Monica McGuigan has released her first solo album.
Derry's Roma Downey is known worldwide for her starring role as the angel Monica in the hugely successful television series, Touched by an Angel. Now, the city's real-life Monica is in 'seventh heaven' after her lifetime dream has become a reality. Popular local singer, Monica McGuigan, was devastated by the death of her husband, Martin, in 2013. Not only did she lose her best friend and her rock, she also lost the only person with whom she had shared a lifetime of music. Like all singers and musicians, the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in March last year brought a challenging time for Monica but she rose to the challenge and has a produced her first solo album which she has dedicated to Martin. Here, she looks back over her life and how music helped her cope with the passing of her beloved father - and how her life was changed forever eight years ago.
Monica is the youngest of four children of Jim and Eleanor McDonnell, who lived 'very happily and simply' in Inishowen Gardens in Creggan with her sisters Isobel and Teresa, and brother Jim.
As the youngest in the family, she was lucky to have the insight and guidance of her sisters and brother, but still travelled her own path when it came to music.
She recalled her earliest memories of singing.
She said: “I would have been aged about four when our next door neighbour, Caroline McGeady (now Caroline McDermott), played the piano in their living room in Inishowen Gardens on a Sunday morning and we sang Frere Jacques.
“I will always attribute my ability to hear a harmony to those early days.”
While attending Holy Child Primary School, Monica was fortunate to be taught by Una O’Somachain, a member of the renowned MacCafferty family.
Monica said: “Even at the tender age of six I knew I loved to sing. Purely by coincidence and, of course, completely unknown to either of us, I met my future husband, Martin, while in this class. Little did we know then that years later we would still be singing together.”
Music was always present in Monica's home.
“My father loved classical music, Isobel had Cilla on the transistor radio, Teresa had her Andy Williams and John Denver LPs and Jim introduced us all to Focus, Horslips and Dire Straits.
“My poor mother went with the flow and had no choice but to listen to them all.
“I was fascinated by the gramophone that my daddy had built and I could not understand how the full cast of the Sound Of Music, complete with a lonely goat herd, could fit into it. Daddy played the piano in his younger years and when my brother, Jim, began to take guitar lessons I would sneak into his room while he was out and use his notes to teach myself any songs he had carefully written with chords attached – no YouTube in 1977.”
Even moving to a new home in 'the country' didn't deter Monica from singing.
She said: “After the outbreak of the 'Troubles' at the latter end of the 1960s, my parents felt we would be better moving to 'the country,' so in 1972 we upped sticks from our beloved Creggan and we moved to Carnhill.
“The move gave me an opportunity to keep singing as I joined the Carnhill Folk Group in 1974. I met many talented musicians and singers in this group and we spent many happy summers in a small house in Malin Head. It was in this group that I met Paddy Nixon, the producer and advisor of the album From There To Here. Who could have foreseen in those early days that 45 years later we would still be musically linked. Being a part of a group of like-minded people who got joy from music helped me to cope with the passing of my father in 1980.
“The folk group also offered me the first experience of being involved in the recording process when we made an LP.”
Monica began attending Thornhill College in 1973, becoming a member of the school choir.
She recalled: “We competed in many of the annual Derry feiseanna. I also entered the Derry Feis with a small group of girls from school and, of course, with the Carnhill Folk Group but I never had the confidence to enter alone for the competition.”
Rather than leaving Derry for university after Thornhill, Monica went to the local Tech (now known as the North West Regional College) where she completed a HND course in business studies.
“It was during this time that I discovered I could get an extra income from singing in the Castle Bar on the corner of Castle Street and Waterloo Street, now Lizzie O’Farrells. Tony Toland (RIP) paid £10 for singers to entertain from 9pm to 11pm on Saturday nights so I hotfooted to Henderson Music where I purchased the book ‘101 songs for Easy Guitar’ and on the first evening I set the book in front of me and began on page one, America, A Horse With No Name, and I worked through until the two-hour set was completed.
“To my complete disbelief, Tony decided to offer me a residency on a Saturday - possibly more to do with the fact that my classmates and their friends would come along to support me. Those Saturday bookings introduced me to a whole new group of friends, a lot of whom I still keep in touch with.”
After the Tech, Monica began a new enterprise, Clean and Gleam, with her classmate and friend, Donna, all the while continuing to sing in local bars.
