I seem to recall from an otherwise long forgotten profile in Sounds or NME once that the Derry singer Feargal Sharkey, formerly of the Undertones, used to be called “Fishface” at school,
This was cruel Foyle-side wit at the expense of his – admittedly thin – physiognomic features. It may also have been prophetic of his later reinvention as one of England’s most popular environmental campaigners, to which we’ll return.
But I was amused to see that in an interview with the BBC at the weekend, Sharkey credited the shape of at least part of his face to the influence of the GAA.
“I wasn’t born with this nose,” he told a puzzled Nick Robinson on Radio 4′s Talking Politics show. “It’s been finely sculpted at the end of two-and-a-half feet of ash called a hurling stick.”
It was sobering to realise that the man who sang “Teenage Kicks” will be 65 in August. Although predating the official Troubles by more than a decade, he was even then born in Troubled times, a fact underlined by his baptismal cert.
Another revelation of the interview is that his real first name is “Seán” – or “Shan” as he pronounces it – and that as “Seán Feargal”, he was named after both Seán South and Fergal O’Hanlon.
Those were the young IRA men who had died a year earlier in an attempted ambush in Fermanagh during the doomed Border Campaign of 1956-1962.
The christening reflected Sharkey’s mother’s politics. His father Jim (who died in 2014, almost 100) was more of a socialist, believing the North’s Protestant and Catholic working classes had a common enemy other than themselves.
The men Sharkey was named for both spawned rebel songs: more influentially in the case of O’Hanlon, who was first eulogised in Dominic Behan’s The Patriot Game, which in turn inspired Bob Dylan’s anti-war ballad, With God on Our Side.
As for The Undertones, despite growing up in Ireland’s most politicised city, they avoided political songs in favour of more pressing issues for normal teenage boys.
Despite, or perhaps because of – for according to Sharkey, the Troubles were so pervasive outside the doors of the Casbah, the club where the band played in their formative years, politics was the last thing their fans wanted to hear about.
The famous exception in the Undertones’ repertoire was the 1981 hit, It’s Gonna Happen. But apart from being about the dangers of repeating mistakes and taking “stupid revenge”, you’d never know from the lyrics it was political.
It’s just that they played it on Top of the Pops in May 1981, the week Bobby Sands died, and one of the band members Damien O’Neill wore a black armband, after which people retrofitted meaning between the lines.
If any of the band’s songs have achieved permanence, meanwhile, it’s Teenage Kicks. Having lionised it in life, the great BBC DJ John Peel also arranged for it to be played at his funeral. And among other details, Peel’s gravestone now bears the eternal truth: “Teenage dreams so hard to beat.”
Sharkey mentioned the redesign of his nose by hurling as one of three extracurricular hobbies from school whose influence remained with him. The others were debating and angling, which in combination help explain his latter-day career as an environmental campaigner.
Once dubbed “fishface” by schoolmates, he has grown up to be the face of fly-fishing in the UK, and through that of the campaign for clean waterways, especially the “chalk” ones of southern England, crucial to his beloved trout.
It seems that, to borrow a phrase from another Irish rebel song and lend it to the neighbours, not even their rivers run free over there these days. Sewage-free, anyway.
So instead of talking about Teenage Kicks, he told the Guardian recently, Sharkey is now mostly talking “about shite in rivers”, or which there is a lot. Thanks to the depredations of the water companies and poor oversight, “every river in this country is polluted”.
His campaign has gained unlikely friends, including the latest incarnation of the Duke of Wellington, a Tory peer who led a rebellion against the government on the issue.
Sharkey’s love of fishing began in 1969, when at the age of 10 he caught his first trout. That was the same year his mother insisted the family joining a Civil Rights protest march from Belfast to Dublin. Both habits have lasted a lifetime.
“If you see social injustice, you have to push back,” he says of his campaign’s Derry roots. And the push-back has been highly popular so far.
Amid the continuing divisions of Brexit, Sharkey seems to have found one of the few issues that bridge the gulf, raising again the prospect – however far-fetched – of a united England.