One Iranian musician was made an Irish citizen, so why wasn’t his brother?

New to the Parish: Shahab Coohe arrived from Iran in 2012

Shahab Coohe was seven years old when he bought his first cassette tape of santoor music. He was immediately drawn in by the sounds of the trapezoid-shaped Iranian stringed instrument and asked his mother if he could learn to play.

“I wanted to try it out and have some fun. My teacher introduced me and my brother to Iranian folk music. I started playing by ear, just like in Irish music sessions.”

Nearly two decades on, the now-professional musician still approaches music as a hobby. “I feel once it gets too professional the formula changes. I follow the rules but I don’t see it as a job.”

Leaving Iran was the saddest day of my life. Terrible things had happened but I still didn't want to leave. I guess I felt hopeful and hopeless at the same time

Coohe's band Navá – an Irish-Persian ensemble which includes his younger brother Shayan – has gone from strength to strength in recent years. The group formed in 2016 and also comprises the folk-bluegrass musicians Paddy Kiernan and Niall Hughes. They have performed at numerous Irish and international music festivals and Navá's debut album Tapestry was nominated as best emerging album at last year's RTÉ folk awards.


Eight years ago, however, life was very different for the two brothers. In November 2012, they left Tehran with their mother to join their father in Dublin. He had travelled to Ireland a few years previously seeking asylum and subsequently applied for his loved ones to join him through family reunification.

“My father came here about 11 years ago, life was getting very hard in Iran. Leaving Iran was the saddest day of my life. Terrible things had happened but I still didn’t want to leave. I guess I felt hopeful and hopeless at the same time.”

Coohe, who was 17 at the time, recalls arriving into a “grey and miserable” city. “It was cold and raining, typical Irish weather. It was the culture shock, I couldn’t process what was happening.”

Coohe also struggled to understand people around him. “It felt like I was deaf; I could hear the language but I couldn’t understand. From that first day I just wanted to learn English and make friends.”

Coohe had been living in Dublin a year when he was approached one day by a guitar player he’d met in a pub. “I was sitting outside a cafe on South William Street and I had my santoor with me. He came over and said, ‘I’m going to play in a pub on Capel Street, do you want to come?’

“I went home and told my parents I’d been offered the chance to play. They told me I didn’t learn music to go and play in a pub, that I shouldn’t be background music.”

I don't understand. Everything on our applications was the same except our names and date of birth. We came here in the same circumstances

While Coohe agreed with his parents, he decided to try out the pub gig. He was surprised to discover a “curious, kind and very respectful” audience when he pulled out his instrument. “People were drinking but there was silence in the pub. It felt like a concert hall, everyone was listening.”

He and his brother, who plays the tonbak drum and the tár stringed instrument, started gigging at open mic nights around the city. Shahab also became interested in Irish music after seeing the renowned violinist Martin Hayes perform in Dublin.

“When Martin Hayes played it was a mesmerising. He was playing a type of music which I had no knowledge of at the time but I could sense its depth and see he was telling a story. Irish people have a special talent for telling a story.”

Meanwhile, Coohe was taking part-time music classes at the Royal Irish Academy of Music while he waited three years to become eligible for the Susi third- level support grant. Once he’d secured the funding, he completed the academy’s BA in violin performance. He also developed a particular interest in traditional Irish music from Co Clare and bought Martin Hayes CDs to learn his fiddle tunes by ear.

It was while playing some of Hayes’s tunes at an open mic night that the Coohe brothers met their future band mates Niall and Paddy. The quartet decided to improvise on stage and ended up playing one tune for 15 minutes. “You know when something feels really special? We just clicked and could understand each other’s musical language.”

In late 2017, Coohe and his brother applied for Irish citizenship. After five years of having to queue through the night outside the Burgh Quay immigration office to renew their Stamp 4 visa, they were keen to secure more permanent status in Ireland. Applying for visas to play with the band at music festivals in Scotland, Spain and Canada was also extremely taxing.

I was only 17 when I came here. I'm a good citizen and haven't done anything wrong. I've just been going around Dublin playing music

The brothers filled their forms out together and posted them on the same day. Seven months later, Shayan received a letter inviting him to a citizenship ceremony but nothing arrived for his older brother. Coohe waited a few weeks before contacting the Government and was told his application was still being processed. Three years on, and following numerous calls and emails, he is still waiting.

“I don’t understand. Everything on our applications was the same except our names and date of birth. We came here in the same circumstances. When I contact them they don’t explain why it’s taking so long. I’m fully aware of the delays with Covid-19 but I applied three years ago.

“I was only 17 when I came here. I’m a good citizen and haven’t done anything wrong. I’ve just been going around the city playing music.”

Coohe is tired of travelling on an Iranian passport. “You’re required to get a visa for almost every country in the world. Each time I go through an airport, it doesn’t matter where I am, they take one look at my passport, look into my eyes and it’s clear they don’t trust me. It’s like they doubt what I’m saying.”

The Irish system is the problem, not the Irish people, says Coohe. “I can feel all the support I get from friends in Ireland, they all have my back. The problem is with the administration. I know there are lots of other people in this situation too. We should just have an explanation, it would make our lives easier and give us hope.”

Coohe says his parents are very proud of their sons’ musical achievements in Ireland. “They push us to contribute because of all the support we’ve received both from the Irish people and the Government. I’ve been able to build a career here, record an album and tour Ireland. It’s a privilege.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast