Diamond in the crown

'A true legend of Irish music': There is a testimonial concert to Philip Chevron of The Radiators and The Pogues, who has inoperable cancer. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Barry Egan

Philip Chevron remains a monumental figure in Irish music. An integral part of The Pogues, he wrote one of their finest compositions, Thousands Are Sailing, from the If I Should Fall From Grace With God album.

The song about the poor Irish souls going to America in Famine coffin-ships in search of a better life could perhaps be as relevant now as it was when he wrote it in 1988. "Where e'er we go, we celebrate/The land that makes us refugees."

Pre-Pogues, Chevron formed Ireland's first punk band, The Radiators From Space, in 1976 in Dublin, with Pete Holidai, Steve Rapid (Steve Averill), Jimmy Crashe and Mark Megaray.

Their highly influential second album, 1979's Ghostown, was produced by David Bowie's main man Tony Visconti and featured a Chevron-penned classic Faithful Departed that Christy Moore later made famous when he recorded it himself. "This graveyard hides a million secrets," sang Christy, "And the trees know more than they can tell."

"The Radiators' single was the first sound of punk on my radio and I was 15 and I liked it. Philip writes with his heart and from his experience," Liam O Maonlai told me.

Born Philip Ryan in the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, on June 17, 1957, Chevron is a Renaissance man with an encyclopedic knowledge of music and culture. His talents are many and diverse.

He produced, among others, the likes of The Pogues, The Real Wild West, The Men They Couldn't Hang and his friend and mentor Agnes Bernelle; and released solo records, among them The Captains & The Kings in 1983, produced by Elvis Costello. In 2010, he wrote the music for the new Druid production of O'Casey's The Silver Tassie.

He didn't lick it from the stones. Philip's father, Philip B Ryan, was heavily involved in Dublin theatre in the 1940s and 1950s, and took him when he was three to see an O'Dea pantomime, Robinson Crusoe. "I innocently got the bug," Philip told me when we met for lunch in 2010, adding: "It never left me."

Philip once told me he was given a crash course in Weimar Republic cabaret music from the aforementioned Agnes Bernelle as a young man in her house in Sandymount. "And all of this," he laughed, "while propped up on the pillows of her bed." In 1993, he put on Songs in Her Suitcase, "performed live" by the late Agnes Bernelle at the Project Arts Centre.

The desperately sad news is that he has inoperable terminal cancer. A testament to the impact Prince Philip – if I may call him that – has had on Irish culture can be judged by the array of luminaries who will take part in the tribute concert at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin on August 24.

Among those who will be paying tribute will be Shane MacGowan, Roddy Doyle, Patrick McCabe, Gavin Friday, Paul Brady, Joseph O'Connor, Duke Special with Fiona Shaw, Liam O Maonlai and Fiachna O Braonain.

"Time spent with Philip is a leap into the exhilarated air of a life living through rock 'n' roll, punk, balladry and poetry and into graciousness with which the wisdom, knowledge and humour gathered up along the way is imparted," says Fiachna O Braonain. "Philip does all that to the max."

"I'm honoured to have worked with Phil in both The Pogues and The Radiators," Cait O'Riordan added, referring to 2006, when Phil reformed The Radiators.

"He's a Cinemascope song composer, conjuring worlds with his words – a true legend of Irish music."

"He is a true diviner, an unsung hero, one of the few true punks," Gavin Friday told me, "a troubadour that made music that really f***ing meant something.

"The man is one of the few shiny diamonds in the crown of Irish music. I love him."

A sentiment shared by many.

Tickets for the Philip Chevron Testimonial Concert on Saturday, August 24, at Olympia, are on sale now, priced €30.