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no ordinary man Christy Moore recalls how his mother introduced him to Valium to treat hangovers

The Valium came about because my poor mother introduced me to it. She said, this lad is great for the hangover"

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Christy Moore is a towering figure in Irish music. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Christy Moore is a towering figure in Irish music. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Christy Moore performing for Dónal Lynch. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Christy Moore performing for Dónal Lynch. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Irish folk group Planxty, in London, 1973. Left to right: Andy Irvine, Liam Óg O'Flynn, Dónal Lunny and Christy Moore. Photo: Michael Putland/Getty

Irish folk group Planxty, in London, 1973. Left to right: Andy Irvine, Liam Óg O'Flynn, Dónal Lunny and Christy Moore. Photo: Michael Putland/Getty

Christy Moore with Dónal Lunny at O'Donoghue's pub in Dublin, 1985. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

Christy Moore with Dónal Lunny at O'Donoghue's pub in Dublin, 1985. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

Christy Moore with his wife Valerie in 1999.

Christy Moore with his wife Valerie in 1999.

Christy Moore with Declan Sinnott in 2005.

Christy Moore with Declan Sinnott in 2005.

Christy Moore. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Christy Moore. Photo: Steve Humphreys

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Christy Moore is a towering figure in Irish music. Photo: Steve Humphreys

You thought it would be just another November day, and then, like a school of dolphins coming into view from the prow of a boat, a wonder appears right in front of you. Christy Moore takes out his guitar and, just a couple of feet from my chair, begins singing ‘The Dark End of the Street’, just to me.

The whole world seems to fall away as his pure, intimate voice tells the story of a love that had to exist in shadows.

He tells me afterward that while singing he thought of the older Irish gay men for whom things like the marriage referendum, and the normalisation of gay life, came too late. Men who, as the song goes, had to “hide in shadows where we don’t belong, living in darkness to hide our wrongs”.

It’s a rare privilege to see the great man up close in full flight and the performance seems to sum up so much about Christy Moore: the ability to connect with sadness and loss in song, his career-long championing of the underdog and his facility for holding an audience in the palm of his hand.

There are front row seats and then there is this, I think. At the end, he opens his eyes again, and it’s hard to know whether to clap, or simply stare dumbfounded.

The room where we meet – at theSandymount Hotel in Dublin– is where he recently recorded his new album, Flying into Mystery.

The first single, ‘Clocks Wind Down’, is written by Jim Page, who contributed a number of songs to Moving Hearts (Christy’s former band) back in the day. The lyrics refer to reason falling on “deaf ears” in the fight against climate change.

He also name-checks the young Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg. And yet in singing it, Moore isn’t preaching from the mount or presenting himself as some paragon of virtue on the subject.

“I think we’re f**ked,” he says. “And I’m saying that now and I’d hate for my children or grandchildren to hear that, but it feels as though we are past the point of no return. We can’t stop.

"We are addicted to all these consumer things. And that depresses me but I have to get on with my day. I have to get around by car, I’ll be looking at my flatscreen TV tonight.”

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Christy Moore performing for Dónal Lynch. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Christy Moore performing for Dónal Lynch. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Christy Moore performing for Dónal Lynch. Photo: Steve Humphreys

In many ways Flying into Mystery is a very representative Christy album. As it progresses, he wakes you up and then makes you laugh, and think.

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There are meditative, atmospheric songs like ‘Greenland’ – for him about lockdown in Ireland “lost and sailing into the unknown”. There are ‘issue’ songs like ‘Clocks Wind Down’ and ‘December 1942’ (written by Ricky Lynch), a harrowing track which deals with the nightmarish unloading of trains during the Holocaust. And then a song that casts a wry, nostalgic eye over the minutiae and mischief of the Ireland of yesteryear, ‘Bord Na Móna Man’.

His approach is a kind of musical method acting: with each song there is a story, and a personal resonance that fuels his performance.

There’s a lot of his upbringing on ‘All I Remember’ (by Mick Hanly – previously recorded with Moving Hearts in 1982), and there’s a line about how the Christian Brothers “made me for better or worse the fool that I am or the wise man I’ll be”.

“The nuns got me first,” Christy recalls. “Aged four they started in on me with their ‘fires of everlasting hell’. Then came the Brothers, some of them decent, a few of them savage, they tried to beat the love of God into us.”

His parents, Nancy and Andy, did their best for him and his five siblings. Andy died in hospital after undergoing anaesthetic for an ingrown toenail, when Christy was 11. Nancy was widowed, left to raise six children alone. And she had more tragedy to face. Her only brother, who had left Ireland and settled in Sheffield, became a homeless alcoholic.

