The King is dead... long live the Elvis fan in Ireland
It's 40 years this week since the rock 'n' roll icon died, but the Elvis superfan is alive and well in Ireland. John Meagher meets some of his devotees
Claire O'Brien will never forget the moment she heard that the King had died. It was the morning of August 17, 1977, and she was on the third day of her honeymoon in Youghal, Co Cork, when the news reached her that Elvis Presley had been found dead in his Memphis mansion the previous day. He was just 42.
It was news that was nothing short of devastating for the 22-year-old and her new husband Joseph. "I just wanted to go home to my mam," she says. "We heard early in the morning and it ruined the day. Here was someone who had been a huge part of my life since I was 12 - and was really important to Joseph, too - and we were hearing that he was gone."
Memory of that moment is still fresh in Claire's mind 40 years on. The newlyweds made the most of the remainder of their honeymoon but it was tarnished by the news that there would be no more music from Presley - and those dreams that he might one day cross the Atlantic to play Ireland would never come to pass.
Today, Claire may be a handful of years off pensionable age, but her devotion to Elvis hasn't wavered one bit. "I could listen to his music 24/7," she says. "There was no-one like him, and there won't be anyone like him ever again."
She says his songs have given her solace at key times of her life, not least when she was battling cancer some years ago. "I think that's what his fans appreciate most," she insists. "His songs speak directly to you."
Her home in Mitchelstown, Co Cork is a veritable shrine to the King. "It wouldn't take long for a visitor here to work out that at least one person in the household was a really big fan," she says.
There's an Elvis statue, perched next to the TV and several paintings of the King, and if you ask her, she can show visitors all manner of memorabilia, too. "Elvis," she says, "lives in our house."
In the Irish Elvis superfan community, she needs no introduction. Her devotion to Elvis extends to chairing the Flaming Star Elvis Presley Fan Club of Ireland - husband Joseph is her deputy - and she manages an Elvis tribute act, Tim Ryan, too.
Her first-born daughter is called Lisa Marie - in honour of Presley's daughter - and her first son is Joseph Aaron, in deference to Elvis Aaron Presley. She wanted to call him Elvis, but was overruled. "It mightn't have been fair to him," she says, with a chuckle.
Further north, in Swords, Co Dublin, Maurice Colgan is just as devoted to Presley's memory. He's 75 now and Elvis has been a part of his life for 60 years.
"I remember the first time I ever heard him," the Dublin-born pensioner says. "It was Birmingham in 1957 and his ballad 'Playing for Keeps' came on the jukebox. We had been brought up listening to Sinatra, but there was something about his sound that transfixed me."
From that moment on, all his pocket money was spent on acquiring records released by this glamorous American singer.
"It was like he was from another world," Maurice says. "There was something so charismatic about him. And I thought he was so handsome, I used question myself!"
The mid-to-late 1950s marked the birth of rock 'n' roll and Presley played a fundamental part in this new revolution. "Older people didn't know what to make of him," Maurice says. "But if you were a teenager then, it was like someone had come to us from another planet."
And it was thanks to Elvis that Maurice Colgan met his future wife. "It was 1958 and I was on a night out. I was walking down the street and I heard loud music coming from a dancehall. It was 'Jailhouse Rock'. I went in and there were hundreds of people there, but I spotted Maureen right away. I always used to say that I met my wife thanks to Elvis."
Maureen died a couple of years ago, but Maurice says she, too, was devoted to Elvis's music and his legacy for all his life. Presley even reached out to the couple in their time of need.
"In 1961, Maureen was seriously ill in hospital while having our second child. She was a frail little woman and the doctors were worried she mightn't make it. It was a shock and it frightened me. I remember sitting down and writing a note to Elvis to see if he would send her best wishes. Some time later, a handwritten note arrived to the hospital from Elvis. And one was sent to me, too, wishing me well. I can't tell you how much they meant to us."
Maurice made photocopies of the notes so he wouldn't damage the originals - he looks at them often and reads out the words addressed to him and his wife. In his letter, Presley signed off with 'EP'.
And it was thanks to those letters that Maurice and Maureen Colgan got to visit Presley's Graceland home. "RTÉ were running a competition to send Elvis fans to Graceland in 1997 and they wanted to find people with a really good story to tell. It was the letters from Elvis that did it."
