Dreams and memories
Ratoath resident John Sheahan laughs at the good of it all now - the day he decided to give up his day job and throw his lot in with The Dubliners, although, he adds, it was certainly no laughing matter at the time.
Instead, it looked like he had made the biggest mistake in his life. It was the mid-1960s and Sheahan had played fiddle as a casual member of the band for some time, helping out in gigs here and there along with his pal Bob Lynch. The two had already become pretty well known on the Dublin music scene.
Sheahan had also trained as an electrician and had a job in the ESB but the growing demands of the band put him in a situation where he simply had to make a choice.
Did he want to be an electrician or go full time as a musician with a folk group only starting to make a name for itself?
He went with his gut feeling; he took the less safe option and opted to join the band that included eager, if then little known, singers and musicians such as Barney McKenna, Ronnie Drew and Luke Kelly. â€¨Once the decision was made Sheahan posted the letter to his employers informing them he was packing in the job, thank you very much.
He later attended a ‘business meeting’ of the band in a pub; Drink was taken, views were forcefully expressed - and a row developed.
“It had come to the stage where, well, I had to give up my day job, I had to make a decision one way or the other. The first official meeting to discuss the future of the group, a bit of a row broke out and the group broke up.
“I was driving home with Bob Lynch and saying: ‘What in the name of God are we getting ourselves into here.’ I have given up my good day job today and the group broke up in the first meeting,” he recalled last week from his home just outide Ratoath as he took time out to talk to the Meath Chronicle.
“The row was between Barney and Ronnie at the time, tables were upended and pints split all over the place. There were plenty of ‘To hell with you’ and ‘F*** you’ and ‘That’s the end of it now I’m off home’, that’s the way it ended up. Earlier that day I had just sent in my notice. My good job was gone.”
It wasn’t long that young John Sheahan’s fears were eased. He took a call the next day from Ronnie Drew.
“Hello John, are you okay for the gig on Friday night?” Drew asked.
“But I thought after what happened yesterday that the band had broken up?”
“Ah don’t take any notice of that. That happens every couple of weeks,” Drew added.
“The thing is Barney and Ronnie were the best of friends,” adds Sheahan recalling that exchange. “Whenever there were any disagreements or verbals thrown around it would be all forgotten about in a couple of days.”
That call from Ronnie Drew certainly eased John Sheahan’s concerns. The band were back together again - and ready to make their mark.
It was in 1967 that The Dubliners made the big time. They had brought out an album - ‘A Drop of the Hard Stuff’ - under the London-based Major Minor label. The band didn’t put any store by a reworking of an old traditional number they called ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ in terms of it becoming a hit single but it did.
“We were managed by a guy called Phil Solomon and he saw the potential in it, he felt it could be a hit and he was right. The song was played pretty well non-stop on Radio Caroline. It helped it along and I think we were certainly the first folk group to get into the English top 10 charts.
The popularity of the song also earned them a slot on the increasingly popular Top of the Pops programme that was screened each week on the BBC - and which more and more Irish people were able to see in their new-fangled TVs.
The Dubliners were to go on to become one of the biggest bands in the history of Irish music, churning out a series of hits including ‘Never Wed an Old Man,’ ‘The Irish Rover,’ ‘Red Roses for Me’ and ‘Raglan Road.’ They tourned all over the world.
“We went to Australia five times, New Zealand, even places like the Faroe Islands, there was great excitment about an Irish folk band appearing there, but for me there was always something special about our shows in the Stadium in Dublin. We’d play there maybe twice or three times a year, they were special, outstanding events. I think people just liked the mix of characters in the group, the bit of wildness about it all.”
The Dubliners certainly did garner a certain madcap reputation. Sure there was drink and parties that went on into the wee, small hours says John but there was a lot of hard graft done too including a prolific output of hit albums and singles. He feels the band’s wild reptuation was largely undeserved.
“There was always that professional attitude there that a job needed to be done and we had to be fit to do it,” he says.
It’s forty years ago now since John Sheahan and his wife Mary bought a house in Ratoath and decided that their rural outpost close to the Meath village offered a perfect antidote to John’s hectic job.
Sheahan had grown up in Dublin but he loved the countryside, still does. The fact that he trained as a classical musician, he says, helped him greatly in his career. He added little classical flourishes to traditional tunes to forge a distinctive style.
In 2012, Barney McKenna and himself drew a line under the Dubliners. It was the band’s 50th anniversary and, as they last two surviving members of the group from the early days, it seemed a good time to call a halt. The joke over the years was that Sheahan never officially joined the band so could never be officially sacked.
Now in his seventies John Sheahan continues to keep busy.The day he spoke to the Meath Chronicle he was off to RTE to record with Emer Quinn and the RTE Orchestra. He has worked with a younger generation of singer/songwriters in recent times including Glen Hansard, Damien Dempsey, Declan O’Rourke and Imelda May.
Then there’s the Johnstons Folk Festival in Slane with John Sheahan and Michael Howard which he headlined last weekend with a evening of poetry (Sheahan wrote his own collection called ‘Fiddle Dreams’) song and of course music in the local St Patrick’s Church of Ireland last Sunday.
John Sheahan’s life is just a little more sedate now than it used to be with the famous Dubliners - but he’s fine with that. “I’ve no regrets, I’m just happy to be alive every morning.”