The melancholy of the majestic Shannon
She is one of Ireland's most internationally respected musicians. Sharon Shannon unburdens herself about the death of her mother last year and the death of her long-term partner, and how she felt "physically sick, weak, helpless and useless." Then she found love again.
Bereavement is the deepest initiation into the mysteries of human life, someone wise once said, an initiation more searching and profound than even happy love. For Sharon Shannon the only thing truly profound initially was the physical and emotional pain. It is more than seven years now since her long-term partner, Leo Healy, was taken from her - May 7, 2008 - from a heart attack at the age of 46. (Sharon personally believes that the medication Leo was taking for Crohn's disease, which he suffered chronically from, weakened his heart.) She still thinks about Leo every single day of her life.
She says she smiles thinking of all the good times they shared. "I miss him and his lovely smile and gorgeous brown eyes and his kind and caring and fun-loving personality. He was a great human being who loved life and I feel lucky to have been part of his life," she says herself with a smile.
"A lot of grief counsellors will explain this to you," Sharon adds, "You know when someone says 'I can't believe it', the reason you can't believe it is [because] your subconscious mind is actually not allowing you to believe it fully, because if you had to absorb that much grief all in one go, you could get so overwhelmed by grief that you could totally lose your mind and break down and not be able to function."
I ask Sharon did she lose her mind.
"I don't think so."
She says that the subconscious mind will only let reality seep in, "bit by bit, over the course of a few months or longer - depending on the person. For me, at the beginning, the awful reality would seep in a good few times a day for roughly about 20 minutes." During those troubled times Sharon felt "physically sick - and weak and helpless and useless." In time, the bouts of reality, as she calls it, increased "but the intensity of the feeling began to lessen until eventually, after a few years, the loss became a total reality that I had no choice but to accept."
Acceptance is crucial, she says, because if you "don't accept it, the grief will never leave you and will eat you up. And that kind of negative thinking is totally useless and destructive. If you keep it up it will ruin everything else that you have left in life and will affect the people all around you. One death is enough for people to be grieving, without also having to deal with a second person who might as well be dead. I think you must keep reminding yourself that your friend who passed away would certainly not want it to be like that for you."
Reminiscing on that May day when she heard the devastating news that Leo had died, Sharon believes her subconscious mind immediately went into lock-down protection mode. "It was almost like I was watching a movie or that we were all part of a sketch or something and this wasn't happening in real life. I couldn't imagine in a million years that Leo was dead.
"How I felt during the next few days at the wake and the funeral is very hard to describe but two of Leo's sisters" - she says, referring to Helen and Jackie - "told me that they had a similar feeling: 'It was like we were at someone's funeral but not Leo's'. We were just going through the motions of a funeral. It felt like Leo was just gone away on a holiday and would be back in a few weeks."
At that stage, Sharon had no idea of the enormous grief that was on the way - "like a tonne of bricks once reality would begin to sink in." Prior to, and after, the funeral in Church of Christ the King, Salthill, in Galway where Leo was from, "great friends" like musicians Winnie Horan and Seamus Begley and Sharon's manager John Dunford stayed at Sharon's house for a week. "We had to delay the funeral by a day because Leo's daughter, Sarah, was doing her school exams in the UK," Sharon recalls, adding that: "We had Leo's body in the coffin at the house. It seemed so strange and so wrong to see him in the coffin, but I was glad to have him at home and not at a funeral parlour."
Sharon "was able to fix Leo's hair the way he liked it himself and other little things like that. We had him at home for a few days and nights before the funeral. I stayed on the couch at night beside the coffin. It was an absolutely beautiful day on the day of the funeral." Friends, new and old, came from all over the world to say goodbye to her beloved Leo, she says. "There was non-stop music at my house for about three weeks after the funeral. Music is an incredible healer and we all found it enormously helpful."
I ask Sharon how she felt when everyone had gone home and the house was quiet and she was on her own. "When the visits died down and reality began to sink in more regularly, I felt I needed to immerse myself into something positive. I asked my manager John Dunford if we could make a non-commercial recording of the music we had at the funeral. I wanted to record all the songs that were associated with Leo and the amazing send-off that he had got."
The resulting CD, Songs For Leo, was a spiritual collection that Sharon still listens to because, she says, "it has a special place in my heart because not only does it remind me of Leo, it makes me so grateful for all the absolutely gorgeous friends and family that I have who were so kind and helpful to me at the time."
