On a Friday evening, three years ago this month, Fiona Walsh was relaxing with friends at a dinner party in Dún Laoghaire. She was a final year UCD medical student and, with their exams just two weeks away, a classmate had prepared a meal to help the group de-stress.
Her phone was charging in the next room. After dinner, she found a barrage of missed calls and messages urging her to call home. “Obviously, you fear the worst,” she recalls. “But you’re afraid it might be your mother or some older relative. You never think it’s going to be your brother.”
Conor Walsh was a respected minimalist piano composer who lived alone in a cottage, not far from the Walsh family homestead in Ballinisland, Co Mayo. He had performed at major Irish music showcases like Electric Picnic and Other Voices and had released an acclaimed debut EP, titled The Front, the previous autumn.
That evening, Conor had just cooked dinner for his mother when he collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack, aged 36. “The news came as an incredible shock,” Fiona recalls. “There had been nothing to give us any indication Conor wasn’t well.”
Huge crowds descended on Swinford for Conor's funeral mass and online tributes poured in. But even in the midst of unbearable loss, the family began to wonder what Conor had been working on, shut away in that cottage in the years before he died.
Conor had always said he was recording an album. Fiona now had possession of his laptop. But the device was locked and no one knew the password. “This was his life’s work,” Fiona explains. “So I was curious to know, was he actually doing anything? Or had he just been dossing away out there?”
Louise Gaffney, who'd done the artwork for The Front EP, had faith in her friend. "People tend to assume Conor was very isolated. But he was always talking about other musicians. He was very attuned to what was going on. I was sure he'd been working on something. I just didn't know what."
Besides music, Conor's other great passion was fishing. He would disappear for days fly-fishing on Lough Carra. He could quote whole chunks of TC Kingsmill Moore's A Man May Fish from memory. (Since his death, a Conor Walsh Perpetual Cup has been awarded annually to whoever catches the first salmon each year on the Moy. )
After a couple of failed attempts to hack the laptop, Conor's old label boss Rob Farhat, of Ensemble Records, suggested an obscure angling term Conor often used as a possible password. Two of Conor's closest friends Patrick Dyar (director of a beautiful 2013 short film about Walsh called Conor's Hotel) and David Lenehan both liked the idea. Lenehan punched it up and, hey presto... They were in.
What they found were 37 stunning original tracks, about 25 of them complete. For David Lenehan, a software developer, the task ahead was simple. “Conor was one of my best friends,” he says. “His music was a major part of my life. Obviously, we had a responsibility to preserve it.”
For others, the prospect wasn’t as straightforward. Patrick Dyar’s brother Martin, a poet, admits that since Conor’s death he has found it just too painful to listen to his music. “The way that grief has unfolded among our group of friends... Everyone felt shattered. Everyone felt sore. There’ve been phases where Patrick and I couldn’t even talk about Conor.”
Fiona didn't sit her final exams in 2016. She took a year out from her studies to travel around Australia and New Zealand before returning to UCD and graduating in June 2018. She now works as a doctor at Galway University Hospital.
On March 15th, Conor’s posthumous debut album The Lucid will be launched with a celebration of his life at the Sugar Club in Dublin. Conor’s mother, Marie, and his five surviving siblings all wanted these recordings to see the light of day. But it was Fiona who steered the project to completion.
We talk about bereavement. I confess to her that whenever I’ve been able to put any distance between myself and grief, I tend to tear off over the horizon like the Roadrunner and never want to look back. Where did she find the strength to come back and take this on?
She talks about the year she and Conor spent living together in Dublin, in 2011, while he studied for a postgraduate diploma in music and media technology at TCD. Conor detested city life and couldn’t return fast enough to the lakes and rivers of Co Mayo. But the time they spent living together meant a lot to her.
“To be honest, I would have seen much less of Conor once he went back to Mayo. I wouldn’t have been as close to him in the last few years before his death. And I still feel a little bit of guilt about that. For me, this project is all about Conor. It’s about being proud of him and the work he did.”
Imagining a conversation
One lasting connection Conor made in Dublin was with one of his lecturers, composer Enda Bates. Sitting in his office at Trinity College, I ask Bates what kind of a student Conor was. "He was great. That's one of the reasons why I stayed in touch with him after he graduated. Because he was very talented and we got along very well.
"We talked about Mayo football and Tipperary hurling. We talked about politics. He had a lot of justifiable anger about social injustice. He was forthright in his opinions, but never in a bad way." That feeling was reciprocated. "Conor respected Enda," says Martin Dyar. "And he trusted him." So when it came time to select a producer for Conor's album, Bates was the obvious candidate.
Conor was a perfectionist. I ask Bates if it bothered him to know that, no matter how good a job he did producing the record, Conor would probably find some reason to find fault with it? “Of course,” he laughs. “When I was mixing, I constantly thought ‘Conor would have changed this. He would have changed that.’
“But at the same time, there’s just so much good music on there that, given the tragic circumstances, I think he would have forgiven us.”
Like Bates, Louise Gaffney had history to draw upon when conceiving The Lucid's cover art. We meet for coffee at the IFI in Temple Bar. "When you're working on digital branding for musicians, you're often told 'Go off and do whatever you feel like'. But Conor was very articulate about what he wanted. He knew how to describe in words what the music was about."
She still has notebooks full of Conor's ideas. "That's where I went back to for this. Imagining how that conversation with Conor might have continued." She submitted four ideas to the Walsh family, all inspired by the west of Ireland lakewater in which Conor loved to fish. These were circulated on a WhatsApp group. "I think his mother had the final say."
I ask how she thinks Conor would feel about the end result? “I think he’d be incredibly proud. Or, at least, I hope he would be.”
Just then, the Sufjan Stevens track Redford is piped in over the sound system. For a split second, Louise and I both imagine it's Conor playing the piano.
“Oh God,” she smiles. “Wouldn’t that be eerie?”
Poet Martin Dyar was not involved in creating The Lucid. Until recently, he couldn’t even listen to his late friend’s music. But when I meet him for lunch on Capel Street he has heard the finished product and appears ecstatic. “There are two faces to perfectionism,” he says. “In Conor’s case, I think it was a radical clear-sightedness about what was possible for him in his work, what the exercise of patience, and the retreat in Mayo, could yield for him. Slowly but surely, that produced a remarkable album.
“My opinion is that the album is brilliant. It’s not hobbled. These aren’t some random recordings found on a laptop and finessed by Enda. I think there’s amazing coherence in the sequencing. What I feel now is a heartbroken sense of ‘You did it, Conor!’ It’s a shame he’s not around to see this. But I do think this album has a capstone element to it.
“The launch will be a special night. It’ll be poignant. But it will be a celebration.”
The Lucid will be launched in the Sugar Club, Dublin on March 15th