Selfless volunteer going the extra mile for half a century
Many musicians and bands can testify to Nicky Brennan’s guidance and how he helped them discover their talents
Nicky Brennan with his student Laura Maloney at her graduation
Most of us have volunteered at some point in our lives – whether shaking a bucket in aid of our local sports club or packing bags to raise funds for our children’s school – offering up a few hours here and there is something we are generally happy to do.
But some people go a step, or more accurately, a giant leap, further.
Nicky Brennan, from Ennis, Co Clare, has been volunteering for almost 50 years and last year was awarded the Extra Mile Award from Youth Work Ireland for being the longest serving volunteer in youth services across the country.
Having started unofficially in 1969 by lending a hand at his local youth centre as a teenager, the father-of-one has been giving his time ever since. His dedication to youth work has spanned almost five decades and chairman of Clare Youth Service Jim McMahon says while so many people give up their time to volunteer, Nicky is a cut above.
“Nicky goes the extra mile and has done so for nearly half a century,” he says. “He is a real believer in active youth participation and young people taking responsibility for projects and programmes and believes that an ounce of praise or encouragement can help a person’s confidence and ability to thrive.
“Many young musicians and bands, even some now in their late 40s, can testify to Nicky’s guidance and how he facilitated them to discover their skills and talents.”
But despite the praise, Nicky, who credits his wife Eileen, is reluctant to accept the plaudits. “Eileen is the most important person in my life and has always been so supportive,” he says. “I never felt that I was giving up my time by volunteering but more that I was taking time to interact with others. As a teenager, I taught myself guitar and when others asked me to show them the basics I gave (free) lessons in the front room.
“But as I was one of 10 children, my mother encouraged me to find somewhere else to play and that’s how I got into the volunteering – which I really enjoy and have never felt that it was a hardship or wanted any recognition.”
This humility is one of the reasons why he deserves to be recognised, says Mary Maloney whose two children learned music from this “selfless man”.
“I cannot say enough about him and what he does for others,” she says. “He is truly one of the unsung heroes of our town and has done so much in so many different capacities – from teaching to counselling and just restoring faith in youngsters who might be feeling a bit lost.
“He gives lessons for free to those who can’t afford it (other children pay a nominal fee which is given to teenage helpers) and I know there have been several times when he has slipped a fiver into the coat pocket of a child in need. He truly is a shining star in our community.”
Laura Maloney (26) agrees and credits her chosen profession to the hours she spent with the Good Samaritan. “As a very shy teenager, I started going for guitar lessons with Nicky who was so welcoming and made me feel at ease straight away,” recalls Laura, who works as a teacher in Dublin. “He always catered to whatever mad songs we wanted to learn, no matter how modern or obscure, he would work out the chords and tabs and have them ready for us to learn.
“He encouraged us to look deeper into lyrics, so a guitar lesson could sometimes become poetic and even philosophical. I developed so much during that time, not only as a guitarist, but also as a person and by the time I was 16, he was encouraging my song-writing and getting me up on stage for gigs. Then when I was 17, I started helping out with classes, gaining valuable teaching practice without even realising.
“He is the most amazing person and has such a genuine way of working with young people. To so many of us, Nicky has been a teacher, parent and friend all rolled into one, always behind us 100 per cent.”
Another past pupil is David Naughton, 35, who started playing drums as a young teenager while Nicky encouraged, set up gigs and arranged transport to and from events.
This early encouragement sowed the seeds for a lifelong love of music which saw him move to London to work as a sound engineer, before returning in 2009 where he met Nicky again. And upon divulging that he would like to learn how to play the piano, soon found himself back in the youth centre where his old tutor voluntarily gave him a piano lesson every week.
Now working as a systems developer for General Motors, David recalls the man who helped him to develop both personally and professionally.
“Nicky is a humble man,” he says. “I have known him for many years and have never heard him say a bad word about anyone. He inspired me to be the best I can be and always seems to turn up at defining moments in my life and put a positive spin on things.
“I’m sure he has plenty more years left in the tank and will inspire many more people along the way – but when you think of all he has achieved and what he has helped others to achieve – it’s just, wow!”
Jason Noone (38) is another whose life was shaped by his early guitar lessons with Nicky Brennan. Now working as a music therapist, the Clare man recalls his first teaching experience as a teenager.
“I first went to Nicky for guitar lessons in 1991 when I was 12 and at 15, he asked me to teach alongside him,” he says on National Volunteering Week (May 14th to 20th). “This has had a definite impact on where I am now as a music therapist. Connecting therapeutically with someone through music requires a lot of different skills, but the basic requirements of empathy, creativity and openness I can certainly trace back to my time with Nicky.”
However, despite volunteering for most of his life, Brennan still gives his time every weekend with contributions from students ploughed back into the project. “I think it’s important for everyone to have the opportunity to play music and it’s wonderful to see a child progress and develop their interest and ability,” he says. “So I hope to be able to continue to volunteer here until my time is up.”