This oral history is a companion to the radio documentary No Journeys End produced by Paul McDermott for RTÉ Lyric FM and broadcast for the first time on Sunday 25 August, 2019.
No Journeys End - the story of Michael O'Shea - Paul McDermott
The story of Irish musician Michael O'Shea, who played an instrument made from a door that he called "Mo Chara" (my…
The oral history is drawn from interviews that were conducted during 2018 and 2019 and contains many contributions, that due to time constraints, never made the final edit of the documentary.
In 2020 Stano and Thomas Haugh restored Michael O’Shea’s Mo Chara — that story can be read here…
Michael O’Shea was a travelling street musician — a busker — from Carlingford, Co Louth who released one album (Michael O’Shea, Dome Records: 1982. Reissued AllChival Records: 2019) that is regarded as a masterpiece of the Psychedelic Folk genre. In Seasons They Change: the Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk, Jeanette Leech’s exhaustive exploration of the underbelly of the folk genre, the author describes Michael’s record as, “an exceptional album by an outsider folk artist… as if Brian Eno had performed at Les Cousins” (Leech: 2010). In Songs in the key of Z: the curious universe of outsider music, Irwin Chusid contends that, “the less corporate money at an artist’s disposal, the more singular the vision. In this the outsider represents greater creative purity, something closer to a natural state” (Chusid: 2000). Michael O’Shea was the quintessential outsider artist.
Michael played a self-made instrument he named “Mo Chara” (my friend), made from part of an oak door he had rescued from a skip in Munich in 1978.* The instrument was inspired by the hammered dulcimer, but Michael added amplification and effects lending it a strong sense of otherworldliness. The sound that emanated from “Mo Chara” when Michael struck it with small paint brushes is steeped in Celtic undertones but also reverberant with the cultures Michael had absorbed on his travels in the East, a theme echoed by author Mark Prendergast who in Irish Rock: Roots, Personalities, Directions describes Michael’s “Mo Chara” as producing, “soft resonating patterns which had a traditional Irish folk music rhythm but streamed through with numerous East European and Indian timbres” (Prendergast: 1987). Michael’s music was experimental and adventurous, it was steeped in tradition but forward thinking in its embrace of technology.
Michael’s music was out of time and yet paradoxically completely of its time. He is the archetypal adventurous musician, the type of musician that Chusid describes as being, “known to deliberately — even maliciously — jettison traditional approaches to expand the boundaries of music” (Chusid: 2000). Over the course of this oral history, as contributors try and describe Michael’s music or the feeling they got from experiencing Michael play his “Mo Chara”, the names of other disparate artists are evoked. Names such as: Seán Ó Riada, Gavin Bryars, Mike Oldfield, Alan Stivell, Thomas de Hartmann and George Gurdjieff, Laraaji and The Master Musicians of Jajouka. Michael’s music doesn’t sound like any of these artists but the names offer us a perspective on the landscape that Michael inhabited. A few contributors simply say that you can’t describe Michael’s music, that you either get it or you don’t. When chatting to Michael’s old friend Larry Burns about the experience of hearing the “Mo Chara” he moved closer to me and whispered, “you probably got it when you first heard him, you were gobsmacked.” Tom Johnston, an original member of The The, describes Michael’s music as, “ethereal and heavenly sounding.” Dublin artist Stano, who recorded with Michael, says that, “Michael’s music is so different — it’s simply organic.” Graham Lewis, who co-produced Michael's album with his Wire bandmate Bruce Gilbert, still remembers the recording session:
It was absolutely extraordinary; it’s still one of the most magical recording experiences I’ve had. I can remember looking around the control room and basically everyone was in tears, it was really, really moving.
This oral history tells Michael’s story: Michael’s sister Rita and his friends and contemporaries offer a portrait of a travelling street musician: who went AWOL from the British Army; spent time as a relief worker in Bangladesh; travelled the streets of Europe playing experimental music; performed in Ronnie Scott’s infamous jazz club; supported Ravi Shankar at the Royal Festival Hall; played with some of the biggest names in Jazz — Archie Shepp, Alice Coltrane and Don Cherry — and released one extraordinary album of indescribable music. Michael’s album has recently been reissued but sadly Michael isn’t around to bask in the glory of the five star reviews, he died in tragic circumstances at the young age of 44.
The genesis of this work leads directly back to my last documentary. When I interviewed Sean O’Hagan and Cathal Coughlan for “Iron Fist in Velvet Glove — the story of Microdisney” we chatted at length about the period in 1982–83 when a two-piece Microdisney started playing gigs in Dublin aided and abetted by Dave Clifford from Vox magazine. Cathal and Sean mentioned lots of different artists from the period that they played with:
Sean O’Hagan: When Microdisney was effectively Cathal and myself…we started to perform at the Project Arts Centre, we started to play with people like Michael O’Shea and Roger Doyle.
Cathal Coughlan: You had people like Roger Doyle, The Virgin Prunes, Michael O’Shea, a lot of people doing performance: Nigel Rolfe; and the spin offs from the Prunes; Daniel Figgis and Princess Tinymeat.
I was familiar with all of these artists but Michael O’Shea’s name drew a blank. When I asked Sean about Michael he smiled and said, “Oh you have to hear Michael O’Shea.” We talked for a few minutes about O’Shea and Sean told me enough to pique my interest. I wanted to know more.
YouTube threw up a track called ‘No Journeys End’. It was over 15 minutes of what sounded like a dulcimer. It was hypnotic, repetitive and Larry Burns was right — I was truly gobsmacked. The video has an image of the cover of Michael O’Shea’s album, on it a man is photographed in black and white playing a stringed instrument on his lap. He’s sitting on a box and there’s a small rug at his feet. He’s smartly dressed, wearing a three piece suit and tie, he has a trilby hat on and he’s looking down at his instrument so you see the top of his hat but not his face. There’s something really mysterious about the photograph — I think it’s because O’Shea’s face is obscured. Who was this man and what was the instrument he was playing? My search was on —so this is it, the definitive story of Michael O’Shea.
*Note on spelling: Michael referred to his instrument as “Mó Cará”. In Gaeilge [Irish] “cara” means friend and “mo” means my. “Mo chara” means “my friend”. The initial consonant of a noun is aspirated after the possessive adjective “mo”, hence — “Mo Chara”. In this Oral History “Mo Chara” is used.
Rita O’Shea — Michael O’Shea’s sister
Tom Johnston — political cartoonist/former member of The The
Graham Lewis — Wire/Dome/co-producer with Bruce Gilbert of Michael’s album
Gavin Friday — Virgin Prunes/musician/artist
Stano — musician/artist
Larry Burns — poet, musician and friend of Michael’s (PKA Larry Cosgrave)
Mark Prendergast — journalist/author
Jim O’Mahony — DJ
Danny McCarthy — sound and performance artist
John Byrne — DJ/music archivist (writer of the sleevenotes for the 2019 AllChival reissue)
Brian Doyle — Field Recording Officer, Irish Traditional Music Archive
Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost — A Hawk and a Hacksaw
Éamonn Ó Catháin — author/broadcaster
Chapter 1 — Early Life
He was his own person, he was very different to the rest of us, let’s put it that way, he wanted to see the world — Rita O’Shea
Rita O’Shea —My mother was from Sneem, Co. Kerry. My father was from Ventry [Co. Kerry]. He was a Garda [guard: a member of the state police force of the Republic of Ireland]. We were living in Carlingford, Co. Louth where my father was stationed. In 1950 he passed away from a brain tumor, my mother was only 33 years of age and she had the four of us. Nuala, my sister was seven or eight; I was two and a half years younger; Séamus was a year and a bit younger again and then Mike.
My father was a very tall, good looking man, very gentle apparently but I don’t have too many memories of him except going to a concert in the Town Hall and he buying sweets for us — that’s about the only memory that I have really. But from listening to my mum, he was so kind that on his deathbed he said to her, “you buy yourself a washing machine, you’ll need it.” That’s the way he was you know, from what my mum told me, he was just a lovely man.
Mike was only about three when my father died. Mike was a lovely little fellow with a head of curls — cute. My mother was very creative and cared for us very well. They wanted her to come back to Sneem, but she wouldn’t. She was too independent, she wanted her own life. She had to get on with life and try to rear us. That’s the way we were, a very united family. Mike was the youngest and didn’t conform to anything, he gave her a hard time.
Rita O’Shea — Mike was an avid reader from a very young age, he always had his head in a book. [Laughing] My sister used to test him to see if he really read the books, but he did. He was OK at Primary School, there was no worries about him, he never mitched [to play truant] or anything like that. He wouldn’t go to the Christian Brothers for mum because it was all through Irish so he went to secondary school in Omeath [village 7km from Carlingford], the Rosminian college [St. Michael’s College, Omeath]. It had been a boarding school but they started opening it up to day pupils but they had to stay there until about seven o’clock. They got their dinner and they studied and did their homework. I don’t know what he did but anyway he was supposed to be doing his homework. Mum got a letter from the head of the college saying that Mike really was missing a lot from school, this was in his Inter Cert [Intermediate Certificate] year, he claimed to have dental problems. He was heading off into Newry [town in Northern Ireland, 11km from Omeath], having a good time, we don’t know who he was meeting or anything like that. I think he was bored, definitely.
