved Ray. And then recently a poet who I introduced my father to and they’ve come to me afterwards and they’ve said, your dad loves you, you know, I was talking to him the other day and I said, you know, I was thinking to myself, but we weren’t even talking about parents, we weren’t talking about love, we’re not talking about anything to do with my dad. Why would you just say out of the blue that Steafán, you know, he loves you. And I found that a bit disconcerting or disarming in a way, but still remembered it. And then when I was going to America as an exchange student for a year, we hugged and there was a tear in his eye. And that that floored me.
My mother and sister were waiting in the car outside to take me to the airport for a year, a year at University north of Seattle. And I’d just been in to hug my dad. I’ll never forget it. He was wearing a white vest, I hope he doesn’t listen to this. He doesn’t do sentimental, you know, but he was wearing a white vest and I hugged him and he embraced me properly. And it was just it was very, very heavy hearted leaving.
But at the same time, it was nice. And I was what 21. So it wasn’t the first time I saw him cry. We both cried together at a funeral when I was ten, but that was the first time and then the last time, you know, since then. So it was eleven years later after that funeral that I’d seen him cry. And it was to do with me for the first time. So that kind of. It was an eye opener.
That generation didn’t do, I love you and hugs and kisses. It was a tougher, in a sense world, but their own emotions in hindsight, I often feel such empathy for people like my dad who would have been similar, where that they struggled to be able to express their emotion. And it gets buried then in things like the bookies or a pint, or anger. And in some ways, when you block down that ability to say how bad or how good you feel, you can end up drowning it in alcohol or in anger.
And in some ways, I think that’s the the way of looking back and also seeing how tough it was for that generation and indeed for men, particularly because they often were in that environment where everything was locked down, their feelings and their pain or loss.
That’s right. That’s right. So it’s very difficult. I appreciate that. But my takeaway, if you like, from all of that is
Is go to the other side
Is go to the other side. Yeah. So you’re still it’s still an act of rebellion, you know. It’s like doing not following their course. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to do that. And of course, I smile at myself when I hear my dad in me talking to my kids.
You know, I go there I did it again, I’m my Da, you know, and there I am talking to my kids.
And what do you say when you hear yourself and say that, that’s Bobbie?
I laugh at myself, I just think it’s funny, you know. There’s one thing I remember him saying was, you know, as a parent and that was don’t be walking about the bare floor with no socks on your bare, don’t be walking about on the floor on your bare feet, you’ll get a cold. I’ll be saying that to them, you know, like the heat in these in these apartments over here would, you know, would melt you.
And but that still comes. But ach, you know, it’s in the humour. It’s in the mannerisms and it’s it’s there, you know, that’s all right, you know.
It’s who we are. Like, what we grow up with shapes us. It’s the it’s the vessel that that that we fill.
That’s correct. Yeah. It’s who we are.
Just give us why not share one of your poems. I have Late Developer open and obviously that really taps into this idea of working with your dad. And I guess it also echoes that in some ways you’ve now yourself as a photographer, been a late developer. Maybe share a little bit of that.
When I spy with my child’s eye, I’m conspiring in your world of creation. You’re there with the look of a hunted light gatherer. Your camera obscura captures history in utero and performs a routine delivery. Yours is a midwife’s elation, quiet and jaded, clutching the slippery spoils of a war that has long passed born but labouring still. Your magical contraption full to the brim with defaced lore of places and faces, times and crimes. An antiquary of intrigue, housing a poor man’s chiaroscuro. A moment stretched for partners in time, where the apparent saints of impossible causes. Late developers.
What’s lovely about the poems is also through the prism, through the lens of your life and your experience with your parents, we begin to experience Northern Ireland and the events of the 70s and as it rolls into the 80s. It’s so strange because this morning, just before we talked, the news is full of events of inquest’s of some of those turbulent events from 50 years ago, like Ballymurphy. We’re still talking about Bloody Sunday. The echoes and the wounds of what we call the troubles are still affecting our present in so many ways.
