A debut solo album at 80 - John Sheahan of The Dubliners

John Sheahan, the last surviving member of The Dubliners, talks music, coronavirus and haikus with Joe Dermody
A debut solo album at 80 - John Sheahan of The Dubliners
John Sheahan’s first solo album is Flirting Fiddles, and includes his classic Marino Waltz, as well as more recent material.

John Sheahan, the last surviving member of The Dubliners, talks music, coronavirus and haikus with Joe Dermody.

Sole survivor of The Dubliners, violinist John Sheahan is just as enthusiastic about music today as he was when he began his 50-year music career.

It's hard to explain, but John speaks with equal immediacy of all of his collaborators, living and dead alike.

He talks about founding bandmates Luke Kelly, Ronnie Drew, Ciarán Bourke and Barney McKenna like they're very much present in his thoughts.

Here he recounts with great vigour a series of anecdotes about the band's encounters with Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Sean Ó Faoláin, tales of Phil Coulter and The Pogues, and his own hope and ambition to get back on stage post-Covid-19 with a new generation of musical friends.

Something of a Renaissance man, as well as being a truly great composer and musician, John Sheahan is also a successful poet (check out his book 'Fiddle Dreams') and a talented woodcarver.

Now he has just released his debut album 'Flirting Fiddles' to great critical acclaim.

John wrote 15 of the 16 tracks on this remarkable CD.

Ranging in styles from classical to jazz and baroque, these compositions were the core of a celebration in Vicar Street last December of John's 80th birthday, an event attended by President Michael D Higgins and aired on TG4 of at 9:30pm on St Patrick's Day.

'Flirting Fiddles' is a celebration of a life lived and enjoyed to the maximum, from the orchestral version of the iconic 'Marino Waltz' to the infectious jazz tune 'Diminished Swing' with Richie Bukley on saxophone.

After the 19 studio albums by the Dubliners, with sales over 30 million, are you glad to finally release your own album?

John: “I contributed a number of my own pieces to The Dubliners over the years, and so I kept kind of procrastinating over releasing my own album.

"Then, last September, I finally went into a studio near my home in Dublin. They're all my own compositions; well, 15 of the 16 tunes are my own. It's done now and not before its time for me at 80, my debut. You'd never know, I could become a star yet.”

Where does the Marino Waltz, your iconic tune inspired by the neo-classical Casino at Marino in Dublin, fit in the album?

John: “I wrote that around 35 years ago now. It was used in an advert for Bord na Móna's peat briquettes. People were just taken by the melody, I suppose. People started phoning into RTÉ to find out the name of the tune and asked where they could get the sheet music for it.

“So after that I got onto Waltons and asked them would they publish the sheet music. They were kind of a bit hesitant, but I persuaded them and after a couple of months they were amazed that it had sold over 20,000 copies of the sheet music for them.

“A few songwriters asked me if I'd like to put words to it, but I thought it was better on its own, whatever magic it has. There's an orchestral arrangement of that one on the album which I had done around 30 years ago. I had never used it and it just seemed like the right time now to use it.

“Then I got into the studio to do the rest of the album. I did recordings with great musicians like Colm Mac Con Iomaire, a great fiddle player from Glen Hansard's band The Frames; he and I've been friends with for nine or ten years.

"I recorded The Winding River with piper Mick O'Brien. I did three or four tracks with Gavin Murphy, the classical pianist and conductor; we had a special rapport.

“I recorded the jazz tune 'Diminished Swing' with Richie Buckley, the great sax player, and some other jazz musicians. So I've been writing in different styles, so there are no two tracks that are really alike on the album.

“The album title, 'Flirting With Fiddles', refers to the fact that I have been flirting with different fiddle styles over the years: from baroque and classial, to swing and bluegrass. Of course, the music we played with The Dubliners also had a lot of different cultures and styles.”

Would you also say that the five Dubliners had very different characters?

John: “There was a great bond between us. We were more like brothers working together. As each one passed away, it was like losing a brother for me.

Personality-wise, we were five very different individuals who somehow, when we made music together, were greater than the sum of our individual parts - there was a migical quality.

"I remember once, Luke came in with a song called 'The Black Velvet Band' and said maybe we'll do it tonight. In those days, you'd be backstage, Luke would sing a bit of the song and then you'd go out on the stage and play it for the first time without even really working out an arrangement.

John Sheahan and the rest of the Dubliners in the 1970's: "There was a great bond between us. We were more like brothers working together."
John Sheahan and the rest of the Dubliners in the 1970's: "There was a great bond between us. We were more like brothers working together."

“We were kind of like buskers as much as anything else. Nowadays songs have intros and bridges in the middle and all that kind of thing, but we were a rough and ready group.

"We just did our own thing and our attitude was 'You can take us or leave us'.”

Were you surprised when 'Seven Drunken Nights' reached No7 in the UK pop charts in 1967, and then again when 'The Irish Rover' reached No8 in 1987 (along with The Pogues), complete with a Top of The Pops appearance?

John: “Yes, it was a surprise. 'Seven Drunken Nights' was so different from any other song in the top ten at that time, or at any other time for that matter. We couldn't even believe it when our manager said it was to be our single.

“We said 'Are you mad, sure there's nothing special about that?' We saw it as just another album track. He saw the potential in it and it was played non-stop on Radio Caroline.

"Then 20 years later exactly, when it came to recording our 25-year album, we rang up The Pogues, who we knew and had a great rapport with.

“It turned out they were in the studio in London recording their own album, so we just flew over and recorded 'The Irish Rover' in a couple of hours without any rehearsals or anything, in the same studio we were in in 1967.

