- 01 Jul 20
Where was Rory Gallagher from? The debate usually centres on Cork and Ballyshannon, in Co. Donegal. But the years that the great guitar maestro lived in Derry may have been the most important in shaping the extraordinary musician that he ultimately became.
Derry City Council will next month consider a motion calling for a plaque to be erected at Bridge Street, in memory and celebration of Rory Gallagher.
Rory’s family lived in Bridge Street through some of his most formative years, from age two to nine or ten. It was here that he must first have encountered the Blues.
Even back then, Derry was a musical city, the air full of noises, sounds, sweet airs and a thousand twanging instruments, many of the sounds emanating from the American military. There was a base in the Waterside until the 1980s.
Half a million American soldiers were stationed in Europe at the end of World War Two. They were disproportionately black. AFN, the American Forces Network, blasting out from a huge transmitter in Frankfurt, catered to their musical needs and tastes. Reception was far better than from Radio Luxembourg or Radio Éireann. It was through ears glued to AFN that some of us first encountered Ruth Brown, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Lonnie Johnston – in tribute to whom Tony Donegan changed his name – Lloyd Price and so on.
The sounds swirled and sprinkled around the city, baptising future musicians. As with most baptisms, the recipient may not have been aware of the blessing being conferred. But it was in the air, everywhere. You could breathe it.
Rory had been born in Ballyshannon, moved to Derry, then onwards to Cork. In Derry, he went to the Christian Brothers primary at the Brow of the Hill, which would definitely have left a lasting impression. The Christian Brothers in Derry, as elsewhere, made savage brutes seem like gentlemen.
Rory will have shared a classroom with gaunt children in the “care” of the Church who would walk in double file from Termonbacca across Lecky Road to the Brow of the Hill, morning and afternoon, subdued and shepherded. We used to say a decade of the rosary every night for “the Home Boys, God help them.”
There was sadness there for the Blues to salve.
I have often wondered how Rory remained religious all his life. I am told he didn’t like to miss Sunday mass.
His father, Danny – by all accounts himself a talented musician – was a friend of Charlie McGee, the first person to record ‘The Homes of Donegal’, written by Charlie’s mentor, Carrigans schoolteacher Sean McBride (‘Master McBride’), wildly popular across Derry and Donegal in the years when Rory was growing up.
Seen on the flat page, the words seem banal and holiday-postcard sentimental.
“I’d like to stay along with you/ And while away the night/ With fairy lore and tales of yore/ Beside the turf fire bright/ And then to see laid out for me/ A shake-down by the wall/ There’s rest for weary wanderers/ In the homes of Donegal.”
Anyone who thinks there could be no connecting line drawn from ‘The Homes of Donegal’ to the Blues should dial up Paul Brady’s exultant version, or, via YouTube, the raggedy choral rendition which he recorded in Leo’s Tavern in Mín na Leice, featuring backing singers Moya Brennan, Glen Hansard, Mundy, Sarah Siskind and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. A raucous enchantment. I think they may all have been drunk.
It was Charlie McGee who first sat down with Rory and encouraged him to take music seriously and learn to play guitar. A small trickle, into the wild confluence wherein music from here and there melds and mingles to make something authentic and new.
I was never particularly close to Rory. We were more acquaintances than friends. I remember going back-stage to see him after a gig in the SFX. His brother, Dónal, must have arranged it. He’d finished his set with the tale of him and a bunch of cowboys riding into Jesse James. It was deliriously wonderful, which I tried to convey in a review in, I think, In Dublin magazine.
A couple of days later, a letter arrived from him. I remember how beautiful his handwriting was, in ink on soft, yellow paper, and how exquisitely he expressed his sentiment. But I cannot remember sentences. I wish I’d kept it.
I didn’t know Rory well enough to offer any close-up estimation of him as a person. What I do remember is that nobody, but nobody, had a bad word to say about him.
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