Interview with John Sheehan of The Dubliners by Gay Byrne in 2017
we are recording this interview on the 19th of May which just happens to be the 77th birthday of our guest John Sheehan, and we join in wish you a very happy birthday. Anyway not only that but we are recording this interview in the casino in Marino which was John's choice of venue. Give me a little more about that John please ? yeah they're just just building a neoclassical building dating back to the 1750s I think it was part of landscape of Marino, and I grew up a broader aloof kind of a building but we all had a notion that someday we would visit this place and find out what's going on in there and it's full of trickery yeah some as full of optical illusions you know, and point it when you view it from the outside it looks like it might be an antechamber inside. But there's I think 16 rooms and of course is on your home turf let's let's, let's talk about your parents.
Mary I know they were both from Limerick and they had five of you three girls into two boys yeah and your father was a Garda in store Street, without through it overall a lovely childhood in you and absolutely a very happy childhood a very contented house very peaceful a loving relationship between my modern father and between all of us that don't observer a rail or any any harsh words uttered by learning religious and religious in the traditional way. I suppose was regular Mass every Sunday and even a devotions and confession once a week and we had the family rosary every evening, and if I had pearls in and we were about to sneak out the door without her college boy hold on there a minute lads kneel down and say the Rosary upon taking more than 10 or 15 minutes so the power should be roped in and they get a mystery each as well as you know and we all net around the fireplace and we each took a chair, next to the chair with our heads against the back of the chair dangling the rosary beads you know but it wasn't such a pious occasion and some respects because my mother was a bit of a character and she'd be dangling the rosary beads and it was a little pet cat that we had and he'd be gone for the beads a coercion would be all trying to keep back to giggles because we father was a bit more Stern and put more serious you know was there a lot of music in the house not in not in the early days although both parents had a great appreciation of traditional music
My mother, I remember my mother going around the house to her household chores she should be singing all the time seeing little songs to herself and the father had a great knowledge of traditional Irish music and could lift a lot of tunes you know now you sure the class I know with Paddy Moloney of destroyed and there is another parallel with Paddy because he was on this program and he told us on that occasion that his parents had lost a child in infancy boy or he paddy was born preferably and that that death cast a shadow over his childhood you mean. Now tell me about the little brother that you never got. Okay yeah yeah well if another brother, brother Genesis a year in nine months older than me and he was a half twin as they used to say the other little boy he died when he was about three or four weeks old and he was christened John ah, and when I came along his name was a very gifted to me and apparently that was a tradition in the old days you know if a boy died his name would be saved for the next to came along and it's Mazin dad very strong material maternal instinct my mother up to the age of well into her 80s whenever she talked about this little boy who died you could see a little trickle of a tear coming into the eye even after all these years she felt that bond and that lasts you know and I suppose part of the potential that had died with him and sometimes in a daydreaming kind of a way you know myself I think that maybe because I was gifted with his name maybe in a sense that I might be acting out to life that he might have lived you know and maybe he might have been a fiddle player musician or whatever you know
So tell me about the Christian Brothers in Marino John. Well they were like the Christian Brothers every parent except with a couple of exceptions as well and by and large I think it was a case of learning true fear that the threat of the letter was always there you know and but we had one one wonderful broader a broader McCaffrey and we had him for singing lessons that was part of the curriculum down yet he learned how to sing and how to read music and the tonic sulfur touring it was all that he'd also need oh he brought it in whistling to the class one day and played a coupla tunes for us and we were all mesmerised and then he said but anybody like to learn to play course Saur Saur Saur Saur everybody in the class had their handle so after after the week or two in with Lee he taught us the dawning of the day Raglan Road melody now and some of these simple tunes you know and after a couple of weeks I obviously had a bit of a gift for music and it was beginning to show at this stage but it being boastful because I remember coming back and I played the tune from he said you showed you hit but in that grace note there and I said nobody are just is it okay so that slowly but did you just do it yourself and I said yeah and that's the way it went you know you obviously had a talent mm-hmm and the minute you mentioned talent religion and belief and God comes into it because right I believe that is a god-given talent and therefore I'm asking you do you think that you have a god-given talent or part is it yeah I think it is I think it is a god-given gift okay and I think everybody is born with some gift and I think the prime purpose of Education really is for the educator to discover what gifts each child has and then to foster and nurture that gift and and progressively whatever way they can and in my case yeah definitely a god-given talent where else could have come from let's do it this way I look at it okay now and the Christian Brothers in sing Street and in Marino and all over the place the the stated objective was to give you an education to get you through the intercession the Leaving Cert and please got a grand job in the civil service of the banqueting right yeah yeah but they made no bones about saying that the real reason you were there was for the the class from 12:00 to 12:30 every day without exception which was Catholic theology and catechism and religious knowledge and so on.
