Barry Devlin: Between rock and a hard place
Horslips, the founding fathers of Celtic rock, are getting back together to settle unfinished business three decades after they split, stymied by punk. Unofficial frontman Barry Devlin appears to have lost none of his spark as he tells Barry Egan of an early flirtation with the priesthood, his first kiss with Miss Norway and his beloved wife's struggle with cancer
Published 05/07/2009 | 00:00
THE legacy of Celtic rock (and denim-flared) behemoths Horslips is doubtless The Corrs. Barry Devlin, the co-founder and lead singer of the former, doesn't think the theory entirely mad. "Yes, but we didn't have the brains to be three very pretty girls. We were, alas, five very lumpy lads."
Devlin hasn't lost his Northern accent. Nor have his eyes lost their boyish twinkle. Mercifully, he has lost his denim flares. He grew up in Co Tyrone on a farm. He says one of the things that plagued him as a writer was not having enough angst in his childhood, which was "blessed and fantastic".
His Protestant mother, Eileen O'Hare, was a primary school teacher from Warrenpoint who, says Barry, had an extraordinarily genteel upbringing. "My mother was so interested in literature, our house was full of books," he says, adding that there was no electricity in the village, Ardboe, until 1962 and no water until 1964. "So we just read."
The "we" is quite a "we", as it turns out. He has six sisters -- Anne, Marie, Polly, Valerie, Claire and Helen -- four of whom were older than him. Barry, born on November 27, 1946, says that in hindsight he had no idea then of the deep currents of dynamism that ran between six women. His sister Polly wrote a book, All of Us There, which is about growing up deep in the country. He says he grew up almost as an only child because he was an only boy. "I wasn't a particularly aware child. I'm not a particularly aware adult.
"This is probably terribly Freudian but I remember being jealous of all of their boyfriends," he smiles. One boyfriend was a young poet by the name of Seamus Heaney who was courting (and eventually married) second eldest sister Marie. "I remember when Seamus showed up first. He was terrific. He was able to cope with an anally retentive 18-year-old who was overtly hostile. But he made a go of it. And kidded me out of it."
There was no such kidding Barry Devlin out of the priesthood, however. In 1964, he took a notion that he would enter a seminary. "I think my mother, God rest her, probably liked the idea of her son going into the priesthood. My father hated it with a passion," he says referring to Tommy, a Catholic general merchant and farmer who had a fish exporting business, a pub, a grocery store and a farm.
Knowing the potentially critical mistake her little brother was about to make, Polly took Barry first to London in the summer of 1964 to show him the sights. The first Sunday he was there, Polly sent him out to the shops to buy the newspapers and he met Mick Jagger, looking very cross and not exactly like he wanted chat. "I just assumed that you would meet the Beatles around the next corner," Barry laughs.
Polly, who was features editor at Vogue magazine, was also, he realises now, trying to tempt him. And how. "Polly had a bunch of extraordinary supermodels staying with her, like Chrissie Shrimpton, Maggie Stone. And I had fantastic crushes on all of them," he remarks. "It was like bringing Jesus up onto the mountain and showing him the world."
It still didn't stop him entering the seminary that September -- much, he says, to Polly's great disappointment. "I had some idea about Christianity and helping people in far-flung lands and building shanty towns," he says, adding that a whole generation of fine young men from the North, from John Hume to Seamus Deane, toyed with the idea of the priesthood. Barry left the seminary after four years, aged 22. He had, he says, a crisis of faith. And he has been "a very happy atheist ever since".
"Mind you," he laughs, "I was a very good cleric. My wife will testify that I'm a natural celibate," he says with his tongue firmly in his cheek. "So the life suited me."
Be that as it may, Barry's first encounter, once he left, was with no less a woman than Miss Norway 1970. In April, 1970, a friend of Barry's, Denis Smith, a travel editor, asked him if he wanted to go with him to Norway pretending to be a photographer. In Bergen, they met a beautiful blonde model named Vibeke Steineger on the road and struck up a friendship. It may sound like the plotline of a bad Scandinavian porn movie, but Vibeke gave Barry her number and said to call when he was back that way. Barry didn't think much of it until they went to the next town and he saw some newspapers on the table of the hostel they were staying in with the name Vibeke Steineger splashed all over on it.