Rita O’Shea — The radio was always on, we always had music playing but we didn’t have a musical instrument so don’t ask me where he got it from because I don’t know but he had an ear for music. He was smart but he didn’t use it. Growing up in Carlingford it was a very small place. After this he joined the British Army, the Fusiliers [Royal Irish Fusiliers] in Enniskillen. Unknown to mum, he joined. He was his own person, he was very different to the rest of us, let’s put it that way. We went according to what my mum said, he didn’t — he went his own way. My mother was mortified. He did it all quietly himself, he was very capable. That’s what he wanted to do, he wanted to see the world. My mum always supported us, it didn’t matter what we did she was there for us. Mum and my sister went up for his passing out. He did very well, he was liked and he was very good and it wasn’t too long after he joined that he became a corporal. He was the tallest of the two brothers I had. He was definitely a ladies’ man — the girls liked him a lot.
Rita O’Shea — He was stationed in Germany, he was all excited about that — going to Germany. He used to write back to mum, send her cards from every place he’d been. He’d learnt how to ski. He was due to come home one Christmas and for some unknown reason they cancelled his leave. When he did get the leave he came home and had a lovely holiday and then he was on his way back via England and he was in contact with his best friend growing up, he must have been in contact with him and he met up with him. I think this was down around Yeovil. He was having a good time and he met a girl and that was it — he fell in love. He started going out with the girl but she let him down in the end, she wasn’t for him but he had left the Army and he got his punishment for it — he got a few months behind bars because he had gone AWOL. That was the end of the Army for him. He was bored, he was no angel — believe you me.
Chapter 2 — Bangladesh
He got into their culture in a big way, so much so that he started to learn the sitar — Rita O’Shea
Rita O’Shea — He had many friends in London and one of them was a nice social worker, Jackie. He thought the world of her and she of him. I don’t know if there was any romance there or not but she was very good to him and she influenced him quite a lot. They ended up going to Bangladesh working for Operation Omega in 1972.*
*Operation Omega was a London-based group that took humanitarian aid into East Pakistan during the Bangladesh war for independence. Operation Omega continued relief efforts post-independence during 1972 and into 1973.
Rita O’Shea — They were in a dreadful way in Bangladesh and they were looking for volunteers to go out there. He had done some social work with Jackie and he decided, yes I’m off to Bangladesh and off he went. All the letters he used to send mum were very happy letters and he loved it out there.
Rita O’Shea — He loved it in Bangladesh and he loved the people very, very much and he got into their culture in a big way, so much so that he started to learn the sitar. Mum was proud of him that he had gone out to Bangladesh and he gave his services but then he got dysentery and hepatitis and he had to come home. He was like a rake, skin and bone. He came home with all kinds of trinkets but the biggest love he had was a sitar that he brought with him.
Rita O’Shea — Everywhere he went — that sitar went. Even to my brother’s wedding. [Laughing] The sitar took up a whole place in the car and we were squashed to bits. He played the sitar, the only bit of a sitar that I had ever heard was Ravi Shankar. I didn’t know too much about him until George Harrison did his concert in aid of Bangladesh.
Rita O’Shea — I can remember listening to Mike play the sitar and I thought he was grand, he was playing away but [laughing] I didn’t really know what sound should be coming out but there was a sound coming anyway and he impressed everybody. But they didn’t really know whether he was playing properly or not. Anyway, so that was it. Séamus, my other brother, played the mandolin. When he went to America as a student he came back with a whole pile of records — Crosby Stills and Nash, Leonard Cohen, Julie Felix and all those. It wasn’t only Irish music he liked, he liked music. Séamus had all the records, but Mike’s interests were slightly different, I don’t know would you call it underground music?
Chapter 3— “Mo Chara”
He could be found sitting in a street or sitting in someone’s home launching into another of his ethereal trance-inducing displays… his individuality has given something special to Irish music particularly from the avant-garde point of view — Mark Prendergast*
*Irish Rock (O’Brien Press: 1987, pg 254)
Larry Burns — He broke down barriers everywhere he went, he demanded your full attention and respect and he got it, [snaps fingers] like that. I can remember Michael said to me, “You don’t ask for attention, you don’t even say ciúnas [silence].” I knew at that instant that he was a master musician because a master musician demands attention before he even plays a note, and Michael always did that, and how did he do it? [Whispers] He had a friend, and what was that friend? [Whispers] “Mo Chara”. He made it. People were gobsmacked when they heard it.
Mark Prendergast — I think the pivotal time in Michael’s life was 1978 when he went to play sitar in France and met this guy called Kris Hosylan Harpo who played a Zelochord, a version of a melochord. The melochord was invented by a guy in Hamburg in the 1940s — Harold Bode.
Mark Prendergast — Michael was supporting Harpo in Paris with the sitar. He was on his way to Turkey and he sold his sitar in Germany to pay for his trip to Turkey. He said that he was in Munich and he found a bit of door in a skip. He said that he put a load of strings on it and played it for a living in Greece.
Larry Burns — He was playing with a guy called Hosylan [Kris Hosylan Harpo], who made his own instrument. Michael was quick on the draw. Michael played tabla rhythms with him on a bodhrán, he used to play traditional Irish jigs and reels as well and he was also a wonderful harmonica player. They were playing and making money very quickly. Michael went away and made “Mo Chara” overnight. Michael never wanted to be rich and famous, he wanted to be happy and anonymous, and I mean that sincerely. He didn’t want money, or castles, or gold, or gold records, he invested in people and friendship and he had it — the code of the road. There’s no point in looking for treasures in poor areas, you go to the rich areas, and they throw out oak doors. That’s what “Mo Chara” was, an oak door that he took out of a skip.
Stano — He reminded me of the guy Harry Partch, the guy that made his own instruments. When I met Michael he had two instruments with him. The first was “Mo Chara” — my friend — it was half a wooden door basically, a bit of an old door. He had the strings across it, they could have been piano or guitar strings and he had wooden pegs holding them. He had a pick-up on it and he had flangers and phasers and he used to play it with paint brushes and he’d hold the end of the paint brush so that when he hit it the brushes would bounce off the strings.
Mark Prendergast — In 1979 he decided to make a second version of it which was the combination of the first “Mo Chara”, the sitar and then adding another box to it called the “Black Hole Space Echo Box”, which was basically just an electric Kalimba, amplification, electronics and phasers.
Stano — The other instrument was his echo box, it was just a wooden box about six inches square, made from really thin plywood. He had screwed a little brass African thumb base to the top of the box and then inside the box he had bits of broken glass and bits of springs, as he played it there was a scratchy noise, the sound had its own reverb, it was very strange.
Mark Prendergast — He said that it took three years to get to the definitive version of the “Mo Chara”, which shows even when he was designing his own instrument that he was still uncertain about what he was doing.
Stano — I was just fascinated when I heard people talking about him. I asked people what does he play and I was told that he plays a wooden door with strings across it; I didn’t even know what a dulcimer was at the time. I was fascinated watching him play it with the paint brushes. Maybe he saw a dulcimer in India and then made his own version, maybe that’s how it developed. His instrument should be kept somewhere; it’s such an important piece of Irish musical history.
Chapter 4 — The Hammered Dulcimer
I was really impressed with his technique and his ability to but together melodies, also the sound of the instrument was really beautiful — Jeremy Barnes
Brian Doyle — It seems that they [Irish dulcimers] were all homemade, you couldn’t go into a music store and buy a hammered dulcimer. It’s weird that the centre of the dulcimer world in Ireland seems to have been the Glens of Antrim. Its incredible how an instrument from Iran ended up here, was it just total serendipity that someone from Antrim brought one back from wherever and started playing it? A lot of these things are down to individuals, someone in an area started playing on an unusual instrument, the fact that it was homemade might have contributed to its popularity because if you wanted one, well you just went and made one. It certainly seems to have taken root up there, and it’s still played up there in the Glens of Antrim.
Jeremy Barnes — My instrument is from Iran, a Persian santur, one of the more ancient versions of the dulcimer. I guess depending upon who you ask, this is one of the oldest string instruments. They say it could be from Mesopotamia — that’s where it started and then it travelled all over the world. I’m still learning but I’ve been playing it for about eight years, the Persian style of playing is different from the way that I play but I was attracted to this instrument because it’s so easy to transport. The santur is popular in Greece and Turkey, and the sound of the way they play is a big influence for me. It’s featured on the last two A Hawk and a Hacksaw records.
Jeremy Barnes —Michael’s music was really intriguing to me, in that I could hear some echoes of Irish music or some influences in there of Irish music, but it also sounded very Eastern. I didn’t know his story when I first heard him, I was really impressed with his technique and his ability to but together melodies, also the sound of the instrument was really beautiful — at that time I didn’t know it was homemade. Later I did some research and I was amazed that he had built it with a door, I mean it sounds great. [Laughing] I don’t know how he did it, I’d be really interested to look at the instrument — what is the deal with it? It would be great to get someone to try and play it. It would have been really intriguing to see it live, I wish I could have seen him play. My santor is tuned to the Hijaz scale, which is a really popular Middle Eastern, Balkan and Turkish scale, I don’t have a full octave, I have a modal instrument — I’m stuck in one scale. I’d love to know how Michael tuned his.
