Interview by Barry Egan
My sincere apologies in advance to Bono. Declan O’Rourke has a voice like no one else on these shores. It’s quite possibly a gift from someone, God, whoever. So when Declan steps back from the microphone after performing Children Of ’16 for the Windmill Lane Sessions on Independent.ie, you feel like you are in the presence of a special talent.
“I love singing it,” he says. “Back in 2014 I was asked by Joe Duffy to take part in a commemorative service for 40 children killed in and around Dublin in Easter week of 1916. At first it sounded like a good way to start exploring what I knew was going to be a very emotional chapter for all of us — the centenary of the Rising,” he says.
Declan adds that he couldn’t think of an appropriate song to sing at the service, “although Joe and I went through my catalogue, via email, to try to pick something, but neither of us came up with anything.”
It just seemed the song wasn’t there, adds Declan. “So it came down to one question,” he says. Declan sent Joe another email that simply said: “What would you like me to do, Joe?”
The email Declan got back from Joe just had a list of 40 children’s names...
“I knew instantly what he was doing,” says Declan, “The next 10 days, which is all I had before the ceremony, were a whirlwind of researching, reading info Joe sent me on all of the kids individually, and singing in the shower. Sleepwalking between the piano and the guitar, etc.”
“It’s a bit blurry, and although I remember the mechanics of it, I don’t know how it happened. I know I puzzled over which child to write about, because the more information you give, sometimes the more you take away in a song."
"You only have minutes to really move someone and transport a whole lot of information and emotion into someone’s brain. An individual story was what I thought would be the best way to achieve this, an insight.”
But somehow, over the days that followed, explains Declan, the song ended up being about not only the children, but also about the whole conflict — “and eventually about all Irish people who live and will live in the wake of 1916. In the end I realised that we are in fact the children of 1916 because we are all the product of it. I feel like for a long time the subject of 1916 or being republican or nationalist in any way became a taboo and a dirty word.”
Declan grew up around the corner from Kilmainham Gaol. He can remember being “fascinated with the whole thing when I discovered it at some point around the age of six or seven. I think it was mostly through song that I became aware of it.”
“My father used to sing a song,” reminisces Declan, “that began, ‘A great crowd had gathered outside old Kilmainham, their heads all uncovered, they knelt to the ground, for inside that grim prison was a true Irish soldier, his life for his country about to lay down.’ It’s sung to the most moving of melodies,” says Declan. “Really from the guts. As a kid I think this really hit on something deep in me. I get emotional even thinking of the song. I remember feeling such a love, and a deep sadness or some deep emotion. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
Declan recalls that one day he found a book under the bed in his grandad’s house about the Rising, and when he caught young Declan reading it, it was taken away. . ."and hidden".
Around that time Declan also had an experience in school. "There were a couple of young fellas in my class running around during a break and they were singing something 'Up the provos, up the provos!'. Of course I didn’t have a clue what it meant but they were having a great time so I joined in," Declan remembers.
"This was right during the time that all the Troubles were really ever present but I made no connection between the two. They were writing this all over books and everything so I wrote it on the cover of a couple of mine too. We were having great craic! That evening at home my dad was checking my homework, and when he got to a certain copy book with this written on it, I watched him read it and suddenly I got a crack of it across the head. I was shocked! He was shocked!"
"I could see it all over his face! He told me what it meant. It was an awful time. I can’t remember the exact words but he made the connection for me that all of the stuff on the telly about the people being bombed and killed was part of this. I was probably still too young to fully understand but I suppose something was broken at that point, and putting into my own adult words of today I realised that were wider implications to what being nationalist meant at that time."
Declan and his father never spoke of it again.
"1916 became something else in my mind. It felt dangerous. It was dangerous. So this song seemed to give me chance to explore those feelings again. I guess we have reached a point in our history where we can look at it again. The ongoing work of the peace process has helped us to do that."
So I got to explore something that was very emotional for me deep down. I’m very proud singing it, and when I did the orchestration I sneaked in a piece of the melody from James Connolly into the background, its played by bells at the point where I sing 'Republic soon was born'.
Declan got, he says, very choked up doing that.
"My father never sang it again after that, and I suppose he was trying to protect me or my innocence by doing that, but recently at a session down in Dingle for my stag he sang it very late in the night after a few pints."
Declan just put his head on his father's shoulder and listened, and cried.
"It was like he was saying to me 'You’ve grown up now'. I can sing it again. And I can sing my song now! Maybe Ireland has grown up. Its a very proud time for us. "
The Celtic Tenors