Friday 22 November 2019

Obituary: Jim McCann, folk musician and balladeer

Folk musician and balladeer who enjoyed success with The Dubliners and as a solo act, writes Liam Collins

Barney McKenna & Ronnie Drew with Jim McCann and Johnnie McEvoy. Pic Tom Burke
Barney McKenna & Ronnie Drew with Jim McCann and Johnnie McEvoy. Pic Tom Burke
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Jim McCann, who died on Thursday at the age of 70, was, according to the last remaining member of the original Dubliners, John Sheahan, one of the great exponents of the slow ballad, such as 'Carrickfergus' or 'Easy and Slow'.

He put this talent to good use with his major hit 'Grace', a tribute to the wife of Joseph Mary Plunkett, who was executed as one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. The tender love song stayed in the Irish charts for 36 weeks after its release.

From a middle-class Dublin background, McCann went to UCD to study medicine but during a summer sojourn in a pea-canning factory near Birmingham he began hanging out and eventually singing in the folk clubs that were springing up in Britain during the 'swinging Sixties.'

Influenced by Woody Guthrie and the young Bob Dylan, McCann, then beardless, became a member of a Peter, Paul & Mary lookalike band known as The Ludlows. In 1966, before the Northern Ireland Troubles, they had a major hit with the Dominic Behan song 'The Sea Around Us', the lyrics of which eulogised the Irish Sea with a chorus that went "long may it roll between England and me/it's a sure guarantee that some hour we'll be free/ thank God we're surrounded by water." It was slightly ironic that the author, a brother of Brendan Behan, was living in England at the time and would spend most of the rest of his life there.

After the break-up of The Ludlows, McCann became a fixture on the Irish folk circuit, forming a friendship with Luke Kelly that resulted in him being asked to join the The Dubliners when founder member Ciaran Bourke fell ill after suffering a brain haemorrhage. McCann toured the world with the band between 1974 and 1979, staying on after Ronnie Drew left.

Never to the forefront of the so-called ballad revival, Jim McCann was a true entertainer, whether playing large venues with The Dubliners, or as a solo ballad singer in The Embankment or other 'singing pubs' of that era. He embraced and certainly enjoyed the precarious and bohemian life of a entertainer and its hard-drinking ways.

His easy going manner and reliability, as well as his close friendship with Shay Healy, made him a favourite RTE personality with shows like The McCann Man, where his friend Luke Kelly did his only televised version of the Phil Coulter classic 'Scorn Not his Simplicty' and specials such as My Ireland and McCann and McTell with another friend and singer, Ralph McTell ('Streets of London').

He was also versatile enough to play with Maureen Potter in Gaels of Laughter, be cast in Jesus Christ Superstar by Noel Pearson, and as the narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at The Gaiety. McCann was also an accomplished photographer and some his photographic work was used by The Dubliners.

After an arduous 2002 tour celebrating 40 years of The Dubliners in which ex-members Ronnie Drew and McCann were re-united with the band, McCann became increasingly hoarse and was subsequently diagnosed with throat cancer.

The side effects of his treatment meant that he would never sing again, although he last appeared with the folk group playing the guitar during a 2012 concert.

In the meantime, armed with a laptop and a fund of stories, Jim McCann never lost interest in entertainment, writing posts on the internet or articles, such as the lyrical ode to his lost youth published in the Sunday Independent on his 70th birthday last October. "So will my life after 70 be one of reverie, of introspection, of sharing wonderful memories with those who 'were there? Undoubtedly. But will I also be open to new ideas and dreams, will I re-start that book, will I write that song, will I take that photograph. Apart from a sudden further deterioration in my health there's no reason at all why not," he wrote

Sadly for Jim McCann there was a further deterioration in his health and he had been seriously ill for several months before he died peacefully this week. His wife, Phyl, who has also battled illness, was by his side.

In that article Jim McCann also said: "I have some wonderful old friends and I value them over diamonds." And those old friends were profoundly sad at his passing.

He was always a true gentleman in the sometimes fickle world of entertainment. McCann said he performed songs of war and peace, love and loss, or humour and eccentricity with equal enjoyment. His great success, according to his many friends in and out of the business, was that he enjoyed every moment of it.

Sunday Independent

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