Brian Doyle — We have examples of the hammered dulcimer being played in our collection here in the Archive [Irish Traditional Music Archive]. There have also been a number of mentions of the hammered dulcimer in Treoir, the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann [Gathering of Musicians of Ireland] monthly magazine, over the years. There’s a great article on John Rea in one of the issues of Treoir, he would be regarded as the king of Irish traditional dulcimer players. Another issue has an article about a man called Andy Dowling from Clonmeen, Co. Laois who was also a hammered dulcimer player in that area. He was involved in Comhaltas and competed at the Fleadh Cheoil [Festival of Music] over the years. To my knowledge he’s the only mention of a hammered dulcimer player outside of the Glens of Antrim, other than Mr O’Shea from Carlingford. The music O’Shea played was not traditional, even in its format and its chord progressions and keys, it’s not based in jigs and reels. It would be very interesting to know how O’Shea tuned his instrument. From listening to the music he played, he definitely experimented with different tunings.
Note: For further information on the ITMA and their collection read…
The Hammered Dulcimer in Ireland
This is a series of articles about the production of my latest radio documentary “No Journeys End — the story of…
Jeremy Barnes — My santur is really portable and it’s super-light to travel with. Michael travelled all over Greece playing his instrument and I’m sure that its portability was an attraction for him — the difference between that and the sitar, where it’s as big as you and you can’t really get around with it easily. I think we were both attracted to the instrument for that reason. It’s a weird instrument, it’s ancient — maybe that’s part of it. Someone asked me, when I play my santur am I thinking about the Mesopotamian musicians who played santur centuries ago. I never did, [laughing] but I started thinking about it after he mentioned it, its funny to think about that.
Heather Trost — [Hearing] it makes the hairs on my arms graze up. As Jeremy said, it’s this ancient sound. I don’t know, it’s almost primal or something.
John Byrne — It’s sometimes known as “Fourth World” music.* That’s the term that was used in about 1980 for modern music with obvious ethnic connections. Michael was well travelled and he picked up bits of music wherever he went and he put it altogether in one big stew. It has been said that it has elements of Irish traditional music — it doesn’t really. He came not far from the heartland of where dulcimer playing was a tradition in Ireland, but to describe it you’d have to use the words “do-it-yourself”. He built his own instrument; he obviously knew something of dulcimers and their history. He applied a bunch of electronic effects to it and he took all the sounds he had heard on his travels. Indian music is a big part of it; he had learnt to play the sitar before he built his own instruments. It obviously doesn’t come from any one place — anyone who hears it for a moment would know that. In a sense it’s beyond description because there’s too much in it.
*In “Possible Musics”, a 1980 essay introducing the “Fourth World” Jon Hassell, the American trumpet player and composer, describes the concept as “a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques.” He argues that, “in its highest form the blend of influences creates an impression of a new, unified sound” (jonhassell.com).
Mark Prendergast — The only artist that I can think of that is a contemporary of Michael’s, who actually went down a similar route was the American musician called Laraaji. Since 1978 Laraaji has played an autoharp, he took off the chordbars and made it into a kind of zither with 36 strings and bought an electrical pick-up for it. He met a hammered dulcimer player and started striking his autoharp with hammers rather than stroking it with his hands. He got into new age ambient and drones in music which makes his music much more atmospheric and decorous, more prone to meditation, Tai chi, and different types of yoga and new age music where it didn’t have that folk element to it.
Mark Prendergast — You can hear similarities with Michael on Laraaji’s 1978 album Celestial Vibration or Lotos Collage from 1979 and the album that made him, the one that put him on the map, the one he made with Brian Eno — Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance). You can see the similarities with Michael, though I don’t think that either artist knew each other.
Chapter 5 — Ronnie Scott’s and Ravi Shankar
Dr O’Shea, well now, he had big ideas that’s what I say — Rita O’Shea
Will Sproule, Ronnie Scott’s talent spotter, was interviewed by Gery Lawless in The Sunday World, 03 February 1980 and recalled seeing Michael busking at Tottenham Court Road station.
“I was stopped in my tracks. In ten years in the music game I had never heard sounds like this before. It appeared to be a mixture of Ravi Shankar on a sitar and a Seán Ó Riada arrangement of traditional Irish music, crossed with Japanese Koto music. When I got to the front of the crowd, I discovered a funny little man playing a strange instrument the likes of which I had never seen before. I asked Michael if he had a half-an-hour to spare and parked him in the bar of the club. Then ran upstairs to the office to ask Ronnie to come down and hear a strange man play strange music on a weird instrument. I think Ronnie thought that I had flipped. But he came down and listened for a few minutes and then said: book him for the first opening.”
Rita O’Shea — When we heard that he was going to be playing in Ronnie Scott’s, we thought [laughing] in the name of God, do they know what they’re getting into? We couldn’t believe it, but of course he didn’t stick it there, he left them, he broke the contract. He had no staying power, he was a free spirit and he was like a rolling stone and I don’t know if he ever knew where he was heading to be quite honest with you. It was just happening whereas most of us plan our lives, to a certain extent. It doesn’t always go the way we want it to go but we have more plans, he didn’t seem to have too much of a plan.
Mark Prendergast — It was through Ronnie Scott’s that he got a gig supporting Ravi Shankar at the Royal Festival Hall, which is an incredible honour — for an unknown musician to get the support act to one of the most famous and greatest sitar players in history.
Rita O’Shea — He then played in the Royal Festival Hall with Ravi Shankar as a supporting artist — that’s another shock we got. To think that they would have Mike on in the Festival Hall with Ravi Shankar. We didn’t value it, to be quite honest with you, we thought he was just a nutter and that’s it — he busked and [laughing] we thought he was for the birds to be honest with you. I suppose because he broke my mother’s heart, she loved him. Everyone tried to put him on the straight and narrow and dress him up in a suit and get him a job. My sister got him a job in County Hall, when there was a County Hall in London, but sure he couldn’t stick it. That wasn’t his way of life. I did notice in one of his passports, and we couldn’t stop laughing at it, he had decided that he was a Doctor of Music. In his passport [laughing] Dr O’Shea, well now, he had big ideas that’s what I say.
Larry Burns — Michael could play anything he touched, and if he couldn’t he’d make something that he could play. He played with Rip Rig + Panic, he played with The Blockheads, he played with Don Cherry, Codona, Alice Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and he opened for Ravi Shanker in the Festival Hall — now not many white Irish men do that, especially if they’re almost banished from their native home for not playing safe traditional Irish music according to the rules of Comhaltas [Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann] — [laughing] “The Jazz Police,” that’s what Michael used to say.
Rita O’Shea — I was in the city [Dublin] one evening, I was coming home from something and there he was outside the Bank of Ireland playing. He was wearing that hat that he had on in his country squire outfit, well he was dressed like that, with a big crowd around him. I was a bit embarrassed. He was on the street playing, at that stage busking really wasn’t as common as it is now and to see your own brother outside the bank with all these people around him, well to me it was nearly like begging. I know he wasn’t begging as such, he was playing music but he was on the street which was different. There was someone with me so I wasn’t going to identify him, I couldn’t disturb him anyway. I could have said, “that’s my brother”, and I didn’t and that was bad of me. It was. We were slightly, as I say not ashamed but it just wasn’t the done thing. I don’t want to say I was ashamed of him, I wasn’t, but it was unusual to have your brother on the street playing. His music wasn’t noisy though, it was special, it wasn’t blasting out all over the place, it was different. Because it was different it would attract a big crowd around him. Many people are picked up because of their busking skills, but in those days when he was busking it wasn’t as acceptable. It was possibly more acceptable in London than here in holy Catholic Ireland. Very different times, we were snobbish to a certain extent and looked down at people in the street playing music, like they’re begging. In fairness to Mike when he’d go out on the street to busk, [laughing] he dressed up. He didn’t go out like a vagabond, he went out dressed in style. He loved dressing up in all kinds of manners. He was a playboy as well and he loved to drink and drink too much. Definitely drink and music seemed to go hand in hand with a lot of people. Musicians met people like themselves, who were into music and it was a whole social club.
Chapter 6 — The Live Mike
He represents something of a rags to riches story — Mike Murphy
‘The Live Mike’ was an Irish television comedy, variety, and chat show presented by Mike Murphy. It was first broadcast on RTÉ 1 in late 1979 and ran for three series until April 1982. ‘The Live Mike’ was a hugely popular programme in Ireland and it’s where Irish audiences would have seen Dermot Morgan first perform. On 22 February, 1980 Michael O’Shea was a guest on the show, he was interviewed by Murphy and performed on his “Mo Chara”.
Note: As per the style of the programme, whilst the interview is serious in parts Mike Murphy does play for the occasional laugh and Michael happily plays along.
Mike Murphy — Our next guest comes to us straight from the world famous Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London, where he’s just completed a successful two-week appearance. he was born in the Newry/Carlingford area — Michael O’Shea [audience applause]. He represents something of a rags to riches story in that only a few weeks ago he was busking for a living in London’s subways. [Audience laugh as Michael sticks his brushes in his eyes] His music is, to say the least, unusual in that he entertains on instruments that he has created himself. The one he’ll be playing for us tonight was actually hewn from the back door of a house in Germany. It’s affectionately called “Mo Chara” and has 19 strings and is played with paint brushes, [laughing] numbers two and four only incidentally [audience laughs], ladies and gentlemen, Michael O’Shea. [Audience applause] Isn’t it true that you got this from someone’s door in Germany?
Michael O’Shea — Well it was someone’s door actually, I think they had thrown it away, I found it in a skip in Germany.