We seem unable, in that way that we’ve talked about with our parents and ourselves, we’ve been unable to talk about what happened so that we can begin to heal and move on. I mean, you’re so out of Northern Ireland now. You’re living in Finland, but you’ve been out of the North as whole,
for a long time, going back and forth, obviously. How do you look at it now looking at it from outside with that lens and that perspective on what’s happening?
Because part of where we are now in this post Brexit environment, we’ve the potential of a DUP leader who doesn’t even believe in evolution, let alone that we might actually, as different tribes of a Christian faith, get together. So sometimes it feels like we’re further apart than ever. And yet sometimes people from Northern Ireland will say to me, no, these are some of the last phases before we confront the past and move on.
You see there’s that silver lining again, that Northern tendency to look for that. I feel that all it takes is the young ones again to start up and to listen to all of the, you know, the folklore and the stories and the heroes of the area. And then they put that together with the murals and, you know, and then something happens and it can, you know, tinder sticks, it can go up, you know, and I think people need to be careful.
You had a situation with Brexit where people in Northern Ireland weren’t all voting according to party lines for the first time in my lifetime. You know, they were actually thinking about the EU and they weren’t maybe going back into their tribes again, just and sort of knee jerk voting. There was actual thought went into it and unionism was divided on it. And so was nationalism to a point as well. But as the fear mongering went on then you saw more people kind of, you know, veering off back into the safety of their their own clave or their tribe.
But the vote itself, people forget the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain a part of Europe, they voted against Brexit. And it’s a shame, really, you know. I had a feeling at the time, you know, of course I was running, running or skipping my mother and father, my own troubles, my own family troubles with my mother and father. I wanted to put as much distance between me and that as possible.
But of course, there was a wider troubles. And it’s funny, I covered the cease fires towards the end with a local, you probably know Michael MacMillan.
I worked for Michael’s production company for a while as a boom stand operator, boom mic operator. And then when the cease fires were in place and holding, then I take off, you know, I sort of survived the troubles and then it was troubles of a different kind that had me going towards, you know, Helsinki.
And like Stephen Dedalus, you know, Joyce’s alter ego, I said, you know, I’m going to fly. I’m going to try and fly by these nets as well. I didn’t know that at the time, but nationality, religion and language. I thought to myself, you know, I need to get out of here. And in a way, I haven’t looked back until the middle of my second album, Nuclear Family, I realised that maybe, you know, after years of not of not being able to say anything, you know, it was like living by the maxim, whatever you say, say nothing.
I felt it was time in my life and that the moment was right. Enough time had passed for me to say something. So I did. And look behind you, the multimedia performance and then Reconstructions the book of photo poems is what came out of that. And the Finns have a saying, silence is golden. And we were taught throughout the troubles, you know, whatever you say, say nothing. You’re not allowed to say anything. But then when you do start to say something, it’s like, would you not just leave that troubles stuff behind you and move on?
You know? And it’s like what you said. It’s like you can’t move on until you deal with it. And how do you deal with it? Well, you have to talk about it.
You have to confront it.
It’s a tricky one, you know, and of course, people who don’t don’t fly by the nets don’t leave and look in from the outside. Northern Ireland’s a normal place, what do you whingeing about? Wind your neck in as they would say. What are you moaning about? It’s normal here. It’s the lowest crime rate in the western world. All that stuff, you know? So it’s
There’s a lot of denial.
Damned if you do, Die in denial. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Secrets and Lies by Steafán Hanvey plays
You have a song called Secrets and Lies, which in some ways can tap into both personal storytelling, but also that idea of what you’re describing in Northern Ireland say nothing but also when you do say something, don’t speak the truth because the truth can be deadly. And there’s always that sense of hiding, hiding in plain sight and cover because so much of how we operate it and I’m using the past tense, but perhaps it’s not so past in Northern Ireland, was that we looked for that symbolism that immediately meant what tribe you were from.
