B-Side the Leeside: Loudest Whisper on retelling 'The Children of Lir'

Loudest Whisper: L - R John A (Aherne), Brian O'Reilly, Paud O'Reilly and Bunny (Brendan) Neligan.
Loudest Whisper: L - R  John A (Aherne), Brian O'Reilly, Paud O'Reilly and Bunny (Brendan) Neligan.

Every week, 'B-Side the Leeside' takes a look at music and records that have made an impact on Cork, and the cultural lives of its people.

From Rory Gallagher's breakout blues and Nun Attax' post-punk progression, to Fish Go Deep's trailblazing house sets and post-genre innovators like Talos and O Emperor, you can check out the entire series here.

This week, Ed Power recounts the tale of Fermoy’s rock opera from 1973.

In the spring of 1974, Brian O’Reilly and a 35-piece choir squeezed into a cramped studio near St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. The choir was supposed to be 70-strong. But Trend Studios, just off Baggot Street, was not large enough to accommodate them all.

It was necessary to divide the ensemble in two and to have each half in to sing over consecutive weekends.

This was one of many surreal moments for O’Reilly that year. By day a lab technician at the Teagasc Moorepark Food Research Centre in Fermoy he had a not-so-secret second life. As hinted at by his long hair and drooping moustache, O’Reilly was leader of Irish progressive rock ensemble Loudest Whisper.

And he was riding a wave, having in January 1973 debuted to resounding acclaim new rock opera, The Children of Lir, in his native County Cork. A retelling of the ancient Irish folk tale, O’Reilly’s Lir ticked all the prog boxes. There were plaintive acoustic parts, psychedelic guitar solos, a speaking role for a man dressed as a druid. And great swirling vocal sections, delivered by the aforementioned choir.

“The stage production was covered in an RTÉ arts programme [Tangents],” O’Reilly recalls.

“Polydor Records picked up on it, and told us they wanted us to make an album. We all had day jobs, so we had to trek up and down to Dublin.”

Ireland was home to a respectable prog circuit, headed by outfits such as Mellow Candle, Peggy’s Leg and Dr Strangely Strange. However, the scene was largely Dublin-centic. Certainly, it had never witnessed anything as ambitious or blockbusting as the Children of Lir O’Reilly re-cast this story of humans turned to swans as a head-tripping odyssey. There were elements of early Pink Floyd and the Lovin’ Spoonful, the novels of Michael Moorcock and the artwork of Jim FitzPatrick. But along with free-wheeling folk and Great Gig in Sky-esque solos, Children of Lir also communicated the tragic essence of the myth of the family whose lives are stolen by dark sorcery.

Over a gruelling summer, the LP took shape. It captured the essence of the musical, while also very much its own creature. Yet, because it was so far outside the mainstream, it initially came and went without a trace, taking flight and disappearing over the horizon like a lonely bird winging towards an uncertain future As with the Children of Lir themselves, however, time was to prove its redemption. Over the years the record would become a cult item, with collectors paying upwards of £500 for a vinyl edition (a 2006 Abbey Road 180g remastering would likewise sell out). Here is the story of how it came to be.

EARLY DAYS

Loudest Whisper began life in the early Sixties as beat group Wizard, led by O’Reilly. Lacking amplifiers or electric instruments, they initially performed acoustically. This didn’t prevent them making as loud a racket as possible Having finally plugged in, by the mid-Sixties they were playing local clubs and dances around Fermoy.

As was the vogue at the time, their repertoire consisted largely of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Spencer Davis Group. However, O’Reilly was becoming drawn to the blues and psychedelic scene. The addition of O’Reilly’s brother Paud as guitarist and Brendan “Bunny” Nelligan as vocalist accelerated their shift from pop. They changed their name to Loudest Whisper, feeling it captured the duality of a group influenced equally by folk and by heavy psychedelic rock.

GROWING HYPE

O’Reilly’s ambitions were soon leaving behind the limitations of a three-minute song. “Celtic mythology is so rich and powerful,” he says. “I read the Children of Lir and thought, ‘this thing is crying out’ [to be made into a concept record]. I read all the versions and stuck to the story as rigidly as possible.”

