Book review: Will we be Brilliant or What?

ANY song book that has its introduction written by legendary balladeer Christy Moore is surely indicative of the value of its contents.

Book review: Will we be Brilliant or What?

Christy describes the songs as ‘a precious part’ of his own repertoire. Will we be Brilliant or What? is a not only a collection of many of John Spillane’s best loved songs, but also the inspirations that led to their creation.

It is an assortment of childhood and musical memories, and overall a massive tribute to his native city, Cork.

I already thought that John was brilliant, of course, because I’d recently seen him perform, not in his usual venues such as the Cork Opera House with a thousand other souls, or in Brisbane where he sang with a backing of a 150-piece choir, but in what is arguably the smallest and most westerly venue in Ireland, the Lehanmore Community Centre at the tip of the Beara Peninsula. There were 30 of us in the audience.

Just as his performances find him in the far flung corners of Ireland, John manages to reach out to everyone in the book, addressing us as ‘Gentle Readers’. The song topics range from supermarkets to suicide, from madness to Orca whales.

There’s a song for every mood; he even claims to have invented a new style of music called ‘sean nós blues’, a fusion of Gaelic traditional singing and African rock-n-roll blues.

He tells us that the cherry tree that inspired his ‘Cherry Tree’ song is at the Wilton Roundabout; in fact, this is a very ‘Cork book’, his school days in the Mardyke, his swims in the River Lee , and not forgetting those ‘Magic Nights in the Lobby Bar’ all providing inspiration and material for his song writing.

‘Princes Street’ one of his biggest hits, was the birthplace of his father. He believes that the bells of St Finbarr’s cathedral somehow infiltrated his consciousness, eventually complementing his song writing.

Besides the words for a few songs (anyone up for a bar of Molly Bawn O’Leary from the County Tipperary), the one thing you take from this book is John’s extreme sense of place. I embrace wholeheartedly his take on the ‘accent wars’ and his love of the ‘glorious regional accent’.

He describes loving the performances of Christy Moore and Juliet Turner as they draw on their own regional accents of Kildare and Tyrone to enhance his songs.

John Spillane stands as a reminder to the nation, where an alarmingly large proportion of Irish young people now speak in American accents, that a sense of identity is something that perhaps is being lost to many.

John describes music as therapeutic, relaxing, and engaging. He tells us ‘it takes you on journeys’.

Actually, reading the book is like accompanying John on a winding journey; leaving his job in the bank to become a full-time musician; teaching music in Cork prison where he wrote ‘When you and I were true’; his time in Cork bands The Stargazers and Nomos before he went solo; his encounters and friendships with so many in the Irish music industry, Noel Brazil the brilliant songwriter, Declan Sinnott, Brian Kennedy, Peadar O’Riada, and Sinead Lohan to name a few.

He takes us down the route of folklore and mythology, his love of the Irish language, and his interest and research into the ancient tradition of ballads in Ireland, which is apparent in his endeavours during the popular TG4 series Spillane an Fánaí, where he wandered in a stream of musical creatively from town to town. He even throws in a little song writing workshop to boot.

It is one thing to be a writer, but to have the combined talents of both muse and musician is truly a gift.

After writing more than 200 songs and now an opera, John feels he’s starting to get the hang of it. In his words it is beautiful stuff, this music.

Brilliant or what!

Will we be Brilliant or What?

John Spillane

Collins Press, €16.99

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