He asked the man behind the counter if that was a very common name in Norway. "No, that's Miss Norway," he was told to his astonishment. They went to dinner when he came back to Bergen a few days later. "It was just a kiss. I was genuinely an innocent boy," he says. "I was really innocent. I had six sweet sisters, but I knew nothing about women.
"And for the next years," he adds, sheepishly, "I would kind of go, 'You know, the first girl I even pecked was Miss Norway.' People would go, 'Yeah, yeah, Baz, you and Elvis Presley.'"
So, four months ago, he Googled Miss Norway 1970 and managed to contact her. She had moved to America. Forty years on, they had brunch in a restaurant on 40th Street in New York. "And it went on," he says, "for five hours with no connection except that we had once, very briefly, had dinner."
The woman Barry Devlin has had a connection with that has lasted happily all his adult life is, of course, broadcaster and journalist Caroline Erskine. He met her in 1971 at the first Horslips gig in Dublin on a TV show called Fonn. Declan Sinnott, who was then playing guitar in the band, had a girlfriend, Pat Eastwood, who roomed with Caroline at Trinity. She invited Caroline to come to see her boyfriend's band play. Barry and Caroline now have one daughter Kate, aged 20, and two sons, Jack, 22, and Paul, 24.
Barry says he always wanted to be in a band but he admits he had no idea how to go about it. "I played air- guitar a lot on the hurley stick. I might actually be a better hurley player than an air-guitarist," he laughs. "I wanted to be Cliff Richard, I think, early on and then The Beatles from then on," he grins, adding that "it is self-evident really. If you are looking for the most settled and middleclass and unadventurous of the Horslips, it would be me."
There is a bit more to Devlin than that. He is something of an engaging, likable, but beguilingly esoteric, character: his 1980 solo album Breaking Star Codes, for instance, was a concept record full of irony about people who believed in astrology. "It went to number 14 in the charts," he chortles, "and sold 14 copies."
I met him in Miami with Bono in 2001, on a U2 tour bus after a show. His connections with U2 go back to the beginning of the band. In 1979, Paul McGuinness asked him to do some demos with his new young band. Without having heard them, Barry counselled Paul on whether this was a wise move for him, as punk was nearly over and Paul had a job. Once he heard the band, he told him: "Remortgage the house, McGuinness." "I just thought it was written all over them that they were stars," says Barry. In 1984, Paul asked him to do a documentary on the making of The Unforgettable Fire album.
"It is quite an interesting doc," Barry begins, dryly, "because it has a number of innovative techniques. It is largely shot through glass with double reflections. That's because the band wouldn't let us into the studio!" he roars with laughter. "People say to me, 'Hey, that was such a great idea. You shoot through glass and there's Bono.' There was a sign up: 'Keep out!' They were complete bollixes. They had us barred."
He also shot U2: The Making of the Movie "Rattle and Hum" in 1988 and various other U2-related docs, the ABC TV special around the end of the PopMart tour in 1997 among them. He has since become a screenwriter of some note, writing episodes of Ballykissangel and The Darling Buds of May, among others. He has just shot a film called A Kiss for Jed Wood about a girl who wins a reality TV show in Ireland and goes out to America to get a kiss from the Mr Wood of the title. In January, he will shoot Liam Neeson in The Virgin of Las Vegas, about the Irish showbands who had residencies in Vegas once upon a time.
"It is a film largely about homesickness for Ireland," he says. And, in a way, Barry Devlin and the rest of the band (Jim Lockhart, Charles O'Connor, Johnny Fean and Eamon Carr) were homesick for Horslips.
That's the reason Barry and I are having lunch in the Camden Court Hotel today: Horslips are reforming for a series of eagerly awaited shows. They are getting back together largely because "of unfinished business and because it is fun".
