Rory Gallagher: Ireland’s master of the blues

Marcus Connaughton has written the definitive biography of legendary guitarist Rory Gallagher, writes Ed Power

IT HAS been a long journey for Marcus Connaughton. He first saw Rory Gallagher play in 1968. Ever since, he has wanted to tell the story of an artist he describes as Ireland’s first rock star. Four and a half decades later that dream has finally been fulfilled with the publication of Rory Gallagher – His Life and Times, a book that will surely come to be regarded as the definitive account of the Cork bluesman’s dramatic rise and tragic death at just 47.

“My introduction to Rory in a live context was at the National Boxing Stadium in Dublin,” says Connaughton, who also works for RTÉ Radio 1. “It was the early lineup of his band Taste. Rory was our first rock star. Van Morrison was on the west coast of America by then. Phil Lynott came afterwards. Anybody who ever practised guitar in front of the wardrobe mirror with a tennis racket or a hurley was emulating Rory.”

With Taste and later as a solo artist, Gallagher was enormously influential, says Connaughton. He was a hero to such people as a young David Evans, later to become U2’s The Edge, and to future Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. And yet he never embraced the limelight, and indeed was actively wary of it at times. Gallagher saw himself as a working man, whose profession just happened to be rock’n’roll.

“He was first and foremost a musician,” says Connaughton. “When you use terms like ‘rock star’, it almost has a depleted value today. Rory never saw himself as a celebrity. He was devoted to what he did — writing wonderful lyrics and wonderful music.”

He may have been unassuming at a personal level. Nonetheless, Gallagher was superlatively ambitious. In his book, Connaughton traces Gallagher’s extraordinary life, from his birth in 1948 at Rock Hospital, Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, to his childhood on the north side of Cork. The portrait he paints is of a man driven to create era-defining music — and to succeed no matter what obstacles were in his path.

“With Taste, Rory never played songs in the same order,” the group’s bassist Eric Kitteringham tells Connaughton. “Normally we would have a set programme. You’d never know what Rory was going to churn out, ever. He’d just fire it out and if there was a 20-second break between numbers it was a lot. Get in, churn it out with high energy, go for it — wreak away from the very first note. That was his style.”

Nearly 40 years on, it can be a shock to recall just how major a star Gallagher was at his peak. He toured with some of the biggest artists in rock and was admired from afar by many others. At a recent press conference Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page spoke passionately about his love and respect for Gallagher. He was articulating the views of an entire community of musicians.

“Rory performed at the Isle of Wight Festival,” says Connaughton. “On many occasions he played on a bill with Fleetwood Mac, Jimi Hendrix — all those bands who we think of as the great artists of the time. Not only did he open the farewell concert for Eric Clapton’s Cream — he went on to tour with the very first supergroup, Blind Faith.”

Gallagher was riven with contradictions. While ambitious, he didn’t relish larger venues. Going to America with Blind Faith in 1970, he was disheartened to be in ice hockey arenas night after night. The lack of connection with the audience depressed him.

“Rory never liked playing large arenas,” Taste drummer John Wilson tells Connaughton. “He was never very fond of the major stadium gigs and arenas we encountered on the Blind Faith tour.”

Connaughton has firm views on the long running tug of war between Cork and Donegal over Gallagher. Leeside has Rory Gallagher Plaza, Ballyshannon its Rory Gallagher Festival. Each sees him as a native son done good. In the author’s opinion, however, Gallagher was first and foremost a Corkman. “Was it Winston Churchill who said, ‘You may well be born in Paddington Station but you are not a briefcase the rest of your life’?

“All you have to do is consider the song ‘Going To My Home Town’ — that for me confirms for anyone who listens to Rory’s music where his heart lay. He was born in Donegal. And yet, Cork defined him — Cork imbued in him the things that made him want to make music. He was tremendously affected by events such as the closure of the Ford and Dunlop factories.”

In his lifetime, Gallagher’s popularity waxed and waned. Since his death, though, he has become a cult international figure and is perceived as one of the foremost guitarists of his generation (Rolling Stone listed him in its countdown of the greatest guitarists of all time).

In the years after his death, the Cork store where Gallagher purchased his first guitar, Crowley’s (originally on Merchant’s Quay, today on MacCurtain Street), became a place of pilgrimage. “There isn’t a week that would go by that we’d have somebody in,” the late Michael Crowley told Connaughton in 2004. “There have been people from Australia, Japan and America — and also a very great number of German, Dutch and French people. Scandinavians too. Rory was very popular on the continent.”

For all his triumphs, Gallagher’s life had a sad conclusion. He passed away on Jun 14, 1995, following an unsuccessful liver transplant in London. After the triumphs of the 1970s, there were some dark days and he struggled to adjust to his diminished popularity in the era of punk and new wave. He became increasingly dependent on alcohol.

“As with many artists, he may have been troubled, especially when he stopped touring,” says Connaughton. “The ’80s would have been difficult for anyone in his position. He completely understood punk and enjoyed the Clash. However, there were demons there, I am sure. It was a tragic finish.”

Right to the end, Gallagher remained enigmatic and inscrutable, his brother Dónal tells Connaughton. “Whatever he was feeling, good or bad, he kept very much to himself. I can’t say that we ever had an in-depth personal conversation. There wasn’t a lot said between us … I’d say he was extremely lonely. It was hard to tell because he was so private. He was tremendously melancholic and was never satisfied with anything he did.”

* Rory Gallagher – His Life and Times is published by Collins Press

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