What also helped the painful process of grieving for Sharon was reading books about the subject, night after night. "I read a lot of grief counselling-type books. I found them very helpful. Most of them are based on the belief that the spirit lives on after physical death. So even if you don't believe it, it's still very comforting to even think about it and live in hope - and read all the beautiful uplifting stories. They teach you to be constantly on the look out for synchronicity and that these little coincidences are all signs from the spirit.
"So if you are in tune and looking out for this kind of stuff, you will see various little signs every day and they are incredibly comforting. The spirit can send a little bird or a butterfly or an animal your way to cause some kind of remarkable synchronicity. If you start noticing things like this it will give you great faith and hope. It certainly beats the awful thought that your loved one just goes into a hole in the ground; end of story."
"Come to think of it," she smiles, "it was just the mannequin-type thing that Leo left behind that went into that grave, certainly not Leo. Leo went somewhere else, I don't know where, but not into that hole in the ground."
Looking back, Sharon, now a youthful-looking 46, can remember the excitement of learning to walk and trying to make it towards the outstretched arms of her parents and older siblings when she was one-and-a-half. "People won't believe that I remember that but I actually do have a memory of that moment. I also remember hiding under the dinner table because of shyness when visitors would come to the house," she says referring to her childhood in Bealacanna, Ruan, Co. Clare.
That shy child would soon be celebrated all over Ireland and further afield: she had an entire Late Late Show dedicated to her in 1993 at the age of 23 - she is back on the Late Late this Friday to launch her new album, with Alan Connor, In Galway - she played for Presidents Clinton and Obama in The White House, she received a lifetime achievement Meteor award in 2009, and she was honoured for 'outstanding contributions in music' at the Irish Books, Arts and Music (IBAM) awards in Chicago this year.
This is to say nothing of her 1991 album, Sharon Shannon, being the best-selling album of instrumental traditional Irish music ever released, or a live version of Galway Girl recorded with Mundy back in the late-Noughties being the most downloaded track in Ireland, or being part of the original Woman's Heart album in the summer of 1992. Or perhaps most proudly of all, being honoured with her name in stone at the parish hall in her home village of Corofin this year. "I am most proud of that because it was a lovely thing to do in my home county of Clare." Of the latter, she laughs that one of the biggest mistakes about her is that she is a Galway girl because of the hit song of that name with Mundy. "I'm a Banner girl. I live in Salthill in Galway but I'm not from Galway. I'm a blow-in!" she laughs.
Another frequent misconception people have about her is what she actually does for a living. "I'd be rich if I had a penny for the number of times that people said to me, 'You have a beautiful voice' or 'I love your singing - I have all of your CDs. I'm not a singer. I play instrumental music."
What does she sing in the shower? "I diddle tunes," she laughs. "I'm the worst singer you ever heard." Hearing Sharon record her own unique take on Fleetwood Mac's Never Going Back Again for the Windmill Lane Sessions on Independent.ie, it is not difficult to form the impression that the girl from the Banner County is one of the finest musicians you'll perhaps ever hear. There's magic in them their fingers.
Ironically, Sharon's late mother, Mary - who died last year aged 81 of Motor Neuron Disease - wanted those very fingers to be applied not to an accordion or a fiddle but to a typewriter in an office working as a secretary. "My mother wanted me to repeat my exams for Cork university but I really, really didn't want to go back there. I felt it was a total waste of time and money. My older sister Majella had just enrolled to do a six-month secretarial course in Limerick."
Sharon asked her mother if she would be happy to compromise and allow her to join Majella in doing the secretarial course, "and then after that my duty would be done and I'd be off the hook forever".
"Thankfully, she agreed," Sharon relates with a laugh indicating the relief. "So Majella and I spent six months in Limerick. The course was easy enough. I loved Limerick. I met loads of great musicians there and I played regular weekly sessions, and it wasn't too far for me to travel regularly to Doolin from there where my heart was firmly set. I had plenty of pub gigs to keep me going during this time.
"But I also got offered a well-paid tour of America with a small country-and-western showband-type group but I had to turn it down because of the secretarial course. That particular incident made it 100pc clear to me that I needed to make myself available in future for the possibility of any decent gigs coming in. My teacher in the secretarial college, Mrs Parkes, even agreed with me at the time. As soon as the course finished up, I moved lock, stock, and barrel to the magical little village of Doolin in north Clare where I had gigs seven nights a week and tons of brilliant friends. I was around 18 or 19."
