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Freedom to Fly | Creative Enquiry – Arts and Older People

Freedom to Fly, hosted by MusicAlive, is an interdisciplinary, participatory project that engages older people in collaboration with Helga Deasy (choreographer and dancer) and Susan McManamon (musician and choir leader). The artists and witness writer Arnold Thomas Fanning worked with participants in Mayfield Men’s Shed, Cork and Nazareth House, Mallow to joyfully explore the potential of integrating voice and movement.

This project took place as part of Creative Enquiry – Arts and Older People, an investigative collaborative venture looking at barriers to participation in the arts for older people. MusicAlive, Cork Midsummer Festival and Sirius Arts Centre hosted three diverse artistic residencies in Cork, which informed the enquiry.


Older men who are members of Mayfield Men’s Shed in Mayfield, Cork City. As they like to put it themselves they have 'an average age of 72 and a total age of 1110'. The artists worked primarily with existing Mayfield Men’s Shed choir members. A core group of 13 singers, sometimes up to 20, attended weekly sessions.

Older men and women who are full-time residents of Nazareth House, Mallow, Cork. Staff members also participated throughout the project. Up to 22 participants, on average 12.


From an artistic perspective, the residencies aimed to explore the relationship between voice/sound and dance/movement in an interdisciplinary, collaborative process with the participants. Fusing the art forms, the work sought to offer participants an accessible, stimulating artistic experience where expression, communication and connection are at the core.

The artists aimed to create a shared ritual space where meeting and exchange takes place through the moving and sounding body; a space that supports individual expression as well as fostering deep and meaningful connections with others. The activities were designed to enhance wellbeing through fostering bodily awareness and mobility, social connection, play and enjoyment, reducing stress levels and developing a more connected sense of self.

From a research perspective, the programme sought to explore and reflect on questions of how to overcome the barriers and challenges to arts participation and quality arts engagement for older people, with the aim of contributing to understanding and creating best practice models for this group.


The artists worked with a process-orientated approach that focused on creative interaction, creative play and response through the moving and sounding body. Starting from the familiar (such as well-known songs, simple gestures and gentle stretches), the process guided a journey into the unknown through explorative sound and movement improvisations. The work was developed collaboratively and in dialogue with the groups. Within the process there was a focus on 'instant composition', the art of composing in the moment. The creative exploration of feelings, memories and personal stories inspired these collective compositions.

Both residencies took place over weekly one hour sessions, with a total of 16 sessions in each setting. As choir conductor Susan McManamon was the lead artist at Mayfield Men’s Shed and works with the existing Men’s Shed choir, there was a slightly stronger focus on singing. The artists particularly explored with the participants how emotions can be expressed in voice and body in a choral context.

Dance artist Helga Deasy was the lead artist at Nazareth House and there was a slightly stronger focus on movement. Through movement and voice the group explored the moods and states of the sea as well as personal stories and memories connected to the seaside.

Working with the breath, movement, voice, sound and rhythm as well as elements of poetry, the process invited the participants in both settings to engage as singers, movers, listeners and creators as part of a creative collective.

Artistic Outputs

  • A half day sharing event took place in City Hall, Cork in February 2020. The Director of Nursing at Nazareth House presented and Mayfield Men’s Shed choir performed at the event.
  • Arnold Thomas Fanning created an artistic response/essay as witness writer titled 'Welcome Havens – Celebrations of sanctuary in a creative enquiry'. This was included in the Creative Enquiry publication.
  • MusicAlive contributed two essays to the Creative Enquiry publication which was launched officially at the event in City Hall in February 2020. The full publication is available here: https://www.musicalive.ie/s/ArtistResidency_Publication.pdf
  • Sean Phair created Lán De Cheol, a short film about the collaboration with Mayfield Men’s Shed: https://vimeo.com/392461362
  • Photographer Richie Tyndall's images featured in the Creative Enquiry report.

Evaluation Methodology

The work in the two residencies was evaluated through qualitative ethnographic field research and action research. This included observation and informal conversations with the participants and staff, reflection meetings among the artists after every creative session, and reflective journals.

Further to this, witness writer Arnold Thomas Fanning undertook qualitative interviews with key staff and participants, and feedback sessions that focused on specific topics were held at the end of both residencies.

The overall Creative Enquiry - Arts and Older People programme was reviewed by an external evaluator. An Executive Summary of this evaluation can be found in the Creative Enquiry publication.

Evaluation Outcomes

Findings from the Creative Enquiry included:

  • Both conscious and unconscious ageism exist and although well-intentioned, arts projects that are exclusively delivered for older people might be feeding the ageist ‘unconscious bias’.
  • The ‘Artist in Residence’ collaborative arts practice model was found to be a successful model of delivery.
  • Participants spoke about feeling good, enjoying themselves, having a sense of worth, developing a sense of collaboration and camaraderie, working towards an end result, developing concentration and focusing skills, realising they have skills they never thought they had, and feeling respected and heard.

We were blown away by the impact of this project considering the short duration. We were aware that the content was experimental in nature and we anticipated resistance to that. However, participants jumped right in and really embraced it.’ - Helga Deasy & Susan McManamon, Artists in Residence

We got to know the existing group in a different way. I felt we bonded better and got to know people better and on a deeper level.’ - Participant from Mayfield Men’s Shed

It’s all about identity; not about where I’m from but where I am’ - Participant reflecting on the song created by a member of the Men’s Shed for the group.

It’s very relaxing and very enjoyable. The exercises are good for us.’ - Nazareth House resident and participant

I can feel it in my breathing – not just for singing but outside too. I really notice it when I’m swimming.’ Participant, Mayfield Men’s Shed

I’m not a natural mover, it’s just not something that comes naturally to me. Since the project, I find that I have changed completely the way that I work with singers. You’ve got to be able to connect with your body – it changes the way you sing and sound.’ - Susan McManamon, Artist in Residence

I look forward to this day coming every week’ - Nazareth House resident and participant

It cheers me up. Getting old won’t be such a chore anymore.’ - Nazareth House resident and participant

It was a very rich collaborative process. The work has really opened my awareness to the effect our voice has on our body – on how we move, on how we carry ourselves and how we express ourselves physically. It has made me reflect and rethink on how I use my voice as a dance teacher.’ - Helga Deasy, Artist in Residence

Documentation & Dissemination

In both residencies the work was documented through reflective journals kept by the artists as well as a photographer who captured the creative process.

In Mayfield Men’s Shed a short film was created documenting the work, which included interviews with participants, artists and the director of MusicAlive Kevin O’Shanahan.

The outcomes of the Creative Enquiry Programme were documented in a publication and disseminated at a launch event in February 2020.

Date of Publication

March 2021


July 2019 - February 2020

Lead Organisation



Cork City Council, Cork County Council, Age and Opportunity, HSE

Funded By

Creative Enquiry is supported through the Arts Council's “An Invitation to Collaboration” scheme. It is an initiative of Cork City Council in partnership with Cork County Council, Age and Opportunity, HSE.



Web Link


Helga Deasy, Susan McManamon


Dance, Literature, Music


Mental Health, Older People, Primary Care/ Community Health

Nature of Project

Collaborative/ participatory, Research, Residency

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