Interview by Barry Egan
It sounds like a yarn from a Patrick McCabe novel. Patrick Shanley would drive old people to old folks’ parties in Keshcarrigan in County Leitrim. The thing was, Patrick was hardly a spring chicken himself. He was in his eighties. And when his famous daughter Eleanor Shanley would say to him — on the occasions that she was with him as he drove to the aforesaid old folks’ hoolies in the North West of Ireland — ‘Daddy, would you not go in yourself?’, he would give her a look.
“Deedn’t I will not!” Patrick would reply — aghast.
“What would I be doing in there? It is full of old people!”
“That was his attitude,” Eleanor says now adding that her mother Eileen has the same point of view on life. “She is 94 — and still making her brown bread, still doing her own washing."
Does her mother drive old people to old folks’ parties?
“That’s one thing she never did — she never drove. That was lost on her, I’m afraid.”
The first song Eleanor learned from start to finish was My Old Leitrim Home at school when she was a young girl. She came home and she sang it for her mother. Eileen looked at her and said: ‘Gosh — you can sing.’ And she could.
From then on, Eleanor was “marched into all the singing competitions,” she says adding she had a cousin Gabriel Reynolds, who was an amazing singer. “We used to go all the competitions together.” Sadly, Gabriel was killed in a car crash when he was 21. “I often wonder if he had survived he would probably have been a professional singer long before I was,” she muses.
“Down deep I always wanted to sing or perform,” she continues. “I moved to Dublin when I was 18 and I worked in FAS on Baggot Street. So while the day job was bringing in the money at the end of the week, at night time I studied drama with Betty Ann Norton on Harcourt Street and went to all the sessions in town and sang. That would have been in 1979.” Asked what was Dublin like then, she says “It was great but in a way but trad music wasn’t quite cool at that time. It really became cool afterwards. I had a good social life. I joined the Leitrim Wild Roses Tops of the Town group.”
It was here that she learned about performance “because you were onstage all the time; and you were out in front of an audience, singing all the classics from the musicals. It was in at the deep end to a great extent. The only thing that I hadn’t done was speaking to an audience. So that was a big shock to me when I joined De Dannan.”
She can remember the first gig with the Irish folk superstars in 1989. She walked on stage in Wales and said to Frankie Gavin: ’You introduce the songs.’ He replied: ‘No, no, you do it yourself.’
“I had never spoken to an audience before. I saw the audience as the enemy. It was nerve wracking.”
Was it as nerve wracking as telling your parents that you were leaving your job in Dublin to be in a band?
“No. They were so supportive. They knew [what I wanted]. I had been working in an office about nine years at that stage and of course De Dannan was a big name at the time as well. I was replacing Dolores Keane. So it was a good number to be getting. So my parents were totally onside — my father, particularly. He was very, very proud.”
Sadly, Eleanor’s father only lived for a year after she joined De Dannan.
“He was one of the reasons I called my new album Forever Young, because he had an amazing attitude towards life. He was 83 when he died. I was going to say goodbye to him because I was going on tour with De Dannan to Belgium. A neighbour was carrying him across the road because he had had a massive heart attack on the farm. He was doing work on the farm that at that stage of his life he should not have been doing. But he saw himself as forever young.”
You can now also watch Independent.ie’s Windmill Lane Sessions on TG4. Eleanor Shanley & friends play The Unitarian Church, Stephen’s Green Dublin tonight, Dec 13th (tickets.ie) and Clonmel Folk Club on Jan 19th. Eleanor’s new album Forever Young is now on sale.
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