Sharon played onstage for the first time when she was nine at céilís in Toonagh parish hall, four or five miles away from the family home in Bealacanna, on Friday nights, with local school teacher Frank Custy. "Frank showed the kids how to enjoy music and the céilís were something that the kids and the people in the area looked forward to. It was a great social gathering," she smiles, mentioning big pots of tea, sandwiches, buns, scones and apple tarts in the kitchen of the parish hall.
She has a sense of humour possibly all her own. During the recording of the Windmill Lane Sessions, she joked that one of the new songs was called Betty Swallocks. Sharon then recalled that when she supported Willie Nelson on a European tour in 2007 - as the Sharon Shannon Big Band with Eddi Reader and Damien Dempsey - she jokingly referred to her band as The Willie Warmers.
Born in Bealacanna, Ruan, on June 8, 1968, the future leader of The Willie Warmers, Sharon Teresa Shannon, comes from a family of four siblings. "Gary is the oldest. He plays the flute. Majella is the second eldest. She plays the fiddle. I'm next. Mary is the youngest. She plays the banjo. My parents never played music themselves, but they were great dancers," Sharon says, sounding like a verse from Johnny Cash's Daddy Sang Bass, adding that her grandmother on her mother's side, Catherine Garry, used to play the fiddle and the concertina.
Unsurprisingly, what inspired Sharon to become a musician was that there was always music in the family throughout her youth. "When I took up the tin whistle at age eight," she says, "I loved it instantly. My brother, Gary, is a brilliant teacher and he was a huge inspiration to me as a kid." Added to this was what Sharon inherited from her parents, Mary and IJ, who is 87 and still thriving. "Mum and dad never did anything by halves," she says. "No stone was ever left unturned. They are both very practical people and nothing was ever wasted. They'd a great ability to always look on the bright side and not to dwell on negativity."
The positive childhood Mary and IJ gave Sharon - growing up surrounded by all sorts of animals on a farm - also instilled her with a deep and enduring love of animals. "We had lots of pet dogs, cats and horses, and I adored them all, but the farm animals . . . held a special place in my heart. They were pets also and they were well treated at my father's farm."
She always felt huge empathy towards them and hated that they had to be sold. "While many people are concerned with animal suffering, be it through vivisection, puppy mills, or entertainment, very few people realise that 95 to 98pc of the world's horrific animal cruelty is due to the meat, dairy and egg industries. I try my best to help out as much as I can with various animal rescue and animal rights organisations.
"The way I look at it, there's no point in moping about and doing nothing about it, because if us animal lovers won't do anything to help, who will?" says Shannon, who lives with a large collection of cats and dogs in her home in Salthill: Begley, Gaffo, Benji, Lilly, Gnasher (named after Dennis the Menace's dog), Rosie, Fonzie, Dinny, Stumpy, Philo (after Phil Lynott); to name but a few of her four-legged friends in residence in the west.
"A very encouraging fact that I've discovered is that by switching to a vegetarian diet, you can save more than 100 animals a year from misery and horrific cruelty, and considerably more than that if you chose a vegan diet," Sharon continues. "That adds up to thousands in a lifetime. Most of my friends, including Jimmy, are meat-eaters, but of course that does not affect my friendship or my respect for them in any way. People are free to make their own choices."
The carnivore Jimmy she is referring is her boyfriend of six years. "He's an absolutely fantastic partner," she says of Jimmy, who works in a bar and keeps the customers entertained with his humour and optimism. "He's also my best friend. He has a brilliant sense of humour and he makes me laugh every day. People who enjoy a bit of craic always gravitate towards him.
"If I'm ever looking for him, all I have to do is listen out for where all the laughing is coming from. He's the kind of person that puts his energy into solutions, not problems, and always likes to look on the bright side. He is extremely patient with me and my scatty ways and he's always 100pc reliable. He adores his family and is very devoted to them and is very protective of them. Jimmy loves music, his motorbike, and his car.
"He also loves animals and he has a great way with them," Sharon smiles. "So thankfully he likes hanging out with me and my house full of rescued doggies and cats. I love Jimmy to bits and he makes me feel very safe and secure. I'm very grateful to have him in my life."
To watch the full interview with Sharon Shannon by Barry Egan, plus two exclusive performances, see The Windmill Lane Sessions on Independent.ie. You can now also watch Independent.ie's Windmill Sessions on TG4. 'In Galway' by Sharon Shannon and Alan Connor is out now.
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