On the crisp, clear morning of the 18th of November, I reversed my little black car and made a U turn. With my mind in a number of places, I’d taken an illogical route into Dublin and only now realised that I’d make better time with a navigational amendment. Before long, vehicle and I were back on track on the North Circular and I was entering the Phoenix Park near Dublin Zoo. Fortunately, the city’s arteries were quiet enough and I was still running to schedule.
Back in the summer, my friend Connor McKeon had called to ask if I minded him forwarding my number to someone at Áras an Uachtaráin, official residence and principal workplace of the President of Ireland. The Áras staff were organising a garden party for President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina, and had approached Connor for recommendations for musicians. Connor and I used to work together quite often, and I played in his backing band when he sang at weddings, concerts and corporate events. It was fun accompanying him singing such a broad range of hits from The Killers to Paolo Nutini and Louis Prima!
As the summer came to a close, I had assumed that the staff at Áras an Uachtaráin had decided to book another group, so I was pleasantly surprised when my phone rang in mid-November. At the end of the line was the mannered, well-spoken voice of one of the Assistants to the President of the Republic of Ireland. He explained that Mr and Mrs Higgins were hosting a Christmas party at their official residence on Saturday 7 December to celebrate the switching on of their Christmas lights. Peter (not his real name) asked me if the Dublin Brass Ensemble might be able to attend and play some cheerful Christmas hymns and carols for Mr and Mrs Higgins and their guests.
I immediately knew that I was not personally available on this date and I was a little disappointed at this. It’s not every day you get the opportunity to play for a head of state, especially someone like as Michael D. Higgins, who is such a strong champion of arts and culture. However, I knew I could put together a good team, so I happily accepted the invitation on behalf of Dublin Brass and started thinking about what type of ensemble and music I could organise for the party.
As I travelled through the Phoenix Park towards my destination, I tried to remember everything I needed for my 10:30am meeting with Peter. Before I knew it, I was at the front gate of Áras an Uachtaráin, and I couldn’t see anyone. It was pretty chilly, so there must be someone in the gatehouse? Stepping out onto the tarmac, I saw an intercom with a button, speaker and camera. I looked into the camera and pressed the button. A moment or two passed, and a friendly member of the Garda Síochána came out. I explained that I had a meeting with Peter, he started to say my name and I finished it for him. He smiled and opened the gate for me. ‘Do you know where you’re going?’
About a minute later, I was back in the driving seat and the totally empty visitor car park came into view. I left the car and walked briskly up towards the front of ‘the President’s home’. ‘Nice place’, I thought to myself. There was a tranquil stillness broken only by the tapping of my smartest shoes. In the distance, I could hear the faint roar of the city.
Then there was excited barking! For a split second I was suddenly, irrationally frightened. I then realised it was Sioda and Bród, the two dogs known as ‘the first dogs’ belonging to Mr and Mrs Higgins. Not only did they look very friendly, albeit massive, but they were also securely behind some large iron gates. ‘Such is my conditioning from a thousand action-thrillers,’ I thought wryly, my heartrate settling back down.
Peter was waiting for me at the front door of Áras with a broad smile and his polite accent, which was very easy on the ear. He showed me through the front door and explained that the Dublin Youth Choir would also be performing at the party. They were to be divided into two groups, one of which would be in the Entrance Hall. I considered myself very lucky to be walking around this building steeped in history, which I’d seen so many times before in photos and on television. I’ve also heard much about the place from my mother-in-law, Máirín, who used to work there under Éamon de Valera some years back.
Peter informed me that Mr and Mrs Higgins were currently out of the house, so for a short while we had the place to ourselves. For a moment, I imagined what it would feel like to be the President of Ireland. Then we were sorting things out again and I clicked back into being a trumpeter who organises recordings and events. Peter led me up the famous hallway, as this would be the route taken by the party guests. At the end of the hallway they would turn right into one of three large back rooms. In one of these rooms the other half of the choir would be singing. The brass wouldn’t be very far away in the third room so it was important t my group was not too loud or we would drown out the other music. With this in mind, Peter and I decided a brass trio would be most suitable for the occasion.
I made lots of notes so my team would know what to do on the night. It was unfortunate that I wasn’t available to play myself, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s to avoid pulling out of work to which you have committed if at all possible. This really does help a musician’s reputation in the long run.
After we’d discussed a few more details regarding logistics and music, I gave Peter two copies of the Dublin Brass Ensemble Album ‘Brass Warriors’. One was for Peter to keep and the other was for Mr and Mrs Higgins.
As we made our way back towards the front door, I commented on what an interesting job it must be working for President Higgins. The morning was still just getting going. I asked Peter if he had many more appointments that day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he did have a few things to get through.
I made my way back to my car, which was still peacefully resting on its own in the car park, and then I headed out of the Phoenix park and back to daily life. ‘What a splendid way to start a morning, I thought.
For the night of the Áras party I had put together a great trio made up of Paul Young (Trumpet), Dewi Jones (French Horn) and Francis Magee (Tuba). Dewi and Francis have kindly shared their accounts:
Comments from Dewi Jones (French Horn)
“Dublin Brass arrived at the Áras on a crisp December afternoon. The whole building was decorated for the festive season with Christmas trees, polar bears and presents on display.
When we arrived, we were greeted with a little refreshment which gave us the chance to get to meet the other performers for the day. After a set up and rehearsal of a few seasonal favourites it was time for the big arrival of Santa and his sleigh as well as President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina. We had a wonderful photo shoot with all the performers on the steps of the Áras as well as a beautiful impromptu performance of ‘O Come, all ye Faithful’.
It was then time for everyone to meet President Higgins and Sabina. We greeted them and thanked them for having us there that day. Then we proceeded with the performance, playing for families as they walked through the magically decorated Áras. It was wonderful to get to add a little Christmas spirit to the occasion and to join with the community on that special day to celebrate Christmas.
A few Christmas carols along we felt satisfied that a special atmosphere was being felt by all. After a few hours of this heart-warming experience (as well as lip-busting!), it was time to leave. It was a fantastic experience for us to perform at the Áras and to meet the community, it was also a privilege to meet Mr and Mrs Higgins. They were so welcoming and made everyone feel at home. We would like to thank them for having us, for giving us such fantastic memories and for putting us all in the festive spirit!”
Account of Francis Magee (Tuba)
“We were among a number of groups, there was a choir, jugglers, clowns and Santa himself! We were entertaining families invited to the Áras for the switching on of the Christmas lights. As we were setting up and having a short rehearsal, we attracted the attention of one of the President’s dogs who seemed to be used to having the run of the house. Prior to performing we were introduced to the President and his wife, had our photo taken and then joined the other groups outside for a larger photo call. We performed a selection of Christmas music for a about an hour while families toured the Áras before the ceremony.”#
On behalf of the Dublin Brass Ensemble (The Brass Warriors), I take this opportunity to thank Mr and Mrs Higgins for having us at their party, which by all accounts was a magnificent event.