Wednesday 16 October 2019

'Scorn not his Simplicity': Phil Coulter reveals the heartbreak, anger and fear behind the song

In this exclusive extract, the songwriter tells the poignant story of his son Paul, and the inspiring lyrics behind his famous song that Luke Kelly made his own

Luke Kelly in 1977
Luke Kelly in 1977
Phil Coulter

Phil Coulter

When we discovered in 1965 that Angela was pregnant again, we were delighted. This time it would be different. This time we could share the news. This time around it was all legit. We were married. We could tell everyone we'd ever met of our delight in expecting another baby.

In the winter of that year a baby boy was delivered in St Andrew's Hospital, north London, to great rejoicing. We decided that we'd call him Paul. There was one minor bit of business that had to be taken care of immediately. We didn't have friends or family in London who could look after baby number one, Siobhan, and we certainly couldn't afford to pay a minder, so I flew back to Derry, deposited the baby with Angela's mum, and early the next morning I flew back to London and went straight to the hospital.

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I immediately felt that something was not right. The sister in charge told me that the paediatrician wanted to see me when he'd finished his rounds. When I went into the ward, the baby was asleep in the cot and Angela was strangely quiet. More than just exhausted from the birth, she seemed distracted, as if she sensed something was wrong. I shall never forget the conversation with the paediatrician. He was a plump and pompous little man with a bow-tie and an upper-class attitude. He asked me my age and seemed very unimpressed that this was already my second child. Then he launched into a speech about how people have different gifts and how the important thing was to make the most of the situation, whatever that may be. Eyeing me, a Paddy from Cricklewood, as if I'd just come off a building site, he went on to say that, "For example, not everyone can go to university, but one can still lead a full life". Where was he going with this, I wondered.

"Your child's potential is limited," he said. "But he can still have a happy, if short life. I'm afraid your boy has got Down syndrome."

I was devastated. The sky had just fallen on me and my world had collapsed. Angela was weeping uncontrollably. She had instinctively felt that all was not well, but this was the confirmation she did not want to hear. We were both shell-shocked and right then it was hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel.

The next few weeks were a nightmare. Instead of congratulations from our family and friends, what we got was sympathy. The celebrations were cancelled, the champagne taken out of the fridge.

It took me a long time to accept what had happened and to come to terms with it. Why us? Why now? It just didn't seem fair. I read up on the genetic disorder and felt even more frustrated. I was 24, my wife a few years younger. This was not supposed to happen to couples our age. What went wrong?

As the months passed, my wife made a much better job of dealing with the challenge and just getting on with it. To my shame, I simply pretended it hadn't happened. I even found it hard to lift the baby from his cot and give him a cuddle, God forgive me. It was a struggle emotionally to get a handle on what had happened. While I was floundering personally, I thought that professionally it might be therapeutic to try and write about it.

Writing Scorn Not His Simplicity did turn out to be quite cathartic. I even felt I was talking to myself when I wrote the words 'scorn not his simplicity but rather try to love him all the more'. It took time, but eventually I did heed the words and let go of my anger. Whatever had gone wrong, it certainly wasn't the fault of the baby. Through all of this, Angela was a tower of strength and just got on with coping with two kids. I began to appreciate what I'd often heard said, that in tough times, women have the greater inner strength.

Paul was not physically strong and despite Angela's constant and devoted care, he didn't flourish. After a few years he was diagnosed with a hole in the wall of his heart, a condition not uncommon in Down's children. This meant that he was weak and prone to infection. All he had to do was kick off his blanket overnight and he'd wake with a wheezing chest. His physical condition deteriorated over time, until the doctor advised us that he needed hospitalisation. The medical centre chosen for him was a small, attractive facility in a large detached house in a leafy suburb, but we felt really sad as we left him in his little bed and drove down the driveway. It made me think of the heartache my parents had suffered all those years ago, having to leave their first baby in the fever hospital. We visited regularly, but it was always the same story. He was see-sawing between being OK for a few days and then declining again. The hospital care didn't seem to be producing any lasting improvement. Ups and downs, highs and lows.

One Saturday visit in November of 1969, we found him on one of his bad days. As he'd often been before, he looked pale and a bit listless, but no cause for alarm, they told us. On Sunday morning we got a phone call to say that Paul had passed away in the night. The saddest thing was that in his four years on the planet, we had made all the adjustments and we had learned to love him all the more. Now he was gone. I couldn't help thinking, the poor little bugger, he didn't have much of a life.