Mike Murphy — Why did you want to play a door?
Michael O’Shea — Well the reason I wanted to play a door was because I had played a sitar, an Indian sitar, for about eight years and I was a bit tired of it. I sold it and I wanted a change.
Mike Murphy — But playing a door Michael? One doesn’t normally go around looking at people’s doors saying, “gosh, I’d really like to play that.” [Audience laughs]
Michael O’Shea — [Laughing] If you’re Irish you’ve got to do something different.
Mike Murphy — What about the busking now, you’ve been busking for a number of years in London, right?
Michael O’Shea — About four years, yeah.
Mike Murphy — And how did all the Ronnie Scott business happen?
Michael O’Shea — Well I was busking in Tottenham Court Road Tube station and Will Sproule of Ronnie Scott’s came along, heard me playing and asked me if I’d like to come up and play for Ronnie Scott. Ronnie Scott listened to me and asked me if I’d like to play for two weeks there.
Mike Murphy — Had you had those kind of musical pretensions, had you always wanted to become recognised as a top class musician?
Michael O’Shea — Not particularly but I felt that my music was going in a direction which was becoming a recognisable music in its own right.
Mike Murphy — It certainly is an unusual direction, there is no doubt it. They are actually paint brushes that you have in your hand?
Michael O’Shea — Well they are, it’s called fine art! [Audience laughs]
Mike Murphy — It certainly is, will you stick them in your ears again the way you did during my introduction, [audience laughs] another minute now and he’ll fly [audience laughs]. Can we hear you play your door?
Michael O’Shea — Well you certainly can. [Laughing] I hope it works, it’s got a mind of its own.
Mike Murphy — [Laughing] What do you mean, you hope it works — this better work, after that introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, Michael O’Shea. [Audience applause]
‘The Live Mike’ clip can be viewed at the RTÉ Archives.
Chapter 7 — Covent Garden
I heard this mellifluous sound — music — it was quite mysterious because I couldn’t workout where it was coming from. So I did a bit of exploring, I sort of followed the sound — Graham Lewis
Rita O’Shea — He went to London and I used to meet up with him every now and then if I went over to London. I had good times with him in the folk clubs, he always had friends. Myself and another friend who loved music used to go to the music sessions, we were big into listening to music — not playing it — and he used to take us places, so I enjoyed that. I was quite like him in many ways really except [laughing] I wanted to work and he wanted to play — so there was a difference there. That really divided the family maybe a little bit. We felt he should be earning his living in a proper way. He wasn’t an embarrassment but we really would have liked to have seen him more settled, but we still put up with him.
Larry Burns — I first met him in the late 60s or early 70s. I didn’t meet him, I saw him and I knew him to see. I saw him for years and I was terrified of him. Wherever I was travelling — he was everywhere. There used to be a saying: “Kilroy was here.” Well, “Michael O’Shea was here!” He was in Afghanistan, Tangiers, Morocco — wherever there was music, he was there, you’d hear stories about Michael everywhere you went. “Is Michael around?” “He’s here and gone.” Michael was thrown out of a singer’s club, even though many different people who thought he was a genius protested, because he played a sitar on an Irish song backing a beautiful Travelling girl. That wasn’t acceptable. There’s tradition, folk and respect and Michael O’Shea was thrown out of that club because he was an outsider that was playing the music of the future. I used to see him around all the time, and he always had three or four instruments hanging out of his back. He looked like an interesting character and I wanted to be Woody Guthrie or Lead Belly. I used to sing in the Tubes and he adopted me, I was penniless. I knew all the old songs that Michael loved. Michael didn’t sing so he backed me.
Tom Johnston — I first met Michael O’Shea in 1975, he was busking in a street in Covent Garden. At the time I was trying to be a cartoonist, a political cartoonist, which I eventually became for the Mirror and the London Evening Standard. Covent Garden was full of musicians and I started to get involved in music. The idea of punk was that all you needed was a guitar and three chords and I believed that. I went and got one and we formed a band — The The. I read somewhere that myself, Matt Johnson and Michael O’Shea were going to make an album together, [laughing] I’ve no recollection of that. Maybe we just talked about it and then someone picked up on it.
Tom Johnston — In the mid 70s, Covent Garden was streets full of old storage depots, depots that had been used for fruit and vegetables. We all had these old storage depots, I think the one I had is now The Body Shop in James Street. All sorts of people moved into the area: photographers and artists. Very quickly it became a kind of a community. We all knew each other, but we didn’t all like each other, [laughing] but there were enough people to like. You could go into The White Lion on James Street and the Pretenders would be playing pool, all sorts of 70s bands would be there. It wasn’t a showbiz pub, people just acted normally in there. Michael didn’t ever go into that pub but we did take him to other pubs. There was a pub up on Cambridge Circus and we were at a party upstairs and Michael was at the party and the next thing he disappeared and then he came through the downstairs door again as if he had just arrived — “Ta-ra”. That was his joke, he’d climbed out the window and climbed down the drainpipe and then come in again. He did it once too often and broke his leg.
Graham Lewis — At the end of the 70s Covent Garden’s green grocery markets had actually shut down. So it was a place where a lot of artists and people with craft associations got offices. Bruce [Gilbert] and I used to drink in The White Lion, it was kind of our office, just around the corner from Sounds, the magazine, and also it turned out to be the pub that Tom drank in as well, so that’s how we got to know Tom Johnston.
Tom Johnston — Michael was busking in Covent Garden a lot, eventually he’d be there everyday. Most days he was dressed in a tweed suit with a trilby on, other days you’d turn up and he’d be dressed as a woman, [laughing] there was no rules to him what so ever. I liked him, he seemed vulnerable. A lot of my old friends are people who need help, [laughing] I don’t know why that is, I didn’t consciously think that about Michael, but I think that’s probably why I picked up on him, besides the fantastic music. He had been in India and the Far East, I think that influence was there, but through it was a solid rod of Celtic stuff — I love Irish music and I could hear it all there. He made that thing himself, that instrument, he found a door in a skip and built it, he added lots of electronic effects on it, that’s what made it more ethereal and heavenly sounding. There was no one else like him. He had a pretty mixed accent, you could still tell he was Irish and it’s a terrible thing to say but he looked like a caricature of a leprechaun really. His head was shaved and he had no teeth at the front but he was always smiling. I just liked him right away.
Gavin Friday — I had seen him busking, near Tube stations usually, but what was extraordinary about this was that he always reminded me of Bowie in the last scene from The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie has the big hat and the suit and he drops his head. Obviously he’s turned into this doomed alcoholic, it just ends with this stylish man with the head dropped. I’m walking by and I see this hat and this stylish man in a suit sitting on the ground playing this crazy thing. I didn’t know what it was, it was like a xylophone meets a slide guitar, or one of those Country & Western guitars. The sound was psychedelic but Gaelic, a bit of Philip Glass, it was a bit of everything. It was: [Laughing] “What the fuck is that?” It was in Notting Hill where I first saw him. I never went near him at that stage but I just found him incredibly mysterious, with this dream like magic, I’d never really heard anything like it before or again, I’ve never really seen anyone play those instruments in the way he did.
Graham Lewis — One night we were in the Lion [The White Lion] and I went outside to smoke a fag actually, and I heard this mellifluous sound — music — it was quite mysterious because I couldn’t workout where it was coming from. So I did a bit of exploring, I sort of followed the sound. The gentrification of the area was just starting to happen, I can’t remember what shop it was, but there was a clothes shop which was just after being fitted out. So the shop windows sort of funneled out as they funnel people into the shop, and sitting in there in this extremely effective sound funnel, was a figure. He was sitting on an amplifier, head bowed, crouched over what turned out to be a machine, a stringed machine, and this figure was wearing black court shoes, I think there were white stockings, a white pleated pencil skirt, a navy blue blazer with big gold buttons, a white turban and very large hooped earrings — and the figure didn’t look up. This person was producing this absolutely extraordinary noise. I went straight back to the pub to report to Bruce what I had seen. [Laughing] Of course he was questioning what it was that I had been smoking. I said, I think you had better come and have a look for yourself. So he came down and the figure wasn’t looking up when we got back down there again. We stood and watched for a while and the figure did actually look up at one point and we were quite surprised, it was very difficult to tell what gender the person was. We went back to the pub for another pint. The next day I met Tom, and as I was recounting to Tom what I had seen Tom went, “Ah ha, that’s Michael O’Shea”. [Laughing] As I remember it, that’s what happened.
Gavin Friday — It was that time when you were looking for the awkward, you were looking for the extraordinary, we wanted to embrace the outsiders. London’s where I met incredible people. It’s where I first met Wire, and Graham — Dome, which was a sub-group of Wire. It wasn’t that we were just fans of them and their music. They were people that would sit down in the pub and talk: “Did you see that performance art?” “Have you come to the Project Arts Centre?” “Have you heard of Nigel Rolfe?” “Have you heard of Neu! this band from Germany.” It was like that, we weren’t really interested in the Pretenders or Siouxsie and the Banshees — it was much more the awkward things. It was then that this character of Michael O’Shea came up in conversation.