In all, Maurice has been to Graceland five times. "It's the closest you can get to Elvis," he says. "It's a place that meant an awful lot to him." Unlike today's giant names of pop, Presley's Irish fans had to make do with hearing him on record or watching reruns of the films he made in the 1950s and 60s. It added to the mystique - in an age long before social media, such iconic cultural figures felt removed from their fans.
The 40th anniversary of Presley's death on Wednesday will offer yet another reminder to Maurice about how the world was robbed "of the greatest entertainer we've ever known".
"I had been out for a few drinks and when I got home, Maureen told me the news. It knocked me sideways. I didn't want to believe it, and it didn't take until the next day for it to sink in."
Broadcaster John Creedon was in his fledgling broadcasting career - as a pirate radio DJ - when an Elvis impersonator, of all people, told him the King was dead. "His name was Rocky Stone - he also DJ'd on the station - and he said 'Have you heard the news? Elvis is dead'."
For the then Cork teen, now host of RTÉ Radio 1's The John Creedon Show, Presley had a profound impact on music and popular culture.
"He embodied all the different strands that made up rock 'n' roll more than anybody else, more so than Bill Haley or Chuck Berry. He pulled it all together - gospel, rock, country, hillbilly, you-name-it.
"He was someone who was loved by all, not just because of his voice and those songs but because he was a Southern gentleman who loved his mama. And, he was a beautiful specimen, too."
Ciarán Houlihan wasn't even born when Elvis was alive. He arrived in 1979 and grew up in a household where Presley's music held little appeal. "When people talk to me about why I love Elvis so much, they assume that my parents loved him and that I had been turned on to it as a child. But, that couldn't have been further from the truth. My father hated his music - he was more into people like Jim Reeves and Glen Campbell."
Intrigued by that antipathy to Presley's sound, the Dubliner made it his business to discover just what it was about his songs that had irked his father so much. He was surprised to discover that far from hating what he heard, he loved it. "There are lots of different Elvis eras - the RCA years at the end of the 50s, the 'Comeback Special' from 1968, the Vegas days in the 70s - but the quality of his singing was always really special. His voice was so distinct and he could sing beautifully - and yet I think lots of people don't realise how great a singer he was."
Ciarán learned in his early 20s that he had something of a gift for singing, too and he soon found himself gravitating towards Elvis songs. Since 2010, he has made a full-time living out of being an Elvis tribute act - performing at weddings, parties and corporate events as well as fully fledged shows.
"His music is as popular as ever and appeals to all ages. It's sad to think that some people only think of the bloated Elvis towards the end of his life, rather than the one who helped change the course of music as we know it today. His influence cannot be overstated."
It's a sentiment echoed by Anthony Bradley, who will be performing an Elvis tribute concert in Dublin's National Concert Hall on August 19. "His music didn't mean much to me when he was alive," he says. "I was 14 when he died and there was other music I was into at the time. But what I distinctly remember is seeing a show on TV that he did in 1969. It was broadcast a couple of days after his death and I've never been able to track it down since, but it made a huge impact on me.
"He came across as really cool - and 'cool' wasn't a word I had associated with Elvis." It was that dynamic performer - caught between the famous comeback TV show in 1968 and a lucrative residency in Vegas - that would make Anthony embrace the work of Presley. And it's that period that he pays tribute to in his show. "I hate the term 'Elvis impersonator'," he says.
"That's not who I am. I'm not trying to impersonate Elvis - he was his own man. What I am trying to do is to pay tribute to some of his greatest songs."
He is heartened by the fact that new generations become seduced by the Elvis story and he has ambitions to bring his lavish show to Dublin's 3Arena next year. "We'll have an orchestra and 100-piece choir at the Concert Hall," he says. "It's definitely something that can work on an even bigger venue."
For Claire O'Brien, her focus is on a more modest event, but one that will bring many of the country's most ardent Elvis fans together. Next Saturday, the Woodford Dolmen Hotel in Co Carlow will host a 40th Anniversary Remembrance Concert. The location is apt: Elvis's grandfather hailed from nearby Hacketstown, Co Carlow.
"It's an opportunity for all of us who love his music and who's lives have been changed by him in some way to come together and to celebrate his life," she says. "He was a god to us and his songs will live on forever."
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