I mean, I went to Belfast as a reporter for the Irish Times, as a young one, very young one in the 80s, and then went back in the 90s with the BBC at a time when they thought they had a ceasefire. Literally, just as I arrived, Canary Wharf happened and it broke and we ended up going back to what was quite familiar to me from the 80s. So, my sense and my relationship with the Troubles, if we want to call them that, was also that idea that I could walk into a room and be immediately tagged as being potentially Catholic, potentially nationalist, because I was from the South and because I was working in the 80s for the Irish Times and I had this accent.
But then I would tell them, you know, who I was, Helen Shaw and of course, Shaw that is a really good Protestant name. And of course, me Da and all my dad’s family were and are Protestant and I had grown up in Dublin without any real sense of my Protestant heritage to call it that, because my dad had to convert to Catholicism to marry my mother. So we were all Catholic, Catholic, went to the nuns, went to convent school. I never thought about being of what, in Belfast I was called from a mixed marriage.
Because we were never exposed to the Protestant side of my heritage. And when I went to Belfast, then in my early 20s, I suddenly realised because of this that it allowed me to rediscover and renegotiate my father’s heritage and my Shaw side.
And I suppose for those conversations, you let them assume what you were. That idea that your name, where you came from in Belfast or Northern Ireland and if that wasn’t clear what tribe you belong to, people would then just have to ask what school you went to.
That’s how they did it.
And suddenly you’re boxed. And then it would be, and I remember asking somebody later in the BBC when I went back as editor and I again, first woman, first person from the south. So you did, again, feel very aware of what you brought into a room. But I remember asking somebody about that who came from the Protestant side in Northern Ireland.
And I said, you know, when that happens and people are doing that, your name, your street, and you can see people are boxing you, he said what happens is you are deciding what you can say, where you can go, how far you can go, and you start to limit yourself.
And that was so much part and is still part of how we daily engage, I think, in Northern Ireland.
Yeah, you can imagine my name was quite handy, a handy one to have in the North. You know, you couldn’t get anybody to say to say the name, right. My mother was fighting, getting into fights with everybody over that one. They would say, Stephen, who? And my mother would be always correcting them. And I’d be like, why did why did you not just call me Seamus or, you know, or Michael or something?
But as a result, I’m the only one. That’s the first thing which doesn’t hurt when you’re a singer songwriter or, you know, poet or whatever you are, you’re the only one online. So thank you. But the only person in Downpatrick who could who could pronounce my name. Steafán was our next door Protestant neighbour, Mrs Kidd. So there’s Protestant Hanveys and there’s Catholic Hanveys. So again, people didn’t know they’re like is he is he’s Swedish or French or Polish or whatever, you know.
So it was really good. But of course it’s like the old cliche. It’s like somebody from Northern Ireland walks into the wrong part of town. They say, you know, what are you? And the guy says, I’m an atheist, he says, yeah but are you a Protestant or a Catholic atheist, you know, because it always comes down to the marker. It’s like what you are. But the school, the school was the kind of that was the one that did it.
If you were trying to not get pigeonholed, you know, that would be your turn to buy a round at the bar, you know?
Yeah. That’s where in some ways being in Finland is such a different experience. I mean, I was listening to a song of yours this morning, Deep Blue Sea, which I think that’s 2015 or so.
Which in a sense, even in the video you did, you have this wonderful scene setting in Finland.
Deep Blue Sea by Steafán Hanvey plays.
Why has Finland been such a calling home to you and a place that you’ve gone back to again and again? And also now, despite the pain and the loss of what’s happening in your relationship and in the family, that it’s home?
It is. I suppose I’m an honorary Finnish man at this stage. You know, I like it over here. I followed my heart Helen.
Deep Blue Sea by Steafán Hanvey plays.
You know, there’s no two ways about it. I met a Finnish girl back as an exchange student in America, that exchange you mentioned earlier up in a western Washington University, in Washington State, and she knew where the good Guinness was in town, you know.
And it’s really that simple. And then she moved to Belfast for the last year of the Troubles.
Deep Blue Sea by Steafán Hanvey plays.
I rented a place up in San Souci Park, at Stranmillis road, in the south of the city thinking that I was, you know, I was going to somehow kind of cushion her from the reality in case she’d run away home on me.
