What is courage?
I sometimes hear myself described as a pioneer and a trailblazer and the most shocking to me personally, an influential church leader. Truthfully I don’t perceive myself in any of these ways.
I grew up in the Braniel estate in the 1970’s. I was raised in a culture that told me catholics were the enemy and Orangeism and loyalty to the queen of England were the same as faith in Jesus. Protestantism was the religion, not following Christ. Everyone I knew was a protestant except for one little group of people who lived on the bend in the road at the bottom of Warren Grove. I was always scared to walk through that bend because the boys that lived there who’s names were Quinn or Lynch would come out of their houses and threaten me. I grew to fear them because of this. I never really thought of them as catholic because I didn’t know what that meant and had nothing to compare it to. But if I needed to get to my friends house, cutting through their part of the street was way quicker than the long way round. Sometimes courage is a short cut on a rainy day.
Growing up there were always bigger scarier boys everywhere I turned and I was bullied constantly and often had to run for my life. But I learned to fight back because it was less stressful than hiding from bullies. Sometimes courage is hitting back so they don’t keep hitting you.
Around the age of 10 I asked my mom if I could go to the paramilitary training that was held in the playground of the primary school in the evening. She was outraged and told me absolutely not. My mom had friends all over the estate that seemed to report on my every move like a ring of spies and so I didn’t dare disobey her. That left the church. Sited on top of the hill at the end of my street, the old building smelled funny and the people were unfriendly. It would have been so much easier to join the paramilitaries; they were much more welcoming. But on cold winter nights with nothing to do, the church became the only place to go were I wasn’t physically attacked. The local youth club was just a fight waiting to happen and so I opted for the slightly less openly hostile environment of the church. It was there that youth workers and leaders created an environment were street kids like me could use microphones to sing through guitar amps and would teach us to play guitar for free. Every month they had a youth service where we got to play songs we wrote and where kind old ladies told us we were great. The church nurtured my dreams of being the next Elvis and provided the practical facilities and encouragement to help make it happen. Leaders ran us in their cars at their own expense to places like Moira or Enniskillen to play our tunes for a cookie and a cup of tea. It was the church that gave me a start in music and the church that later told me I had to give it up because I had too much of my identity in it. After two years of not playing a note I dared to buy an acoustic guitar, ignore leaders and try to get gigs in bars. Many times they told me playing music was a sin. Sometimes courage is standing up to misguided authority.
The Belfast Empire gave us our first paying gig because they thought we were a cover band. When they realised before we started our four week residency that we played original material they tried to cancel us. We lied and said we were in the musicians union and they’d have to pay us anyway. They gave us one night as a try out. We played our hearts out and they booked us regularly after that.
When that band ended I made a demo with a friend who urged me to record more songs and make a CD. As far as I know it was the first independent CD release in Northern Ireland but I made it because my friend coaxed me into it, not because I was brave. Sometimes courage is listening to someone with less to lose.
When my first album became popular on local radio and we started to sell lots of CDs, it was because of my friend that we booked the lyric theatre to do a show. I was terrified that we’d fail and it was a massive relief when it sold out. Twice! To help defer the costs of the gig I called Bass Ireland brewery and asked to speak to the head of marketing whose name happened to be Brian Houston. He took my call and gave us £300 sponsorship which covered the rent of the room. Sometimes courage is using the little edge you have because of a namesake to open a door.
I went “full time” in music because I couldn’t get a job. A large part of me was desperately afraid that I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills but I had nochoice. I had learned a bit about running sound and so I rented our bands sound system to other groups to make some much needed food money. I knew so little about the gear that I would call friends from phone boxes outside the venue to ask how to wire the speakers together. I was driven by a mixture of desperation, naiveté and fear into going beyond my comfort zone to feed my two babies and pay my mortgage. Sometimes courage is the choice between bluffing your way and starvation.
There came a point where I was doing music so long that I became unemployable. Now I can’t go back even if I want to. Sometimes courage is keeping on going because there is no other choice.