CREATING COMMUNITY AND ENJOYING LIFE: THE STORY OF FIONNATHAN PRODUCTIONS

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Jonathan and Fionn Angus write on how an unfortunate break from school led to an appearance on RTÉ’s Saturday Night Show and so much more.

Jonathan and Fionn are father and son from county Clare. As part of home schooling for 4 months when Fionn was unable to attend his local school he and his father undertook a wildlife project played Irish music, and busked on the street. But, the best part of his home school was when Fionn took part in a T.V. programme Saturday Night Live. These 3 pages tell their story and how they now call themselves Fionnathan Production – a business in art, music and video making that intends to change the world.

We’d like to tell you about Fionnathan Productions, an arts collaborative and video-making enterprise that intends to change the world. First, we’ll tell you how it started, then why we are doing it, then what we are hoping to do next.

How Fionnathan started

To introduce ourselves, Fionnathan comes from Fionn and Jonathan. Fionn is a young man who completed secondary school this year in County Clare, and Jonathan is his father. The two of us decided to set up this project when we met with adverse circumstances. The mainstream secondary school had made a decision to exclude Fionn halfway through his first year of the Leaving Cert Applied programme. They were wrong to do this, and we proved as much, winning an appeal to have him reinstated. But the process took four months, during which his mother and father (both trained teachers) home-schooled him. His mother taught the core subjects, which left his father the fun job: helping him to explore and develop what he loved. He has three main areas of interest:
1.  Ever since he was small, Fionn has nurtured an abiding interest in wildlife. He is fascinated by animals, and has an interest in agriculture, zoology, ecology, and conservation. He enjoys travelling—around Ireland and around the world. And like his father, Fionn loves to read books.
2.  Fionn plays the violin. Most often he plays Irish traditional music.
3.  Fionn is fascinated by movie and documentary film making. And, like a lot of his peers, he is mesmerised by the world of celebrity.

As a family, we have joined numerous nature and conservation groups, and enjoy going on guided walks and attending workshops. We heard about the White Tailed Sea Eagle reintroduction project this way. 100 young eagles were relocated from Norway and set free in Kerry. Through an amazing stroke of luck, the first pair of eagles to build a nest did so on an island just outside the harbour of Mountshannon, where we live. Along with many other community members and birdwatchers from farther afield, Fionn has spent many hours observing the first sea eaglets in Ireland in over 100 years. There is a page about Fionn’s involvement on the Mountshannon Eagles website, and Fionn’s thoughts on the tragic demise of one of the White Tailed Sea Eagles were read out on Clare FM, and shared widely on social media.

frntln2But Fionn’s interests extend beyond the aviary. We spent a week of this past July with the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group surveying from Donegal to Galway for bottlenose dolphins. On the yacht Celtic Mist (once owned by former Taoiseach Charles Haughey) we were led by Marine Biologist Dr Simon Berrow in the use of towed hydrophone and photo-id visual techniques, as well as biopsy sampling of all the groups we encountered. We surveyed inshore waters during the day and went ashore on islands in the evening, inviting people onboard to discuss dolphin conservation. This survey also supported the development of cetacean recording in the area, by promoting IWDG recording schemes.

Fionn is a diligent student, and he has become knowledgeable about all types of animals. Once he had memorised the taxonomical orders of mammals, we decided to prepare a presentation for school children on Ireland’s mammals. With the help of a slide show, Fionn talks to the children and answers their questions. We next developed talks on the return of the sea eagle to Ireland, and on studying whales and dolphins. Fionnathan are recognised by the Heritage Council as ‘Heritage Experts’, and we joined the Heritage in Schools Programme Panel. In fact, Fionn is Ireland’s youngest Heritage Expert.

Neither a small stammer nor the fear of public speaking has prevented Fionn and Jonathan from taking up subsequent offers to give talks to various groups. At Fota Wildlife Park, Fionn joined the mayor of Cork on the podium to launch the Tour de Munster. We were then invited to present talks on effective community inclusion and participation at Down Syndrome Limerick’s AGM and at the International Initiative for Disability Leadership Exchange, hosted this last June in Dublin by Leap (a wonderful family leadership group). Through the latter we met people doing innovative and inspiring work in England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There were a number people interested in collaborating with us, so there might be some travelling in our future. And, during the final month of 2014, we are doing a short North American tour, speaking to audiences in Canada and the United States.