So I was trying to I was trying to convince her that, you know, this was this was just fine. It’s just all stuff that’s blowing up in the news, you know, no pun intended. But it’s not that’s not what they, it’s nothing near what they said. But that happened to be one of the one of the worst years of the troubles, you know, the last year before the cease fires. And I was trying to say everything’s fine, you know, we’re OK.
But then the doorbell would ring and I would jump, you know, who’s at the door, you know. That that was the time when loyalists felt that there was a deal done, secret deal, and they felt that they were being sold out. And
What year is that?
That was 90. I was in America ’93 to ’94. So I was back in Belfast for my last year, at Jordanstown from ’94 to ’95. That was it. And, you know, I was climbing the walls, but at the same time, I was trying to make, you know, trying to reassure my Finnish girlfriend that everything was normal, everything was fine. So my girlfriend at the time finished her Masters in Belfast. And I was looking for a Masters to do after my Bachelors.
So I applied to the University of Helsinki. They invited me to do an exam. I passed it. And then, you know, it happened at a time when my mum and dad were then, my mother was leaving and I just needed to be somewhere else so it just happened to be Finland. But it’s funny looking back, you know, when you connect the dots, my Master’s thesis was on a comparative analysis of Irish and Finnish neutrality policies from, you know, from the creation of the respective states.
So there I was in neutral Finland beside a domineering neighbour, Russia, going from, you know, the Mossy Rock on the on the other outskirts of Europe, you know, up in Northern Ireland there. I don’t need to explain anything there. But so I was kind of, you know, almost like
Psychologists would have a lot to say about this.
They would. They would indeed. Yeah. Yeah. As they tend to. Yeah. But yes, so it was for me, it’s peaceful over here. I associate Finland with peace, Harri Holkeri and
And nature. Forests and the saunas, the lakes, their traditions. It’s quite civilised actually, you know. So I kind of crave, I crave it, that sort of civilised aspect of it, you know, coming from where I came from in Downpatrick, you know.
So, yeah, I do, I do like it over here. Although this time wasn’t planned to come to move back. I’d kind of said my goodbyes to Finland, but I was working and visiting here and, and I met the mother of my children and, and here I am, you know, and I would do it all again. You know, it’s I would follow my heart that’s the kind of me, you know.
Well, whatever has happened, those two children will always have been worth that turn in the road to that turning point.
Yeah, meant to be.
Staefán, where we are now, what’s next, are you still writing poetry, music, photography is happening and it’s quieter. I also get that idea that you’re out there with a camera, you use the word meditative. There’s a sense of anchoring and peace around it. But what about your music?
Masters of War by Steafán Hanvey and Tarja Merivirta plays
I’m writing away. I’m working on a new album and I’m working on a covers album, my first covers album actually songs that influenced me growing up.
So like the ones we were mentioning that you would have sung with Bobbie in the early days?
Some of them, yeah, some of them. You know, The Town I Loved So Well that have a connection to the region and the history of, you know, Misty Mourne Shore, Tommy Sands, that’s a Tommy Sands song and they’re songs with a theme.
Masters of War by Steafán Hanvey and Tarja Merivirta plays
Well, they’re all covers I’m working on that, I’m working on my own record, I have been photographing a lot that’s been taking a lot of my time recently, but I’m writing a lot as well. So just writing I like
Yeah, Yeah. Sort of the semiautobiographical. It’s in there. There’s no denying that. So it’s fiction and it’s also poetry. So I’m just writing and kind of free floating and I’m kind of making it, making a film as well and have been for the last five, four or five years. So the film.
A documentary film?
That’s right, documentary film indeed. You know, I dip in and out of that. So I’ve, I think I interviewed about 14 people all together, artists from Northern Ireland. So I’m putting that together at the moment with the father and son relationship and what it was like to grow up in Northern Ireland, the son of a photojournalist and musician and kind of somebody you know who was like my Da and my mother. So that that’s still in production.
