Tuesday 25 October 2016

Another string to Dubliners' John Sheahan's bow as poems strike a chord

Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30

POET AND PLAYER: John Sheahan, right, on stage with writer Dermot Bolger.
POET AND PLAYER: John Sheahan, right, on stage with writer Dermot Bolger.
Shay Healy and BP Fallon

It can't be easy for such an accomplished musician as John Sheahan, last survivor of the original Dubliners, to sing out of key, but he manages to do so with some aplomb as an introduction to his poem Uncle Jimmy Murders Danny Boy.

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It is probably a condition that most professional musicians have encountered and tried to avoid, but Sheahan wrings a poem out his uncle Jimmy's love of singing but lack of a musical ear, with ease and humour.

Sitting on a stage in the Lecture Theatre of the National Gallery of Ireland with writer Dermot Bolger, he introduced his first collection of poetry Fiddle Dreams to a live audience with readings, tunes, reminisces and all-round good humour. Among the audience are Luke Kelly's brother Jimmy, Shay Healy, BP Fallon, musicians Michael Howard and Charlie McGettigan, and various relatives of his fallen comrades, Phil McCann, the wife of Jim, Ronnie Drew's daughter Cliona, and Ciara Lynch, a daughter of Bob Lynch.

"It's a bit like the extended family of the Dubliners" he says.

John Sheahan, or Johann Sebastian Sheahan as Luke Kelly dubbed the maestro fiddle player, started writing poetry about 14 years ago, and was first published in the Sunday Independent, but has no regrets that he didn't project himself more when, as a member of the Dubliners, he had access for decades to a vast audience around the world.

"I think part of it was that Ronnie Drew and Luke Kelly were such outgoing and dominant characters, they were natural orators and I was happy to just stand at the back hiding behind my fiddle and let it speak for me," he says.

He reflects that during all those years of touring, Luke Kelly wrote only one poem, For What Died the Sons of Roisin, and, over a pint one night, collaborated with Ronnie Drew on a ditty, The Irish Navy, to amuse themselves.

"Of course," says John on reflection, "there was such a wealth of great traditional music and we were very very lazy ... we had great potential to write, but never bothered."

Sheahan has rectified that in spades with this beautiful collection of poetry which catches the observations, thoughts, incidents and characters of other members of the Dubliners, including the unintended wit of Barney McKenna, widely known in the music business as 'Barneyisms.'

Poetry and music are very closely aligned, John believes. "A melody is like poetry without words, there is definitely a strong musical element in the texture and feel of words."

He is passionate and proud about his words and reading, or performing them, for an individual or an audience.

"I have been passively absorbing great Irish songs and melodies all my life, without realising it - and if I had started writing earlier I wouldn't have as much experience in life to dip into as I have now," he says. "The thing about finding an artistic voice like poetry is to hone things down and pare them back to the bare essential."

Fascinated by actually holding his first book, he holds his audience spellbound by his poems and his ease with fiddle and bow, which Bolger notes is a "wonderful book and a wonderful distillation of a life lived so far."

'Fiddle Dreams' by John Sheahan is published by Dedalus Press at €12.50.

Sunday Independent

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