"We were a bit of a lads band," Barry says recalling the fun. "Our fate was to have a sea of slightly pissed fellas in denims in front of us going Dearg Doom! It was a bit like the question they ask Spinal Tap: 'Why are there only boys at your gigs?' You tell me."
Machismo aside, drink wasn't as all-pervasive as you would have imagined for a famous Irish band in the Seventies. "The stuff we played was complicated, for better or for worse," he laughs. "So we had to concentrate. So trying to do it pissed was out of the question. We gave 110 per cent. And it had to mean something to me. We were a hard-working band. We went on tour on St Patrick's Day 1972 and we didn't stop until October 1980."
They stopped, he says, because "it was time to stop and we had started to pull in different musical directions and very strongly. We were stymied by the thing that stymied a million bands at the time: punk. Everybody went, 'We had eight years. We're old and in the way.'"
Intriguingly, the end of Horslips almost meant the end for himself and Caroline. "She had a career of her own," he remembers with some understatement of the RTE star. "So when I was away she had plenty to occupy her. She was mature enough to keep the relationship together. She did it largely by kind of going, 'I have my career; I hope yours is good because mine is fine.'"
Then in 1980, she changed the locks. It wasn't about an infidelity, he laughs. By his own admission, he got to the point where he was saying: "Where's this going?" And Caroline replied: "Well, why don't you find out?"
"And she changed the locks! I was kind of worried that we had gone into a Derby and Joan relationship. I tell you, it woke me up."
What did you actually think at that point with regard to Caroline?
"I think I wanted to get married," he answers. "I had been in a band for eight years and the band were breaking up and there were lots of changes and suddenly I wanted to get married," he laughs.
Caroline appeared to see Barry using marriage as a balm to salve his mid-life crisis, so she kicked him out of the house they were sharing on Elgin Road. For five weeks, he slept on friends' couches and lived out of a suitcase and was, he says, "profoundly lonely and unhappy".
Then one day he was driving through Bundoran in Co Donegal when he saw Caroline's car put-putting up the hill. "I nearly killed myself getting out of the car and running up after her. 'Can we have lunch?' She said coolly, 'Yeah.'" He proposed a month later in early 1981 in Dublin. They were married in St Stephen's Green Church in Dublin on October 9, 1982. "Aside from being her husband and all that, I was always a fan. I was impressed by the stuff she could do very easily. Caroline had always been the rock on which the house was founded."
That house was shaken to its very foundations a decade ago when Caroline fell ill with squamous cell cancer. It was at the top of her nose across her optic nerve, he says pointing to where it affected Caroline and gave his wife "a very close brush with death".
The initial prognosis in December 1997 was that she would probably die, he adds. "So we did that thing of getting all the documents out of the drawers and going, 'Oh, where will the kids go to school? Blah blah blah.' It was absolutely awful." Brave through it all, Caroline would drive herself in her black Fiat Uno to and from St Luke's in Rathgar for her radiation treatment. Barry was fraught with despair. Enter to the rescue, he remembers, "this absolute genius" of a surgeon called Conrad Timon the Third ("who sounds like a country and western singer," laughs Barry, "I kept thinking Hank Williams Junior was going to operate on my wife.")
He was brilliant, says Barry, with good reason. On Caroline's birthday, January 8, 1998, Conrad operated on her for 14 hours in St James' hospital. "She came through it," Barry says proudly. "She flew through it."
They didn't tell their kids at the time. (It was only about three years ago "that we told them what the operation was actually for".)
They told them that Caroline had a big sinus operation and would be away for a few days. They didn't know that there was a chance she was never coming back.
"But Caroline, being Caroline, she pulled it off," Barry says now. "I didn't think at that point that I could ask for living happily ever after -- but I got it. I'm really, really, really pleased. And now," he says with that boyish twinkle of his, "I'm back onstage with the Horslips."
Horslips play December 3 in the Odyssey, Belfast and December 5 in the O2 Arena, Dublin. Tickets on sale Thurs, 9am, from €49.50 for The O2 and £33 for the Odyssey. Prices include booking fee