As a small boy growing up in Ireland I knew that if you dug a hole in the garden deep enough you would end up in Australia, the land of the Kangeroo and the Boomerang.
My first knowledge of Australia came from Irish ballads. On my first day at school we sang the 'Black Velvet Band'. We knew it already; I certainly did, and we were all just four years old;-
"Now seven long years transportation,
Right down to Van Dieman's land,
Far away from my friends and companions,
To follow the black velvet band."
There was a lot of transportation to Van Diemen's Land in the ballads and it took us a while to realise that this was the old name for Tasmania, Australia.
'If We Only Had Old Ireland Over Here' was a great song about Australia and a favourite of my Aunty Mary; -
"If the Blarney stone stood out on Sidney Harbour,
And Dublin Town to Melbourne came to stay,
If the Shannon River joined the Brisbane Waters,
And Killarney lakes flowed into Botany Bay,
If the Shandon bells rang out in old Freemantle,
And County Cork in Adelaide did appear,
Erin's sons would never roam, all the boys would stay at home,
If we only had old Ireland over here."
'The Wild Colonial Boy' was another popular song we all knew well, about Jack Duggan, from Castlemaine in Kerry. You can drive there today and admire the sign that says "Wecome to Castlemaine, birthplace of the Wild Colonial Boy." This wild boy robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, in the tradition of Jessie James, Robin Hood, Ned of the Hill, from Tipperary, and of course the greatest of them all, Ned Kelly, whose people also came from Tipperary. Ned Kelly's famous last words; - "Such is life" are perhaps the most famous of all famous last words.
I didn't think about Australia much after that for a while, besides Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and Rolf Harris, until I took up the guitar, and was given tickets to my first ever visit to the Cork Opera House, to see an Australian band called The Bushwhackers. They played a joyous rabble-rousing music, full of Paddy Whackery and Skull-Duggery, you could see how it might have been the way the old Irish ballads came out the other side of Australia, through the heat and the craziness of that upside down country, those songs had gone through the wringer, and had come out all manic, defiant, happy at all costs, and very tough.
I was inspired to play guitar the way I play guitar by a fantastic force of Nature called Steve Cooney. Of Irish descent, Steve is one of the few white fella Australians who has been initiated into the indiginous native Australian religion. It was while hanging out in the desert with the elders that he was inspired to return to Ireland, the land of his ancestors. Steve returned to the Emerald Isle and breathed a whole new life into Irish music, developing a guitar style inspired by the Irish harp, our national instrument. He has formed a bridge between a proud ancient tradition of melodious harping and a new generation of guitarists, myself included. On first hearing Steve play I immediately sold my steel string guitar and bought a nylon string Spanish guitar, abandoned the strumming of chords and began to compose Irish melodies and counter melodies.
It was on a moonlight visit to Steve's residence in an ancient Mill in Kildare that I first met Shane Howard, a wise and generous Irish Australian spirit, an ambassador of his people; a whole population of people from Clare and Tipperary who were displaced by the great calamities of nineteenth century Ireland, and moved all the way to the other side of the planet, to Victoria, Australia, to start a new life. It is as an exploration of their cultural identity that Shane has concieved EXILE, Songs and Tales of Irish Australia.
EXILE will happen in February of this year 2016 and I am very honoured to be part of a line-up which includes Paul Kelly, Shane Howard, Declan O' Rourke, Pauline Scanlon, Leah Flanagan, Seán Tyrrell and many more.
At Shane's invitation, I first gigged in Australia in 2008, where among other exciting adventures I sang our National Anthem live to 40,000 people and to 9 million on the TV, at Subiaco Stadium in Perth, Western Australia, at the compromise rules match between Ireland and Australia. That was followed by a cracking session with the Bomber Liston in Rosie O'Grady's Irish pub. I was honoured to be the only white fella playing at the black fella music festival in Tarrerra, Victoria.
This EXILE tour will be my 5th musical trip to the land of Oz. Shane Howard and I have written two songs together; 'Ireland and Australia' and 'Love Is King'. One song is full of dark savagery and the other is full of love and light. I have released both songs here in Ireland and look forward to writing more songs with Shane.
That's it lads, I'm Australia bound once more and I will see you all on the other side! Thanks very much,
John Spillane, Passage West, County Cork, January 2015.
Published on 22nd March 2016