Primary teaching and playing fiddle ‘means you can travel the world’

Wild Geese: Mikie O’Shea has gone from Ireland to Kiev via Dubai and Tokyo

Mikie O’Shea learned to play the fiddle when he was growing up  in Nad, north Cork.

Mikie O’Shea learned to play the fiddle when he was growing up in Nad, north Cork.

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As a wandering Irishman, learning to play the fiddle gave Mikie O’Shea a key to unlock musical communities around the world.

“It may seem like an Irish cliché, but when it comes to meeting people from different cultures, traditional music really helps,” says the Cork man, who now lives in Kiev, Ukraine.

“I learned to play as a child in Nad, north Cork, when I was five. Coming from a family of eight children, the local community music sessions offered a perfect distraction for me.

“I also learned the music of Sliabh Luachra with the tin whistle. The Nad music centre often had teachers resident here from around the world, so I was exposed to great musical talent early on.”

After leaving school, O’Shea studied to become a primary school teacher at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, before moving to Wexford to work as a primary teacher in Blackwater. “Then I got an opportunity to work at the international school in Dubai in 2011 teaching the international baccalaureate curriculum, also at primary school level, and I took it.”

As an epicentre for multicultural hospitality and entertainment, Dubai offers some great Irish pubs, O’Shea says, where “you can just wander in and find people who know the same jigs, reels and slides”.

Japan is a very compliant society, but when people were restricted from eating out while seeing athletes fly in from all around the world, frustrations grew

“As a result, I collaborated with musicians in Dubai and got gigs at events and pubs playing more ‘pop’ songs like the Dubliners, rather than the really folksy stuff that would be lesser known.”

O’Shea and a small group of Irish musicians formed a band called Boxty and played regularly in the gateway desert city, while also maintaining his day job as an international educator.

“After four years in Dubai, I got a great offer to teach at the International School in Tokyo. When my wife and I arrived there in 2015, I went to an Irish pub called Solas for a pint – as you do. I met 10 musicians playing Irish music with fiddles and tin whistles, but none of them were from Ireland.

“I really hadn’t expected it. Normally when you walk into an Irish pub, you often don’t even meet Irish people but all of these had lived in Ireland and loved the jigs and reels.”

During O’Shea’s six years in Tokyo, the country was building up to the Olympics, so he was saddened to see that they couldn’t pull off the show that they would have liked. “It was heartbreaking. So much effort went into it and not seeing people pack the stadiums is terrible.”

Tokyo is a ‘fantastic’ city to live in, but space is at a premium, so rents are high. “A one-bedroom apartment costs around the same as in Dublin, but don’t go looking for big apartments or houses.”

O’Shea didn’t learn to speak Japanese fluently, though he learned “restaurant Japanese” which essentially means just enough to get by in the vibrant metropolis.

Since Covid-19 began, people in Japan were were “requested” to follow health and safety guidelines. “Authorities didn’t enforce penalties for breaking the rules, rather the strongly suggested health and safety protocols. Japan is a very compliant society, but when people were restricted from eating out while seeing athletes fly in from all around the world, frustrations grew.”

Like a large chunk of the global workforce, O’Shea worked remotely during the pandemic, but didn’t let his music career play second fiddle.

“I created a site for people all around the world containing video tutorials and scores of the music of Sliabh Luachra along with many favourites from other locations. I have people all over Asia wanting to learn Irish jigs like The Humours of Glendart and the Jolly Corkonian and polkas like Mountvara Bridge and reels like The Duke of Leinster’s Wife, as well as whistle hornpipes like The Boys of Bluehill.

As the world opens up, it’s a great way to break down barriers. Music connects, even when language doesn’t

“The site is becoming more and more popular with students– mostly adults – from all over the world.”

Having recently relocated to Kiev, where he and his wife both work at the international school, also teaching an international primary school curriculum, online fiddle teaching acts as a useful tool to stay connected to the musical world.

“But I am also looking forward to uncovering a traditional music scene here. According to a Russian friend, there used to be a vibrant traditional Irish music scene here, but apparently it’s died a little, so hopefully I can rekindle it.”

O’Shea says Kiev offers a unique experience. “Kiev is a stunning city, The apartment is huge and right across from the Opera House. Cost of dining out and renting is cheap. It’s very artsy and offers a varied food experience, which is great coming from Tokyo.

“I’m also closer to home – just three hours’ flight. Post-Covid-19 it will also offer a great weekend break for Irish people. Right now, things here are open, people are masked, but it could change if the Delta variant runs rampant. We’re both vaccinated, so we didn’t have to quarantine.”

O’Shea says his career as an international educator and fiddle player are set to coexist quite happily in Ukraine too.

“I combined teaching primary school children and playing the fiddle, which pretty much means you can travel the world and find work everywhere. As the world opens up, it’s a great way to break down barriers. Music connects, even when language doesn’t.”

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