Kay Doyle chats to the singer/songwriter who spreads his passion for all things Irish throughout the world
A recent appearance on The Late Late Show proved just how firmly John Spillane has cemented his place in the heart of Irish audiences. The unique and gentle vocal Sean-Nos style of the Cork born singer-songwriter has endeared him to fans the world over, but it’s home audiences who really respond to his quirky folk-trad style and his revival of Irish songs we all learned in school. His fascination with folklore is magical, his genuine love of all things Irish and his clever observations of life through song, poems and stories make him a very unique and indeed contagious character whose music is as calming for the soul as a walk on the beach on a summer’s evening.
John Spillane’s very distinct Cork lilt stems from an idyllic upbringing in Wilton in Cork City shared with childhood summers spent in Bantry. Born in January 1961, he is placed fourth of five boys. Sadly, John was only a year old when his father Philip Spillane died of a heart attack. This left his mother Mary as head of the family, who worked hard to support him and his brothers , Donal, Maurice, Philip Jr and Gerard.
“My mother was a farmer’s daughter from Bantry, a really tough woman,” John tells me, while out walking his dogs in the early summer sunshine. “ She was a great mother and a great character. Since we were small she would put us on the bus to Bantry for the holidays, down to our Uncle Tim’s farm. It was fabulous.”
“There was a big open turf fire with the hob and a big black kettle hanging on the crane with my grandmother Christina, sitting there and reading Ireland’s Own. We went to town once a week – on a Sunday when we’d go to mass. They’d scrub us unmercifully,” he laughs, “especially around the ears. With the shoes polished we’d all go into mass in Bantry and then we’d get Ireland’s Own on the way home and we’d spend the week singing the songs in the ballad section. My Aunty Mary McCarthy would know all the airs, she was a fabulous singer.”
Perhaps it was the influence of his aunt and uncle, Ireland’s Own and his wondrous perception of Ireland’s rural towns and countryside that eventually led John down the musical pathway. One such song that really reflects the Spillane brother’s childhood is Gortatagort, written after his Uncle Tim died in 2005, and describes each of the fields on the farm in Bantry. It has since been recorded by Christy Moore, who regularly sings it at his own shows and has in fact described John Spillane as one of his favourite songwriters.