Let the music tell the story: A Biography of sorts.
Eamon in his own words.
Biography of Sorts
I was born in London. I spent the first five years of my life at 50 Sidney Road, Stockwell. I have some memories of it. We lived in a dark basement flat. No wonder the sunlight in the small garden at the back is a vivid picture for me still. My father was a tracklayer on the railway … eight men to carry and lay a twenty two foot length of double rail and it was hard work. I still know the names of some of that rail gang. Barkis was the ganger and he was a real bastard according to my da. There was Sean McDermott also from Derry and Joe Murphy from Carlow and a big Ukrainian called Johnny.
I take after my mother’s side in looks. That is to say I look more like a Mayo man than a Derry man. My mother was from County Mayo in the west of Ireland. They met and married after the war and I was born in 1949. She was very religious and saw England as a godless country I’m afraid. That’s probably why we moved to Derry in Northern Ireland in the mid 1950s. It was my father’s hometown.
Derry in the 50s and 60s was an awful place, a real pit of private despair and gross public dishonesty, though I had no real sense of that at the time. It was a poverty stricken, unemployment - ridden festering sore. It is no surprise that when the troubles broke out they started in Derry. My father found just 18 months work in Derry when we went there to live. Other than that he was a migrant worker for 8 or 9 months of the year, in London mostly but also in the north of England and Scotland. It still angers me that religious and political bigotry made him a second class citizen in his own city.
I went to Bridge Street school and then St Columb’s College, a brutal terrifying place which I survived by keeping my head down and working hard. Some of my teachers were fine, some even inspirational. John Hume was my History teacher for nearly six years. I have to say that most of the monsters on the staff were priests and they succeeded in putting me off religion for life.
Summers were spent in County Mayo among my mother’s people on a farm. Like James Joyce in Paris murmuring the names of Dublin streets I still walk those fields of childhood in my mind…Maighne Mor, Ruan, Garrett’s Land, Cnoc An Chonai, The Noggan and Grawn. For a townie like me it was like living in the garden of Eden … the horse, the crazy gander, the two sheepdogs and the goat that arrived one morning. It was thought it might have strayed from a traveller’s encampment. The cows in the field went pure mad, lowing at the sky and running up and down with their tails in the air because they had never seen a goat before. We kept him till the end of his days because it was believed that goats were lucky. It was as simple as that. I suppose now it can be told. Patrick, the man of the house, was a bit of a moonshiner . He had the poitin still set up in the barn and one day the sow got in. They are very inquisitive and intelligent animals are sows and yes looking back we were obviously at the forefront of free range farming at the time. Anyway in went the sow and tumbled the still and drank the lot. She was unconscious for two days and I would guess woke up with a massive hangover. No hair of the dog available I’m afraid.
Always in the distance there was my magic mountain, Nephin, up there above Lahardaun and down at the foot of the farm was the little browny black river, the Dubhowen. Haymaking, saving turf, even thinning turnips which I hated, yes it was hard work at times but I loved the place. And there would be the odd day out at a fair in Killala or Ballycastle or Crossmolina. I was really happy there.
I loved Derry too and I still do. It’s my home place. It has these great city walls and the big winding river and its hills and valleys that create the most beautiful street vistas and views. It’s a friendly place and bitterness between its two main communities is far less intense here than in other parts of the north despite the terrible atrocities that the troubles brought to this town and its surrounding villages. I grew up in the Bogside, 137 Bogside, the house with the big step beside McBrearty’s coal yard. Old Mrs Kelly down the road told me one day after we had gone into her house to watch the Lone Ranger on television that she remembered as a young girl watching the people dancing in that very street when the news arrived that Gladstone had won the election. That must have been 1886 ... “Home Rule For Ireland”. I believe that makes me part of what is now referred to as folk memory.
Music! My father was very musical. He was a fine singer and had been in a pipe band when he was younger. He introduced me to lots of music I might otherwise have missed. The first film I ever remember seeing was Cole Porter’s “High Society”. Crosby and Sinatra largely passed me by in it but I thought Louis Armstrong was brilliant and I am still mad about trad and swing jazz. It’s probably the most infectious music in the world. Another childhood film that impressed me greatly was the patriotic “Mise Eire”. I saw it in Our Lady Of Lourdes Hall on the Lecky Road. It wasn’t so much the content that impressed as the passionate orchestral soundtrack that Sean O’Riada created for it out of the old Irish folk tunes. From then on I knew that Irish music was beautiful.
