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Country roads

The Interview

Country roads

Michael Commins

LIFE has taken Kevin Prendergast down many country roads. For close on four decades, singing has been a way of life for the man from Carramack, Logboy, Ballyhaunis. Manchester provided the grounding that was to serve him well in later years.
That he has enduring appeal is beyond doubt. When Kevin hosted the two-hour Guest Suite late show on Mid West Radio earlier this year, he had by far and away the biggest phone-in of good wishes of all the guest presenters. It was grassroots response at its best, an outpouring of goodwill for one of our own. No hype, no glamour, just down-to-earth folk saying 'Well done, Kevin, and thanks for the songs and the music'.Kevin Prendergast
Like thousands more, Kevin crossed the Irish Sea in the 1960s. And for close on 40 years, Manchester was to become his home. Many of the Irish were good for 'looking out' for their own and Kevin found that to be the case soon after his arrival.
Kevin recalls those early days: "Jim Connell from Redford, Ballyhaunis, God rest his soul, used to run a club, the Sharrocks, and later the Ard Rí Club. He was very good to me and gave me a few good breaks. It was important to find your feet and Jim was good-natured and helpful. Then there was the Carousel Club where I sang for a while with the resident band which featured Paddy McNally from Longford.
"I remember I used to go into a pub in Manchester years ago, The Criterion, and the two songs I used to sing were 'Barney Brannigan' and 'The Auld Lammas Fair'. Both were great to get a crowd going at the time. There was a different atmosphere around those days. It was a great scene at the time. Monday nights were as good as the weekend nights.
"Joe Gavin, who came from Islandeady, and who died last Christmas, began to get me a lot of bookings in London and other places. His brother Tommy worked for years in the Welcome Inn in Castlebar. Joe ensured that I played a lot of dates outside Manchester."
Songs of home always made the connection with the dancers and the drinkers. Sometimes it might be 'tear in the beer' stuff but the Irish have always loved sad and sentimental songs.
Kevin's radio debut came in the 1960s when he was offered a guest spot on Céilí House. "Seán Ó Murchú and Ciaran Mac Mahúna were names associated with the traditional music in Raidió Éireann at the time. The studio was in Henry Street and I sang three songs unaccompanied. They were 'The Boys From the County Mayo', 'The Flower of Sweet Strabane', and 'The Irish Soldier Boy'. It was a big thing at home in Mayo at the time to hear a local person on the radio."
Country and Irish music swept the Irish scene in England during the 1970s. Kevin Prendergast had a natural affinity with this style and the quick-steps and the waltzes were soon dominating his stage programme. After many requests, he decided to make his first record.
"It was back in 1980 and people had been on to me for a long time to record something. I wrote a song called 'Let's Go Back To County Mayo' and I was singing it at gigs around England. It always got a good reaction.
"So I decided the time was right to record and it was the first track I put down. The others were 'The Boys from Killybegs' and the 'Rose of Mooncoin'. I went around with it to the pubs in Manchester and we put them in a lot of the jukeboxes and it went down well. It also gave me a much higher profile.
"I sent a copy to Paschal Mooney who had a popular radio show on RTE at the time. But I think he felt he needed something more upbeat so the next number I recorded was another one of my own songs, 'I'll Sing About Roscommon', which was a  bouncy number and Paschal started playing that on his programme.
"Soon a lot of requests were coming in for my songs so I went back to Ireland and recorded my first LP with Gerald O'Donoghue over in Greenfield Studios in Headford and, thank God, it was a huge success for me."
For the next decade, Kevin's albums were massive sellers in the west of Ireland and much further afield, easily outselling many of the so-called big pop acts from England and America in the region.

When Mid West Radio was formally launched in July, 1989, it was fitting that Kevin Prendergast was the very first singer to be played on the station and the song was 'My Old Home in Mayo'.
From the mid-1980s, Kevin began to return to Ireland on a regular basis and found that a lot of his work was over this side of the Irish Sea again. Regular summer and Christmas tours became the norm, with a few trips to festivals in America too.
"Many Irish Americans love to get away and they always enjoy the songs about Ireland and the places they left behind or heard about from their folks," said Kevin.
The entertainment business and heavy drinking have always been close buddies. Kevin Prendergast is all too well aware of it, having shared many nights with the bottle before and after gigs.
"I can talk about it now but there were years when it had a hold on me. When you were meeting people before and after shows, they were buying you drinks. There were nights after shows that you might have a line of brandies or whiskey sent up to you and, rather than insult people by not taking them, I would sometimes gulp them down. That went on for a good many years. It's something that happens and you get so used to it that it kind of becomes normal.
"Many were the times I'd say to myself, 'I won't drink tonight, I won't drink this weekend', but when it would come to the night and you needed some courage, it was always there to help you through.
"I made up my mind one Friday night in the Brockley Catholic Club in London seven years ago that I was going to do the show without a drink. Would I have the courage to go up on that stage without having a few 'shots' or a few pints?
"The club was packed the same night, there were some neighbours of my own from Logboy there. I knew the band that was playing and something urged me to chance it.
"They started playing the intro to 'There's Always A Fire In the Kitchen' as I walked up the floor through the crowd. I just thought to myself for a moment, what if they all sit down and leave me singing up there.
"The floor was full of dancers from the first verse. They were out jiving and enjoying themselves and I flew through the second song and I knew I was away with it that night. I was looking forward to the next night so much without a drink. I was thanking God that I could do it. I couldn't believe it and I've never looked back since then."
With the fall-off in emigration to England from Ireland, the idea of moving back home to Mayo began to take root in Kevin's mind in recent years. "It had got to the stage where I was spending longer and longer at home and thought wouldn't it be nice to move back at this stage.
"About two years ago when the opportunity presented itself, I decided now was the time to make the move. Brickens is only about two miles from my home place in Carramack, Logboy and I've known people in Brickens all my life.
"I still go back a lot to England, thanks almost entirely to Horan International Airport, Knock. I thank Fr Horan every time I get on the plane. It's such a blessing rather than having to go to Dublin."
Friendship is something that is close to Kevin's heart. In his own quiet way, he calls to visit friends in hospital, to elderly people living on their own, and is especially devoted to his close friends that he has made through the music business. And in times of sorrow, as many families can testify, Kevin has been there to lend a consoling hand.
"The singing business has been my life for so long now. You make friends in so many places. I hope to record a new album over the coming months. It will give me something to work on as people are always looking for new material. I would love to do one of those overseas music holiday weeks if the chance should arise. Thank God, I have good health and the last seven years have been a new life to me in so many ways. When you're happy doing something you enjoy, it makes it all worthwhile."
The annual Kevin Prendergast Party night takes place in Bourke’s Lounge in Irishtown on Friday, August 4. Among those joining him will be Kay and the Country Stars, Noreen Burke, John Kelly and Small Tom Hughes.