Belfast Telegraph

Belfast musician Keith Donald who played with Van Morrison tells of childhood abuse and alcoholism in one-man show

By Allan Preston

A renowned Belfast musician who has played with some of Ireland's greatest, including Van Morrison and Christy Moore, has spoken out about his struggles with addiction and being sexually abused by his headmistress as a child.

In a career spanning six decades, saxophone and clarinet player Keith Donald (72) is now telling his life story in New Bliss, a musical one-man show.

"The theme of it is my life in music and how alcoholism affected it. There are moments of hilarity in it, accidental or otherwise, and hope and redemption as well," he said.

In an interview with the Irish Times, the respected musician revealed that, unknown to his family, his headmistress abused him between the ages of five and eight.

"A child that age doesn't have the vocabulary to describe what's happened, and also feels a kind of terror that they have to get away from, and talking about it will bring it into the home - so I didn't," he explained.

Throwing himself into music from a young age to escape, he also turned to alcohol at just 11.

"I was an alcoholic from my first drink," he said.

"And I felt such a relief from chronic tension, that I didn't even know I had, that of course I was going to drink again."

Aged 18, he studied at Trinity College while earning money gigging five to six nights a week.

"I became an everyday drinker when I was maybe 20," he said.

His early musical career - where he played with the Green Beats and Real McCoy - saw him involved in two serious car crashes in 1968 and 1973, leaving him terrified of travel.

By 1981 he was back on the road as a member of Moving Hearts. Alcohol continued to dog his life, but at 46 he reached a turning point when his 12-year-old daughter Alex came to live with him, prompting him to seek therapy.

At 62 his psychiatrist took him back to his old school, where he was abused as a boy.

"As he brought me through what was happening in the school I became aware that every muscle in my body was shaking violently," he said.

"What (I) was dealing with were the emotions I was incapable of expressing back then."

Despite the damaging experience, he forgave his abuser.

"I had to say I forgave her many times before it took," he said.

"It's a kind of intellectual approach to it. I wouldn't have had the incredible life I've had in music if it weren't for her forcing me to find escape.

"Emotionally, I just have to say, well, nobody's perfect, and that was her fault, and she shouldn't have been left in charge of a school with no regulation at all and small children."

New Bliss will next be staged at Dublin's National Concert Hall on February 28.

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