How much of that has stuck to the 77 year old john sheehan ? I, I think it sticks with everybody it's kind of ingrained into as a as a young person and who made a warrior. God made a world and all these ritual kind of questions and answers and in the Catechism I often think back and some of the big words were used in the Catechism you know why do we call that day God on which Christ died so painful and ignominious death no ignominious for a seven-year-old. and hell and eternal flames damnation Freud in the PJs if you you know then you start thinking for yourself you think eternal flames like flames can't last for eternity flames are something confined to a time zone and a finite zone you know just knows the saints eternal flames part of the joy of doing this series of programs within the meaning of life is that you find out that so many people were already doing something else before they ended up doing what they do I mean who could have believed that Gabriel born the other Gabriel boy yes with a spoiled priest or more or Paddy Moloney was in the building trade very contracted Trey oh yeah or the Penta no Carroll was a waiter and a very good way yes I know that because he told me right yeah yeah.
And you went to work for the ESB you're a qualified electrician you're a draftsman and if you would stayed with the ESB John, you would not be sitting on a fat pension from the ESP at this stage in your life and when network yet you would be and the legs back if you'd only stayed so so what the the amazing thing is that you you had the courage at some stage to leave the security of that you can get on it doing something else yeah again the steered the overriding loaf of music I think when you balance that against a good pension of the job the music wins out you know and I was I ended up my career in there in the ESB as a draftsman for five years and during that period I'd started playing with the Dubliners and in those days you could take your annual even couple of days here and there until you got into the sick leave state and I was at that stage and and I got my brother Dennis to bring up one day and say John is sick today won't be in and then my boss called me and the next day we were doing a gig off in Belfast at night you see in the Ulster Hall called me and the next day and produced a copy of the urged and Dubliners had a marvelous reception the Ulster our last night and he said yep he got over your sickness okay you know so that was a signal to me to think about retiring and go for the music full-time you know through years slight propulsion into making up your mind I remember having a chat with my father about it and just to get his imprimatur on it as it were and he said said well he knew the lads were rough-and-ready and it was no great and future future in that the way things looked and he said well I'll sure give it a go love that's what you want to do have a go of it and if it doesn't work out the lowers be roof over your head here there were the exact words he used so you left the ESB and you join The Dubliners and you got roughly in or about 1964 and it finished in ER about 2012 with 48 50 years yeah when most groups last two years or three years years even the Beatles only got 10 years out of it how did that stay together how did that yeah one of the most volatile groups in the public absolutely yeah but yeah it was a volatile kind of a situation and kind of a baptism of fire in a way because with the actual day I gave in my notice to the ESB we had a meeting that evening and it wasn't in O'Donnell is because it was meant to be.
A business meeting, we headed across the road and only I see I think barely accidentally kicked Ronnie in the shin under the table and Ronnie Drew Thought it was on purpose and there was tables of pints all over the place into the fu and fu and that's the end of the whole bloody lot now and I'm driving home with Bob Lynch who had joined the group with me and Bob said what's going to happen now and as it's you so I don't know I've given hope me good pension to put you up today and Ronnie I get a ring from Ronnie two days later Sid are you ok for Friday ? where we're down and Mullingar I said that I taught a group broke up the other day Ronnie I don't again it also that happens every couple of weeks so that might be on you reassurance I got and after that it doesn't have gone and kept going fifty years later I think part of the reason be said that longevity I think part of the reason might be that we never had any long-term plans when you're free and easy like we were you know we just worked from week to week month to month and it's just a bit of an adventure that went on and on and on you know away from using for a mode.
