“If life was a fairy tale,” Fergus O’Farrell sings in Sail On, “Every word would come true. And love would last for ever. Through these days and nights so blue.”
Life wasn’t a fairytale for Fergus, who died in 2016 aged 48, after decades in a wheelchair and, latterly, bed-bound, due to the muscular dystrophy that was diagnosed when he was eight.
Life was full of hardship and frustration, as well as love, and he was mostly denied the recognition his remarkable musical talent deserved.
Yet there is a kind of fairy tale ending after all.
A film about his life, Breaking Out, has just been released after many Covid-related delays. Fifteen years in the making and directed by Michael McCormack, it won the Best Irish Documentary award at the Galway Film Fleadh in July 2019 when it premiered, and more recently the George Morrison Feature Documentary Award at the 2021 IFTAs.
The film starts in the late 1980s when Fergus and his band, Interference, were emerging from the fertile post-U2 Irish music scene. It follows him through to the very end.
Fergus, barely 20 at the time, formed Interference with two friends, guitarist James O’Leary and poet Malcolm McClancy. They instantly stood out for their musical talent, but also for Fergus’s confidence and charisma.
Yet he was already mostly in a wheelchair when not on stage.
Director McCormack, who followed the band from then, recalls: “I saw Ferg go from standing on stage to sitting. From being able to play guitar and piano to when he couldn’t play any more.”
Glen Hansard of the Frames also met him around then. From the start, Hansard says, “this band were absolutely — extraordinarily — different. They had this artistic depth. Ferg was very much aware of mortality in his lyrics. He was singing about stuff that was very heavy, but he wasn’t a heavy guy. He was a very light person, with great humour”.
With collaboration from musicians including Donal Lunny and Maria Doyle Kennedy, as well as Hansard, Interference recorded their first album, released in 1995. It became a cult classic, but commercial success didn’t follow and the band broke up.
Fergus moved back to Cork, to Schull, with his wife, Meng Li, a Chinese nurse he met in Cyprus.
In 2007, Hansard and John Carney decided to include Fergus performing his song Gold in the film Once.
As Once soared, so did Gold. When Once became a Broadway musical, Gold was the song chosen for the Tony Awards ceremony. Finally, Fergus had something like the success he deserved, although it was too late for him to really capitalise on it.
A couple of weeks before Fergus died, Hansard travelled to Schull to help him finish the second album. “I remember him saying, ‘Glen, I’m not going to last long now’,” he says.
“He said, ‘Would you please do me a favour and do what you can to make my music go on?’ That was a promise I made to a friend. We can’t represent Ferg. No one can, but we can represent the songs and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Breaking Out is in selected cinemas since Friday www.breakingoutfilm