John Sheahan: portrait of the fiddler
Maurice Sweeney’s elegent portrait of the quiet one from The Dubliners reminded you of the musician’s evergreen skill and grace
John Sheahan was the quiet one in The Dubliners. In that cast of beardy and hairy rogues and rascals, Sheahan stood out by not standing out. Brought in to stand shoulder to shoulder with founder members Luke Kelly, Ronnie Drew, Barney McKenna and Ciarán Bourke, Sheahan’s playing brought a touch of elegant class to that gallery. The Dubliners may have swung with gnarly gusto on those full-bodied ballads and rousing airs, but Sheahan’s fiddle added a veneer of the other to the proceedings.
Of course, Sheahan stood out in other ways too. He was the straight in a usual suspects’ line-up of capital city bohos. He’d finished school, done his apprenticeship and was on the way to a life with wife and kids in the suburbs. The music bug was supposed to be for evenings and weekends in the Fidders’ Club or Pipers’ Club or various sessions. But fate intervened, Kelly split from The Dubliners for England and Sheahan and his pal Bobby Lynch were recruited. The rest is history.
Last night, Maurice Sweeney’s elegent portrait “John Sheahan: A Dubliner” profiled the man and musician. Sheahan is the the one who has survived those wild days and “Seven Drunken Nights”, the one who is around to tell the tales and crack open his diaries to remember those times when the band would play the Royal Albert Hall in London the night after a gig in Templemore or whose diary would feature an appearance on Top of the Pops with his own wedding pencilled in for the following day. What’s striking about the film is how the musician never seemed to age or wither during that life on the road. Sure, the hair and beard got whiter with time, but Sheahan seemed to maintain that gentlemanly courtesy all his career. The sound of his violin still catches the grace notes of the tunes in the same light now as then.
These days, Sheahan writes poetry as well as tunes. Those poems are old-fashioned and sepia-tinged, reminiscences of old pals and past days. What Sheahan paints with his words on his old band-mates in The Dubliners are both the cut and thrust of their characters and the often unseen, unheard softer sides. It’s clear too when Sheahan talks about those old comrades that he still has considerable fondness for them. Some of the stories may have been told a thousand times already – as stories of this ilk often are – but that doesn’t lessened their emotional impact. When Sheahan remembers those men, he’s recalling people he shared a life with so naturally there’s an emotional catch in the throat of this Dubliner with country manners when those memories begin to flow.
Most of all, though, Sheahan was about the music. From adventures and high jinks with The Dubliners in all their various iterations to his own beautifully mannered compositions (“The Marino Waltz” inspired by Sheahan plucking a harp in his family home in Marino), this film showed that Sheahan’s skill as a player and writer has always been about grace. Whether he was boisterously elbows deep in the “Octopus Jig” with Kelly, McKenna and Bourke or trading ideas with the new school repped by Declan O’Rourke and Damien Dempsey, Sheahan always had a glint in the eye, always had clear sight of where the music was going, always had the soul of the tune in his mind’s eye. As portraits of quiet men go, this one made a lot of noise.