First Encounters: Fergus Sheil and Brian Irvine

‘We connect when it comes to understanding the value of music’

Fergus Sheil is a conductor who works with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and is artistic director of Wide Open Music and Opera Theatre Company. In 2011, he and his wife Maria founded the Julianstown Youth Orchestra in Julianstown, Co Meath, where they live with their daughters Emily, 12 and Jennifer, 10

Brian and I met when I was asked to conduct one of his operas. He was quite a well-known figure whose work had gone to places such as Russia and America, and I knew about his group, the Brian Irvine Ensemble.

Earlier, I'd run Crash Ensemble, a new music group in Dublin, and he'd been on our radar as someone we'd like to work with.

We’ve worked together a lot in recent years and I’ve never seen Brian cross or unhappy or depressed. You could come and tell him his house had burned down and he’d say, oh, I didn’t really like that house anyway. He always looks on the positive side.


He has a totally different way of thinking about music, very anarchic. I was brought up very traditionally, classical training all the way. Brian had come through punk and rock. He is quite the opposite of myself and I found that both puzzling and refreshing.

He has this idea that any musical interaction, any performance, is as valuable as each other. If he was working with the London Symphony Orchestra one week then with a choir of active retirees the next, he would genuinely value the two equally.

We hit it off as friends and colleagues and became collaborators. There’s lots of other people we both work with, but more and more we’ve found interesting things to do together. I’m a huge admirer of his music, it’s very fresh and creative, a geyser of inspiration that just wells up.

Recently Brian and I have had this game where we play Spotify with each other: I'll put on Verdi then he'll put on, say, Motown, then we explain to each other what we find amazing about the music. I end up listening to stuff I would never have listened to, and liking it.

Brian and I both love working with children and he’s composed pieces with them. Brian himself is like a kid in a sweetshop, he gets very excited about music. He has an energy about him that’s a joy.

Brian Irvine is a musician and composer from Northern Ireland whose works include operas, orchestral works, community oratorios and film scores. He has won awards for both jazz and opera, collaborated with people from Seamus Heaney to Snow Patrol and is currently research professor of creative studies at the University of Ulster

I had gone to see Fergus's Crash Ensemble when they came to Belfast, but got to know him on a personal level when he conducted an opera of mine, The Tailor's Daughter, as part of the Belfast Festival. Since then we have worked on many projects together.

In every single project, irrespective of whatever difficulties or challenges they have thrown up, we simply have the best craic. Our motto might be “if it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing.”

We come from very different backgrounds – I'm a Prod from the Shankill Road in Belfast and he's an oul Dub. He grew up listening solely to classical music. I grew up listening to punk, Indie, Motown, Santana. He played viola in youth orchestras, I played electric guitar in punk bands. He is meticulous, calm, organised, thorough, responsible, articulate . . . I am not. But we connect completely when it comes to understanding the value, the relevance of music and music making.

I absolutely love making music with anyone who can make any kind of noise. I look at music as some wild playground: going on the swings is like writing an opera, going on a slide is like writing an orchestra piece, going on the roundabout is like playing in a punk band. I basically want to go on all the rides.

I don’t feel as if I live anywhere. I have a place in Edinburgh and a place just outside Belfast, an apartment, but none of it really feels like home. Now that I’m nearly 50, I’m gravitating towards a settled home life. I think that’s in many ways why Fergus and I are good friends. Over the past couple of years I have been working a bit with Fergus’s Julianstown Youth Orchestra and for a while it seemed that every Friday night I stayed at Fergus’s house. I stayed so often that the family have now renamed the spare room the Brian suite. Maria and Fergus and their daughters are the most generous and welcoming hosts and as luck would have it both Fergus and Maria are brilliant cooks. The craic is brilliant. I’ve also joined them on holidays in Achill and Sligo. I’m like the extra piece of luggage that arrives. Their home is what a proper home should be. I find the entire family a total inspiration. They have created something truly beautiful and I feel that when I leave a little bit of that love and care and gentleness has rubbed off and everything seems a little better.

I admire the qualities that Fergus has that I lack – I’ve never seen him raise his voice or get angry; there’s a calmness about him that’s endearing.

Bluebottle, a show for children and families, with music composed by Brian Irvine and words by John McIlduff, will be performed by 500 children of the Wicklow Children's Choir and the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fergus Sheil in the Bord Gais Energy Theatre on November 23rd,