“He didn’t show up until he died,” Christy says. “He was my mother’s only sibling. He left Ireland at around the start of the Second World War. After the war he met a beautiful lady and settled down in Sheffield and they had three children, my only first cousins.

“His life became tragic, he left the family home in Sheffield, and then disappeared. When he was found [dead] the only thing on him was his jacket with my mother’s name and address sown into the inside. He was found on the streets, he had been staying with the Salvation Army.”

As a young man Christy loved playing the guitar and singing: “I was always on the wild side of things … going to fleadhs and things.”

After school he took a job in a bank but a strike gave him a kind of career break and he went to England to play music, first in Irish pubs and then eventually in folk clubs, “where people really listened”. At the first folk club he went to, the legendary English folk singer Anne Briggs was performing. “I was really taken by how the whole room was just spellbound with her performance. I wanted to be able to do that,” he says.

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Irish folk group Planxty, in London, 1973. Left to right: Andy Irvine, Liam Óg O'Flynn, Dónal Lunny and Christy Moore. Photo: Michael Putland/Getty

Irish folk group Planxty, in London, 1973. Left to right: Andy Irvine, Liam Óg O'Flynn, Dónal Lunny and Christy Moore. Photo: Michael Putland/Getty

Irish folk group Planxty, in London, 1973. Left to right: Andy Irvine, Liam Óg O'Flynn, Dónal Lunny and Christy Moore. Photo: Michael Putland/Getty

And he worked hard at his craft. Bruce May, the manager of Ralph McTell, got him his first gigs but also gave him a tongue lashing: “He read the riot act to me. He pointed out that I was drinking and telling stupid jokes during the performance. He said ‘you’re like a stage Irishman’. And that was a wake-up moment for me.”

He made his first album, Paddy on the Road (1969) and it became something of a rarity since only 500 copies were pressed. However, he was unhappy with what he perceived as the relative indifference of the musicians, and moved back to Ireland to collaborate with people who understood the songs he wanted to play.

He reconnected with his old friend, guitarist/bouzouki player Dónal Lunny, uilleann piper and whistle player Liam Óg O’Flynn, mandolinist Andy Irvine and bodhrán player Kevin Conneff to produce Prosperous (1972), an album that marked a turning point in Irish folk music.

It was also around this time he met his wife Val – in what he calls one of the happiest moments of his life – and they had two sons (one of whom, Andy, plays with him now) and a daughter.

The band toured heavily through the 1970s and Moore released two critically acclaimed solo albums.

By the time the 1980s arrived the atmosphere in Ireland, and the world, had changed. It seemed to call out for the kind of politically charged music Moore was primed to make. He joined forces with Lunny, Declan Sinnott and other musicians to form Moving Hearts.

“We formed during the first Hunger Strikes. We played our first night in the Baggot Inn when the Belgrano (an Argentinian ship sunk by the British during the Falklands War) went down and Maggie Thatcher was going full steam ahead. That all became part of the atmosphere.”

Not everyone was a fan of their political music. Former Taoiseach Jack Lynch’s wife Maírín famously rang in to The Late Late Show to complain about Moore’s performance of an anti-nuclear song – her husband’s government had planned a reactor at Carnsore Point in Wexford.

“I think when she heard it she thought ‘f**k this’ and rang in and someone told a journalist. The following Monday it was on the front page of the paper: Taoiseach’s wife slams folk singer.”

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Christy Moore with Dónal Lunny at O'Donoghue's pub in Dublin, 1985. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

Christy Moore with Dónal Lunny at O'Donoghue's pub in Dublin, 1985. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

Christy Moore with Dónal Lunny at O'Donoghue's pub in Dublin, 1985. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

He recalls that incident with benign amusement, but there were others who challenged him.

“There were musicians who took issue with me about the North. There was discomfort and I was questioned by other singers, particularly two Northern singers who I won’t name. I didn’t feel that I had to answer to them.”

Morrissey – “or more likely some dogsbody at his record company” – objected to his changing the title of the song ‘America is Not the World’ to ‘America, I Love You’. And he recalls a few times when audience members got shirty.

“I was physically attacked twice that I recall. Once in Port Glasgow in 1967, and once at a Folk Club in North Wales in 1968 – both times after the gig and there was drink involved.

