Since 2018, a free weekly drop-in choir has been hosted by musician Liz Clark on the Skibbereen Hospital Campus over lunch hour which is open to all staff.
Choir participants are members of HSE staff from Skibbereen Hospital Campus. The campus includes a community hospital for older people, a mental health residential centre, and a public health / administrative building. On average we have 10 members who work in administrative and clerical roles, home help and home support, occupational therapy, and as community workers and public health nurses.
This choir is a space for the creative, social and physical wellbeing of Skibbereen Campus staff cohort – an enjoyable place to sing and relax.
Recognising the location and departments that make up the campus, the artist-led choir is inclusive of all, using music to bond the various departments, buildings and sectors that divide the Campus such as administration, older people care, mental health, public health and management.
While the primary aim is participation, participants occasionally perform on site to share and inspire. The choir is integral to the wider Arts for Health Partnership Programme that takes place across West Cork.
This staff choir started as a project I did in Skibbereen Community Hospital when I was resident musician there. As part of a wider project, called 110 Skibbereen Girls, I brought staff and residents together to welcome the Australian Ambassador and guests. I found the staff very talented and eager to continue, so it was then the HSE Staff Choir was born!
Choir members select the songs we sing and have full say in where, when (and if!) they perform. We meet weekly and once a quarter plan a performance in at least one of the spaces on campus. Usually we cycle through a repertoire of about eight songs. We sing many contemporary songs from Irish artists such as Dolores O’Riordan, Paddy Casey and Imelda May, and even stretch back to the 60s and 70s with The Mamas and The Papas and Leonard Cohen. Lots of the songs have positive sentiments, or might acknowledge struggle but give a sense of hope.
A lot of focus is on learning harmony. This extra challenge of singing different parts provides a sense of accomplishment once we’ve mastered it. Many people comment that the mix of challenge and joy in singing provides a much-needed mental break from an otherwise stressful job. Sometimes solo singing is encouraged to boost confidence.
Many times, I’ll put singers into smaller groups so they can help each other with their parts and this encourages a camaraderie amongst colleagues. Rounds and canons are also an important part of the choir as it helps with harmony and listening skills. These are musical concepts, but can easily be applied to work situations as well.
During the Covid-19 lockdowns, the choir was advised it would have to stop. In June 2020, inspired by the opera singers singing out of their windows in Italy, we got together for a one-off, socially-distanced outdoor session. We sang a song of hope and perseverance, Rainbow, by Kacey Musgraves. Many choir members expressed how happy they were to be singing through this challenging time. Once lockdowns were over, we were advised by Sing Ireland about safe return to singing protocols, which involved mask wearing, social distancing, temperature checks and vaccination requirements.
In 2022, the choir collaborated with Justin Grounds, a musician and composer with the Arts for Health Partnership Programme, to provide choral music to a poetic film by hospital residents called The River Goes on Forever.
The film premiered at Skibbereen Hospital during Bealtaine Festival and the choir performed in the hospital and residential mental health facility. The film was also screened at Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre, as part of Arts for Health’s Bealtaine exhibition, and is available to view on Uillinn’s YouTube channel.
Earlier in 2022, the choir welcomed a visit from Kunle Adewale, founder of the Arts In Medicine Project and Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health at the Global Brain Health Institute. This visit took place during Creative Brain Week and was coordinated through the Arts for Health programme.
Evaluation is carried out as an integral part of the Arts For Health Partnership Programme. Feedback forms are given to participants once a year to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. Participation numbers are also an indicator of interest and evaluation. These participation numbers are reported to the programme during end-of-year reports.
Informal conversations are always encouraged at the beginning of sessions where we discuss song choices, performances and day-to-day business. Steering group meetings provide partners with an opportunity to hear about the work of the choir and provide recommendations.
‘I think we can get caught up in work and the day-to-day busyness of things. Sometimes we need to be reminded to take time out for ourselves. I think everybody’s mental health has been challenged especially over the last two years so that’s even more of a catalyst to do this.
It’s all about engaging with our work colleagues outside of the work environment and having a bit of fun, hopefully a bit of laughter and craic. Just seeing a different aspect of people. People are busy and under pressure at work. In a different environment you get to see a different side of people.’ – Carmel Daly, HSE staff participant
During the pandemic, the challenges we faced were much the same as any choir as we were not able to meet face to face. The consensus amongst the group is that we would not go online as many members preferred to spend their lunch hour away from their desks. Therefore, we had no choir (apart from sporadic one-off sessions a few times). This was when many staff members mentioned to me that this period was the most stressful and they felt the choir would be most beneficial.
The Arts and Wellbeing Steering Group has recommended that the choir continues and we are developing the choir in more locations, based on expression of interest from our current Skibbereen location and new interest from another location in West Cork. We are looking at ways to maintain this programming year round.
Based on informal conversations with participants, I will use much the same methodology, but more performance opportunities are recommended.
Documentation and Dissemination
Choir Director Liz Clark discussed the HSE staff choir as part of the Uillinn podcast series in 2022: https://soundcloud.com/user-386174924/art-and-wellbeing
Skibbereen Campus Choir is part of the Arts for Health Partnership Programme, which comprises Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Cork County Council, Cork Education & Training Board and HSE Cork Kerry Community Healthcare, through the Community Work Department, Primary Care and Community Hospitals.
Date of Publication
2018 - present
Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre
HSE Cork Kerry Community Healthcare Staff Well-being Fund
Staff Health and Wellbeing
Nature of project
Collaborative/ participatory, Performance