As a wandering Irishman, learning to play the violin gave Mikie O’Shea a key to unlocking music communities across the world.
“It might sound like an Irish cliché, but when it comes to meeting people from different cultures, traditional music really helps,” says the man from Cork, who now lives in Kiev, Ukraine.
“I learned to play when I was a kid in Nad, North Cork, when I was five. Coming from a family of eight children, the music sessions from the local community provided me with the perfect distraction.
“I also learned the music of Sliabh Luachra with the tin whistle. The Nad Music Center often had resident teachers from all over the world, so I was exposed to great musical talent early on.
After leaving school, O’Shea studied to become a teacher at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, before moving to Wexford to work as a teacher in Blackwater. “Then I had the opportunity to work at Dubai International School in 2011 to teach the International Baccalaureate program, also at the primary school level, and I took it. “
As the epicenter of multicultural hospitality and entertainment, Dubai has some great Irish pubs, says O’Shea, where “you can just walk around and find people who know the same jigs, reels and slides.”
Japan is a very obedient society, but when people were prevented from eating out while seeing athletes fly from all over the world, frustrations increased.
“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 really folk stuff that would be less well known.”
O’Shea and a small group of Irish musicians formed a band called Boxty and performed regularly in the desert town, while still maintaining his daily work as an international educator.
“After four years in Dubai, I received an excellent offer to teach at the International School in Tokyo. When my wife and I got there in 2015 I went to an Irish pub called Solas for a pint – like you do. I met 10 musicians playing Irish music with violins and tin whistles, but none of them were Irish.
“I really didn’t expect it. Normally when you walk into an Irish pub you often don’t even meet an Irishman, but everyone has lived in Ireland and loved jigs and reels.
During O’Shea’s six years in Tokyo, the country was preparing for the Olympics, so he was saddened that they couldn’t pull off the show they wished they could. “It was heartbreaking. So much effort has been put into not seeing people racing the stadiums is terrible. “
Tokyo is a “fantastic” city to live in, but space is limited so rents are high. “A one bedroom apartment costs about the same as in Dublin, but don’t look for large apartments or houses.”
O’Shea didn’t learn to speak Japanese fluently, although he did learn “Japanese restaurant,” which basically means just enough to get by in the bustling metropolis.
Since the onset of Covid-19, the Japanese have been “caught” following health and safety guidelines. “The authorities did not apply sanctions for violating the rules, but rather the strongly suggested health and safety protocols. Japan is a very docile society, but when people were prevented from eating out while seeing athletes arrive from all over the world, frustrations increased. “
Like much of the global workforce, O’Shea has worked remotely during the pandemic, but has not let his music career play a secondary role.
“I created a site for people around the world containing video tutorials and sheet music to the music of Sliabh Luachra as well as many favorites from other places. I have people all over Asia who want to learn Irish jigs like The Humors of Glendart and the Jolly Corkonian and polkas like Mountvara Bridge and reels like The Duke of Leinster’s Wife, as well as whistles like The Boys of Bluehill.
As the world opens up, this is a great way to break down barriers. Music connects, even when the language doesn’t
“The site is becoming more and more popular with students – mostly adults – around the world. “
Having recently moved to Kiev, where he and his wife both work in the international school, also teaching an international primary education program, teaching violin online is a useful tool for staying connected to the musical world.
“But I’m also looking forward to discovering a traditional music scene here. According to a Russian friend, there was a vibrant traditional Irish music scene here, but apparently it’s a bit dead, so I hope I can revive it.
O’Shea says Kiev offers a unique experience. “Kiev is a beautiful city, the apartment is huge and right in front of the opera house. The cost of restaurant meals and rentals is inexpensive. It’s very artistic and offers a varied dining experience, which is great coming from Tokyo.
“I’m also closer to home – just a three hour flight away. After Covid-19, it will also offer an excellent weekend for the Irish. Right now things here are open, people are being masked, but that could change if the Delta variant is rampant. We are both vaccinated so we didn’t have to quarantine. “
O’Shea says his career as an international educator and violin player should also happily coexist in Ukraine.
“I combined teaching elementary school children with the violin, which means you can travel the world and find work anywhere. As the world opens up, this is a great way to break down barriers. Music connects even when the language doesn’t.
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