( From an interview with Colm Gibbons )
Brendan Phelan was born in the Old Coombe Hospital in 1946, the son of a barber and a tailoress, Michael and Carmel (formerly Kelly). His maternal grandparents, Bridget and Jem ‘Sap’ Kelly lived in nearby Coombe Street in the Liberties area of Dublin City.
Brendan’s paternal grandparents lived in anartisan dwelling in Lower Sheriff Street in Dublin’s north inner city.
His grandmother, also called Bridget, was twice widowed. Her first husband, John Hand, was killed in an accident at his workplace in Dublin Docks when he was crushed to death having fallen between a ship and the Liffey wall in the East Wall area of Dublin.
Her second husband, Daniel Phelan died in the Great War and is buried in Ypres in Belgium. After that Granny Phelan decided to call a halt to the matrimony lark and lived to a good old age on her two pensions.
Brendan’s parents had what can only be described as a volatile relationship which culminated in many long periods of estrangement, with intermittent periods of reconciliation, they both being what Brendan describes as ‘highly strung’. For some reason, which was never explained, Brendan was reared in his Granny Kelly’s home in Slievemore Road, a newly developed housing scheme in the Drimnagh area of Dublin’s sprawling suburbs, while his only sibling, Danny, who is six years older, was reared in Lower Sheriff Street.
In 1951, Brendan started his schooling in Ard Scoil Eanna (St. Enda’s) on the nearby Crumlin Road, a school run by the O’Beirne family, with Reiltin O’Beirne the Head Teacher, or ‘Head Mistress’ as she was then called. On his very first day at school he learned a song which he remembered word perfect and recited for his Granny Kelly as soon as he got home. He still remembers the tears flowing down her face as she told him that if he never learned another thing in school he had learned something beautiful that day. The song was called ‘The Moon Behind The Hill’. In retrospect, it could be said that this was probably a defining moment for a boy who would one day become the author of many hundreds of songs and music compositions, culminating in the peerless classic, ‘Dublin In My Tears’. ‘Sap’ Kelly worked as a cattle drover for most of his life for dairy farmers in the County Dublin and County Wicklow areas and some of Brendan’s earliest memories are of house hoolies in Slievemore Road where ‘Sap’ and his many cronies, almost all dairymen, who ‘hunted cows’ for a living, sat around the kitchen telling stories and singing songs. Brendan was sometimes allowed to stay up late to listen to the singing.
On other occasions he would sneak downstairs and conceal himself under a table, only to be found asleep hours later. In those days people named James Kelly were often nicknamed ‘Sap’, in the same way that people named John Murphy were nicknamed ‘Spud’. It was not unusual to see a couple of ‘Sap’s and maybe three ‘Spud’s in the Kelly household at these ‘Sewaarays’, as Bridget called them, at the same time. Brendan makes a point of explaining this because in modern times the word ‘Sap’ has taken on a completely different connotation, meaning drunkard, which Jem Kelly never was.
Brendan had four uncles and an aunt also living in the house at this time, as well as his grandparents and his mother. Two of his uncles, Ned and Tom, were identical twins. They worked in O’Keeffe’s The Knackers. Both played the mouth organ quite well. Brendan remembers times when uncle Ned would come home from the night shift and deposit his dentures on the sideboard. Soon after, Tom would emerge from the bed and put the same dentures in his mouth and head off for the day shift.Life was idyllic for a young boy surrounded by a doting, extended family who lavished affection and kindness on him. Days were filled with songs of bygone days, a school around the corner where a young student teacher, Dolores O’Byrne, sparked the first awareness of puberty and the endless days of playing his beloved soccer, a sport which consumed him obsessively. All this came to an abrupt end in 1959.
Carmel and Mick decided to make a go of it in Slough, Buckinghamshire, England. Mick had been living there for a couple of years hence and persuaded Carmel to join him in another reconciliation. Danny had already joined his father the previous year and this was to be one of many forays to England for Brendan and his mother. For the next couple of years Brendan would find himself being ferried back and forth on the dreaded ‘Princess Maud’, or occasionally the ‘Hibernia’ or the ‘Cambria’, like a yo-yo, as the inevitable family turmoil erupted, periodically. The only consolation was that it brought Brendan and his brother Danny closer, where before they had hardly known each other, and this closeness remains to this day.
On Christmas night in 1962, around midnight, it started to snow in Dublin and didn’t stop until April ‘63. Brendan was back living in Nana Kelly’s in Slievemore Road and distinctly remembers cycling across the Royal Canal at Kilmainham on his uncle’s bike in mid January of that year, which only goes to show how cold the weather was at that time. Not a bus went up the Drimnagh Road for months.
In early Spring the roads were still iced up when Brendan got his first job in Fox & Co. on the Long Mile Road as a machine minder on a lacquering machine which printed Guinness bottle tops and aluminium cans. This lasted until he got his finger caught between the steel rollers which, thankfully, automatically stopped before his whole hand went in. It was at Fox’s that Brendan started dating his first real girlfriend, Myra Kenny, from Ballyfermot Avenue, not far from where they both worked. Shy and awkward, Brendan took Myra to the picture houses in Ballyfermot and Inchicore and Walkinstown, for there were many cinemas in Dublin’s suburbs where young people could do their courting and sometimes they would go to the ‘hop’ in Inchicore called The Mhuire Hall (‘The Wirra’) or to Our Lady’s Hall in Drimnagh to see The Airchords Showband.
These were among the best days of his life as there was an explosion of what became known as the Showband era in Ireland with hundreds of six and seven piece bands playing the hits of the day, including The Young Shadows from Ballyer who were very popular. These bands played cover versions of songs by the stars of the day: Elvis, Del Shannon, Roy Orbison (Brendan’s favourite), and lately, The Beatles, Billy J. Kramer, Gerry and The Pacemakers, The Searchers. Bren was in Heaven.
Alas, as autumn came, Myra gave Brendan the heave. This greatly affected him. Especially as it transpired that she dumped him for a fellow with a Honda 50, something few youths could afford in those days. Brendan spent most of the following few months listening to Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ on the juke box and wondering where it all went wrong. Christmas passed and early in the new year word came from Slough that his Dad needed Carmel and Brendan to return to England urgently. Danny’s marriage of two years had broken up and Brendan’s brother was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Once again, Brendan found himself on the ‘Princess Maud’ heading for England. Had it not been for the break up with Myra, it is almost certain that he would not have accompanied his mother to Slough.
The dance hall scene was booming in Dublin and halls were bursting at the seams with young women, outnumbering males by four or five to one. This was because so many youths had left for England and further afield seeking work. Ironically, there was now something of an economic boom in Ireland which seemed to have occurred overnight.
What transpired in the life of Brendan Phelan after he left Dublin and his childhood behind in the winter of 1964 is for another day, perhaps more suited to a memoir or an autobiography, considering the many twists and turns his life took in the intervening years. His elopement to Bristol in 1966. Marriage and fatherhood and the commencement of his song writing that same year.
In 1971 Brendan joined Clann na hEireann.
Brendan never discusses his political involvement with Clann, no matter how hard one tries to press him the answer is always the same: “If experts couldn’t make me talk, no one else will”. Whatever the triumphs and tragedies of the past and the toll it has taken, Brendan Phelan has woven all of these strands into his enormous legacy of songs and musical compositions.
Dublin has her son home again.