The Quiet Man – Interview
From Galway to Clare, with time out in the USA – Sean Tyrrell tells Alan McIntosh Brown about his musical past, present and future.
In all the articles I’ve read to date about Sean Tyrrell – and there were plenty after the critical acclaim for his last album Cry of a Dreamer – he’s talked about other people rather than his own career. So, equipped with my patented reporter’s investigative kit, I went in search of the man himself during his brief tour of Scotland. I found him seated in the kitchen of the McLaren Hall after his very successful solo spot at the Killin Traditional Music and Dance Festival and asked him how he got in the music business.
“I was born in Galway” he says. “And some friends of mine by the names of Jack Geary and John Henry Higgins – people I’d known all my life but became friends with at about 20 or 21 – they were very interested in music and gave me my interest. Jack taught me how to tune the tenor banjo and gave me my first scale and I just took off on my own after that. We had a group called Freedom Folk. Actually Johnny Mulhern, who wrote three of the songs on the album, was a member of that for a while, so Johnny and myself go back a fair while.”
One of the songs on the album takes us back to an Easter time. According to the sleeve notes, ‘Jack Geary was trying to teach harmony to John Henry Higgins, Seanin Conroy and myself. Three Blind Mice were also deaf to his endeavours; Mulhern would have been the fourth blind mouse. Long live The Freedom Folk and Apples in Winter (the originals circa 1972).’ It must have been an enjoyable time?
“Yes, it was great in a way, you know. I was six months playing a banjo and actually getting paid for it. Jeez, it was good; ten bob meant a lot in those days. We were singing mostly ballads. There was a folk club in Galway called the Forecastle Folk Club in the Enda Hotel and the biggest names in the parish played there – people like Davey Graham and Paul Simon. It was a great club – an amazing place. They tore it down in the end. Now they’re spending millions sort of trying to recreate it – nouveau antique, know what I mean?”
But even the bright lights of Galway couldn’t hold him and, like one or two Irishmen before, he crossed the Atlantic. What was his time like in America?
“Jack Geary and I went there. I was teaching in Belfast for a year but I didn’t really like teaching. I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. I’d been taught by too many frustrated something-else’s. I didn’t want to become that so I thought I’d follow my chosen love, which was music. So I went with Jack and we started off at a place in the Catskill Mountains. The first job we had was as barmen plus music. That’s where I first came in contact with a tenor guitar, from a man called Vernon Roach, a hillbilly from West Virginia.”
“But one of the customers there one night introduced us to a club in Manhattan called the John Barleycorn – a typical Manhattan Irish bar, you know, as un-Irish as could be! And the fact that you played the John Barleycorn meant a lot elsewhere, so it became our calling card. We started touring all over America – out to San Francisco where I met the Joe Cooley and other great musicians.”
Eventually Sean decided to come back. Surely not through homesickness?
“Well, I always said I’d never take a straight job in America. Jack and split up after recording an album called Apples in Winter. We’re still great friends but we went out separate ways.”
Alan Macintosh Brown, Irish Music Magazine.