Limerick's Irish Chamber Orchestra chair hits high notes

Fintan Walsh


Fintan Walsh

Honorary Doctorate recipient and Irish Chamber Orchestra chair Michael Buckley with Le Chéile pupils Picture: Michael Cowhey

Honorary Doctorate recipient and Irish Chamber Orchestra chair Michael Buckley with Le Chéile pupils Picture: Michael Cowhey

WHEN MICHAEL Buckley took over the reins as chairperson of the Irish Chamber Orchestra in 2008, the arts world was preparing for a score of widespread cuts.

The tone of the recessionary times was that, in order to survive, arts groups must recoil and curtail activity. But the ambitious businessman wanted to sing a different tune.

Instead of pulling back and waiting for the recession to roll over, Michael looked to overseas opportunities with the intention of expanding the UL-based group into Europe. And now, reflecting on a prosperous 10 years, Michael can say that he led the ICO to becoming one of the most creative small orchestras on the continent, having performed 136 times in 49 venues since 2012.

The culmination of this notable success was seen in February, when the ICO made its debut at the prestigious Vienna Konzerthaus, attracting an audience of 3,200 over two evenings.

The second strand of Michael’s efforts to tackle the economic downturn was to spearhead the ICO’s community engagement programme, primarily through its Sing Out With Strings initiative.

Since it began in 2008, up to 700 children in disadvantaged areas in the city have seen massive personal development as a result of music education. And costing €180,000 a year, Michael has been able to secure €1.2m to date through a mix of public and private investments.

It is for these efforts that the ICO chief was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by UL this Tuesday evening. Congratulating Mr Buckley, UL president, Prof Des Fitzgerald said that he had made “unique and powerful” contributions to the field of arts.

On the morning of his big day, Michael looked back over the 10 years at Le Chéile national school, one of the many participating Sing Out With Strings bases. Children could be heard playing in the schoolyard, as he started to reminisce.

“It is really a great honour for the organisation. I think it’s well due in terms of what the Chamber Orchestra has done over the last 10 years.”

After studying at Maynooth, Michael, 72, started working at the Department of Finance in 1967, marking the start of a crescendo of success stories. After developing the International Financial Services Centre in 1987, Michael joined AIB where he played a leading role in internationalising the bank. 

He acted as CEO of energy and distribution group DCC, retiring in 2005, the same year he joined the ICO board.

Like most Irish people, he says, he was “always mad about music”. 

He immediately saw that the ICO was “a tremendous bunch of musicians” with great personality and an innate ability to engage with a variety of conductors. When Regeneration star-ted in 2008, he felt it was the orchestra’s duty to be involved with these communities.

“I am passionate about giving kids, from wherever they start, an opportunity to develop,” he explains. And from there, the ICO built its community engagement initiatives.

Two key figures in this are Irish World Academy lecturer Dr Kathleen Turner, who has been involved in the Sing Out With Strings programme from its embryonic stages, and Kathrine Barnecutt, the ICO’s education manager.

Around 680 children, aged four to 12, from St Mary’s national school and Le Chéile national school have participated in the programme, the aim of which is develop personal skills and qualities while learning an orchestral instrument.

“And we have managed to follow a whole bunch of children, from junior infants up to 6th class, and now we are following them through their secondary career,” says Michael, as it has expanded to Colaiste Nano Nagle and Thomond College.

And over the past 12 months, a large contingent of these young musicians have completed Royal Irish Academy of Music exams, each receiving honours and distinctions.

As the bell rings to end the short break, a reverb of strings can be heard from the school halla. More than a dozen Le Chéile pupils used their break time to form a mini orchestra, made up of violas, violins, cellos and double bass.

In the midst of the silence after performing an opus, Kathrine says that new instruments have arrived thanks to Arts Council funding.

But securing the money is “hard work”, Michael admits, and that he would hope more Limerick businesses would become supporters in the future.

“A fair amount of our support come from outside the Mid-West area, and I think this is a gem of an organisation that any region should be proud to have,” he explains. 

Kathrine says that she has seen the young artists acquire a “great, expressive quality” and are able to arrange their own pieces. “If we can keep this running and expand it, and who knows where they are going to be. Everyday I am blown away by what comes out of these schools,” she enthuses. 

When some of the young musicians are at ease with their bows, I ask them what they make of the programme.

One boy chirps: “It’s really fun. I want to be a musician, and that’s what I want to be when I grow up.”

Dr Turner works with this collective of rising talent. She says that the children, parents and teachers have had a “massive impact” on her life. “When I was asking one of the kids how they could describe Sing Out With Strings, the words they were using were things like: ‘We are skilled’ and they could describe all the different things that they could do. They talked about being valued and valuable. And they are important.”

Kathleen says that Michael has been “an incredible support” to the orchestra and its community projects. At the end of this month, Michael hands over his chairmanship to festival director Aibhlín McCrann.

“She will influence things in a different way, and I think she will be absolutely terrific,” he says, adding that he will continue to work with the ICO. 

And reflecting on Michael’s charisma and leadership through the years, Kathrine describes him as a “real doer”.

“Michael has great ideas and he does them. When Michael is around, things happen.”