Wednesday 16 October 2019

Cathy comes home... singer remains true to her roots and values

As traditional band Dervish celebrate their 30th anniversary with a new album, Cathy Jordan opens up to Barry Egan about always picking the wrong men, the death of her sister from cancer and how her mother prayed for God to take her

Cathy Jordan of Dervish. Photo: David Conachy
Cathy Jordan of Dervish. Photo: David Conachy
Dervish: back row, Michael Holmes (bouzouki), Shane Mitchell (accordion), Brian McDonagh (mandola/mandolin). Front, Liam Kelly (flute/whistle), Cathy Jordan (vocals/bodhran), Tom Morrow (fiddle). Photo: Colin Gillen
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Cathy Jordan was 12 years of age when her big sister Marie brought her to see De Dannan in concert in Keadue, County Roscommon. It was upon hearing Dolores Keane sing that night that made Cathy's mind up that she wanted to be a singer. Marie worked in St James's hospital as a laboratory technician while Cathy went on to be a gael force of a lead singer with Dervish...

"When Dervish first played in Dublin everyone in St James's was at the gig," Cathy recalls referring to An Beal Bocht in Charlemont Street. "Marie got everyone to go."

Marie died in St James's of cancer when her little sister Cathy was just 21. "She was 36," Cathy remembers.

Cathy can also remember how her father Pat Joe threw his prayer book in the corner and said he would never pray again. "Himself and my mother lost all will to live after that." Five years after Marie died, Pat Joe died too. "Another four and a half years later, mammy died," Cathy says of Mary Margaret.

Dervish: back row, Michael Holmes (bouzouki), Shane Mitchell (accordion), Brian McDonagh (mandola/mandolin). Front, Liam Kelly (flute/whistle), Cathy Jordan (vocals/bodhran), Tom Morrow (fiddle). Photo: Colin Gillen
Dervish: back row, Michael Holmes (bouzouki), Shane Mitchell (accordion), Brian McDonagh (mandola/mandolin). Front, Liam Kelly (flute/whistle), Cathy Jordan (vocals/bodhran), Tom Morrow (fiddle). Photo: Colin Gillen

Mary Margaret prayed to God to take her. And she asked Cathy and her siblings - four brothers and two sisters - "to 'say a prayer that I will be taken tonight'."

Cathy didn't pray that her mother would be taken from this earth. "No - I wasn't much of a prayer person anyway. But I was hoping that she didn't suffer."

For a woman that was so lively, Cathy says, her mother ended up with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson's disease, depression, bronchitis. "Her mind was working but her body completely and utterly let her down. She was only 74 when she died. Daddy would have been 80 on his next birthday.

"Marie's death affected the whole family and all the grandparents, because she was the first born. Everyone in the family looked to Marie. She was the big sister for all the family.

"She bought a house in Dublin. She would come from Dublin with yoghurt and cottage cheese and things we've never heard of; and wine. Daddy would only drink wine if it was mixed with milk.

"Marie broadened our horizons. She was the rock we all stood on. When she got sick, the shockwave that it sent through the family was enormous.

"She got sick in 1990. It was the most shocking news. It was like a bomb went off. But she was a real fighter, a real goer. She ran marathons. She played squash. She died while working in St James's. She got remission from cancer a few times and it kept coming back. She fought for five or six years."

Growing up in Roscommon, Cathy's childhood was "very happy."

"We had fields and we had lambs and pups and kittens and a horse, and cows to milk.

"The only memories I have from my childhood that I didn't like was being sent to a large field with a bucket and being told to pick stones for the day. That was cruelty. It was too anti-social and lonesome."

What age was Cathy when she first went to a disco?

"A disco! I never even heard of a disco until I was 18."

And her first boyfriend?

"I was probably 15 or 16."

And what age was Cathy when she first fell in love? "Maybe 20 or 21... it lasted for about five years."

I ask her how her romantic life went after that break up. Did she ever get married?

"No. I never got married. I guess it's probably that I'm married..."

To the road?

"Yeah. And a bad chooser of a partner and maybe some of that is because I know it won't work out."

Is that self-sabotage?

"A little bit, I guess. Or maybe not. Maybe it's self-preservation. It's one or the other. I haven't figured it out yet. I was always content and independent.

"I have friends that might need to be in a relationship, or want to be badly in one, or be on the look out a lot. I wouldn't."

Why was Cathy attracted to men for a relationship she says she knew wouldn't work out?

"I guess I was attracted to bad boys a lot," she answers.

"And bad boys always messed up eventually. Then I'd have an out.

"That is my psychology of myself at this point. There was a few fellas I went out with for five years. There is a five-year limit," says Cathy who isn't currently in a relationship with anyone other than herself: "I have just finally stuck myself back together from the last one, which was four years ago.

"So, I am in a good place. Maybe the writing was on the wall. He probably did me a favour."

Ahead of their 30th anniversary, Dervish's new album The Great Irish Songbook will do the music world a favour too.

It is something of a starry affair. This is because the long-awaited album has none other than Brendan Gleeson singing The Rocky Road To Dublin, to say nothing of Imelda May singing Molly Malone, Vince Gill singing Patrick Kavanagh's On Raglan Road, David Gray singing The West Coast of Clare, Andrea Corr singing She Moved Through The Fair and, among others, Steve Earle giving us his take on The Galway Shawl. "Steve can't get away from the Galway songs!" laughs Cathy in reference to Earle's 2001 hit Galway Girl.

