New chapter for hard-working John Spillane

With a new book, an Irish opera on the way and the re-release of his Irish Songs album, John Spillane is busier than ever, writes Colette Sheridan.
New chapter for hard-working John Spillane

THE tribal wars between the rockers, the folkies and the punks makes for entertaining reading in Cork balladeer, John Spillane’s newly published book, Will we be Brilliant or What?: Songs and Stories.

Spillane, a youthful looking 55-year-old, has put together the lyrics of his songs and their inspiration, proving that as well as being a talented lyricist, he can write fluid prose. Drinking coffee in a Cork city bar, Spillane recalls the glory days of the Cork music scene in the early 1980s.

“Musician, Johnny Campbell, organised soccer matches between three teams; the folkies, the rockers and the punks. We played in St Michael’s in Blackrock. I was a rocker at first in a band called Sabre. There were bands such as Asylum, Hot Guitars, South Paw, and Small Change who’d play at Sir Henrys.

In the Phoenix bar, interestingly, the punks used to be upstairs and the folkie crowd were downstairs. The punk bands were Nun Attax, Five Go Down to the Sea, Microdisney, Mean Features and Urban Blitz.

And there was Mick the punk. Downstairs, you had Jimmy Crowley and Stokers Lodge, Jackie Daly, Seamus Creagh, the Lee Valley String Band, Noel Shine, Colm Murphy and Herring.”

In terms of soccer skill, the rockers and the folkies were quite close,” but the punks were a disgrace. They were drinking cans on the pitch and smoking spliffs. So they weren’t taking the game seriously and were disorganised. They were the maddest crowd, who played a lot at the Arcadia. The genius, of course, was Finbar Donnelly who was larger than life and an inspiring figure.”

Spillane, whose album, Irish Songs We Learned at School, Ar Ais Arís!, is re-released in November, soon moved to the folkies.

Looking back, Spillane says that he and his buddies in rock bands, were kind of old wave when the new wave came along. “We were out of fashion before we even started. But I did like Donnelly’ s songs a lot.”

Taking up a permanent pensionable job in a bank was very un-rock’n’roll, but Spillane didn’t want to go to college (he later did a degree in English and Irish as a mature student) and the thing to do in his day, if not heading for third level education, was to apply for the civil service, the ESB and the bank. But Spillane only lasted in the bank for two years.

Music has been good for Spillane although he didn’t get his big break until he was 40 when he was signed to the now defunct EMI Records. “The same label as the Beatles,” says Spillane, proudly.

Over the last 33 years, the Wilton-reared artiste has written hundreds of songs, some of which have been performed by the likes of Christy Moore, Sharon Shannon and Mary Black. Moore, who wrote the foreword for Spillane’s book, says: “Singers need songs and songwriters need singers... John Spillane excels in both fields.”

Spillane, ever productive, is now turning his hand to opera — as Gaeilge. He is developing an opera called The Legend of the Lough with Corcadorca which they are hoping to perform on location at the Lough in Cork for the 2018 Cork Midsummer Festival.

It’s based on a myth published in 1820 by a Cork character, Thomas Crofton Croker. “He brought out a book called Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. He was big in London and a lot of his work was translated into German by the brothers Grimm.”

Set in ancient Ireland, the opera is mostly in Irish, but there will be a narrator who’ll translate the narrative in English. Spillane, who presents programmes on TG4 and Radio na Gaeltachta, describes himself as an Irishian. “I’ve spent a lot of time in west Kerry and Ballyvourney learning Irish. I was learning Irish before it was popular or profitable.”

But he says that the language is badly taught at schools. “I think there’s a national trauma about Irish. A lot of people feel guilt and shame around the Irish language. People are not relaxed about it at all.”

For Spillane, the accent in which a singer sings is important. “When I was doing rock’n’roll, I felt like a phoney really. For a lot of singers, singing in their own accent is kind of alien to them. They copy how American rock’n’roll is sung. Even in Irish ballads, there’s a kind of Dublin accent. And you often find choirs singing in a snobby British accent.”

Spillane is true to himself, singing in his soft Cork accent. He has become the unofficial singing bard of Munster, composing a lot of ‘asked-for’ songs. These include ‘The Dunne’s Store’s Girl’, in response to a dare from Clare Cogan, an employee of the chain, to ‘The Ballad of Patrick Murphy’.

Spillane, centre, with Johnny Murphy and Chris Ahern in The Stargazers in 1985.
Spillane, centre, with Johnny Murphy and Chris Ahern in The Stargazers in 1985.

Murphy was a fisherman and father-of-seven based in Passage West (where Spillane lives). He was shot by a water bailiff. Spillane’s neighbour, Walty Murphy, a grandson of Patrick Murphy, asked him to write a song about his grandfather for the 100th anniversary of his tragic death in 2011.

Christy Moore has recorded his version of the song on his latest album, Lily. “Christy has been a huge positive benefit to my life. He has recorded five of my songs and there’s fierce excitement when he does one.”

Of all his material, Spillane’s favourite song is ‘All The Ways You Wander’, which was inspired by his daughter, Leslie, now aged 28. He started it when she was two and finished it when she was aged six.

Spillane has come a long way from the heady days of Sir Henrys and the Phoenix bar. He has found his niche and excelled at it.

Irish Songs We Learned At School was the biggest selling Irish album of 2008. Universal Music Ireland is reissuing this album of modern Irish classics. And for the 19th year in a row, Spillane’s Christmas concert takes place at the Everyman on December 18.

Like we said, a busy man indeed.

Will we be Brilliant or What? is out now via Collins Press. The album, Irish Songs We Learned At School, Ar Ais Arís!, will be released on November 4

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