“Another night in Virginia, USA, a guy went mad when I sang ‘Hey Ronnie Reagan’. I still remember what he roared: ‘You God damn c**ksuckin mother-f**kin commie pinko faggot – get outta my country.’

But this is overall not a bad return from 5,000 gigs. I can honestly say there were only a handful of gigs that I did not enjoy.”

‘Ninety Miles from Dublin’ – inspired by the frustration he felt at Southern apathy regarding the H-Block prisoners – was banned in 1981. His song about the Stardust tragedy, ‘They Never Came Home’, was also banned a number of years later, and the album on which it appeared, Ordinary Man, was removed from the shops.

“I felt the brunt of the legal system which treated me with arrogance and displeasure. But I had to endure that for a mere two hours. The Stardust families have been enduring it for 40 years,” Moore says.

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Christy Moore with his wife Valerie in 1999.

Christy Moore with his wife Valerie in 1999.

Christy Moore with his wife Valerie in 1999.

Perhaps surprisingly, he says he always felt “inadequate” – both with his place in the world, and, most especially, in comparison to the other musicians in Planxty and Moving Hearts.

He was never a particularly prolific songwriter, and the virtuoso play of the likes of Sinnott and Lunny made him feel like he wasn’t up to the “complexity” of the music at times.

Yet Moore was the ultimate performer, a storyteller-in-song, with an almost otherworldly ability to tap into what he calls “sadness, exile, injustice and love, always mixed in with madness and mayhem”.

Throughout the 1980s, those talents reached new peaks, over a series of albums, particularly 1984’s Ride On, and he grew in confidence as a singer. Strangely for such an icon of Irish music, you could say his emotional, warm, versatile voice was underrated and it took time for him to be proud of it himself.

“For the first half of my career I was trying to sing like someone else and for the second half of it I’ve been trying to sing like me. I began to feel I can do this.”

The wreckage from his past began to catch up with him, however. He has been open about his alcoholism and his addiction to cocaine, which continued even after he had a heart attack in 1987, but he says now that there was another drug that was harder to stop, Valium.

“The Valium came about because my poor mother introduced me to it. She said, this lad is great for the hangover. And I’d get it prescribed very easily after that, from a few different sources. Valium was a divil to get off but I got off it.”

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Christy Moore with Declan Sinnott in 2005.

Christy Moore with Declan Sinnott in 2005.

Christy Moore with Declan Sinnott in 2005.

Recovering from that addiction involved, he says, “owning the things that had happened in my life”.

“For instance you asked me a little while ago about my father, I had no idea the impact that had on me and why I ended up the way I was. I can still remember the excitement of starting to drink when I was 14 – roaring, shouting on the banks of the Liffey.

“Later on when I was in the mad period of my life, I thought I was totally unique. It was only many years later talking to others who’d gone though something similar that I realised I wasn’t the only one. And there was a great comfort in that.”

Was the excess of those years something he felt he needed to get out of his system?

“For me it was more about getting something into my system,” he says, wryly. “I wouldn’t have been able to stop without all the help I got. That help has, within its traditions, [involved] not breaking your anonymity and I choose not to do that.

“My brother pointed out to me that I had a problem. He led me to the help I needed and I’ve been getting it every day ever since. I will always be an alcoholic. I woke up this morning an alcoholic and I’ll go to bed an alcoholic.”

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Christy Moore. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Christy Moore. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Christy Moore. Photo: Steve Humphreys

He dismisses talk of being an “icon” – the legends that sit alongside him on the famous mural in Temple Bar are not his own heroes, he says – but there is no doubt he is a national treasure, and on Tuesday, November 16 he’ll receive a lifetime achievement honour at the RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards at Dublin’s Vicar Street.

Old age has brought with it contentment.

“I’m wearing hearing aids; before I came in today my wife cut the hair coming out of my ears and my eyebrows and nostrils. I’m having a problem with my arm but thankfully with physical therapy it’s not impacting my capacity to play.

“I have a really full life, a great family and I’m very happy at home. My wife and I are in a good place. My five siblings live on the island and we talk to each other every week. I had a heart attack 33 years ago which changed my life so I get checked up regularly.”

He says that “of course” at 76 years of age he thinks about the end of life.

“I just know one thing: when I die I’m going to go straight to heaven. And I know who’s going to be up there to meet me: Luke Kelly, Séamus Ennis and Liam Óg O’Flynn.”

And how does he know he won’t be going the other way.

“To hell?” he says, mock-aghast. “Well if they’re down there I’ll go down there too.”


Christy Moore’s ‘Flying into Mystery’ will be released on November 19

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