Rita O’Shea — When he dressed up he was quite handsome. He looks really well in his tweeds, he looks quite like my father, if I look at photographs of my father he definitely is an O’Shea and I’m an O’Shea — possibly our personalities got the O’Shea side of things. Although my father was very reserved, my mother was more outgoing. He lived in many places but I remember going to visit him in Haverstock Hill in London. He had all kinds of bits of instruments around the place that he was making. He used to make instruments for people and get money — barter his way around the place. If he had a dental problem he would make a musical instrument for his dentist instead of paying him. They’re the things he used to do. He was good in some ways — he did a lot of community work where he lived, he looked after an orchard. He’d sent newspaper articles about himself to mum — how he had cleaned up this orchard in the area and how he was very good to the old people in the area. That was the good side. He was always, well maybe not always, but quite often a joy to be with because I would always get a great laugh out of him, he had a great sense of humour. If he was in good form you really did have a good time with him. Mike had the personality, he had belief in himself, he would tell you that he never had a problem going to a party. He’d say, “I go in there and I’m as good as everybody else that’s in that room.” That was his attitude, which is good to have — that self confidence. Particularly in that generation that was unusual, you were in awe of all of these people, but he wasn’t which was amazing.
Tom Johnston — He wouldn’t walk into a bar as a woman, it was more a cross between a drag act and an Arabian Nights thing, lots of flowing cloth coming off him — he also wore a turban sometimes as well. It went from that to his tweeds — [laughing] he looked like he was just about to go fishing on the estate. You could have a chat with him for a short time but then something else would distract him. [laughing] I have a lurcher dog and if there’s any noise its head is always going around, it’s always alert for the next thing — Michael was very similar to that. Always on the lookout for something else that was happening, something he could engage with, turn it into something else. Sometimes situations would become too powerful for him and he’d have to escape, he would just go. I understand Asperger’s syndrome, and I’ve often wondered if maybe Michael had a little bit of Asperger’s as well.
Graham Lewis — My point of reference was I suppose what we now dreadfully call “World Music”. I was aware of indigenous musics from Africa and the Middle East. That was my closest point of reference but the thing that was extraordinary about what Michael was doing was that the instrument was amplified and he was playing it through guitar pedals, there was a lot of phasing and delay and things going on which put this very sort of traditional music very much in the present as it was then — the early 80s.
Chapter 8 — Blackwing Studios
It’s still one of the most magical recording experiences I’ve had — Graham Lewis
Graham Lewis — It turned out that Wire played for the last time, for a very long time, in February of 1980. Bruce and I had started the Dome project, as it became, and after we had recorded the first Dome record we had been invited by Geoff Travis of Rough Trade to do something. When we presented that Dome record to Geoff he said had we thought of having our own label, which we hadn’t, so he explained to us how it might work and so we had a manufacturing and production deal with Rough trade. This meant that we were in the position to proceed with what we were doing ourselves with full autonomy, which was a great relief having just come out of a very fraught relationship with EMI.
Graham Lewis — What happened after we had experienced O’Shea live, so to speak, we then did actually meet him a couple of times through Tom. Tom gave us a rundown of Michael’s history, how Michael had had a residency at Ronnie Scott’s, which I think he had curtailed after one or two nights because he was, [mimics O’Shea’s accent] “fucking bored with it”. Through meeting Michael and getting a grasp of his happy-go-lucky attitude towards life in general and also us now having a label we thought what we might be able to do is capture what he was doing before, and this is not an exaggeration, before we thought Michael might disappear in some shape or form — die or disappear to wherever else, because you never knew what he was going to do or what his intentions were — he lived very much in the moment.
Graham Lewis — When we spoke to Michael he came across as very naive but not very trusting somehow. Whether it was his experiences of other people or whatever, I don’t know. It wasn’t a strategy but what we said to Michael was look, we record a lot, as we were at that period — we had made about ten albums in two years or something like that. We said we record in this studio called Blackwing, which is between Borough and London Bridge, it doesn’t exist anymore. We were recording with a guy called Eric Radcliffe there and we offered to record him. He did explain to us that his turning up or his wanting to record very much depended on the alignment of the planets and these being in a favorable combination. This was knowledge that was alien to Bruce and myself but Michael assured us that this was essential for his activities. So we said, well fair enough. We gave him the address and said that’s where we might be. I think it was the period when we were making what became Dome 3, which had been a change from our usual working habits. Usually we went in on a Monday and came out the following Sunday night with a finished album — that had been our modus operandi for the Dome series. With Dome 3, what we had decided to do was to make one piece a month.
Graham Lewis — So we were doing that and we had a few other collaborative projects, we were down at Blackwing quite often. It was a beautiful summer as I remember, I used to cycle, I lived over in Vauxhall and I cycled to the studio. One day, sure enough, sitting in the garden at the back door of the studio was Mr O’Shea, sitting in his finest tweeds actually, his summer tweeds. Sitting in the sun, smoking a fag, saying the planets are right. I said, well that’s terrific, so I got inside. We were expecting a visit from Geoff Travis because Bruce and I had been putting together what became a double album of Wire called Document and Eyewitness, and Geoff was coming down to see and hear what the results of our editing had been. Michael was there and we said to Eric [Radcliffe], this is Michael. We hadn’t even told him that Michael might turn up, we might have mentioned it but it wasn’t something that you could pencil into the diary or anything. We said to Eric, he plays this instrument, it’s like this, it’s like that, can you just set up as many microphone positions and recording situations as possible and we’ll see if we can capture this incredible noise. Geoff arrived and we explained to him that there had been a change of plan so he was very curious and he hung around.
Graham Lewis — We got Michael in and tried to get him comfortable, a cup of coffee, he rolled himself a wiggly Woodbine and we sat him down in the room and he started playing. He tried a couple of times and it just didn’t work, which is not altogether surprising, so everything was quite tense. Everybody was trying to be very relaxed. Michael got up and said that he just had to go for a walk. He went for a walk in the garden, I think he smoked a spliff and when he came back he sat down and sort of in his usual way went, “right now, this is it.” He sat down and he proceeded to play ‘No Journeys End’, which is whatever one wants to call it — the distillation of what he did really. His theme tune, his story if you like and it was always improvised, so you never knew quite where it was going to go, and he had already failed twice before because it really had to catch with him, where he could get lost in it. He recorded what everybody’s heard which is ‘No Journeys End’. It’s 17 minutes, it is as it is. It was absolutely extraordinary; it’s still one of the most magical recording experiences I’ve had. I can remember looking around the control room and basically everyone was in tears, it was really, really moving. It’s a great story and it’s even better because it is true. I think it’s the best bit of production we’ve ever done, in the sense that, what it was about was about being patient and waiting for him to come, there was no way that you could corral him or anything, that would have been absolutely pointless, he’d have scampered I think.
Graham Lewis — Once he’d done ‘No Journeys End’, what we said to him was, “look, you can stay here for the rest of the day and tomorrow and record anything else that you want to record.” We knew it was a case of, if we got him into the studio he would absolutely adore it for the effects. Eric was such a fantastic engineer and such a lovely man that we knew that it was going to work really well. And that’s what we were able to do, we were able to say, you just do what you want to do and let’s see if we can make enough for an album or something. We felt that our mission, recording ‘No Journeys End’, was accomplished. It was successful, he did stay and manage to record enough and he was happy with the results and we felt that we had an album and of course we already had Geoff on board.
Gavin Friday — It almost has the same feeling of, though very different to, that amazing recording of ‘Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ by Gavin Bryars that Eno released in 1975. ‘No Journeys End’ is really evocative and it sounds like it’s always been there and your man always was there and maybe that’s why. I mean how many times had Michael played that piece [‘No Journeys End’] before it was recorded? How long was he out on the streets? I only became aware of him around 1980. I remember Graham trying to get gigs in Dublin for him. But there was no way of contacting the man, you’d either see him out busking or you didn’t know where to find him there was a little bit of the hobo about him.
Graham Lewis — When Michael’s album was going into production we explained to him that there was the matter of the publishing. His publishing for the album needed to be taken care of. This was something Michael hadn’t really encountered or faced before. At the time Bruce and I had a relationship going with Cherry Red and I offered to negotiate for him for the album, which I then did. I went into Cherry Red and they very much liked the material, they thought the record was terrific. They had hopes that they might be able to get some sync for the music’s use in documentary or maybe even feature films. I had to explain to them that no, they wouldn’t meet Michael because Michael didn’t really want to do a face-to-face. No, it wouldn’t be OK if they wrote a cheque, he would in fact prefer cash. Cherry Red were very accommodating, so consequently I received a carrier bag of £1000 in new notes. [Laughing] Bruce and I duly delivered the money to Michael. I think it’s the closest I’ve ever felt to feeling like Father Christmas actually. [Laughing] Michael was absolutely delighted and it enabled him to fit out his home studio in terms of musical equipment but also wood-working equipment so that he could experiment and build hopefully other instruments. Which is what I believe he did.
Graham Lewis — One of Michael’s pitches was outside what was the Rock Garden, just at the bottom of the street before you came to what is now the throbbing market. There he was in his tweeds, playing again with the head down and everything and that’s when I took the photograph which ended up being on the cover. That was, yet again, a bit of a gift really. The picture describes what my feeling was the first time I saw him play. I think it was good that it was in tweeds rather than the pleated skirt [laughing], it would have been good to have both, and we could have had the other on the back.
Rita O’Shea — I worked in my cousin’s bar and Mike did that as well as a teenager. It was later on that he just didn’t settle to anything, he got many, many jobs with the help of my sister and different people but he couldn’t stick to them. He was able to do them, no problem, but he had no staying power. [Laughing] He didn’t make up that list of jobs, that’s the way he was. I suppose the music was his main love.