I grew up in the 60s and I believed in the Beatles and I still do. They were something quite rare in pop music. They were the most popular and they were also the best. In 1967 I bought a Spanish guitar, a Tatra Classic, for £3 in Molly’s pawn on the Cross Lanes. A school friend, Paul Elder, taught me the basic chords and also showed me the rudiments of piano playing and suddenly I was strumming Clancy Brothers ballads, Beatles songs and many of the acoustic anthems of the young Bob Dylan …“Spanish Harlem Incident”, “To Ramona”, “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” and “One Too Many Mornings”. The thing about Dylan was that he was a gateway that opened into a brave new world … Woody Guthrie, early Tom Rush, Leadbelly, Hank Williams, Memphis Minnie, Doc Watson, Blind Willie McTell. By the 70s I was singing and playing them all.
I went to university. I went to Queen’s in Belfast and did a History degree. I became a teacher and taught for a solid 15 years. I reckoned by then I had paid my full debt to society so I organised my escape. The jailbreak happened in 1987. For part of that 15 years I lived in London teaching English at St William Of York School off the Caledonian Road. It was the later 1970s. During the time I was there punk person Johnny Rotten, leader of the Sex pistols, became our most famous past pupil and Kevin Maloney who was the deputy head decided to have a look at Johnny’s old school reports. One teacher had written, “John is a very bright boy but he is having difficulty in this class. Might do better in a small group”. Little did she know!
One day the Drama teacher Mary Walshe declared that she had decided to stage a Christmas show which she would write herself. She needed songs and she wanted them to be original. I got the position of composer. I had never written a song in my life and was quite happy to go on rendering “Johnny B Goode” and “ Hard Hearted Hannah” for the rest of my days. But I had to get to work and I wrote eight songs for the Christmas show and discovered that I had some compositional talent. The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote of his own experience, “A man dabbles in verse and finds it is his life”. So it was with me. A Christmas show in a tough London school changed the direction of my life. I became a songwriter.
I came back to Derry and got involved in radio. I wrote topical, comic and satirical songs for the BBC for years. They were mostly written for BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme but I did quite a few for RTE in Dublin and wrote a song a week for nearly 4 years for BBC Radio 5 in Manchester. At one stage I was writing three topical songs a week. I would get up around 0630 and listen to the news and check the ceefax. I was always hoping that something weird and wonderful with comic possibilities had happened overnight. Then I would have to start. Who am I going to be in this song? Am I a commentator or one of the people involved in the story? Can I do that accent? Can I play that style of song? As you can see a comedy song is as much about performance as content. The best ones are a perfect marriage of both. I would write it in a couple of hours and win lose or draw I would be in my local radio station at 1030 that morning to record it. Down the line it would go to Belfast or Dublin or Manchester. I became a song factory. I needed the money because by then I had quit teaching. I keep a few of those songs in my repertoire still. I think the great Tom Lehrer would be proud of a couple of them. But I don’t ever want to write another topical song.
My involvement with the BBC also led to my becoming a radio presenter. It began with a half hour music programme on my local station BBC Radio Foyle and that evolved into a two hour show called “ Friel’s Fancy” on BBC Radio Ulster. I am proud to say that it won the 1993 Sony Award for best music programme. It has been described in The Radio Times as “an opinionated guide to the popular music spectrum”. I play jazz, blues, folk, rock, Celtic, musicals, Hollywood soundtracks, country, roots, world … in fact anything that comes my way that I like.
But I am a songwriter first and above all else and these days a writer of real songs. I write them slowly because that’s the only way I can write them. I get maybe a single phrase of a melody on the piano. Gradually I build it till I get the complete verse. Then I get the chorus or the verse becomes the chorus which means I have to write another verse. The one thing I do know is that once I get the tune started I will have a melody at the end of it. The words are more often more difficult. They can take a lot of time and I have had tunes for years that I could never find words for.
“The Waltz Of The Years” was my fourth album. There was “Logrhythms” in 1985. I was well over 30 when it appeared but I regard it now largely as juvenilia. “Stepping Stones” in 1993 was a strong album. It was ignored but one song on it attracted a bit of attention and radio play, “ Farewell Mayo”. It was a song about those childhood summers in Mayo. It was around that time that I switched completely from writing songs with a guitar to writing songs with a piano. I believe it is a change that has made my songs stronger and more melodic. “Word Of Spring” followed in 2000 after another long gap and for the first time I felt I had found my true direction as a songwriter. Finally I had found my own voice both musically and lyrically. It’s an album that was received with a good deal of warmth and I made some substantial friends with it. “The Waltz Of The Years” built on that foundation as did “Here Is The River” (2006). "Smarter" followed in 2009 and in 2012 "The Streets Forget". Eddie O'Donnell, who did the arrangements, defines it as my "musically diverse album". This is maybe because it includes a couple of songs from my 2010 musical comedy "The Music Makers". I think, next to "Here is the River", it is my strongest album to date.