O’Neill rocking the machine in Cork this weekend

Ahead of a Cork show, Lisa O’Neill talks commissions, ‘Game of Thrones’, and Princess Diana’s ancestors with Don O’Mahony
O’Neill rocking the machine in Cork this weekend
Lisa O'Neill

IT’S not the first time I find Lisa O’Neill doing domestic chores. On a previous occasion we spoke she was hanging bedclothes on the stairway to dry. This time she’s cleaning the kitchen table.

The glamour of it all, I suggest.

“Aw, I know. It’s a rock star life, isn’t it?” she says with a little giggle. The kitchen’s an important place for the Cavan singer. It’s the room where, if she is to be believed, she assembled an effigy of Elvis Presley. She loves cooking, she says, so no surprise, as per the song, she offered the King Irish stew. The kitchen is where she plays music and listens to records. It’s the place where tears came down in the company of Willie Nelson on the song ‘Dreaming’. It’s the place where she listens to radio documentaries, and, most important of all right now, watches Game of Thrones.

“It’s definitely addictive,” she confides. “Now I’m not like everyone else. I only caught up in the last five months. So I’ve watched everything in the last five months.

“Yeah, it is good. Very violent though.”

She is fond of a curious tale, is Lisa. As she travelled towards Trabolgan for the recent It Takes A Village festival she decided to read up on the estate. What she discovered tickled her greatly.

“There’s a strange funny little story about Princess Diana’s great grandfather being the baron of that land in 1850,” she begins.

“He had a friend come visit and the friend thought ‘I have a stronger hound than you. If my hound was to race your hound I’m sure mine would win.’ Princess Diana’s great grandfather was very confident that his hound would be the stronger hound so he said if ‘I bet you this land. If I lose you can have this land. You can have Trabolgan,’

“He was so confident. And so the hounds set off after the hare and the baron’s hound chased a crow instead of the hare and he lost, and he lost the land. And that was Princess Diana’s great grandfather. Isn’t that interesting?”

It turns out the tale is possibly apocryphal, but I wonder if there might be the makings of a song in there.

“Oh, there might be,” she replies. “Although there are people now you’d think I’d be more of a hurry to write about than the great grandfather of Princess Diana, like you know. But it’s funny.”

I wonder if this kind of research is something she does before visiting a new venue?

“I wouldn’t say I do it religiously,” she considers. “If I have the time or something pops up or something strikes me. But I’m only new to the smartphone now so I have the internet on the road sometimes. So that’s a new thing. So when we were on our way there I remember thinking to myself: ‘What do we know about this place?’ And the lads in the band didn’t know much either so,” she adds with a note of triumph, “I googled it.”

But certainly, it wouldn’t be like O’Neill to be writing songs about the landed and privileged. Her recent album Heard a Long Gone Song finds her singing about factory girls and unemployed dockers, among other subjects.

Remarkably, a few of the songs were inspired by commissions, or were prompted by challenges of some kind. Although she’s keen to state she wouldn’t like everything she writes to be prompted by a brief.

Lankum’s Ian Lynch set her the task of writing about Violet Gibson, the woman who shot Mussolini. With six weeks to a concert both were playing at, O’Neill laid down the challenge of writing a song about a topic.

“I said, ‘You give me a topic, I’ll give you a topic, and we’ll have the song ready on the day’,” she relates.

“He just said to me, ‘You know you might have a look at this woman’s story and think about writing a song about her’.”

The track ‘Rock The Machine’, detailing the ill-effects of industrialisation in making certain jobs redundant, was penned a few years ago in response to a Dublin Port commission supported by the National Concert Hall and first appeared on the resulting various artists album, Starboard Home.

The song ‘A Year Shy Of Three’ is inspired by a painting in the National Gallery titled The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Childby Frederic William Burton.

“It’s a beautiful painting,” enthuses O’Neill. “The colours are fantastic and what’s going on in it is very sad. A child is drowned and the father has carried it in from the shore and handed the little toddler to the mum, who’s sitting by the fire. And the mum seems to be looking at the child with disbelief. The hair is still wet and everything.

“It’s not the piece they had asked me to focus on when they commissioned me to write a song about that exhibition. But I was moved by it and wrote the poem.”

  • Lisa O’Neill plays Coughlan’s, Douglas Street, Sunday, May 26.

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