The music is a rich, melodic progression, as fascinating as the electronic creations of Mike Oldfield — Record Business, 19 April, 1982
He is a one-man Durutti Column, and the creator of an exciting and fulfilling album. The music, all self-composed, deserves the maligned words like ‘atmospheric’ and ‘cosmic’. At times the feeling is that achieved by Alan Stivell on his Renaissance of the Celtic Harp album. This remarkable record will please not only fans of folk music but also fans, as it is tinged with rock overtones, perfumed with Eastern mysticism and hallowed with Irishness — Éamonn Ó Catháin (In Dublin magazine, July 1982)
Éamonn Ó Catháin — I was the folk reviewer for In Dublin magazine at the time so I did get sent a lot of obscure items and quite rare items. I do remember writing the review and being very enthused about it at the time. I was looking him up this morning on Discogs. The original album is listed there, now worth over €150, and the new version which came out in January of this year is also listed there, there’s a lot of people basically echoing what I wrote— they’re very impressed by it and very taken by the music — it kind of vindicates what I wrote.
Gavin Friday — When it came to trying to make a Virgin Prunes’ album, I didn’t want to work with producers. We were taking from philosophies — Bowie’s philosophies but more Johnny Lydon and Public Image’s philosophies. They were extraordinary, Public Image’s first three albums were quite revolutionary. Wire and Throbbing Gristle were becoming friends. I can remember sitting with Graham and talking about Michael saying, “He’s the type of person that you’d actually work with, maybe we should get him to work with us as a producer. Geoff Travis said that maybe we should get one of our friends to produce us and at one stage I did mention Michael and it was just, [laughing] and it was just not even on the table, it was just like, “that won’t be happening.” Eventually we settled on Colin [Newman, Wire] producing us but we took on the idea of Michael O’Shea doing an album with us more for the nuance of where could this go, where could this bring us. That’s what was incredible about this era, it was making music sort of for the madness of it, for the sake of it and this wasn’t like a drug infused 1969 or 1971 where incredible experiments were happening with psychedelia, this was people who smoked a bit of spliff, people got drunk — that was it. It wasn’t a drug culture between ’78 and ’82, it really wasn’t. I don’t think there’s been a time like it.
Chapter 9 — Dublin (early 80s)
He was very wiry, it was very hard to actually get him to sit down and stay in one place. He’d vanish and then come back half an hour later — Mark Prendergast
John Byrne — A definite firing point was the publication of Mark Prendergast’s book, Irish Rock: Roots, Personalities, Directions in the mid 80s. We at the time had no concept of the past in terms of Irish music, but this guy wrote a book about Irish rock history. We had no concept of this really other than famous names that had perpetuated through from the 60s to that time. His book opened up a whole world. Mark’s book made it obvious that he had spent time with Michael O’Shea and was very interested in his work. Before the Internet, it was the only place where you could find any information about Michael O’Shea.
Mark Prendergast — There was a lot happening old and new, Dublin was a very, very small town then — tiny. Everybody knew everybody else; there was fluidity in the scene that wasn’t tribal as in London. In London there was a lot of violence at concerts especially between the punks and other rockers or Heavy Metal kind of people. There wasn’t that kind of problem in Dublin. I remember going to concerts and long-haired Heavy Metal musicians would be at a punk thing. A lot of the punks were more interested in their image than violence, they used to hang around Golden Discs, Base X and Freebird Records [Dublin record shops], just to get a chance to hear a bit of an Eyeless in Gaza song, or a bit of a Durutti Column album or a bit of a Throbbing Gristle album. Gavin Friday of The Virgin Prunes was very active on the scene, he was everywhere, he’d come in and out of the record shops, he went to all the concerts, he was on the scene, as much as Bono was, but in a different place — he was the opposite to Bono in a lot of ways.
Mark Prendergast — One thing that is true is that the independent music scene in England was having a tremendous impact in Ireland — bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Joy Division, The Durutti Column were having the same impact in Dublin as say Stockhausen had in Darmstadt in Germany in the 1950s. The Project [Project Arts Centre] was a place that picked up on this trend through gigs, concerts and exhibitions. Vox was very much part of this as well with Dave Clifford. I was doing three to four pieces a week in The Irish Times, starting at the very beginning of 1982 — reviewing new bands from London and reviewing all the local scene. Word began to spread, so I also started getting work with other publications. There were magazines starting up; there was a magazine called The Magazine, The Sunday Tribune asked me to do stuff, but Vox was great because it was totally new music. It was really uncompromising; it was like one of these hardcore English punk fanzines. Vox really covered the scene. So all these labels — Dome, 4AD, Cherry Red, Factory — started sending me records. They’d send me weird stuff and then one day this Michael O’Shea record turned up. I said, “What’s this?” It sounded fantastic. It had the same effect on me as hearing the music of Gurdjieff as transcribed by Thomas de Hartmann in the early 20th Century. Gurdjieff was an Armenian mystic who’d travelled all over the Far East and into deepest middle Asia. He arrived in Paris in the early 20s and became a guru and opened up a place for harmonious education and meditation [Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man].
Mark Prendergast — People would come to Gurdjieff with problems and he would do very odd things, he would say, “you’re going to go out and plant six trees this week.” People wanted answers, but he wouldn’t give them an answer until they had finished doing the work he had given them. He was a great guru, he told people to never react to any circumstance, always think about what you would do outside the pressure. The music of Thomas de Hartmann and Gurdjieff is very calligraphic, entrancing and soporific, it’s like looking at Arabic design, the way they adorn the Mosques in the Middle East, the tiny little details — this is the effect that listening to Michael O’Shea had on me.
Mark Prendergast — I met Michael O’Shea in Fellows Square in front of the Lecky Library [Trinity College Dublin]. When I met Michael there he started playing me his music and I said, “that sounds fantastic, would you like to do an interview for The Irish Times.” He said, “no problem.” The next day I met him there again and I had my equipment and we did the interview and I actually wrote the piece and it was rejected by The Irish Times. [Laughing] I still have the rejected piece — “R” is written on it. They said that it was just too obscure to have a big interview with him. I thought well you have interviews with all sorts, why can’t you have an interview with [laughing] a great Irish musician as well. So I kept that piece and Vox asked me to write something so I interviewed Michael again and then that piece was published.
The problem with status, power and material things is that you have to put out too much energy collecting them and holding it all together. I used to collect antiques, instruments, sculpture, art and other things in London. After two years I arrived one day in a large bare room with only myself and a sitar occupying the floor space. I then opened the window and headed for what I considered real. People not things — Michael O’Shea*
*From an interview with Mark Prendergast in Vox magazine Issue №13
Mark Prendergast — He was very small, he wasn’t very tall, he was slightly lurched over. He always wore a hat because he was bald. He always carried his living under his arm and he had a shoulder bag with all the bits and pieces: the amplifier, the “Black Hole Space Echo Box”. He used to carry other instruments as well, which people don’t mention, he used to carry a tin whistle, sometimes he’d have a small little banjo, he could play other instruments. The “Mo Chara” wasn’t the only instrument he played. He was very wiry, it was very hard to actually get him to sit down and stay in one place. He’d vanish and then come back half an hour later. I actually never saw him busk in Dublin. When we met he played “Mo Chara” for me there in Fellows Square and what I did afterwards was that I used to bring him to rooms, I had lots of friends in rooms in Trinity College, and he would play for them there. He would turn up at a party and play.
Chapter 10 — ‘Vox Cabaret’
I distinctively remember Michael O’Shea sitting on the chair with the instrument on his lap. It was like looking at a photograph that I’d seen in Vox so many times — Jim O’Mahony
Jim O’Mahony — We’re on the Grand Parade, opposite Cork City Library and what used to be the Grand Parade Hotel. We’re going down the little lane next to the carpark where the Ivernia Theatre used to be in the late 70s and early 80s. They used to put on various bits of theatre there and they also put on some good alternative music stuff. The Microdisney farewell gig was held here and the ‘Vox Cabaret’ night was here on 31 October, 1982. A Friday night, I remember it. It was kind of chaotic and all over the place and no one seemed to know who was doing what or when they were doing it, which I think kind of suited the night, it actually suited the people who were at the night as well, that was always the impression I got from the magazine as well. I do remember for definite that Microdisney were on the bill, Michael O’Shea was on the bill, Danny McCarthy, there was a few others. I have a memory of Five Go Down to the Sea being involved but I can’t remember if they played or not.
Danny McCarthy — I’ve quite clear memories of the night. My memories of Michael are of how nice he was to me. I was quite nervous doing the piece. At that stage I had been a founder of the Triskel Arts Centre, and I had been responsible for organising all the performance art stuff in Cork so I knew the audience for performance art and who would normally come along to it, but suddenly this night there was a hall full of people between punks and god knows what and I was wondering what would they make of what I was going to do. So I was quite nervous doing it, Michael kind of reassured me and calmed me down, and he was telling me to relax that all would be fine and he was right. I knew he was performing at the time and I knew that he had an instrument made of a door and things like that, but I always remember how nice he was calming me down and reassuring me that this would be OK.
