The Corrs' other tragedy
Jim Corr was six when his little brother was killed. For the first time, speaking to Barry Egan, he talks about that day...
Jim Corr was six when his little brother was killed. For the first time, speaking to Barry Egan, he talks about that day
IT SEEMS like another lifetime now. Like another world. Jim Corr can remember as a young child playing with his baby brother in the back garden. His eyes light up at the memory.
"We were having great fun with our Dinky toys together," he says. "He had a tiny yellow JCB which I thought was brilliant and wanted. We used to get similar presents. I remember we always used to have great fun running around the back garden."
Did Jim look after him?
"Because we were so young, Mammy was always looking after the two of us," he smiles. "All I know is that he was a very, very good kid, while I was the brat, the rascal."
Jim Corr can also remember the day his little brother was killed 32 years ago. He saw it happen. "I'll always have that memory," he says.
The story of the fifth Corr that the world never got to know is a truly poignant one. Gerard Corr was born on August 12, 1966. He was killed in a road accident when he was three. Jim was six. He has never talked about it before. It is a great wrench for him to do so now. We are sitting in the house in Dundalk, looking out on the garden where he used to play with Gerard.
"My brother was hit by a car right outside our house in Dundalk after he ran out onto the road to retrieve a football. He got hit by the car. Sharon was just born," Jim says. (Sharon Corr was born on March 24, 1970.)
"I remember standing at the gate with Mum after it happened. She was in an awful state. Dad lifted my brother and got in a car and took him straight to hospital. I wasn't brought into hospital. My parents stayed by his bedside. He died at 6am the next day. It was very traumatic for me as a kid," he recalls.
"I'm sure it's affected me in ways I don't realise. I was there when it happened. But the trauma I experienced was nothing compared to what my parents went through. Still, it was hard for me to understand. He was my pal."
After Gerard's death, did Jim become withdrawn?
"I think I did, to a certain degree," he answers. "I would have changed after that. It can't have had a positive effect on anyone. But it is something I deal with."
He's in a happier place?
"I wouldn't have any doubt about that. There is a saying, 'Only the good die young.' Maybe they are brought into the world for this reason, to teach us certain things."
And what did your brother's passing teach you?
"Through the course of his death, and my dealing with it, I'm sure I've learnt something, but it's for a psychologist to pull out of me. I just got on with life.
"The good die young," he muses. "My brother was the epitome of that. He never gave any trouble and was the antithesis of me as I was never out of it."
They say grief is that process by which our minds heal pain. They say that at the end of mourning, there is still sadness, but it is a wistful sadness that is tempered by the happy memories that we still possess for Jim Corr especially.
"I have memories of Gerard constantly bumping on a chair in time to whatever music the parents were playing," he says. "He was obviously very musical from a young age. It is highly likely that he would have, along with the rest of us, become a member of our band, The Corrs."
The Corrs' family house in Dundalk is full of memories. According to Jim, the "biggest mistake" his parents Jean and Gerry made was buying him a red walker as a baby. He would charge around the kitchen like an escaped lunatic which, to the next-door neighbours, he was.
"There was a couple of times when I went over the step that led out into the patio area with a foot drop and I wouldn't always land upright. I banged my head a couple of times. I used to go very fast," says Jim, "and my parents would be running out of the kitchen after me."
The same kitchen that Jim, his father and I are sitting in now. With his beard, Gerry looks like a more distinguished Lech Walensa, the leader of Solidarity in Poland. His voice is as clear and resonant as a silver trumpet.
"Jim suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Syndrome or, more precisely, Jean and I suffered from it," Gerry laughs.
"Long before the condition was diagnosed. We got him this speed-walk apparatus to get him up of his belly."
Shortly afterwards, Jim Corr, one year old, became the Michael Schumacher of the speed-walker. Anything breakable, he headed for it at top speed delft, crystal, glass. One memorable afternoon saw nine pieces of Waterford Glass dispatched.
Accepting defeat, Gerry turned to the child's ashen-face mother: "Give him the last piece get it over with!"
Then, as now, Jim was incorrigible. One day Gerry was at the top of a double-extension ladder, painting an upstairs window, when a neighbour alerted him to the presence of his year-old son on a rung just below him. "I didn't panic," Gerry says. "I stretched down my hand and he gave me his hand, like that was what he was there for to give me a hand."
Jim'll fix it, indeed.
Jim can recall lying in the heat of the sun in a cot and his mother putting sun cream on him. "I remember the sensation of the sun on my face in the back garden. I felt secure. I felt love."
