Growing up on a dairy farm with the dream of being a singer, there was one particular practice audience that a young Emer Dunne called on regularly: the cows.

“There are a few pictures of me at home where I have the cows there in front of me and I’m singing to them with the guitar. It’s funny, they’d all flock over when you’d come out. Growing up on the farm influenced the music I heard, but it also influenced the space and the freedom that I had with it too.”

Folk singer Emer Dunne released her debut album before Christmas. \ Terry Conroy

Having released her debut album Hourglass before Christmas, the folk singer has certainly moved on from her bovine audience. As well as supporting the likes of Phil Coulter, The Chieftains and The Fureys, Emer has also travelled the world as a singer with an Irish dancing show, as well as going on to write productions to commemorate both World War I and the 1916 Rising.

From Mountmellick, Co Laois, Emer always helped out with jobs around the farm, but had more of an interest in singing, dancing and performing.

“On the farm itself, I wasn’t the best farmer, but I did a few things like paint gates, clean sheds and fill the milk jug. I wasn’t the one actually milking the cows. I’ve two older brothers, they were doing most of it and I was just dancing past in the way or singing,” she laughs.

That said, Emer’s three older siblings also play music and sing. However, she was the only one who chose to pursue music as a career. Her parents were always very supportive of her interest and from a young age, Emer was taking part in Irish dancing and music.

Being on stage as a child was a very positive experience for Emer. She took part in Scór na nÓg and Chomhaltas competitions, as well as being a member of Macra. Emer’s father is John Joe Dunne, a former Macra na Feirme national treasurer. Mountmellick Macra, the club Emer was a member of, ran (and still runs in the form of a pantomime) a talent show that incorporated both children and adults – a great opportunity for singing-mad Emer.

Singing all over the world

Interestingly though, it was through Irish dancing that Emer got her first real taste of singing to large audiences.

Emer’s dancing teacher in Mountmellick was involved in an Irish music and dance organisation that entertains tourist groups in Ireland and performs abroad.

Growing up on a dairy farm with the dream of being a singer, there was one particular practice audience that a young Emer Dunne called on regularly: the cows. \ Terry Conroy

“One night we had a tourist group from America in a hotel and we were performing for them,” Emer recalls.

“They were looking for someone to sing a song, so I offered to sing Red is the Rose. From there my dancing teacher took me all over the world with her dance troupe. I went to Rome when I was 10, then Italy, France, Belgium, Japan and more.

“I was in primary school for the first few, then I was in secondary school and into my early teens for the rest. I loved it and it was a surreal experience because we had a proper tour bus, a stage manager, a stage crew and a photographer. You were getting to learn how all that side of things works from a very young age.

“You were performing on stages for maybe 15,000 or 20,000 people each night. Then you’d come home and you’d go to school. It was almost like a dream-like experience, but I knew I loved it and I wanted to pursue it.”

When it came time to deciding what she wanted to do after school, music was obviously very much in the mix for Emer, but so was primary school teaching. In then end she decided to study primary education in St Pat’s, doing music as an arts subject alongside the degree.

Emer taught full time for a number of years, but now job shares, allowing her time to concentrate on her music career. Gigging and launching her music career was something she focused on in her spare time initially, before eventually job-sharing when she felt she had a foothold in the industry.

Impact of COVID-19

COVID-19, you don’t need me to tell you, wreaked havoc on the entertainment industry, and as you can imagine, put paid to Emer’s gigging for a while. Her debut album, produced by Bill Shanley, was in the works pre-COVID-19 and while the pandemic slowed the process down, they got there in the end. It was launched before Christmas by George Furey.

On COVID-19 and the entertainment industry, Emer is pragmatic: “COVID-19 was something that was out of all of our control and there have been other positives. I’ve learned a lot, especially about how releases work. Maybe I wouldn’t have had as much time if I was trying to tour at the same time, so there can be positives you don’t even see at the time.

“I couldn’t understand it at first, ‘How am I going to do this if I can’t go out and tour?’ Especially nowadays when that’s what musicians depend on. Still, I can’t wait to get going again now.”

For Emer, while being on stage and releasing records is an integral part of the job, there’s a further layer that brings her even more joy and that is having an impact on people’s lives.

“I got a lovely letter from a man in a nursing home. It was just addressed to ‘Emer Dunne, singer, Laois’. I thought it was brilliant, I kept the envelope here just to have it. He wrote about the journey he had during COVID, he found comfort in my music. I went to visit him. Talking with him made me realise, that is the real honour of it all, when you can touch people like that. It was lovely for both of us.”

And it all started playing for the cows.

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