Tuesday 11 December 2018

Sting reveals 'emotional journey' to visit former Monaghan workhouse where his maternal Irish ancestor died

Star speaks ahead of his musical The Last Ship's Dublin run

From left, actor Jimmy Nail, who stars in ‘The Last Ship’, Sting, and the production’s director, Lorne Campbell. Picture: Mark Savage
From left, actor Jimmy Nail, who stars in ‘The Last Ship’, Sting, and the production’s director, Lorne Campbell. Picture: Mark Savage
Melanie Finn

Melanie Finn

I’m waiting in the green room of the Newcastle Arts Centre just about to interview the music legend that is Sting.

Ahead of meeting Newcastle’s most famous son and 16-time Grammy winner, I’m waiting for the usual instructions that come with interviewing an A-lister: no questions about his personal life, don’t ask for a selfie and especially don’t ask about tantric sex.

But then comes the smiling publicist, who promptly ushers me into one of the sprawling dressing rooms without another word.

In the flesh, Sting, aka Gordon Sumner, looks like a super-fit 66-year-old (that will be all the yoga) and he is in wonderfully relaxed form as we begin our chat.

The only time he becomes emotional is when speaking about his Irish heritage, a tragic tale which saw his great-great-great grandmother, Mary Murphy, being thrown in a poorhouse in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan.

She eventually died there at 68 – just two years older than Sting’s age now – in 1881.

It was a story that he delved into more than two years ago after paying a visit to the site of one of three mass graves, which he said was an experience wrought with emotion.

"I knew we were Irish and that was quite an emotional journey for me," he said.

"I went to the poorhouse in Monaghan.

"One of her sons escaped to the north-east so here we are. I didn’t really know all that before."

Sting arrives on the red carpet for the 89th Oscars on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California. / AFP PHOTO / VALERIE MACONVALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images
Sting arrives on the red carpet for the 89th Oscars on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California. / AFP PHOTO / VALERIE MACONVALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

His first wife was Irish actress Frances Tomelty and Sting spent some time living here during the 1980s.

Although he now lives in the Big Apple, he says that he’s "not a citizen of New York".

"I lived in Connemara for a while in the 1980s in Roundstone, near Clifden. I’m very fond of Ireland," he said.

Delving into his past is clearly something he’s done more of in recent years, as his debut musical The Last Ship is inspired by his 1991 album The Soul Cages and his time growing up in Newcastle during the ship-building era.

It’s clearly a labour of love for the former Police star, who spent five years writing its music and lyrics. It tells the tale of a young man called Gideon (played by Jimmy Nail) who leaves to travel the world, returning 17 years later to find the once-thriving city on a downward spiral.

We’re given a sneak preview of the reworked show after sitting in on one of the rehearsals and it seems like a rip-roaring affair – with definite tones of Irish folk music.

"Of course there is, because in the Industrial Revolution there was massive Irish and Scots emigration so I was brought up in essentially an Irish community," he said.

"Plus, you have the Northumbrian folk tradition of Irish and Scots.

"It’s mainly folk music in the show so you guys can take some credit for that."

He is quietly spoken with a slight American twang, but a definite touch of the Geordie when it comes to certain expressions. Despite his immense success, he says he has never forgotten his roots.

"I live in New York now, although I’m not a citizen of New York," he said.

"I’m still a Geordie; I’m proud of my heritage. I want to honour my heritage in this play.

"I’m very much an outsider but sometimes it gives you a viewpoint that others within the community wouldn’t have.

"So my job is to give a voice to people who normally aren’t heard. Maybe being an outsider helps me do that but I always know where I come from.

"I come from those streets that are right next to the shipyard in Newcastle and are right next to the people who lived and worked and died there, so I feel there’s an authenticity there. I feel there’s a responsibility, perhaps. A sense of duty, a sense of debt."

His project met with decidedly mixed reviews, and encountered some rough seas, when the critics had their say following its debut in Chicago in 2014, before going on to run on Broadway.

His good friend and fellow activist, Bono, who delved into the arena of musical theatre with Spider-Man, also got burned by the critics when he branched out from writing pop songs.

I ask him whether, even after selling nearly 100 million albums and with all his awards and recognition, the reviews still matter to him.

He looks slightly taken aback, as if the thought had never even occurred to him.

"About this? No, I would be fine," he says.

"I know its worth and I always do. I wouldn’t lose any sleep. Although I’d read the reviews after breakfast and never before lunch."

Changes have been made to the show, which he said had "too many strands", and some songs have been taken out and others added.

He will debut the new production in Newcastle in March before it arrives at Dublin’s Bord Gais Energy Theatre from June 4-9, 2018 (tickets go on sale this Friday).

But he said sometimes the home crowd is even tougher to impress as expectations are higher.

"It’s not an easy crowd at all. It’s a tough room, so you’ve got to be good. So we’re going to be good," he said.

He ends our interview by reassuring me he’ll definitely travel to Dublin when the show comes before Irish audiences.

"Of course I am, are you kidding me?" he said. "Any excuse to get over to Dublin."

Happy to have you, Sting.

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