When Gerry Corr met Jean Bell at a dance in the Pavilion ballroom in Blackrock, Dundalk in 1962 he felt similar emotions. He wrote a poem about their first meeting, "Pavilion 62":
Did angels convene
To bring me to Jean
Of wraparound eyes
In passion of pink
We dance for ever
"From the first time I met her, I loved her speaking voice," he says. "Later, when I heard her sing, my future was sealed! Happily, she liked me too."
What did she sing?
"It was an Irish song called Mo Shean Dun na Gall which she had learned at school in her native Donegal," he says. "Jean's is the voice of the Corrs."
Jean and Gerry were married on October 3, 1963 in St Patrick's Cathedral, Dundalk. (Almost exactly nine months later, their first son, James Steven Ignatius Corr, arrived on July 31, 1964.) Fatefully, a wedding present of a wonky old piano from Gerry's father James laid the foundations for The Corrs.
It was a quarter-tone flat due to the piano tuner's fear that upping the pitch would have added pressure on the old frame, and possibly broken it. A decision was made to put it in Jim's bedroom.
So as young as four, Jim would happily bash away on the piano to anything he had heard his father play on the record-player downstairs.
"Attempting to play along with a record recorded at concert pitch was interesting," laughs Jim. "Sounding like Les Dawson was no bother on this relic of an instrument."
Nonetheless, from that dodgy piano came an energy that fuelled the elation eventually unleashed in The Corrs. "Jim's talent and love of music came from both Jean and me," Gerry says, going off to put the kettle on.
The floors are wooden and polished-looking. There is a book by Deepak Chopra on the table. A framed tour poster of The Corrs is on the wall. In the background, Paul Durcan is on the radio. There is a picture of Jean on the mantelpiece; dark and beautiful, her famous daughters bear a startling resemblance to her.
It is hard to believe that the beautiful woman in the picture is no longer with us. In April, 1999, she was diagnosed with cryptogenicfibrosing alveolitis. Jim looked it up on the Internet.
"I got quite a shock when I realised it was a fatal and incurable disease," he says. "But were always holding out, you know? You just hope."
In November, Jean was flown to the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle for a lung transplant when her condition suddenly deteriorated.
"Dad told us that it was near the end," Jim remembers sadly. "We were working in the studio in Dublin. We flew over straight away to Newcastle and we were with Mum when she died."
On November 24 1999, Jean on full ventilation at that stage passed away in the middle of the night. "I've accepted that the death of my mother has happened," he says, "but I'm not sure that I've fully come to terms with it. One can put it to the back of one's mind but it still surfaces when you least expect it.
"I'm sure other people whohave gone through the death of someone close will identify with an increased sensitivity to anything of an emotional nature. I embarrassingly find myself crying during sad moments in films, for instance, which I've never done before. Acceptance of her death would be impossible but for my faith in a life beyond this one."
Jim enjoyed a close relationship with his mother. She would have done anything for him, her first-born. The emotions rise up in him as he reveals his memories. The words spill out. Jean was, he says, "loving, supportive, optimistic, glamorous, practical, determined, honest to a fault and justice-seeking. It might sound like a son attempting to paint a pretty rosy picture of his deceased mum," he continues, "but it's true that while she had her faults, she was all of these things.
"She would never let anyone away with having wronged her in any way and I ended up the deserving recipient of her wrath on a number of occasions due to my adolescent antics." (These included lifting his youngest sister Andrea, then four, onto the very top shelf of a big cupboard during games of hide-and-seek. Poor Andrea would be sitting up there waiting for someone to come and find her, but the game would have stopped "hours ago".)
Children lifted their heads en masse from their books when past pupil Jim Corr drove in through the gates of Colaiste Ris earlier the day we met. His own time there was unmarked by academic achievement. Indifference, coupled with a penchant for going AWOL, might have had something to do with it. He would write his own notes to teachers, explaining that he was sick on such and such a day.
"I think every time I did it I got caught. I used to say I was at the dentist," he laughs as we sit in the car-park of the school. "The teachers must have thought I had the best teeth in Ireland because I was always at the dentist," he smiles. He wasn't. He was either hiding in his grandmother's, in town, or walking along the railway line. We take a drive past the old railway line on the other side of town where young Corr would occasionally spend the afternoons he should have been at school.
"Unfortunately, I was bored with school in general," he says. "I was interested in science. I was shit at maths and history. I loved music. I could focus on music," he says.
According to his father, teachers described Jim variously as "on springs", "disruptive" and "out-of-control". "Which was very educational for Jean and me," he smiles ruefully.
