The Singing Corkman is back on song
Legendary songwriter Jimmy MacCarthy tells Andrea Smith he feels more relaxed now and coming into his own
'I just became unreasonable in myself. Instead of seeing all the work that had to be done, I only saw all of this magnificent result."
Thus singer-songwriter Jimmy MacCarthy describes the moment he fell in love with Jenkinstown House in Kilkenny, the neo-gothic revival house he bought in 2006 and moved into 18 months ago.
Originally built for Sir Patrick Bellew in 1825, the house, adjoining church and Great Hall were damaged and practically derelict in parts.
Perhaps it was the fact that Thomas Moore had written The Last Rose of Summer there that drew him to the place.
With the help of architects and restoration experts, Jimmy created the most beautiful home. The church has had the most amazing transformation, converted into a beautiful 106-seat theatre, with light streaming through stained-glass windows. The plan is to hold intimate concerts and make television recordings here. There is also a state-of-the-art recording studio.
With his enthusiasm for the project, one senses a change in Jimmy himself. There's an ease and a lovely air of positivity about him.
It's been about five years since he last performed, partly because he had become unsure of himself. "I stopped, because life stopped me," says the man considered by many to be the finest songwriter this country has ever produced.
"I was too intense, and was always very solitary, particularly when I gave up drinking. Everyone in the music business knows I'm a lone player, but I had become somebody who lost out on a lot of things about life itself."
Jimmy says he has discovered an ability to engage with life that has made him stronger and less nervous. Daily meditation, he says, helps him to live in the moment.
Jimmy is from Macroom, Co Cork, where his late father Ted had a garage and distribution business. He describes his mother Betty as an extraordinary woman -- artistic, creative, and very supportive. Several of his siblings are musical or artistic, including his sculptor brother, Sean MacCarthy -- the artist behind the Christy Ring tribute at Cork Airport, and Bill Clinton's at Ballybunion.
As a youngster, Jimmy and his older brother Dan played together -- their first gig was in the very un-rock 'n' roll setting of a Legion of Mary gathering.
Jimmy wasn't mad about school, but he loved horses. When he was 15, he went to work for trainer Vincent O'Brien, spending some time in Newmarket. He returned to Cork to help out when his dad became ill, and when the family closed the business, he became a full-time musician.
He started writing his own songs, and after working in London, where he lived in squats and busked in the Underground, Jimmy came back to Ireland. He worked with people like Declan Sinnott and the band Southpaw, but when the band Moving Hearts recorded his song Strain of The Dance for their 1983 album, Live at the Dominion, the penny finally dropped -- he was a songwriter!
A sublime songwriter, as it happens, as evidenced by the calibre of people who have recorded his songs. First Christy Moore recorded Ride On, and later covered Missing You and Bright Blue Rose, among others. Mary Black had hits with Katie, No Frontiers, Wonder Child and Adam at the Window, while The Sky Road and Love's Magic Bite are among the most popular of her sister Frances' repertoire.
The Corrs, Westlife, Tommy Fleming, Mary Coughlan, Maura O'Connell, The Celtic Tenors ... . The list of artists who have a timeless Jimmy MacCarthy track or two in their set grows longer all the time.
As he admits, there was a time when drinking had become a problem. "I started drinking too much in my 20s," he says, "and then I experienced alcohol-related depression. I was a roaring alcoholic."
Jimmy incentivised himself with a deal -- he could go to the Long Valley Bar in Cork and "start all over again," provided he had written a song by 4pm that day.
"This made me the most prolific songwriter in Ireland," he says. "Isn't that strange? I thought it was great fun, because I was the life and soul of everything when I was drinking. By the time I was 30 though, I knew I had to give it up, and I stopped at 32."
The singer went on a programme to give up alcohol, and went to his first meetings with his dad.
"My father was on the fellowship right throughout our lives, apart from a couple of lost weekends," he says. "After about a dozen meetings, he said to me, "Now Jim, you don't want to be hearing my sins, and I don't want to be hearing yours, so from now on, we'll go to different meetings."
"I've been sober 24 years," he adds. "A lot of people think that I got successful, and all that happened was that I got sober. It changed everything."
Jimmy's one fear was whether he could still write. He needn't have worried, because he subsequently wrote songs like No Frontiers, Ancient Rain, and Adam at the Window.
"They're all good songs," he says. "So obviously nothing got lost with the drink."
Jimmy's songs are a gorgeous mixture of poetry, melody and deep meaning, and although he can write songs in a heartbeat, some of them don't come easily. They're all very personal, he says. Every song needed to be written, as much for him as his audience.
Jimmy plans to release a new album this autumn. With more than 100 new songs written, he is now seeking a producer who can bring something extra to the recording.
He has also started putting a tentative toe back into the performing arena, with a few well-received gigs around the country. He'll be performing at the National Concert Hall in June, and is very much looking forward to it.
"I'm coming into my own this time, because I was nervous about not getting it right before. I'm much more relaxed now, and am spending more time telling stories at the gigs, and the audience seems to get a great kick out of it too."
As the writer of some of the most beautiful songs ever written, Jimmy says he is romantic with a capital "R".
"There's a huge love in me, and it's quite universal," he says. "I still love the people that I loved in my romantic life, and I think that's a great result. I love that idea."
Jimmy is currently single, living alone with his dog Ermie, and when asked if he thinks he will meet someone, he hesitates for a moment:
"I'm 56 now, and I'm reasonably set in my ways," he says. "I haven't lived on a permanent basis with anybody for 20 years now."
Would he have liked to have been a father? "Yes," he says simply. "All young things are so delightful, and the idea of one of your own is wonderful."
Would that be a dream for you then? "No, my only dream is to live fully in life, and to finish the job I started," he says. "It's never easy to bring the sort of vision I have about, and the closest I've got to it is in my songs. I think I'm happiest when I've just written a song I think is great -- when I feel I've created something that's true."
Pat Egan presents The Best of Jimmy MacCarthy in Concert, National Concert Hall on Thursday, June 11. Tel: (01) 417-0000 or book online at www.nch.ie