I want to hear about Mary Morgan from Holly Bay County bond and I want to know where you met and how you met and unloads a double first sight and and what happened then and yeah Mary's from County mountain a wonderful girl that the backbone of my life and Mary was friendly with Bob Lynch and his voice I was doing gigs with Rob Lynch before we became inducted into the into the governor nurses aware and Bob would say it was worth maybe if we were able to get better give Mary a ring and see if the kids are okay she was baby settlers kids so whatever ever having met Mary I conjured up the picture of an old an old lady minding the kids you see so anyway I was up in Bob's house one day and I met this Marian said oh this is a totally different marriage from the woman I'd imagined and there was just a natural spark between us I think a natural kind of empathy straightaway and that's how it started you know and we we we made out for about a year and a half together before then because we got married and settle down and and she was fully aware of the discipline of being in The Dubliners oh absolutely yeah
Because she had been at a number two gigs and she could see that it was a setup that might last too long you know that you couldn't be betting on a pension .We'll bury it or anything like that and a lot of night work and a lot of traveling that's right Jen but Mary was great with the kids and she never she never Tretton them with wait till your father comes home she always dealt with any little problems or missed behaviors as they happen she left with them herself and and to have great respect for Mary and good respect for yourself four or five kids coming back to the Dubliners again you would Mary saved up and you managed to buy a semi in in Rohini Romania and and so you you the two of you looked as if you were a respectable accountant or or the local bank manager or something instead of being a member of one of the most volatile and noisy and and rambunctious groups in the business and where you that were you the minder for the day I suppose a boss in a way I mean the rest of them up to that point had led quite a bohemian kind of lifestyle no regular jobs or anything like that whereas I came from a conservative kind of a background if you like and I straightaway I could foresee a certain role that I could play and putting more of a structure on on this outfit you know that it was wonderful raw undisciplined kind of talent there and I could see certain it could be harvested in a certain way and promoted in a certain way and I became but I sometimes described us that the mortar between the bricks like who took care of the money and things and the accountancy and the return.
Yes that that became part of my function and because in the beginning like whatever came in on the door just avoided opened up as it and I began to say well what about the petrol money for the cars were used to get to the gig and should we not be thinking of investing on some sound equipment for ourselves for later on instead of pouring it out all the time and they're not sure well if you want to look after that UD okay come on go ahead and do whatever you have to do and that that worked fairly well for a while until the phones were running a little bit low and I've given a note amazin down in Galway after a gig one-one knife so this in John no deductions tonight and we've families to feed and children to feed and I thought cheese may be even better Shan this lot with these deductions you know so I gave in anyway and I said okay there's the divvy out for the night and I went off for the little one came back and here would afford them open high stools with Havana cigars and large Brandy's which are necessities the life episode that was the thing they said we need assessment necessities alive and I said you and your necessities the local fact is anyway it just it just amazes me that you stayed sane in the middle of all of that and still playing the music and still doing your job I'm still looking after them like a father figure yeah there was an element of that as well you didn't drink at this stage no no I had to point ear peon actually as a matter of interest have you ever taken alcohol oh yes but in moderation at what age did you start I'm not sure I would have been in my early thirties I think 31 or 32 maybe but that'd be after a concert in a restaurant then I would never drink and never have drunk before before again.
let me ask you about Siobhan C okra Owen and cola your own children yeah your father you said was a little bit strict on on you rather more strict than your mother how strict were you on your own children John growing up I suppose it would give you a clear answer saying not strict enough but that wouldn't be true because there are pretty good kids and I didn't I didn't have to be in any particular way disciplined to keep them in manners and teach them good manners and how to behave and how to respect each other and all those kind of I suppose you could call them Christian values really we gave him a concept of goddess pose in the same way as we picked it up ourselves God is a holy man up in heaven not in disguise and we're looking at his like the father figure of us all of our human kind and you pray to him to be good and to be holy and those kind of those kind of general things now your children have produced five grandchildren including little sighs who died that's right yeah and whatever you think of something like that I think of Stephen Fry who caused a big controversy on this program.
Yes when I asked him what would he say to God and he went for questioning this omniscient omnipotent God little babies with bone cancer he said what is all that about eating what is all that about he wants to ask God in his anger and I just wonder when something like that happens to you and your little grandchild dies in infancy did you rail against God or did you find consolation in the fate that you had and I supposed to faith those give us consolation.
I didn't get angry or don't think I need the family got angry. There was a sadness okay and a definite sense of mourning but at the same time consolation in the notion that this little infant is has gone to Heaven to its reward, which which is another thing that fascinates me but but that must be like for an infant to die and be suddenly cast into the presence of God without having any knowledge for knowledge of a God or the language to express something about regard beforehand it must be an amazing and amazing feeling for that child and I suppose that might be the consolation that we have an angel we have an angel or the saints in heaven looking operas and likewise my brother John Dennis's have twin at the core teammates are okay there's there's two angels in the family one is a grand grand uncle angel of the other and they're consoling thoughts but at the same time there's a deep sense there's a deep sense of mourning there and and a lot of a potential life and what it might have been and what it might have achieved you know.