"A young assistant floor manager asked us if we'd like him to show us around the studios. Ronnie just said: 'I was here before you were born, son'. We didn't take anything too seriously.”

Could you recount how The Dubliners came to perform songs written by people like Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Phil Coulter?

John: “There was a great vibe around us in the early years with the likes of Sean Ó Faoláin and Brendan Behan meeting up with us in McDaid's Bar; you'd find Patrick Kavanagh quite frequently.

"On one of those occasions, Patrick came over to Luke and said: 'Luke, you're the one to sing this song of mine 'Raglan Road' and he handed him the handwritten version of it on the back of a jotter, and said that 'Dawning of the Day' was the air to it.

“Phil Coulter came along much later in the early 1970s. Phil had done some work on Jesus Christ Superstar with Noel Pearson, our manager at the time. Noel suggested Phil to us, and he brought us quite a number of songs.

"Musically, we were singing off the same hymn sheet. I'm still good friends with Phil after all these years.”

Do you remember playing Siamsa Cois Laoi in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork in the 1970s and 1980s?

John: “We did a couple of gigs there. There was a great a great atmosphere.

"I remember once we got Charlie Haughey up to sing The Monto with us. In 1987, we did two stadium gigs, the one in Cork and then we flew back to Dublin to play as a support act to U2 in Croke Park. That was fun, but I guess I prefer the more intimate 300-seater theatres around the country.

“After 'Seven Druken Nights' was a hit, of course, we were playing the likes of the Albert Hall in London.

"I remember Barney couldn't remember the name of the Albert Hall; he eventually got into a taxi and they took him to Wembley.

“So he arrived late and he didn't realise the enormity of the place until he was annoncing his banjo solo and he looked up to the five or six tiers of balconies right up to the roof, and he was looking up and up and up and he just said: 'Oh my jaysus!' And the whole place started whispering and laughing. There were lots of old stories like that.”

Are you feeling trapped with the Covid-19 lockdown?

John: “It's not that new to me. Between Dubliners tours, I'd always do a bit of cocooning. I'm quite happy at home writing poetry. I also do woodcarving, which is quite relaxing.

Flirting Fiddles will be John Sheahan's first solo album effort
Flirting Fiddles will be John Sheahan's first solo album effort

“I wrote a haiku for the cocooning: 'Covid cocooning, love us by staying away, save hugs for later'. And another more serious one: 'Coronavirus, silent unseen predator, stalking unwashed hands'.

“They're powerful those haikus, you can get so much into a short, sharp space. I'd love to get out and do a few gigs when this is all over, maybe by August or September.”

  • Flirting Fiddles is out now.

- Listen to an extended version of this interview below:

John Sheehan on the wit of Barney McKenna

“Barney lived in a kind of a parallel universe to the rest of us.

"Some of the things he'd come up with, the rest of us called them 'Barneyisms'.

"He had a special way of expressing himself. He had a way of twisting words; it sounded strage at first, but there was some sort of a warped logic to it.

“He was in hospital once and I phoned him up to ask him if they'd done any special tests that day. He just said: 'Oh yeah, they done a brain scan. Found nothin'.'

“Another day he comes in and says to us: 'Just heard on the news there lads that the oldest women in the world is still alive'. If you can make sense of that.

“One time, we were doing a spot for a promoter in the National Concert Hall. We had done some charity work for this promoter before, but there was actually a fee for this gig. On the way walking out to the microphone, Barney asked: 'Hey, John, do you know is this another charity gig or is it feasible?'

“We were in Australia once and we were met in the airport by a friend of Barney's. Barney said it was awful warm.

The friend said: 'Barney, this is nothing, it's going to be 100 degrees in the shade some days here'. Barney replied: 'Jaysus, I'm going to stay out of the shade so'.

“Another time I was sitting beside him on a turbulent flight to London, Barney was a nervous flyer at the best of times.

"I tried to calm him and said to be philosophical about it and said: 'You're not going to go until your number is up. Barney said to me: 'That's grand, but what if the pilot is the one whose number is up?'

“When the breathlyser test came out first, he was stopped while driving. The Garda stopped him. He recognised him and he said: 'Barney, were you drinking tonight? You're weaving a fair bit there'. Barney said: 'Yeah, I was at a session there in town and I had nine or ten pints'.

"The Garda was shocked by the admission and he says: 'Nine or ten pints! You'll have to blow into this bag'. And Barney says: 'Why? Do you not believe me?'

“Another night, on the way heading home from a gig in town, Barney spotted a squad car trailing him home from Fairview and into Clontarf.

"Barney, rather than try to throw them off the scent, he pulled into Clontarf Garda Station and went into the Sergeant on duty, who knew him.

"The Sergeant says: 'What can I do for you, Barney?' And Barney says: 'Sergeant, I had a couple of pints there, maybe one too many. Do you mind if I leave my keys here with you and get a taxi home? I'll call in for the keys tomorrow?'

"The Gardai from the squad car came to find out what was going on. The Sergeant says: 'It's okay lads. It's Barney McKenna here, sensible man, he thinks he might have had one too many and he's leaving the car here. If ye are not too busy, maybe ye could give him a lift home'.

"So he went home with the squad. Only Barney would get away with it.”

“We were after coming back from playing Top of the Pops with The Pogues in 1987, we arrived into Dublin Airport and we got the red carpet treatment, with cameras rolling and microphones all over the place.

"A reporter came up to Barney and he said: 'Well, Barney, what's it like to be a star?' And Barney said: 'I'm over the moon'.

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