After Paul was born, Angela and I underwent all kinds of tests to see if we could determine why he had been born with Down syndrome and to find some reassurance that it wouldn't happen again. They couldn't pinpoint any reason why it had happened, and therefore could give us no assurance that it wouldn't happen again. But we decided that it should not deter us from adding to our family. On March 11, 1968, the very night that Congratulations was chosen to represent the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest, Angela gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Niamh. I couldn't have wished for a better omen than that.

In the meantime I developed a special bond with Luke Kelly. When I took over production duties with The Dubs, I already had a strong love of folk music. I thought I knew a bit about it. Luke's knowledge was encyclopaedic. He had soldiered in the folk clubs of England for years and learned from the likes of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. I learned a lot from Luke. I also owe him a huge debt because it was he who continually badgered me about writing songs with more substance than Puppet on a String or Congratulations.

"You have to write some grown-up songs Phil," was his constant plea. But for Luke, I may very well not have written some of my more personal and, I have to say, my favourite songs, such as Scorn Not His Simplicity. We certainly didn't always agree in the studio and often locked horns. Luke was a man of firmly held beliefs. He would not sing any song unless he believed it.

On the first Dubliners' album I produced, At Home With The Dubliners, my main function was to get on tape material they were already familiar with, songs and tunes that were a firm part of their repertoire. Next time out (Revolution), I was determined to be more proactive, more hands-on and to bring some fresh ideas to the party. Good luck with that.

The album was again to be recorded in Mayfair Studios. It had started as a demo studio but had recently been upgraded a bit. It was still a no-frills kind of place, cheap and cheerful. But it got the job done, largely because of a brilliant young engineer, John Hudson, who would in later years become a very big cheese, working with the likes of Pink Floyd and Tina Turner.

Monday morning, 10am and John and I were there, ready to go. Mics set up, tape in the machine, kettle on the boil. The only thing missing, The Dubliners. They eventually pitched up an hour or so later, hungover, talking about the great party they'd had the night before and looking like five unmade beds. Barney asked if there was any chance of a bacon sandwich. I had to politely remind him that we'd a lot of work to do and not much time.

Luke suggested a song called Joe Hill and sang it through. I had never heard the song before, but I liked it instantly and was fascinated by the back story of a Union activist in the US. Right away, I heard the song as a bit of Americana and suggested putting piano in the track.

Silence. I could see from the horrified expression on Ciaran's face and the strange looks and raised eyebrows from the others that they weren't exactly all over that idea. I would nearly hear what they were thinking.

What! A piano on a Dubliners' record? Standoff.

Luke broke the silence: "F**k it, let's give it a try."

I sat at the piano and after a few minutes came up with a piano lick as an intro and a rolling rhythm underneath. Luke's eyes lit up. He just got it, and his enthusiasm carried the others along. A few run-throughs, flavoured with Ciaran (Burke) on harmonica and John (Sheahan) on country fiddle, and I knew we were on to something. Luke sang his heart out and the track became iconic and one of my all-time favourites. Its significance to me is that it was the first time I had really put my stamp on The Dubliners. I felt that I had broken through some sort of barrier.

There was a great energy in the room and the lads really responded to the challenges and the fresh ideas.

We were a few days into the recording when I figured this would be a good time to play a new song for Luke. It had taken a lot of effort, a few false starts and many months to write a song about my son Paul's Down syndrome. Working on the song after the initial shock of discovering Paul had the genetic disorder was like some sort of therapy that helped me to process the experience. Nonetheless, the difference between writing a pop song like Puppet on a String and such a deeply personal, almost confessional piece was stark. The whole idea of opening myself up, peeling off layers and letting folks into my innermost feelings was kind of anathema to me. I am basically a private sort of person, not given to public displays of emotion. This was a hurdle I had to get over, and I did.

I was still wary about unveiling the song to Luke. I waited until the lunch break, when the others had left the studio. I needn't have worried about it. Luke, who had been challenging me to write grown-up songs, loved it, understood the significance and totally embraced the whole thing. What we recorded the following day is, without any doubt in my mind, the definitive version of that song.

Although Scorn Not His Simplicity was a huge song for Luke, he refused to sing it at Dubliners' gigs because he didn't feel it would get the respect or the attention it deserved. That says a lot about the man.

From 'Bruised, Never Broken' by Phil Coulter, out this Friday (Gill Books, €22.99)

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