The Great Irish Songbook also took, smiles Cathy, "longer than Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon" to finish. The last album Dervish made, 2013's The Thrush in the Storm took us four days to make and record it. That was the shortest one ever and this is the longest one ever."

"For an album," explains Cathy, "Dervish do all the rehearsals, get everything up to speed before going in to record the songs live. This was a totally different process entirely because they are not doing the groundwork themselves. For a few of the songs we did and then added the artist but for more of the songs the artist did the groundwork and sent it to us.

"We recorded maybe 10 songs and then it was a process of pitching them. We had an idea of who might sing this one or that one or the other one. Sometimes those people went for it and other times they didn't. They might be into it but they mightn't be available for six months.

"Then you wait and they mightn't be available then either, or maybe you're busy or the studio is booked, or whatever. It just took a long time."

It was worth the wait to secure Gleeson, Corr, May, et al. "There was a lot of moving parts, as you can imagine, on this album," she says. "It feels so good to have it finished. We thought we'd never finish it. We started it five years ago.

"We thought we'd have it out a few years ago. But then we kind of relaxed and said, 'It will take as long as it takes.'

"And with the 30th anniversary of the band coming up, and if the two coincided, wouldn't that be great? And that's what happened."

Asked what was Dervish like at the start, three decades ago, Cathy says "it was fairly basic. Endless hours rehearsing in Brian's [McDonagh] art studio in Sligo. More rehearsing than gigging. Gigs were scarce back then when we started out. We had two in the first year.

"We all had day jobs back then. It wasn't until 1996 that we threw in the towel on the day jobs and gave this a go. We haven't looked back since."

One of Cathy's day jobs was as a DJ on Longford Radio "back in the nearly pirate days". She played "anything either me or my neighbour down the road had in vinyl. He had a huge collection of everything from Townes Van Zandt to Willie Nelson to Loudon Wainwright. He kind of broadened my musical ears."

How does Cathy look back on how she was then? What was she like?

"Naive. Wild."

Wild how?

"I was always out when I shouldn't have been out. I also worked as a pastry chef" - she was covered in flour the day she was asked to join Dervish - "and I would probably leave the pub and go in and bake cakes for a few hours, until six o'clock in the morning."

Did that make the cakes better or worse?

"Who knows! I'd imagine worse!" she laughs. "But you'd be in the pub every night of the week, either playing sessions or gigs."

Did she develop a drink problem?

"I think everybody in the country had a certain degree of a drink problem," she says. "But we didn't call it a problem back then. We only call it a problem now. Back then it was just normal behaviour. I wouldn't say I have a problem now, but I don't drink as much as I did back then.

"When I was a kid in Roscommon, my neighbour lived in Strokestown and there was a crossroads and there was 27 pubs! There was a grocery shop and a chemist shop and 27 pubs. So I don't think anyone had a hope back then of not developing some kind of a social liking and love for the drink, you know?"

When I imagine there was a lot of traditional music played in those pubs, Cathy says: "Not always. A lot of the time it was a man with a drum-machine and a guitar. It was pretty awful, depending on where you were."

In terms of her own musical background, Cathy's parents "loved to sing. Daddy was a great social animal. He loved his pints. He was a farmer. Thirty acres," says Cathy adding that she met a man on the train today travelling up from Longford.

"He sat in beside me and said, 'You're Cathy Jordan. I knew your father. My father was a wonderful man. I always enjoyed his company. He was cute at playing poker. He could have been a professional. He was the life and soul of every party he was in.' It was just lovely to hear," she says.

"He loved to sing. Ironically, it was my father who gave me the love of music and song, but he didn't like me doing it in the beginning, because he thought I was wasting my time and I should have a real job.

"I shouldn't be spending all my time playing music. I should marry someone who would provide for me. He was old-fashioned. He was born in 1916. He had old-fashioned notions. It wasn't until he saw Dervish on The Late Late Show in - I would hazard a guess at 1993, 1994 - that he changed because Gaybo was king."

As for Cathy's mother, she was "a great woman". With a story to match.

Mary Margaret Cox left Ireland in the 1940s and went to Providence, Rhode Island and then Queens in Boston, became an American citizen, came back to Ireland when her father died for the funeral - and rekindled a relationship from years before with Cathy's father, Pat Joe Jordan.

"Then she went back to America," Cathy says taking up the story, "and sent money back to my father to set up home in Ireland. They were only from a mile away from each other," Cathy says of her mother who was from Curraghroe and her father who was from Scramogue: "They would have known each other from the dances."

In 1954, Cathy's mother left "her glamorous lifestyle" in Boston and moved into a cottage in Scramogue which had just got electricity. There was one lone bulb hanging from the ceiling and no running water: "She moved in with my grandparents and my aunt; that was the status quo for a good few years."

And what year did Cathy come along? "It was in... ahhhh! I'm not telling you!" she laughs. It is a laugh that perhaps takes as long to finish as The Great Irish Songbook.

Dervish's new album The Great Irish Songbook, on Rounder Records, is due out on April 12

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