Children of Lir, the stage production, had its debut in January 7 1973 at the Fermoy Community Youth Centre, which had been recently converted from the Palace Theatre and Ballroom (where playwright Harold Pinter had in his youth trod the boards as a Shakespearean actor). “In the stage version, two third of it is about what happens before the children are turned into swans,” says O’Reilly. “You’ve got the whole background, the power struggle with the Tuatha Dé Danann.”

Recording the Children of Lir With Polydor on board, O’Reilly and the band went into the studio early in 1974. Guitarist and vocalist Ron Kavanagh had by then left but they had a new singer in Geraldine Dorgan – “the Joan Baez of Ireland” says O’Reilly. In the producer’s chair was Leo O’Kelly, of fellow proggers Tir na nÓg. Because of the limitations of the vinyl format, the druid narration had to go. Otherwise the record would have been far too long. This aspect of the story was instead relayed via a written insert. Still, feelings about the project were positive and Polydor Ireland were enthusiastic. “Irish Polydor was a curious label in itself, releasing a seemingly endless string of obscure albums that never got an airing anywhere else in the world,” says Richard Falk, who has championed Loudest Whisper in the pages of Record Collector magazine and is an authority on Seventies prog and folk.

“In some ways, it resembled an Irish equivalent of Vertigo, but whereas Vertigo focused on jazz-rock and progressive rock, Polydor Ireland concentrated on folk and sometimes MOR.

“Their most collectable act other than Loudest Whisper was Mac Murrough, whose albums are sublime, but much of their other output was not of the same quality.”

THE AFTERMATH

For Children of Lir to achieve liftoff , it would have to be released in the UK. The difficulty was that Irish culture was not held in high regard in Britain at the time. A conceptual retelling of a Celtic myth was never going to be embraced.

“Polydor in Ireland were delighted with the whole concept,” says O’Reilly.

“They presented it to Polydor England, however, and they were like ‘What’s all this — children and what have you?’ They didn’t pick up and then enthusiasm in Ireland melted away.”

Richard Falk says the UK exec’s reaction was quite odd.

“Polydor UK had only recently released Bells, Boots and Shambles by Spirogyra, which was also progressive folk and a good deal less commercial than The Children of Lir. Today Bells, Boots and Shambles is the rarer and more expensive of the two albums, indicating that it must have sold dismally and confirming that signing with the UK’s much larger branch of Polydor was no guarantee of success.”

O’Reilly, however, had the final chuckle. The Children of Lir became a cult favourite and for the past several years he has been reprising the musical in Ireland and also in Germany and in Spain, where he has a holiday home outside 20km outside Valencia. A subject that was dismissed in Seventies’ Britain as childish and trite has been embraced by 21st century Europe.

“When we got the original album we gave them out like frisbees,” laughs O’Reilly. “Over the years it became a collector’s item. And I’d been giving them away. I still have one under my bed. Various collectors have been on to me about it over the years. We’ve had a fantastic journey. We did a gig in Valencia recently and a guy turned up and he had an original copy that he wanted signed. It’s amazing how it keeps popping up.”

Where are they now?

Paud O’Reilly and Brian O'Reilly of Loudest Whisper.
Paud O’Reilly and Brian O'Reilly of Loudest Whisper.

“Bunny” Nelligan: Bunny played drums and sang with local bands after leaving Loudest Whisper. A painter by trade, he is now semi-retired.

Geraldine Dorgan: After Loudest Whisper, she sang at church weddings and funerals. Retired from singing a number of years ago and lives with her husband in Kilworth.

Ron Kavanagh: Pursued asuccessful career in the trad and folk scene and now shares his timebetween London and Fermoy.

Paud O’Reilly: A teacher, took early retirement a number of years ago allowing him more time for Loudest Whisper projects.

Brian O’Reilly: Worked as a lab technician in Moorepark from 1966to 1988 and then as a producer /engineer/arranger at his studio inFermoy. “Spain is now my base where I can work uninterrupted in my studio here and still play acertain amount of gigs withLoudest Whisper.”

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