Sean P. O’Neill is a friend, a member of Longford Writers Group, and a unique song writer and musician.
1. Tell me about your yourself
A mother asked her son what he would like to be when he grew up. Without hesitation, he replied that he’d like to be a songwriter. His mother shook her head and told him sadly, ‘You can’t do both.’
My parents were both from the Northside of Dublin but actually met in Liverpool. They married and within 10 years, had eight children – a girl, six boys and another girl bookending the lot. I was the oldest boy and at times felt that for reasons unknown to me, I was actually older than my sister, Mary. I had more in common with her than any of the others younger than me though, academically at least, Mary was way ahead of me – the shining light that left me decidedly dim in comparison.
With hindsight I realise that, while never actually diagnosed, I did have some form of dyslexia. It was as if my brain worked much faster than I was ever able to read or write and anything to do with these was a chore best avoided. If you leave out the likes of Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton’s Just William books, I can only remember actually finishing one book before running out of school a few days short of my 16th birthday.
While I was frequently top of my class in maths – geometry in particular – any subject that involved much reading or writing had me hovering around the bottom third of the class when end of year exams came around. If there had been marks to be gained for inventing excuses for not turning in work, I have no doubt that some of the stories that came out of my imagination would have moved me into the upper third if not actually to the top of the class.
My secondary school was a rough place and one where it was just a matter of getting through to O-Levels with a minimum amount of canings. It was an intercity school and two long bus rides away from my home in a fairly middle class suburb or outskirts as I remember my mother calling it. On my first day there, I was shocked to witness a fight between two first year boys, where one almost lost an eye. Even more shocking to me was the enthusiasm from the crowd that gathered to watch. Back then, children were to be seen and not heard and so the only way through these five years was to endure and keep the head below the parapet, only raising it to amuse your fellow students with a little clowning around.
Home was a busy place with a new baby arriving almost annually. I kept myself to myself for the most part but was always happy to help out with washing dishes or shopping for my mother. I was also happy to take any opportunity to escape the bedlam and spent most of one summer hanging out in a nearby Shell garage. I would have been nine years old as it was the year that the Everly Brothers released Cathy’s Clown. Most of the people who worked there were happy to have me hang out in the little office on the forecourt and, as well as pump petrol for the occasional car, I was even allowed to use the portable record player. This was exciting stuff as, up to then at least, my only connection with music that interested me was from a fairground in Skerries from a year earlier, when the summer hit was Connie Francis’s Lipstick on Your Collar.
2. How did you get into music and songwriting?
Following my summer of ’60, I began to seek out music – songs particularly. Most of what was on the BBC radio station – The Light Program – had no appeal for me at all and I don’t remember how I discovered Radio Luxembourg but, once I did, I was glued to it’s magic every night for 90 minutes or so until the interference from another station became to much and it was time for bed. Anyone remember Horace Bachelor’s infra draw method of playing the pools?
Of course this magic could only have been made in far off exciting places like America or London if you were Marty Wild of Cliff Richards. But then…. THE BEATLES.
I can still remember the first time I heard the harmonica burst through the tiny speaker and hold my attention until Love Me Do came to an end. Unbelievable. This music was by people from Liverpool.
Fast forward a couple of years and with a just about unplayable guitar, bought from one of the many junk shops in the Anfield area for about five shillings, I struggled to learn to play. This was a solitary pursuit and, with the accompanying caterwauling emitting from my bedroom, produced much teasing from my siblings. I was invited to a classmate’s house to stay over, but learning that on the Friday night we’d be going out and taking part in racial violence against people of Pakistani origin, I made my excuses and turned down the invitation.
Fast forward again to 1969 and, with many more radio stations playing music non stop, and even my peers now listening to whatever was in the charts, I felt that something that had been pretty exclusively mine was being taken from me. I sought out more obscure artists and went to a quite a few concerts on my own to see acts that, while many found them to be too weird, have stood the test of time – Incredible String Band, John Mayall, Pentangle and many more.
I was 17 but admitted to 22 and working as a photographer – family portraits and baby photos mostly. In April, my mother casually mentioned something along the lines of, ‘When we move to Ireland next week….’ This was news to me and, having met a girl I fancied and had a couple of dates in the weeks before, I told my mother I was staying and I did. The relationship lasted perhaps two more dates but I stood my ground and it wasn’t until six months later, I came to Ireland for a long weekend. Is 51 years a record for a long weekend? I’m still here.
It’s possible that a young man picking up a guitar is motivated by an idea that girls will fall at his feet and he’ll live happily ever after. While the girl I met and married bought me a nice guitar for my 21st birthday, she was happier when I didn’t play it, so I didn’t. We made three children, two boys and a girl and for most of twenty-five years were as happy as can be. I still worked as a photographer shooting babies and families – weddings too and, while it was widely acknowledged that I was good, with every year that passed, I liked it less.
I was 20 when I set up my own business and had in mind that it was something I’d do for five or six years while deciding what I would do with the rest of my life. Those years whizzed by and anything I felt I wanted to do seemed unrealistic. In the story I tell in the Longford Writers Group anthology, ‘Home Made’, I mention my wife asking me what i wanted to do with the rest of my life, and when I stated that I would love to sing and also write songs her response that I could neither sing – or play guitar very well was true – as was the fact that in the many years she’d known me, I hadn’t written as much as a postcard.
On my 47th birthday in July 1998, a year after we went our separate ways, I decided to allow myself sing. I jumped in the deep end and went busking in Galway. I’d moved there about six weeks earlier and given myself the permission to make a fool of myself. The songs I sang were songs that meant something to me – and could be played without too much difficulty. I was hooked and a month later on a hitch-hiking busking holiday around Scotland, I added my first two compositions to my repertoire.
By my 48th birthday, over fifty more songs had landed – from where I’ve no idea but, on invitation, I had spent a couple of hours in a small studio and the first seventeen songs I sang became my debut album, Losers & Sinners. Time to quit the day job.
I stripped my needs back to the bare minimum and moved to Dublin taking a job in a factory and learned to live on basic minimum wage. After a monotonous day standing at a machine, I’d walk into town and busk for a couple of hours in Temple Bar. The money from this financed my first 100 copies of the CD and, in January 2000, I quit the factory and went on the road – knocking on doors and offering to sing a random track from the album – live on the doorstep. An interesting time.
By April 2006, while I had earned my living and sold enough CDs (7,500 in Ireland) to qualify for a Gold disc, it was time to quit. It had become like a ‘job’ and I’d stopped writing and playing for myself. I took a simple door to door sales job which generated a better income and allowed me attend the occasional songwriting retreat. If I live long enough, these six years on the road will form the basis of a book. It’s not everyone who gets to sing on Mary Black’s doorstep or sit in the garden with Roger Whitaker – who actually bought a copy of my second CD, Odds & Sods, as well as Losers & Sinners.
If you’ve done the maths, you’ll know that I’m not too far away from being a Septuagenarian but I still don’t feel like I’ve grown up, so perhaps I am a songwriter.
3. Have you any ambitions/ plans / dreams for your music and songwriting for the future?
About five minutes after I retired, I was delighted to be offered a place to study for an MA in Songwriting at University of Limerick’s, Irish World Academy of Music and Dance. Since graduating, I haven’t come across anything for songwriters in Situations Vacant or even on Jobs.ie. I have a body of work from my year on the course which I may release at some stage and also hope to present small venues with.