She recalled: “It was around this time that I became reacquainted with Martin, my husband and best friend. Purely by coincidence, he was a bass player, so it made sense to team up and work as a two-piece band and so Borderland, the band, came about.
“We played at many functions, weddings, birthdays and in the local bars and still to this day people will remind me that we provided the music and craic for their big events.”
Monica and Martin worked together for 27 years during which time they supported many charity events, always keen to give back to the people that so graciously supported them.
At home, they lived a quiet life, enjoying time with Martin’s two children, Ruairi and Janine.
“Martin was a butcher and I worked for BT until 1995 when I accepted voluntary redundancy which gave me the opportunity to assist my mammy who was slowly and devastatingly losing her sight to macular degeneration and her mobility due to osteoarthritis.
“At this time, music was so important to us both and we spent many nights learning new songs that gave us the freedom to play at any kind of event. We covered as many genres as an acoustic and bass guitar would allow, expanding our repertoire when we purchased a drum machine. “
Sadly, Monica's life changed for ever with the passing of Martin in 2013.
“It was a devastating time for all of us. On a personal level, not only had I lost my best friend, husband and my rock but I also lost the only person with whom I shared a lifetime of music. He knew my style, my lack of timing and my ability to forget which song I was singing while I was singing it, therefore, covering up for the mistakes that occurred when playing live gigs – we had so many happy times and so many laughs, both on and off stage, that life would never be the same again. 2013 changed everything.”
Despite her devastating loss, Monica made the decision to keep singing.
“While it was never going to be the same without Martin, I found a way to become a one-piece artist again. In 2015, I started work in Craig's on the Crescent Link as a 'deli' assistant and, at this time, I found a whole new career. I moved to Synge and Byrne in Foyleside and on to Doherty’s Bakery all the while still singing in the local bars and hotels. I moved to Doherty’s in Bishop Street in 2017 and I was known in that area for singing- it was like going home. The feeling of community in Bishop Street is inspiring.”
Then came 2020...
“Who could have foreseen the events that would unfold. We were denied access to our families and friends and hugging became a 'no-no.' March 2020 was when the music died – or did it? As I live alone, this became the loneliest and most isolating time of my life but I was fortunate to still have work in the Spar in Bishop Street when the bakery had closed for the first eight weeks of lockdown while I knew others were not so lucky.
“By day three of week one, I was devastated by the realisation that this lockdown was going to be a long haul, so I shook myself - as my mammy would have said - and I started putting a 'good morning' message on Facebook, more to let people know that they were not alone than anything else – the response was amazing.
“By the end of week one, I decided to record a song and post it on social media, again the response was phenomenal. At that time, many of the local artists started doing online gigs, lifting the spirits of people who were housebound, it has been a learning curve for all of us but we have survived, nothing will kill the music in Derry!
“In May of 2020, I got a call from Paddy Nixon, my friend of 45 years, and his wife, Monica, asking me if I would be interested in being a part of their newest project ‘Stories of the Land.’ This is the follow-up to their beautiful ‘Notes From Derry’ album, which was born from an idea by executive producer, Ronan McDonald.
“Wild horses would not have stopped me being a part of this project so, along with Monica Nixon, we became the Harmonicas, with me also recording a song for the album.
“Before taking part in this album, I suppose personal insecurity stopped me from going forward with a full album of my own but the encouragement of my closest family and friends and the invaluable input of Paddy, the album’s producer and musical director, I began to realise my lifetime’s dream to have my own album.
“I carefully considered each song as I wanted this album to mean something to a lot of people but each song reminds me of a person, time or place that I spent time with Martin and so I wanted to dedicate it to him. I was fortunate to be approached by Brian Foster, a long-time friend of Martin and myself, who asked if I would be interested in singing his song ‘My Derry Dream.’ The timing could not have been better as I was able to include this in the album. I cannot choose a favourite song as each one has its own memory for me and my hope is that each song can stand alone.
“I have been very lucky in life, I have an amazing family and in-laws who I love very much, albeit that we have lost many – my dad, my beautiful sister Teresa, my kind and gentle mother and the love of my life, Martin. I have a very good circle of friends who keep my feet firmly on the ground and I have a job in an area where people care about each other. I know the best musicians Derry has produced and I am honoured to have shared a stage and a lot of memories with most of them at some point in my life.”
Monica concluded: “The album ‘From There To Here’ is the realisation of a dream of a lifetime and I hope it brings musical pleasure far and wide.”
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