Jim O’Mahony — The night itself, it didn’t go very smoothly or very straightforwardly, I think they were having troubles with the sound and stuff and people would attempt to play for a while, Michael O’Shea did actually get to play for a while, I’m not sure if anyone else managed to do a full set. The Ivernia was weird, I don’t think the Ivernia had a bar or anything, I don’t think the Ivernia actually had furniture, I think it was a square room. I remember you went in, the stage was kind of in front of you and we all seemed to go to the left and we were sitting on the floor against the walls, that’s the memory I have of it — it was a great venue though. [Laughing] The last time I was down here was probably that night.
Danny McCarthy — I had heard of him [Michael], I’m sure I read about him in Vox before the event and knew of him. Maybe Michael was more used to performing in front of that kind of audience or maybe it was his experience at busking or whatever, but that kind of came across in his his words to me. It’s one of those night’s that is kind of ingrained in one’s memory, I’ve done hundreds of performances, some I certainly wouldn’t be able to remember, but this one stuck in my head always.
Jim O’Mahony — I had heard of him, because I used to buy Vox magazine and he was always in Vox magazine. At the time Dave Fanning would have had the late night show [The Dave Fanning Show, midnight to 2am, RTÉ Radio 2] and he used to play an awful lot of the guys in Vox. The staples of Vox would have been: Five Go Down to the Sea; Microdisney were always there; the likes of Stano; Michael O’Shea and The Virgin Prunes, they were like the poster boys of it. The Virgin Prunes didn’t play the ‘Vox Cabaret’ night down here but I think they played Vox nights in Dublin. I distinctively remember Michael O’Shea sitting on the chair with the instrument on his lap. It was like looking at a photograph that I’d seen in Vox so many times. I can remember going, Oh that’s him, that’s the guy there. I can’t remember any of the music that night but I remember him being there. The type of crowd that would have been there was a small really kind of alternative, arty group of people, and I say that in a good way, that used to hang around and go to these kind of gigs in Cork. What he was doing musically would have made sense to a lot of people. When the Ivernia ran these type of shows, the only people that showed up were the people who were really into what was happening, you had no footfall happening here. Nobody just walked in off the street and came across an impromptu [laughing] Michael O’Shea gig.
Danny McCarthy — The nervousness came about by doing a performance in front of a mainly punk type audience. You went there [Ivernia Theatre] because you wanted to go there and I think that they included performance art on the night because Vox had been covering performance art in the magazine, so it was quite acceptable to them once it was in the a magazine, the same audience wouldn’t come to a performance art event that I’d be organising in the Triskel, it wouldn’t have been the typical audience that we’d have been used to. I had been organising performances in the Triskel for some time in Cork and knew the regular audience and none in the Ivernia were regulars. I was well aware of Vox covering performance having studied in Dublin and knew Dave Clifford and the Dublin events but I really did not know how the audience in Cork would react.
Note: For further information on Danny’s performance at ‘Vox Cabaret’ read…
Danny McCarthy and the Vox Cabaret
This is a series of articles about the production of my latest radio documentary “No Journeys End — the story of…
Jim O’Mahony — If you were anyway different or did anything different in Ireland you were looked down upon, you were nearly ostracised. The funny thing is that now years later, you’ve a lot of people coming from that scene who are revered here. Gavin Friday, for example, is looked upon as almost Ireland’s Scott Walker, but at the time he was a deviant, he was a dangerous deviant. You’d see The Virgin Prunes walking around Dublin wearing dresses, but they were like big dockers wearing dresses, there was nothing effeminate about them or anything — they didn’t get grief off people because they’d probably kill you. Again, it was this scene that really existed on the fringes, we loved the fact that it existed on the fringes because when you’re young and you’re into that you want to be on the fringes, you don’t want the kind of Tesco music fans liking what you like when you’re young. I don’t think that there’s ever been another Irish music scene that was out there like that so much.
Chapter 11 — Alto Studios
I’d say we were a sight coming out on the bus, the two of us — me the punk rocker and Michael looking like an Indian man or a Hare Krishna, carrying strange instruments — Stano
John Byrne — I gather music, you can be called a record collector, some terms for what I do can seem negative or obsessive, but it’s just gathering music. I first heard Stano’s music, one of Ireland’s foremost post-punk studio architects, back in 1982 when I heard his debut single ‘Room’ on local radio. The following year he made an album and on it was one of the strangest things I had ever heard in my life. A duet between Stano and Michael O’Shea — to this day it’s one of the most arresting things I’ve ever heard. It’s called ‘Seance of a Kondalike’. The idea of a post-punk musician and a traveling hippie-troubadour working together in 1982 is just completely unique — there’s nothing else like it.
Stano — The first time I came across Michael O’Shea was on ‘The Dave Fanning Show’, he used to be on between 12 and 2 in the morning and in the middle of all he was playing, he played Michael O’Shea’s track ‘Kerry’ — I was fascinated by it, I was always drawn to things that are slightly different — he was that. In a recent issue of Vox magazine there had been an interview with Michael, so he was in my head. I loved his album. I only ever met him twice, once on Grafton Street and then the day he came to the studio. I was midway through recording my first album and I was walking around by Trinity College towards Grafton Street and I heard this amazing music drifting on the wind and I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, it was magical. I followed the music until I traced it to a man sitting in a doorway busking about midway up the street. I was just transfixed by what he was doing, and I just thought that I’d love to get this guy into the studio and to be a part of my album. The thing is that there was something kind of familiar about the music as well, I realised that this man was the Michael O’Shea that I heard on Fanning.
Stano — At the time cars could go up and down the street so he was on the pathway in a corner. He drew a fairly big crowd — the music was just so beautiful. It was a beautiful summer’s day. It’s really strange the way music drifts on the wind. I stood there listening, mesmerised for maybe twenty minutes. That day on Grafton Street you could see people walking up and down looking at him. The Diceman [Thom McGinty] was there at the time as well, unusual characters, amazing people the two of them. I waited until he was finished and I approached him and then I introduced myself to him and we had a bit of a conversation. I said, “How’re you Michael? I’m doing an album, my name’s Stano.” He recognised my name because he’d done an interview two days earlier with Vox magazine and myself and Microdisney had been mentioned. I told him what I was doing, I told him that I’d love if he’d come to the studio and asked him would he be interested. He said yes, and that’s how the collaboration came about.
Stano — I didn’t really know what to expect of him, a few people said to me that he won’t show up in the studio, but he was on time, I met him outside the gates of Trinity College the following Saturday and we got the bus out to Milltown, the bus stop was just across the road from Robert Emmet House where Alto Studios were situated. It was gas, he just came along and he had a little push trolley and he had the wooden door on it and he had a few bits and pieces. For all intends and purposes he looked like a down and out. The way he dressed reminded me of what Indian men wear, he had long cream robes. He had a shaved head; he was very thin; a few of his teeth were missing and he was a strange looking character. He looked like he might have had a hard life, but he was a really gentle soul, a nice man. What I loved about him was: he was the music, and the music was him. He was a very mild-manned man — a nice guy. Michael was a lot older than me. He had been around in the late 60s and he had played with some incredible people. At the time I recorded with him, I would have been 21 or 22 and Michael was probably in his early 30s.
Stano — We made our way out here [Alto Studios], it would have been 1982. It was interesting because he was dressed in robes and people were looking at us, giving us strange looks. I knew Michael looked different, but I looked different as well — I was a punk with multi-coloured hair. [Laughing] I’d say we were a sight coming out on the bus, the two of us — me the punk rocker and Michael looking like an Indian man or a Hare Krishna, carrying strange instruments.
Stano — We were programming drum patterns on an 808 drum machine but we didn’t really know what we were doing, we were trying to figure it out. I can remember that as we were putting the drum patterns down there were tuning knobs on it and as we were recording down to tape I was turning them, it gave it a sort of Indian sound, it made the drums sort of wobble a bit. I just had it in my head about Michael — I knew that he played sitar. I thought I’d built up a track with sitar. But of course he arrived with his “Mo Chara” and his other handmade instruments.
Stano — Usually the way I’d work is that I would sit down and listen to someone playing. I’d listen to them jam and then I’d home in on certain pieces that I liked. Michael just came in and jammed. When he was doing his own stuff he used a lot of phasers and shifters, but because we were in the basement of Robert Emmet’s house, a massive big basement, the natural reverb in it was just beautiful. When he stuck the instrument I just thought that it sounded really, really nice. So I ended up recording him with nothing on it that’s how the original version of that would have ended up on the Michael O’Shea reissue CD [WMO 2001]. We were recording on an 8-track and I think there might have been four or five different takes of each piece. From the tape itself then I would have picked certain pieces that I liked and then put a collage together.
Stano — I gave him a sandwich, a cup of tea, a few bob and he was in and out in about two or three hours. I never saw him again and then years later I heard that he had stepped off the back of a bus and was killed. He only made one album, which is such a pity; apart from his own album and the tracks he did with me there were no other professional recordings. He did record some stuff with Larry [Burns] on cassette but that’s it. I just had two backing tracks basically and Michael just came in and jammed. It’s amazing to imagine what he could have done. There was a lot more in him and it’s a pity nobody captured another recording with him.
Note: For further information about Robert Emmet House, Alto Studios and the musicians that recorded there please read…
Chapter 12— Michael’s Death
He was in hospital for so many days and no one knew who he was, he had no identification on him — Rita O’Shea
Rita O’Shea — It was Christmas time and my mum was in London. Nuala had invited Mike down to see mum. He’d always come and see her. Then Nuala cancelled it for another day. He took the bus anyway and he got off the bus and he walked behind the bus straight out into a van that was coming. The van wasn’t going that fast but whatever bump he got he bled, he had a cerebral hemorrhage.