Perhaps it may surprise you that the son is the more accomplished of the two musically. Thanks to weekly individual lessons and (pretty much) daily practicing since the age of nine, Fionn has a strong and confident footing in traditional Irish music. Jonathan is working hard to catch up, and often accompanies him on the guitar. We love to perform publicly, at farmers’ markets and anywhere that groups of people gather. You may have heard us, as we’ve played over the past two years in twenty Irish cities, towns, and villages, plus two weddings (no funerals), one pub session, two talent shows, on six islands off the west coast, and on numerous farms—to serenade cows, horses and sheep. Recently, we have begun monthly charity busks, donating whatever money we collect to worthwhile groups.

In the summer of 2013, we interviewed eight people with Down Syndrome who live in County Clare. This project arose from the desire to give a group of people some insight into the lives of a small sample of this unique population (of which Fionn is one). The group for whom we made the video were the 120 cyclists in the Tour de Munster, all of whom had raised funds connected with the 4-day ride to benefit people with Down Syndrome.

We thought it would be great to ask people a single question. Fionn was the one who came up with the perfect question: ‘What do you love about your life?’ When we began to plan the project, we realised that we didn’t want to exclude people just because they couldn’t or wouldn’t speak on camera. So we came to the solution that, whatever the answer might be (sometimes voiced to us by a loved one of the interviewee), we would film the person doing that thing. The film was well received, and the next thing we knew, RTE was calling.

On RTÉ’s Saturday Night Show, Fionnathan were interviewed and performed music in October of 2013. When he was asked by the host, Brendan O’Connor, in front of a quarter million viewers at home, ‘How does it feel to have Down Syndrome?’, his reply was, ‘How does it feel to not have Down Syndrome?’ And Jonathan simply said that Fionn is more capable than him in many areas of life, that dividing society into ‘disabled’ and ‘abled’ people is usually unhelpful, and that we are all made ‘able’ through sharing in and contributing to society.

In the last few months, we have begun to contract with other organisations to collaborate on videos. In the spring of 2014 at the Inclusion Ireland AGM, Fionn interviewed Minister of State Kathleen Lynch and Pat Healy, National Director of Social Care for the HSE. During the summer we completed a promotional video for Down Syndrome Limerick, showing all the wonderful types of support they offer families and individuals. And in the early autumn we created a film for PossibilitiesPlus, featuring four people who are self-directing their supports through individualised funding. This video was premiered at the Merrion Hotel, with TDs in attendance.

frntln4We’ve even had a bit of time in front of the camera on a professional feature-length film. Fionn was invited to audition for one of the main roles in Glassland, a production financed by the Irish Film Board for international cinematic release. The casting director liked the way he read for the part, then called him back for a second reading with the director and lead actor. We were a bit disappointed to hear that they chose another young actor, but we didn’t give up. We asked if there was any other job we could do, and we both landed parts as incidental actors.

I don’t mean to suggest we’ve had nothing but successes since starting this project—there have also been plenty of Fionnathan Fails.
■  We lost out on any award in 2 of the 3 film festivals we have entered thus far.
■  We didn’t win the large role in ‘Glassland’
■  We weren’t allowed to participate on the crew of ‘Before the Boat’ (short film project) because of insurance issues.
■  We haven’t got to interview Christy Moore or Liam Neeson or Michael D. Higgins (yet)
■  We didn’t get to join One Direction.

So, there have been plenty of letdowns. We just find that optimism seems to be the best default position, and we keep looking positively toward what is coming next around the corner.

Why Fionnathan?

Busking is a very public activity, and you meet all kinds of fascinating people. Although it’s wonderful when people introduce themselves as someone with a family member who has Down Syndrome, it’s just as wonderful when this aspect is overlooked. One of my favourite moments was when a woman came up as we were busking, and she said to Fionn, ‘I just wanted to tell you how brilliantly you play, given the fact that you are left handed.’

