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Why Duhan won't give up till it's over

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UNFLINCHING: Johnny Duhan

UNFLINCHING: Johnny Duhan

UNFLINCHING: Johnny Duhan

'THE old spinster is going insane / Her next door neighbour is in church again."

It's the opening line of Johnny Duhan's great song Just Another Town, but Duhan was told by a big-time record producer that it was just too stark. That, in his experience, the general public tended to give a wide berth to old spinsters going insane, to next door neighbours who were in church again, and to anything that followed from that, however rewarding it might eventually turn out to be.

Maybe he was right, maybe he was wrong, all we know is that this classic Irish song with its unflinching images of Duhan's childhood in Limerick, beautifully written and performed, is not nearly as well-known as it should be.

And that whenever he plays a few gigs, as he is doing this month in Naas, Castlebar, Listowel and Limerick, or releases a new album, such as the forthcoming CD and DVD Winter, there seems to be a need to write about him as if you're introducing some bright young fellow just trying to get a start in the business.

Who you're actually introducing is a man who once shared a flat with Phil Lynott and Gary Moore, to whom he dedicates a song on Winter. You could call him a founding father of Irish rock 'n' roll, Duhan having been the frontman with Granny's Intentions, with a powerful soul voice and a stage presence, which the aficionados can still be heard comparing to that of Jagger.

He remembers hearing one of the Clancy Brothers, at the height of his fame, saying that if he wasn't a folkie, the one thing he would have wanted was to be a rock star. Johnny went the opposite way.

And given the forces that he has encountered in his career, the opposite was usually the right way to go, stretching all the way back to the Granny's album Honest Injun, the sleeve design of which was sketched out by band member John Ryan from Athlone. Just to give a rough outline to the record company, which went ahead and put out the sketch as the actual cover. Ah, rock 'n' roll.

A lifetime later, just a few months ago, Duhan won his case at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in relation to a settlement of an action involving his best known song, The Voyage. A vision of stoicism, he sat in the tribunal with his daughter Niamh, a copy of the works of Dante Alighieri on the table beside him, and so much on the line.

He had already written another song that would perfectly describe the situation and others he has encountered along the way – Don't Give Up Till It's Over.

On one track on the Winter album, he uses the words of Emily Dickinson, and happily quotes her poem: "Fame is a bee. / It has a song–/ It has a sting–/ Ah too, it has a wing". So it flies away from you. He was amused to see that even Paul McCartney was complaining recently that he wasn't getting played on the radio.

With Winter, Duhan is again going against some of the presumptions of the industry of human happiness. He plans to release the album on the first of November, which he feels is appropriate for these songs, which "reflect on the struggles of ageing, drawing on the winter as a metaphor for the grey season that my generation are now heading into."

At this point the X Factor judges are out of there, even before they get to the part of the sleeve-notes in which he writes that "ageing is painful ... and the pain intensifies the older we get, not just in physical but in emotional terms, as old friends, acquaintances and even perceived enemies begin to drop away to illness and death".

But there are compensations – "the fear of failure that can cripple youth diminishes, and an acceptance of our limitations and weaknesses grow into a kind of mild confidence and even wisdom, if we're open to it".

In the bare beauty of the songs, and the simplicity of style, Duhan is true to his word that "I spend much of my time searching for the bright things".

He is delighted to hear that the Cork Ladies Football team used Don't Give Up Till It's Over as an inspiration for their recent All-Ireland victory. It was also a favourite of Ronnie Drew's.

Such affirmations do not come to a man who sees only the dark side. The opposite– indeed, always the opposite – is true.

Sunday Independent