Rita O’Shea — The sad part was that he was in hospital for so many days and no one knew who he was, he had no identification on him. Apparently there was a nurse who knew him, she had met him at a party and she recognised him — a fluke. He was in King’s College Hospital. They were able to contact the family through the guards [police] obviously. He lived for maybe about four days unconscious and then they withdrew the life support the morning that I flew over. He was 44, it was very sad, it broke my mother’s heart. Luckily enough she was in London with my sister.
Rita O’Shea — Myself and Nuala went up to his apartment and cleared out everything and took whatever we needed, and my sister took “Mo Chara” and she still has it. My brother has one as well. There were loads of instruments half made in the flat. It was very sad, his friends didn’t know he was dead, no one knew because everyone felt he’s gone to visit his mum. They all knew that he was going to visit so he wasn’t going to be there anyway. It was so sad. We had him cremated and brought back to Ireland down to Ventry and had a mass said for him there and had him buried in the family grave next to his father. His father had died at the age of 47 from a brain tumour, and Mike was 44. So that’s where Mike was laid to rest. My mum is buried there now and we often go down and see the grave.
Rita O’Shea — He was bohemian, absolutely a free spirit. I can remember when we took his ashes back from England and had them buried in Ventry, I said one thing we have to have on the little tombstone for him — it’s where my father is buried and my mother is buried there too — and on it I said we have to have “a free spirit”. That’s exactly it, because that’s what he was. You couldn’t tie him down.
I’m glad that his music is being recognised, I really am, because we didn’t appreciate it, other people did — Rita O’Shea
Mark Prendergast — When I went to London first, in 1984, I had a really strange experience. I can remember that I got to Notting Hill Gate Tube station, and who did I bump into but Michael playing in the Tube station. I could hear the sound, he was playing in one of the tunnels. Michael asked me what was I doing, and I said that I had just lost a roof over my head and he said, “that’s OK, I’ve got two houses you can come and stay in one of them.” So in West Hampstead he had a fantastic house where he was living with all this stuff on the walls, he had loads of different instruments and different hangings and all sorts of stuff, painting and stuff, very bohemian. He was also looking after an empty house next door so he said that I could stay there for a while. I only stayed one or two nights and I got myself a place to live. It was very strange to meet him like that in 1984, just by chance. He had a reputation that preceded him, but honestly I never had any problems with Michael O’Shea.
John Byrne — In 1982, the idea that two post-punk musicians like Gilbert and Lewis would cut a record with a travelling hippie-troubadour was for most people [laughing] incomprehensible. They were punk enough to do it, and they did it. From a pop-culture sense in 1982, the idea of someone doing that wasn’t beyond the pale, [laughing] it was on another planet. The idea of weird folk music didn’t exist. If they had made the record anytime before 1976 it probably would have had more of an audience over time but because it happened in the space it did, from the angle it did and at the time it did — sorry six months later it was gone, goodnight done. It was out of time. Michael came from a particular generation of people, before punk. There was an open-mindedness about some of the late 60s heads who had travelled. They could think musically, without thinking about genres. Michael could play a traditional set with his brother or he could play with post-punk musicians — in a strange way punk shut things down for a long time, where you were supposed to be boxed into particular places. When we managed to get Michael’s CD issued back in 2001 there wasn’t a folk revival going on, now it’s everywhere and there should be a new audience for Michael’s music.
Rita O’Shea — I’m very surprised about the interest in Mike’s music. I played his record the other night and I thought, gosh yes it is nice — I can see him playing his “Mo Chara”.
Mark Prendergast — My memories of Michael are very positive, it was an amazing time in Dublin, there was so much happening on a daily basis and he was part of it. Would he be more acceptable today? I think not. The reason why I say that is because I don’t think he would fit in to the modern Irish scene. Dublin has changed beyond recognition since the early 80s. In those days in London, anyone could busk in the Underground, there were no rules or regulations. Anybody could set up and start playing music, it was acceptable. Nowadays it’s completely controlled by London Underground, you have to apply for a licence to busk and you have to be vetted by a committee. So no, I don’t think Michael would fit in with the London scene today. He was too much of a free spirit to abide by any rules— he was of his time.
John Byrne — Michael’s album happened during a time in Ireland when you still had a strain of progressive acoustic experimenting happening at a level. Nobody went as far Michael to really wire it right into the electronics. You can hear an acoustic instrument that has been heavily electronically treated; nobody ever went as far as that — an old folk instrument used in that fashion. That was unique.
Rita O’Shea — The memory I have is meeting him in London when I’d go over and stay with my sister and he’d take us out to the folk clubs. We loved music so we’d have a great time with him. He was very sociable, he always had lots of friends around him so we’d have a good time. I remember him more for that. Anytime I met him I had a nice time with him, I never was really with him when he was drunk, I wouldn’t have wanted that. There were some very positive things that he did in his life — going to Bangladesh, anyone that knew him around Haverstock Hill would have seen some of the things he did for the elderly and keeping the gardens trim — I haven’t done that, none of the rest of us have done that.
Jim O’Mahony — You might play Michael’s music to two people, one person will head for the hills but you’ll always get the person who’ll stand there and who’ll be overcome by it. That’s what it does. It’s one of these records where you just have to pick the right person, put the record in their hands and say, “you’re going to have to trust me here, take this and listen to it and tell me what you think, just don’t ask me any questions, just sit down and have a listen to this.” You honestly can’t describe it, you have to tell someone just to listen to it.
Rita O’Shea — I always thought his music was quite suited to background music of maybe some film or something, that it would go very well as a soundtrack. I often hear music similar on Lyric FM and think, I wonder is that him! That’s the truth now because they do really unusual music on Lyric. I love music myself, if you went into the other room you’d see all my CDs but I love every kind of music.
Larry Burns — When his record came out he wasn’t famous, I suppose he was infamous, those records didn’t sell, they were just passed on. Someone would give it to you and say, “Listen, you’ve got to hear this.” He was a prophet. He believed in spirit and music, that’s what his dog was called — Spirit. I said to him, “I’ve never heard you talking to your dog.” [Laughing] He said, “Sorry, we communicate on other levels.” [Laughing] On other levels! He didn’t believe in waiting for the government to change the world, he just changed his own world. Everyone who got close to him — their world would change too. He loved music and he was very shy and he used to hide behind alcohol. I suppose we caused gentle havoc wherever we went.
Stano — I’m not surprised about the interest in Michael’s music because they are such original pieces, with everything becoming so homogenized and sounding so similar. Michael’s music is so different, it’s simply organic.
Graham Lewis — Michael was very transgressive, he didn’t give a fuck about anyone really, or anyone’s opinion as such. He lived a precarious existence, he liked to drink and he was not averse to imbibing other substances. With “Mo Chara” he managed to travel around a lot of Europe, busking, playing the troubadour, living the life, [laughing] with Michael there was always a proliferation of stories and places. [Laughing] There’s something very Beckettian about the record in its essence, it’s the same kind of thing as one experiences when I saw Pipes of Joujouka for the first time. It’s something that has got this agelessness about it, but very much in the moment.
Gavin Friday — The music is sort of indescribable in the sense that it feels like a one man orchestra. What’s really interesting about it is that it’s got the storytelling that Irish Trad folk people can do. When you get somebody as extraordinary as Martin Hayes — the main guy from The Gloaming, I’m a big fan of Martin’s solo stuff — it’s that sort of mysterious storyteller. People say he’s for the birds, but he is with the birds and he’s bringing the orchestra with him and you with him. Michael has that, in that he’s a solo performer who’s playing. Is it a sitar? Is it a slide guitar? Well what is it? “Mo Chara”, he made it himself! It has this fusion of stuff, the Indian shit brings on the psychedelia but then it has that Celticness as well. He’s like a Sci-Fi Trad player. Yeah, that’s a good analogy, that in the late 70s happened to look like The Man Who Fell to Earth busking, let’s leave it at that [laughing].
Rita O’Shea — Mike’s music it’s atmospheric, there’s something quite different to it. It’s different to Irish music but there is a taint of Irish music going through it. Because he was different to any of us in the family we found him hard to accept and I think nowadays we would be more forgiving and more tolerant when we see how life is, but we were all a bit straitlaced if you like. I’m glad that his music is being recognised, I really am, because we didn’t appreciate it, other people did. He was my brother and I loved him.
© Paul McDermott 2019, All Rights Reserved
Thanks to all of the contributors who were willing to take the time to answer my questions especially Rita O’Shea. Special mention to John Byrne for help with the initial research and for passing on all the clippings.
© Paul McDermott 2019, All Rights Reserved
Chusid, I. (2000). Songs in the key of Z: the curious universe of outsider music. Chicago. A Cappella Books.
Leech, J. (2010). Seasons They Change: the Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk. London. Jawbone Press.
Prendergast, M. (1987). Irish Rock: Roots, Personalities, Directions. Dublin. O’Brien Press.
© Paul McDermott 2019, All Rights Reserved
Michael O’Shea and Stano’s Content To Write In I Dine Weathercraft are available from Allchival Records.
For further information:
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This is a series of articles about the background, research and production of “No Journeys End — the story of Michael O’Shea”.
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