Primarily, we are doing this to win for Fionn a good life, whatever that will prove to be. Along the way, we may learn some things that could benefit others on their journey to find a good life, and we’re happy to share what we learn.
When asked about Fionathan Productions and what he liked about it, Fionn answered, ‘I really love this guy beside me and he really backs me up and I am so proud to be his son.’ So, for the time being, we’re both happy to see where this journey takes us. This project may have a limited shelf life. The need to allow space in Fionn’s life for more long-term relationships to develop with same-age peers is a very important one. As a family, we’ve applied for funding from the HSE for Fionn’s individual plan, and hope to hire a young lad or two to help him navigate more peer-based social situations. He attended a youth film school during the summer, without a designated supporter, and that was mostly successful.

Fionnathan exists to have fun and change the world, to trouble your understanding of ability, to reveal superstars in our midst, and to prove that, in fact, we are the people we’ve been waiting for.

We share our stories of audacious creativity and abiding optimism with the masses, opening one heart at a time. Through music, live presentations, videos and visual arts, we seek to collaborate with diverse people who are passionate about what they do. We playfully engage with the world of celebrity and pop culture. And we are seriously into social justice and conserving natural habitats.
Three goals:
1.  to win for Fionn an excellent life, while documenting and sharing the journey,
2.  to inspire and support other people in achieving their own dreams, and
3.  to shift the societal paradigm, so that unique and alternately-gifted people are celebrated.

Through example, we show that the best way to support one another is in loving interest: that’s how each one of us shines.

What Next?

As for the future, we plan to do multiple collaborative projects to highlight the strengths of uniquely-abled people. We plan to record a CD, collaborating with multiple musicians, to have an art exhibition, and to publish a book telling the story of Fionnathan. And speaking of art projects, we’ve just discovered the Fab Lab in Limerick, where we can collaborate on laser cutting and 3D printed sculptures. We are working on ‘What Do You Love? The Celebrity Edition’. While completing the first version, we realised that it would be fascinating to ask this question of other interesting people. We started with Sean Kelly, one of Ireland’s most famous and successful athletes. Next were two talented Irish musicians, Ryan Sheridan and Damien Dempsey. Then, we asked Fionn’s dentist, Michael Cronin. We then brought our question to Conor Newman, archaeologist and Head of the Irish Heritage Council. Doug Allan, BBC wildlife photographer, was generous with his time and thoughts. This was our first interview where Fionn followed up with other questions. World-renowned Irish traditional violinist Martin Hayes even played us a few tunes between questions.

Other interviews or meetings we have been fortunate enough to have over the last year include actors John Hurt, Jack Reynor, Cillian Murphy, Jared Harris, Jamie Harris, Will Poulter, Paul Reid, Donal Gleeson, and Gabriel Byrne; film producers Juliette Bonass and Noel Pearson; film directors Vivian Dick and Gerard Barrett; BBC wildlife presenter Gordon Buchanan; horse trainer Buck Buchanan; musicians John Sheahan, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Sam Amidon, and Bill Frisell; US poet laureate Billy Collins; French economist Thomas Picketty; and President Michael D. Higgins. It’s been a busy year.

As well as continuing to give presentations sharing our knowledge and love of wildlife and music to school children, we will continue to share our story with family-based advocates, college students and forward-thinking service professionals and policy makers, both around Ireland and abroad. We have lots of ideas for short film projects and a number of serial themes for web or TV. One that we are in preparation for is called ‘Fionn Goes to Work’, where we will interview and spend the day working with individuals in many different occupations, to highlight the many kinds of work that people engage in, and to help Fionn make a more informed choice about the type of work he wants to strive for. We already have a soapmaker, a farmer, a teacher, and a wildlife TV presenter on board. Exciting stuff. If you have ideas, or would like to offer to host Fionn for a day of interesting work, let us know.

And, if you’d like to stay informed and connected with our future exploits, follow us on Facebook, Youtube or Twitter; go to our website (search for Fionnathan, in each case); or drop us a line at Fionnathan.Productions@gmail.com

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