So you mentioned God ,and tell me about God what what how do you envisage God and I think into probably two different images one would be the image of God out of the Bibles and the drawings of this tall six foot rod man with the long hair bit of a beatnik look as opposed about him but that would be one picture the other picture would be and looking at the night sky and being enthralled with the wonder of creation looking at stars as if they were still here and they've gone out of existence thousands of years ago and thinking about the vastness of creation and realizing that this couldn't have happened by chance there must be a superintelligence up there who created all of this that would be another image of God and the disciples and the Apostles and all of those guys what were they as far as you're concerned ah there are a bunch of fishermen and beatniks a bit bit like the governors ended up at one stage and say no particular jobs and dozen around but were attracted by this .
His powerful presence and and followed him and became his disciples but Jesus Christ I would think of as God incarnate if you like he came down and took on a human appearance and dwelt amongst us and I suppose taught us how to lead better lives. love your neighbor as yourself I think if we all obeyed that principle we have a very happy world they're there they're simply random but gardener and do you pray and I do I wouldn't be one for saying loads of Hail Marys and our fathers or even saying the rosary nowadays but I think to say the Lord's Prayer very slowly and think of the meaning of all the words that you're saying it, I think that's more much more powerful than meaningful than than rattling off 50 Hail Mary's in a rosary you know, like a chant or a mantra but when you say to your prayer I think composing a piece of music could be a prayer. And I think music is very much a spiritual language a language of the mind the language of thoughts and the transfer of that thought into something material like a piece of music.
That's something that transition is something that fascinates me I'm not sure if I'm answering the question, yes indeed you are. So you don't , are you saying to me that you don't pray for things or do you no no I I don't I'm not sure of its right to pray to achieve something or to get get some material benefits if they're the right thing for you together I think God will say did you get them anyway but I think it's more appropriate to pray and Thanksgiving for all the gifts that we do have and and would you go to Mass regularly now . No to be honest with you know I'd be a bit Luke would be a lukewarm Catholic and that in that respect and I think that that happened I suppose over a period of Tooting and baking up on a Sunday morning and having to go off somewhere else or not going to the trouble to find out if there is a church around the place.
But, but I think of God nearly every day and say my head my prayers and my own and my own fashion. I think it's a good community for people to get together then and pray and meet each other what happens when we die John as far as you're concerned.
Do you expect to see Ronnie, Luke Kelly and Barney again ? no no no we won't be sitting around having cups of tea and chats about chatting about the old world and but, but I think we'll meet each other in a spiritual sense and I think to be a very strong bonding between us by virtue of the fact that we're about experiencing the same divine God, this wonderful spiritual presence.
the bad fellows, do you think that there is a comeuppance for bad people. Is there a general Judgment Day ? well hell is a common picture I suppose above a place of punishment for people who don't lead good lives but I think the eternal flames a hell I think they were invented by the early Christian churches to frighten us into holiness but kind of an analogy I thought of recently about heaven is that it's like a big theatrical show and the people look at the front who have led very good lives they're very clear vision of the whole show and as you progress back through the theater division gradually diminishes in proportion to the lives that these are people led and eventually you get to the baddies at the back and I imagine they have a very blurred image of God
They being unsure of what but what's going on you know and because they haven't, they haven't worked during their lives as a to develop a capacity for happiness and for them to have a glimpse of God I think would be like saying Beethoven for a snail or taking a pig on a holiday be that meaningless you know so I think that's dared hell I think we all have fragments of the goodness of God in us and that's our spirit I suppose and, and there's a hunger within the spirit to be reunited with God and I think the real hell is the separation of, not a unification reunification being fulfilled that'll be my general kind of notion of.
Okay a second last question for you John now on your 77th birthday what is the meaning of life for you ? I think it's a kind of a trial period I think the idea is to lead as good a life as we can be kind to other people to do goodness whenever wherever you can, and then in the way of your your fellow man so if we're all kind to each other you go don't share, don't be frightened, I think, I think that's what a good life is about that would be a wonderful world yeah absolutely idyllic I suppose yeah final question.
suppose it's all true John. All that you were taught by the Christian Brothers and you end up at the pearly gates and you meet God what will John G and say to God hmm, I'd probably say something like well God I would have been happy to be a speck of dust in your creation but you went further than that. He gave me a soul and I'm eternally grateful for that, that should do it.
Is there any chance of a little tune before you leave us on your birthday yeah sure well do you have a little oh you do I would sure I knew you are always ready but this very building here was the inspiration for this tune. The Marino Waltz , ooh happy birthday John Sheehan thanks for any happy returns to you that was a bless you thank you
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