Precious time with my heroes - John Spillane and Joe Duffy

John Spillane and Joe Duffy are heroes of mine - true National Treasures. So says John Arnold in his weekly column
Precious time with my heroes - John Spillane and Joe Duffy

John Arnold first met musician John Spillane when he was in the band The Stargazers, at the RTE studios in Cork

I MET two of my heroes in the last ten days. Heroes; what, who are they?

I suppose as a young teenager the great Christy Ring was one of my heroes. Coming from a family that was largely agnostic when it came to sport, I didn’t grow up with the sliotar and hurley swishing around the kitchen table or the haggard.

Then, more than 50 years ago, from going to games with Dave Ryan, the man who took our churns of milk to the creamery, I gradually got to love hurling - and I mean really ‘love’ in the most passionate, all-consuming fashion.

Ring was well retired by 1972 when I started going to major games. I never met the man face to face - yes, I was near him at a few of the Cork three-in-a-row homecomings in the ’70s, but never spoke to him.

Despite this, he was a hero for me and over four decades after his death I still revere him and how he, nearly single-handedly, popularised our native game.

Though I was never any good at actually playing my favourite sport, it never lessened my enjoyment of Ireland’s greatest art form.

From an early age, I realised the value of being able to express one’s opinions coherently. The ability to ‘think on one’s feet’ is vital and I can credit my time participating in Macra na Feirme public speaking and debating with being responsible for my tendency to speak up.

We often had to do a debate and propose a motion or a topic that I might fundamentally disagree with -but seeing ‘both sides of the coin’ was vital in terms of winning arguments or demolishing the opposition.

By pure chance, one of my heroes that I met recently first came to my notice in the city of Cork, and that chance meeting was Macra-related.

In the 1980s, Bartlemy Macra promoted a huge quiz competition for several years - the ‘Brain of Cork’. Starting in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, then onto Connolly Hall and finally to the huge Cork City Hall.

Back then, RTÉ’s Cork Local Radio Station was based upstairs in Union Quay. We persuaded RTÉ to do a ‘write-in’ quiz for prizes which we put up in return for publicity for our City Hall event.

There, in that Union Quay Studio, I first met Alf McCarthy, Ger Canning, Marty Morrissey and Carrie Crowley - did they give me ‘the start’ or was it the other way round!

Anyway, coming down the Union Quay steps after a live Corkabout interview, I said hello to a group heading up to play and sing on air. Young fellas they were with a new sound and they called themselves The Stargazers.

As I went on to continue a career in agricultural production (farming), Johnny Murphy, Chris Ahern and my unsung hero, John Spillane, went on to reach for the stars with their unique style and unique vocal harmonies.

From that day til ’this, Spillane was like ‘mo ghiolla mear’ to me. Loving the Irish language and the bardic, rambling-house tradition, he has been a constant musical and poetic undercurrent ever since.

His people come from Gortataggart - mine from Garryantaggart - and we both love the simple things. John can take inspiration from an old boreeen, from a city street, a ruined castle or the singing of birds.

To be able to take a mundane, ordinary concept and weave words and melodic music through it is truly a God-given gift.

In fairness, to him he took his time when I asked him to write a song for me, but, lads, he did it eventually. Then again, I shouldn’t be too hard on the bould John - after all, trying to get words to rhyme with Marengo, Bartlemy and Napoleon was no simple task!

And, you know, the songs we sang when we were in school, like Trasna na dTonnta, Baidin Fheilimi and Oro Se do Bheata Abhaile, are truly timeless and Spillane’s versions always send me down boithirin na smaionte to a long desk in our old National School with Donal O Liathain in full and fulsome Coolea voice.

Keep on writing, singing and smiling, John - the original Hit Factory.

It was around the early 1990s I first met Joe Duffy. After the Post Office was closed here, I was on The Late, Late Show a couple of times with Gay Byrne and got on mightily altogether.

Joe was a researcher for Gay’s radio programme. They were looking for suitable locations to do an outside broadcast radio show from. We applied and Joe and a crew came down to ‘record’ our half hour show in the Parish Hall.

We had a great day with Joe and Co and pupils from our local National School joined a big ‘cast’ for our production. It went down a treat but never made it the national airwaves, but that didn’t lessen the sense of achievement we felt at the time.

From then on, I came to admire Joe as a broadcaster on RTÉ. I know, I know - many abhor him and hate ‘talk’ radio entirely. I’ve heard phone-in radio shows described as ‘the last refuge of professional whingers’! I know that discussing the nation’s dirty linen is not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, and that’s a fair point.

On the other hand, isn’t it great that the plain people of Ireland have an opportunity to raise an issue, a problem or a query about practically anything under the sun?

Joe is one of my heroes because I think he’s a consummate broadcaster - like Gay Byrne, the man he learned from. Neither could suffer fools gladly and wouldn’t brook personal insults.

The beauty of radio shows ‘open to listeners’ is that the content is generally driven by the public and not dictated by RTÉ mandarins, and in essence that’s what public service broadcasting should be all about.

Sometimes it might be all about fads, fashions or feckless faraway foreign fandangles - so what? Liveline with Joe Duffy has also tackled major social issues and drew back dark veils from the windows of Irish society.

People complain it’s not always easy listening, but when people get animated and will not yield, conflict can and does happen - often with explosive results!

Joe is an entertainer too and I was privileged to be part of a huge audience in Cork’s Kingsley Hotel last Friday for the first ‘Funny Friday’ Show of 2023. It was irreverent, entertaining, and such a comic tonic, coming at the end of a long, long month. The ability to ‘take off’ the voices of home-grown and foreign ‘celebrities’ is such a gift and features regularly on these shows.

You know, I often smile and think our democracy is safe and sound when we can laugh at ourselves and at our Uachtaráin, Government ministers and professional Irish sportsmen - where else would it happen?

Yes, John and Joe are heroes of mine - true National Treasures. Speaking of things National, may I wish each and everyone a very happy St. Brigid’s Day Holiday next Monday. It’s a new holiday and great to recall a very special Irish Saint - our ‘Muire na Gael’ in every sense.

I took three of the grandchildren down the Glen on Monday to gather rushes for the Brigid’s Crosses and left a piece of cloth - the ‘Brát Bhride’ on the handle of the door on Tuesday, the Eve of the feast-day.

They say it gets blessed by Brigid and will help ward off illnesses of the throat for the year ahead.

Ah yes, heroes and traditions - lord, what would we do without them?

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