Ciara O’Neill is an NHS frontline worker who sings to the sky
A Ciara O’Neill tune is likely to bring you emotion, a great voice and a story that’s well told. She comes from Portadown and lives in south Belfast, but Ciara’s reputation is international.
She’s been active in Europe and has fans in Germany and Belgium. The songwriter has also spent quality time in Nashville and has been a regular presence at the famous Bluebird Cafe. She has worked with high-grade song publishers and writers in Music City.
Ciara had planned to continue along that path in 2020, but instead she was putting on robes and aprons, masks, visors and gloves.
She was on the NHS frontline, focusing on her other profession as a hospital radiographer in Belfast. Unfortunately, the pressure is not easing just yet.
“We’re very hands-on. We’ve been working with Covid patients throughout this and it’s been very busy. Obviously, people are still going to be needing X-rays and scans throughout the pandemic, so we’ve been very busy. It’s full PPE — the whole works — and it’s so warm at the minute as well.”
She came to the realisation that a third album was going to come later, at a time when her focus was more attuned. But the artist still needed to use her voice and so a collection of songs emerged. The lyrics were based around nature and resilience and Ciara was writing about better days ahead.
The first of these songs has just been aired. The title is Le Soleil and it follows the rise and fall of the sun and the motion of the sea. There are jazz chords and some French lyrics and a deal of optimism that floats against the current.
“I wrote Le Soleil last year,” she says, “and I had been doing a lot of sea swimming. I had been trying to get out into nature as much as possible. I wanted to write something hopeful, about changing tides and changing seasons. The routine of nature made me realise that the world will get back to normal, eventually. It was a song to reaffirm that there is hope there. And a song with the title Le Soleil had to be a bright, summery song.”
But while the song has a lightness, it does not ignore the current issues. By way of explanation she quotes some of the words:
There are none so blind as those who can’t feel
All of the darkness all of the darkness and all of the pain
To know joy, you have to know fear.
Ciara is quietly making her point in the song. She rebukes the trolls and the deniers. The sunrise will happen in spite of them.
“In order to feel the outside of this — to feel the joy and hope and all of that — you have to get to that really dark bottom rung of the ladder. To feel good again.”
Meantime, there’s a shortage of empathy in some places. Ciara doesn’t want to lecture us, but we get the message.
“We’ve all collectively been in this trauma, with this Covid. I don’t wanna get into the whole thing, but there’s a lot of people that are very into conspiracy theories and all that. I think we have to be in all this together and work together. Just do what we can to protect the world and to get back to normal.”
Ciara plans to release an EP later this year, sustaining her fascination with the elements and the heavenly bodies.
She had actually written one of the songs, La Lune, for a special event at the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn in November 2019, celebrating the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
She had been playing the event with Anthony Toner, Matt McGinn and John McCullough. The song was about getting back home, away from the dark side.
The song had a European flavour, like an old Parisian chanson, and it was the first time that French lines appeared in her songbook. Is Ciara adept at the language?
“My French is not great,” she laughs. “It’s GCSE-level. I wanted the theme to go across the three songs. So, I’ve got ‘la lune voit tout’ — the moon sees everything. And then ‘le soleil se leve toujours’ — the sun always rises.
“There was a bit of Google Translate, I have to say. To try and get the right lyrics and rhythmically be correct. So, there was a little bit of work. And on the third song it goes, ‘l’etoile, l’etoile, suivez l’etoile’. Follow the star.”
So, Ciara is guided by the bright side and she carries out the other job with due diligence.
“It’s been flat-out so far. It just all seems to be ramping up again. You kind of think that things are getting back to normal. But the hospitals are just a different story. The fourth surge is just starting now.” She sighs. “Yeah. It don’t know when it’s gonna end.”
Hopefully, the music will accompany us to a better place. It’s a thought that sustains Ciara.
“Playing it by ear is the main thing. I’ve got the EP coming out in late 2021. That will give me something to focus on and I’ll probably do a few gigs.
“And then next year, hopefully, I’ll get started on the third album and maybe start playing again and getting out a bit more. It all just depends on life and restrictions.”