A deeply religious man ("My faith is the faith of my father and my mother"), Gerry sees humankind as "a fractured unity. I believe that this unity will be restored one day through the realisation of the One God within all of us."
It was precisely this belief in a divinity present in all human beings that made Gerry speak out in support of a centre for travellers in Dundalk in the late Sixties. It wasn't a stance that made him popular. He was called "The Weirdy Beardy" in a local newspaper.
"The concept was an Habilitation Centre to help travellers transfer from a life in the ditch to a house in the settled community. Sadly, the Nimby factor triggered in, like elsewhere in Ireland," he says now, stressing that what he did in 1968 was no big deal.
I ask him whether Jean was attracted to his idealism.
"I think my idealism, if that's the word, was a pain in the neck to Jean," Gerry says. "Jean was a pragmatist. She loved the earth, loved life, loved people loved me."
To Jim, the traveller story illustrates how his father couldn't help but "try to stand up for a wronged and victimised minority".
Earlier Jim had driven me round his hometown in his brand-new Euro100,000 Lexus. Past the hedge-lined street where you'd go "for a wee court". Past the pub where, 10 years ago , he and Sharon Corr played traditional music for £60 each a night. And past a seemingly endless array of places to get your hair done.
"At one time there were more hairdressing salons in Dundalk's than there were pubs. Don't ask me! Ask the hairdressers!" laughs the immaculately coiffured Irish popstar behind the wheel.
We stop at McManus's pub for coffee. Sharon, Caroline and Andrea used to work behind the bar here. (Lillian McElarney, their auntie and Jean Corr's sister, owns the pub with her husband Brendan.) Up on the wall are pictures of the girls with various uncles. Auntie Lillie won't hear of taking money from me for the refreshments.
Up the road, the Adelphi Cinema stirs up Jim's teenage memories of bringing girlfriends to Bruce Lee movies ("I was big into kung fu, for some reason"). We pass the church where his parents married almost 40 years ago. "They were both devoted to each other and then to their children as we arrived," he says, "and they both shared a deep love of music, which they passed on to each one of us. And growing up in a musical family certainly encouraged us to get into music," he says.
Within walking distance of the family home is a small gate lodge on the grounds of a big estate on Mount Avenue which Jim rented for £40 a week when The Corrs tentatively began their assault on the world 10 years ago.
At that time, Jim, having toured all over Europe as a musician-for-hire with everyone from Linda Martin to Dolores Keane, had turned down a lucrative job offer from Paul Brady. He had decided to plough his own furrow with his three sisters, with help from those who would give it (his parents, John Hughes, Barry Gaster, Jean Kennedy Smith). It was all or nothing. Do or die. He would still go home to get his washing done.
The big house is owned by the Cox family, famous in Dundalk for owning half the county. (We bump into Bunny Cox as we come into the estate. "Remember me?" Jim asks.) After school, the girls used to call over and visit their brother. They would rehearse in the upstairs room. There was a small eight-track recording studio in which they made their first demos. Upstairs, the four of them would practise these faintly ridiculous dance moves together in front of these mirrors with a video camera.
"I'm sure we looked like f**king eejits," Jim laughs, gazing up nostalgically at the window. "We didn't know what direction we were going to go in. We knew we would experiment with dance music. So we got a load of mirrors and put them around the walls so we could watch ourselves dance! I mean, we were shite!" he roars with laughter. "But it was good experience."
Jim Corr has a more than adequate sense of humour. He's met the Pope in the Vatican. "We gave him our latest CD and he gave us some Puff Daddy and Ozzy Osbourne," he says. He laughed when Social & Personal magazine dubbed him Ireland's Sexiest Man last month.
"Jesus, I'd be in a lot of trouble if I was taking that very seriously. It's not exactly the Nobel Peace Prize, is it?" he says. "My sisters were unanimous that I didn't deserve it, but I reckon they were just jealous. I got Social & Personal to make a donation to the ISPCC if I attended the launch."
(Jim offers to make a donation to the Cayman Islands bank account of my choice if I don't mention one of the judges of that prize-giving, Andrea Roche. I have it on very good authority that she voted for Eddie Irvine anyway. He refuses to discuss the status of his relationship, or otherwise, with the stunning ex-Miss Ireland.)
HE shows me the small house with the blue door on McSweeney Street where his mother lived when her family moved to Dundalk. Born in Donegal, Jean Bell lived in three places along the border Bridgend, Clifford and St Johnson because her father worked for the Customs. When his job meant the Bells had to move again, they lived in a lovely big house on Quay Street and were considered relatively well-off.
