Eamon Devlin says it’s all down to St. Matthews GAC in Drumsurn when they bestowed upon him “the great title of cultural officer”.
“Aye, they knew what they were at,” says Eamon, smiling as he nurses a mandolin.
Retired and with no hobbies to speak of all Eamon could think of was music.
That was his passion; always has been. During the Beatle mania days of the 1960s, Eamon and his pals were rocking the local music scene with ‘The Country Boys’ playing traditional music. Even now he can, as he says, be found “roaming the country like a gypsy”, found in the corner of a bar somewhere around Derry or Donegal on a weekend playing in a session.
With the pressure on to do something cultural for the club and community, Eamon thought the best way to use his music talent was through children.
The obvious place to start was the local St. Matthew’s PS where his late wife, aged 46, Philomena, worked for a very happy and productive 23 years.
Sadly, Philomena passed away 20 months ago, but to honour her memory Eamon started ‘Philomena’s Music Academy’.
“Och, it was emotional at the beginning,” says Eamon, “but the satisfaction you get out of it is unreal and Philomena would be delighted. It gives you a great kick, and I’m learning from them too. Sure it keeps you young!”
One year on and the almost three dozen or so kids involved have come on leaps and bounds.
The children are divided into sections playing the mandolin, fiddle, tin whistle and guitar. They all own their own instruments, which Eamon says gives them a sense of pride and ownership.
“Eamon is really good because he knows a lot about music,” says young Eunan McGonigle, aged 9.
“I just learned the mandolin and the classes are really fun. I love it.”
The students are taught by volunteer tutors Isobel O’Kane, Eunan Brolly and Shane McGonigle.
“Eamon asked me to and, well, I couldn’t say ‘no’, but I only learned the guitar a couple of years ago, although you’d think at times it’s Mark Knopfler in here!” says Drumsurn man, Shane McGonigle.
“It’s great to teach the kids, and they’re very good and are able to do a few songs now.”
Reflecting what most of Shane’s students think of his teaching skills is Nia Murray. The eight-year-old says she wants to be a pop star like Carly Rae Jepsen when she gets older so, she’s in a hurry to learn every chord on her pink guitar that she’d requested specially from Santa.
“Shane is brilliant. He’s our hero. He’s like a rock star!” she said.
Young Chelsea Brady, aged 8, adds: “He’s so good he can look up at the sky and play! He’s just brilliant and he makes the classes fun, not boring.”
Shane, keen to quickly play down any praise, adds: “I teach them an hour a week and they played at the Christmas concert and they were great. They did themselves proud. All the parents were delighted.”
St. Matthew’s PS principal Mary O’Hara is “over the moon with how the kids have mastered their instruments.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” she says, “and it’s all voluntary. I mean, it’s just incredible, people are willing to give up their time, each week, to teach children. We are so appreciative here at the school, we really are.”
Mrs. O’Hara says the music has produced benefits in the classroom for students as well. They’re more confident, concentration is better and confidence is soaring, she says.
“Again, the music academy is all voluntary and the tutors come week after week and they’re really bringing out all the talent in the area.”
Mrs O’Hara adds: “It’s just wonderful and we can’t say ‘thank you’ enough and, of course, there is great friendship in the group.”
While the instruments all belong to the children, there is one instrument that has extra special meaning.
It is a beautiful mandolin donated to Eamon from the wife of a “great friend”, who was a well known traditional musician in the Roe Valley, and further afield.
“My great friend Jimmy O’Hara from Glack bought a mandolin, not long before he died and, after his funeral, his wife Goretti gave it to me. It really is lovely to have it and hear it being played because we miss Jimmy dearly and I know he would be delighted to hear it being played too,” says Eamon, who says he is doing now what he should have been at when he was 17!
“I used to play football and a bit of rugby but then marriage and life came along, and well music keeps me going. I’m a bit of a wandering minstrel and I just love music. My father played the fiddle and I suppose the passion for music was handed down to me,” says Eamon.
“Philomena tolerated my music in the way you would tolerate bagpipes and I had to play out in the garage, but now I’m back in the house.”
As for Eamon he has nothing but praise for the youngsters. Among their repertoire to date are popular tunes including ‘The Wild Rover’ and ‘Finvola, The Gem of the Roe’.
“Something like this is a great grounding for youngsters, but I think it might be a problem keeping them once they pass primary school, but you never know. We’ll work on them!” says Eamon.
It was warm and sunny on Tuesday but, watching the children play their instruments and laugh as they go too fast or are out of tune, it’s obvious they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else for that moment.
“I’m tickled pink for them,” sayd Eamon. “They’re a good bunch, and to hear them play and to see their pride in themselves is great. When they played the concert at Christmas, it was lovely. I was very proud of them; everyone was. At this age they’re like sponges and they absorb everything immediately. It’s a pleasure.”
In the meantime, Eamon is secretly hoping there is another ‘Country Boys (or girls) in the making.