Songlines brought together artists and people living with dementia and cognitive impairment to discuss favourite poems and songs in four care settings in Waterford and Wexford. A series of workshops in 2023 drew out memories, and resulted in the creation of new work, which was performed by artists, residents, and staff at celebratory live performances as part of Festival in a Van.
A mobile live arts event, Festival in a Van (FIAV) has been hosting live performances in towns, villages and doorsteps around the country since 2020. Established initially as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Festival in a Van promotes wellbeing and quality of life for all citizens by bringing free cultural events to diverse audiences.
Participants included the clients and staff of Care Choice Dungarvan and Dungarvan Community Hospital in Waterford, and Grantstown Community Village and St John’s Community Day Care Centre in Wexford.
Songlines aimed to break through the loneliness and isolation that can come when living with cognitive impairment. FIAV believes that the ‘healing power of the arts’ means that the arts makes you feel alive. This project got everyone laughing and smiling, smashing through monotonous routines and creating a sense of excitement and inclusion.
Songlines also sought to strengthen connections between clients and staff, and cultivate a sense of pride and achievement. By travelling to our care home audiences directly with a rigged-out stage, sound system, and top-quality artists, we signalled to them that they matter, that they fully belong within the rich spectrum of Irish cultural life.
In designing the project and developing the work, Festival in a Van worked closely with artist Marie Brett who consulted at length on best practice and approach. We also consulted with Jane O’Hanlon, Education Officer with Poetry Ireland, who were our project partners, and with the team at Waterford Healing Arts (WHA). WHA nominated Joe Brennan to attend workshops, and the ensuing performances, in order to evaluate the project on an ongoing basis.
FIAV worked with four extremely detailed oriented and experienced facilitators on delivering this project: playwright and actor Billy Roche, writer Margaret Galvin, poet and dance artist Lani O’Hanlon, and musician Liam Merriman. Preparatory Zoom sessions shaped the initial workshop outline to ensure the best possible outcomes for the residents.
The workshop group in Grantstown was large with about 30 people taking part (and more attending the event). In Enniscorthy, we were joined by 10-12 clients (again, with a broader audience for the wrap-up event). In Dungarvan, the groups in both Care Choice and Dungarvan Community Hospital ranged from 10-14, with event attendance at approximately 30.
The value of direct engagement and very personal exchange through songs and poetry became quickly apparent. One facilitator, Margaret Galvin, a thorough researcher, found that her carefully laid plans were quickly thrown out the window when she arrived at the session with a vast accumulation of poems from childhoods of the 50s and 60s only to be told ‘we don’t want to think about school, school was awful’.
Margaret quickly pivoted to a focus on the romance and glamour of courting at dances, with evocations of showbands and lively music. Babycham glasses and tea dance dresses were sourced for the next session, and led to a group rendition of Hello Dolly! This inspired the deeply personal sharing of memories, which our facilitators then adapted to music and poetic form for the celebration event.
The event day created a party atmosphere, with sun, cake, and bunting. Each artist ensured that the voices of the workshop participants were central to the performance; Lani O’Hanlon danced with participants using her scarf, and all the artists acknowledged each contributor to the poems and songs as they were performed. As the performance finished, many commented that the project had given them the opportunity to ‘relive their youth’, while staff remarked that they had new things to talk about with their clients, and that the mood was palpably lifted.
The three Songlines workshops in each location resulted in the creation of new songs and poems, crafted by project artists from the memories shared by clients. These new pieces were performed as part of four special shows staged from the Festival in a Van stage at each of the four participating locations. Our lead artists encouraged performances from clients and staff at each location, for a truly participatory show.
At the conclusion of the project, we commissioned two new illustrations by Lee Grace and Karen Nolan for each of the two county’s care homes inspired by the stories shared and new memories made throughout the project. These illustrations were framed and gifted, and also turned into mugs for the staff and residents.
Writer and storyteller Joe Brennan was engaged as the project evaluator. Joe’s experience working in arts and health settings meant he was able to provide valuable insights on the workshops and performances, written as a detailed narrative evaluation. He also led an online Zoom seminar featuring contributions from the artists and staff involved in the project. Our artist facilitators were also paid to debrief at the conclusion of the project, and share their learnings with us.
Achievement and empowerment: Clients shared a sense of pride and achievement at the performance as they heard their words echoed in the new work created by our facilitators, and were invited to perform themselves.
Connection: The stories shared reminded participants that they and those around them had something to offer, deepening their connection. Each person was given an opportunity to see their neighbour in a new light. New memories were made, a testament to the joy and dimension that music and poetry can add to our lives at any age.
Affirmation of individuality: The opportunity to share unique stories and memories through poetry and song provided an acknowledgement for participants of their continued importance as nuanced, creative individuals, reminding them, as Lani O’Hanlon put it, ‘of who they were and are’.
Transformed Atmosphere: The Van arriving with its stage, lights and bunting created a sense of occasion and festivity, and feedback from staff and residents was that the mood had been palpably lifted. Staff noted that even residents who often withdrew from activities engaged with the facilitators and performances.
More workshop time was needed for artists to build trust and a strong rapport with participants;
Debrief support for the facilitators was necessary, as this work, while rewarding, can be very emotionally taxing.
Documentation and Dissemination
A detailed report on the project was compiled at its conclusion, which featured a project summary, photographs, a midway report by our Project Manager, an evaluation by arts and health professional Joe Brennan, debrief notes from our artist facilitators, feedback quotes from location staff and facilitators, as well as our own qualitative analysis of the project. This report also included photos and videos taken during both the workshops and performances.
Outcomes were also discussed at the Zoom seminar which marked the conclusion of the project. This was recorded and made available on the Festival in a Van YouTube page and website.
Waterford Healing Arts Poetry Ireland
Date of Publication
April and May 2023
Festival in a Van
The Arts Council, Waterford County Council, Wexford County Council, Poetry Ireland
Billy Roche, Karen Nolan, Lani O’Hanlon, Lee Grace, Liam Merriman, Margaret Galvin