Liam Reilly obituary: Gifted songwriter and frontman of Bagatelle
Talented artist also wrote songs for Wolfe Tones, the Dublin City Ramblers and others
Bagatelle frontman Liam Reilly (left) at the Palace Bar, Dublin, as part of Temple Bar TradFest in 2014. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Born: January 29th, 1955
Died: January 1st, 2021
Liam Reilly, who was a songwriter and frontman with the group Bagatelle, died suddenly at his home in Dundalk on New Year’s Day. Reilly wrote the group’s best known song, Summer in Dublin, which was a hit in 1980 and became an anthem for young Irish people emigrating to London, Europe and the United States at that time.
The lyrics, “I remember that summer in Dublin and the Liffey it stank like hell” still resonate with many of that generation.
Reilly’s talent as a songwriter was key to the band’s success with hits including Trump Card, Leeson St Lady, and Second Violin
In 1978, Reilly joined the recently formed band – guitarist John O’Brien, bass player Ken Doyle and drummer Wally McConville – when Bray-based keyboard player Joe Bollard left. Bagatelle went on to enjoy considerable success in Ireland in the 1980s playing at concerts and festivals with Bob Marley, Don McLean, Van Morrison, Thin Lizzy, The Pogues and U2.
Reilly’s talent as a songwriter was key to the band’s success with hits including Trump Card, Leeson St Lady, and Second Violin. A prolific songwriter, Reilly also wrote songs that were recorded by the Wolfe Tones, the Dublin City Ramblers and others. These include Flight of the Earls, Streets of New York and Boston Rose. Streets of New York became a favourite of members of the New York Police Department, particularly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In 1980, when recording the band’s debut album, Trump Card, Reilly received an offer from Elton John’s producer, Gus Dudgeon, to begin a solo career but he opted to stay with Bagatelle. Following their debut album with Polydor Records in Ireland, Bagatelle was signed to Polydor in the UK and released the album Waterfall in 1981 and went on to have a big hit with the song, Second Violin.
However, the UK market proved to be more difficult to break into for an Irish band in the 1980s. Niall Stokes, editor of Hot Press recalls, “there was a period when it looked like Bagatelle might become global superstars. There was no question about Liam Reilly’s ability as a songwriter. He wrote really memorable songs with great melodies . . . It is a real shame that Bagatelle didn’t make the leap forward to the next level internationally but there was always so much in what they did achieve for Liam and Bagatelle to be proud of.”
Reilly took a break from the band in the mid-1980s when he moved to Savannah, Georgia. There, he recorded a solo album, Savannah Serenade as well as producing albums for other artists.
He began his working life as a shipping executive but soon left to commit to music full time
In 1988, he was a finalist in the Irish heats for the Eurovision Song Contest with a song called Lifeline. In 1990, his solo performance of his own song, Somewhere in Europe came joint second out of 22 entries in the Eurovision Song Contest in Zagreb. And in 1991, he composed the song Could It Be That I’m in Love for Kim Jackson.
In 1992, Bagatelle reformed and began touring again with the release of the Best of Bagatelle from Polydor. Over the next three decades, they performed in Europe, across the US, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Macau, Dubai and twice in the Irish Embassy in Saudi Arabia.
Fellow Bagatelle band member Doyle, who knew Reilly for more than 40 years, said that he was like a brother to him. “He was a super talent, a really serious musical force of nature. He was a deep person but also very funny and highly intelligent.”
Doyle said that he used to call Reilly and O’Brien, who died in May 2019, the Lennon and McCarthy of Ireland such was the chemistry between them.
In the early 2000s, Emerald Records released a two-CD compilation of Reilly’s greatest hits. A great encourager of up-and-coming musicians, Reilly often donated his talents and time to charitable gigs.
Reilly was born in Dundalk and grew up the only son of five children to Willie and Teresa Reilly. There was plenty of musical talent in the family: his mother sang in choirs and his dad sang and played the harmonica. While still at school, Reilly was an all-Ireland champion in the piano accordion for three years in a row. He also won many medals for Irish dancing and played in Comhaltas Ceoltoiri sessions.
After school, he began studying to become a teacher at St Patrick’s Teacher Training College in Dublin but left to study international trade at Rathmines College of Commerce. He was part of a band called Changes, inspired by the iconic David Bowie song of the same name. He began his working life as a shipping executive but soon left to commit to music full time.
Reilly returned to live in Dundalk in later life to be close to family and friends. He studied music at Trinity College Dublin as a mature student and did small solo gigs throughout Ireland with lifelong friend and guitar player Kevin McCourt. Well read and interested in world affairs, his friends and family say that setting aside quiet time to read The Irish Times was a daily ritual throughout his life.
He is survived by his mother, Teresa and his sisters, Evelyn, Barbara, Darina and Paula and nieces and nephews. He was pre-deceased by his father, Willie.