Sadly, Jean's father William, who had heart problems, died of a heart attack a year later and, with no income coming in, the family of 11 children had to the move to a much smaller house.
The one we're standing outside now. Elizabeth Bell raised 11 kids "practically on her own", Jim says. "How she did it, to this day, I'll never know. Women like my grandmother were the true achievers in society. We tend to shove accolades onto celebrities and a lot of times it's just complete f**king bullshit," he says. "Like 'Sexiest Man in Ireland'! But these were the true people in our society who deserved the awards."
We drive past Tesco's (now Dunnes) on the Ard Eas Muinn where he worked when he left school. Did he fear he'd end up stacking shelves for the rest of his life?
"Oh, all the time!" he answers. "I hated it. It was a real fear in my life that I would never get out of there. I ended up being there for quite a while. Then I got out. Thanks be to God! It enabled me to save some money, buy some equipment and record some songs."
One of the four musical brains behind The Corrs, Jim is a great character charming in the extreme. I've been out on the town with him a few times. I have total recall of the hangovers.
One memorable Solpadeine-friendly evening was two years ago in Stockholm, the final leg of The Corrs' European tour; so much drink was consumed that night, I fell down the stairs of the nightclub. Andrea and Jim, I decided on the spot, have hollow legs. It made a mockery of The Corrs as the anti-Pogues.
"We stayed up all night drinking, yeah, but it gets to the point where you are actually sipping the same drink," reflects Jim. "I know I can feel the effects of a lot of alcohol and I'm still have great crack but I sip because I can't drink any more," says the man who went on tour with the Rolling Stones.
"You couldn't do that every night. You body will crash from the workload. There are admirable exceptions like Keith Richards but look at him," he laughs.
I ask if there have been times when being in The Corrs has affected his emotional well-being. He is open and honest enough to admit there has. "Even though we get on very well, being cocooned 24/7 in the same environment as your siblings is not conducive to a healthy mind. We do need time away from each other," he says.
"There were certainly times when we've become extremely fatigued from what we do; we work ourselves very hard. When you combine promotion up at dawn to do breakfast TV shows in Europe and America with live work where you have a concert the same night, it takes so much out of you."
BACK in the Corrs' house, what had started out as a quick chat with Gerry Corr over coffee and ham sandwiches turns into a two-hour dialogue about religion. He is a highly articulate and spiritual man. There is no doubt in my mind that the spirituality inherent at the heart of his children's lyrics comes from him. He goes to mass every Sunday. He believes he will meet his wife again in Heaven. He says his faith is simple.
"All faith is simple, though I like to think that my intellect is involved nowadays," he says.
His son does not regard the Catholic Church as the sole interpreter of faith. He describes his own belief as more a la carte religion: the best bits from all the various religions. "While Dad is very much a practising Catholic, I would not accept all of its teaching. Nor would I accept all of the teachings of any man-made religion. In my opinion man has borrowed aspects of spirituality for the creation of religion," he says.
"While taking spiritual truths on board, some have distorted those truths in an attempt to further their aim of control and power over sections of the human race. For instance, what God would put a woman at a level of importance below man?"
"Jim's faith is the same as mine," Gerry says. "The only difference is the packaging mine is religious."
Looking around the house, it is easy to imagine the days when Jean and baby Gerard were here, their shadows falling across the doorways. Outside, the trees which Gerard and Jim played under years ago have grown huge, dwarfing the house.
Thirty-seven years of age now, Jim seems more at ease than at any time in his life. The following morning he is flying off with his siblings to meet George Bush in Washington. When he is not living on planes, he has a house in Dublin. He is a respected musician worldwide. He is the multimillionaire bachelor boyo with the world and its models at his feet. (At times it seems he turns to women as a plant does to the light.) He has conducted his love life as Oscar Wilde conducted his education: in public. On the back pages. "I like to keep 'em guessing," he smiles. "I would like to meet a woman with all the qualities of my mother."
Is he happy?
"Am I?" he repeats, smiling. "I know my happiness won't be based on the purchasing of a new car [says he who has just got one] or a new house, though that's nice temporarily. Happiness is something that is relative and I experience the same highs and lows that everybody else experiences. That state of contentment may not, if ever, reach me until old age, but that's fine. Gotta live a little!
"Besides," Jim says wistfully, "I do believe it's the lows in our lives that accelerate our spiritual growth."
Perhaps that's what Gerard Corr's death taught his big brother.