So that’s you know, it’s it’s one day it’s film the next it’s it’s poetry. And I will you know, if I’m running or if I’m walking, I use those times and I really like going out for a walk because, you know, the juices start flowing and I’ve got the dictaphone out and I’m recording ideas and lines and words a lot, you know, all the, all the time. And they’re just waiting for me to sit down and mould it into something semi coherent, you know?
So it’s yeah, it’s kind of what I turn to at times of turbulence is
And pain is to is to kind of try and write it, write it away.
You did say something lovely a while ago to me when we were chatting about doing this, which was that. Not only do you tell your children, Lumi and Luca that, that you love them a lot, but that you do have this obsession about leaving a legacy for them. So I think this is an aging thing for all of us that we become aware in that idea of our own mortality. Intimations of immortality. But the idea that what you were saying was that you want to leave traces of love, songs, poems, stories, so that they’ll always know.
Who you are and what you felt.
Yeah, I think that’s that’s what, you know, like you say, it’s definitely the curtain sort of, you know, from 30 to 40 and then from 40 into 50, another curtain opens and I’m getting close to walking through that one as well. So I am very conscious of, you know, that I won’t be here forever. But my kids are so young, you know, five and three. So with the pandemic and with the normal stresses of separation and also living in exile, you know, like I’ve never been homesick before until now, no matter where I’ve been living.
And because I’m doing the film, I think I’m thinking a lot about my hometown and where I’m from and of course, being homesick, you know, I tend to think sometimes shouldn’t my kids be growing up in Downpatrick, you know, because I’m kind of reliving my old haunts,
You’re revisiting it,
It would be nice because there was always a lot of traffic in our house, in the shop, and we were always in constant contact with people and community and society.
And I sometimes I sometimes mourn that, you know. It’s like regarding your hometown, I think I think, you know, you get to a stage where you can safely say that you owe it nothing. You don’t owe your hometown anything. But you have to come across that awareness in order to appreciate that you actually owe it everything. But you can’t make that assumption or draw that conclusion until you realise that you don’t owe it anything. But I see myself walking through my old streets and I think to myself, you know, shouldn’t my kids be sort of shouldn’t we be doing it there?
But here I am dislocated and I’m the only one they have here of Ireland and of where I’m from and giving them that. But of course, my father didn’t grow up in Downpatrick, he grew up in Brookeborough. My mother didn’t grow up in Downpatrick, it’s not how it works. So I’m kind of I’m processing that and I’m realising that
And letting go.
Yeah. And this this is, be here now for them, you know, and this is it.
This is their world that they will pass on.
To their children and we make ourselves anew each time.
Steafán Hanvey, it’s been lovely to talk to you.
Thank you Helen, and to you.
My heart goes out to you with some of the stuff that’s going on. And I do wish you strength, courage and patience.
Thank you Helen, a pleasure as always.
Thanks very much for joining us on The Family of Things.
Thanks for having me. Take care.
And that’s all from this episode of The Family of Things, and if you’d like to find out more about the series, do go to the website, TheFamilyofThings.com. And please, if you enjoy what you’ve been hearing, do support our patreon there for as little as a euro a month. We have another podcast out that you might like, The Panti Personals hosted by the Queen of Ireland herself, Panti Bliss. So do have a listen to that in your favourite podcast place.
We have a new episode out at the moment with the amazing filmmaker and musician Myles O’Reilly. Thanks for listening.
Music you hear in this episode includes:
Rigmaroll (Finnish band & Steafán Hanvey)
Hands of a Farmer & Vanha häämarssi
Bobbie Hanvey & Houl Yer Whisht ‘The Muttonburn Stream ‘
& ‘All Around the Loney;
You can find Bobbie’s music here; music.apple.com/gb/album/the-mutt…n-more/1025150269
Steafán Hanvey ‘ Deep Blue Sea’
Steafán Hanvey ‘Secrets and Lies’
Steafán Hanvey & Tarja Merivirta”Masters of War’ (Bob Dylan)
Steafán also shares an extract from his poem ‘Late Developer’ from ‘Reconstructions’.