By Niall O’Driscoll
Pre-show energy. That’s how the late Fergus O’Farrell described nerves before a gig to me once. He had taken that unpleasant, pit-of-the-stomach sensation that any performer worth their salt suffers from and re-branded it with blatant, unashamed positivity. Good man Ferg. Good man.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, his funeral service in St Mary’s Church in Schull last Saturday was similarly re-branded, at his own request, as a celebration of his life. And it was just that – a beautiful evening of music, spoken word, laughter, tears. Undeniably sad because of his loss, but equally uplifting for those present in the collective knowledge that they were all the better because they had known him.
Having battled muscular dystrophy from an early age, Fergus died suddenly at the age of 48 in Schull on Tuesday, February 2nd. This was just days after his friend, collaborator and fellow Schull resident Colin Vearncombe (aka Black) had passed tragically following a car accident, and the day before Fergus himself had been due to sing at the funeral service. These were dark days for the locality, for music and for art.
Originally from Kinsale, Fergus is survived by his wife Li and stepson Deng Li, parents Vincent and Maureen and his sisters Sharon and Lydia, brothers-in-law John and Arthur, nieces, nephews and extended family. The O’Farrell’s are well-known throughout West Cork and are former owners of the iconic Eldon Hotel in Skibbereen, where Fergus worked for a number of years.
He first came to prominence as a singer, musician and songwriter in Dublin back in the 1980s with his band Interference. In more recent years his song ‘Gold’ was used in the award-winning film Once and is also featured in the successful Broadway musical of the same name. Fergus had also earned a reputation as a talented painter towards the end of his life and had exhibited his work on a number of occasions.
Interference enjoyed considerable popularity and were highly influential over the years, particularly amongst other bands – a fact borne out by the quantity and calibre of musicians who attended and performed in the church on Saturday, including Glen Hansard, Colm Mac Con Iomaire and other members of The Frames; Steve and Joe Wall of The Stunning and The Walls; Liam Ó Maonlaí of the Hot House Flowers; Maria Doyle Kennedy, Bronagh Gallagher, Mundy, Paul Tiernan, Maurice (The Man Seezer) Roycroft and countless others.
Speaking to me last week, musician and broadcaster Philip King, recalled those early days of Interference: ‘Fergus was a legendary figure in Dublin in and around a very vibrant, interesting music scene, out of which lots of new music came. I kept hearing rumours that there was this amazing musician holed up somewhere behind Mother Redcap’s (the old Winstanley shoe factory) with people coming and going to play music with him. It was such a small world that it rippled out that there was something remarkable happening ... it was all rumour and legend and mystery, but then when you heard the music, you understood what the fuss was about. It was new music. It was individual music. It was music that had heart and soul shot right through it. It had a sound all of its own. That sound really, was the sound of a remarkable human voice that was full of personality, that was individual and unique. Fergus, as somebody who was carrying this really devastating, creeping illness – he was aware of it, he struggled with it, he beat it into submission on a daily basis and got on with his life in every way that he could. He was a testament to the human spirit.’
Liam Ó Maonlaí of The Hothouse Flowers, one of the bands that shared space with Interference in the Winstanley factory back in the day, also has strong memories from that time. ‘I remember the first time seeing Fergus and seeing Interference and being aware that this was a force. He was somebody who had muses, and vision, and style.’
‘The thing about Ferg,’ said Ó Maonlaí, ‘was the fact that he had this condition which cornered him into having to ... well something like that will get rid of a lot of the “dead wood” in somebody’s being and somebody’s way of life. The clarity that came from having to look at life from that perspective that Fergus had, added an edge to his way of applying himself to things and to life in general. His imagination was fantastic, and his musical ability, and the fact that he had to reinvent the way that he did things all the time actually added to the beauty of his music rather than take away from it.’
‘His legacy is how he lived his life, and the memory of that and maybe us trying to embody that. Within myself, I would just remember that here is someone who mastered life within a shell that was his body and therefore he leaves a legacy of the rest of us mastering the shells which are our bodies. He was someone who always had to find the core of being within his body and through his body, and that’s something that anyone can learn from. Then of course there is the legacy of his music - beautiful music. He had a real touch with recording and the studio process that was unique unto himself and I don’t even know if he gave himself credit for that ... he had a real ability to create an atmosphere in his music.’
Steve Wall of The Stunning and more recently The Walls, said ‘Fergus was a true artist in every sense. He recognised the qualities in good art and he was fastidious in his own pursuit of it. As a man he was generous both in spirit and in sharing what was his. He loved to collaborate with like-minded people and working with him was a joy. Any egos and preciousness were left at the door.’
Paul Tiernan, a member of Interference, echoed Steve’s comments about Ferg’s love of collaboration and experimentation: ‘Ferg always used to walk (or drive his wheelchair) across a musical tightrope. He was never scared of playing with new musicians, often without rehearsal, in order to give the songs a different perspective, a new energy. He never needed or wanted a safety net.’
Those who spoke at the celebration on Saturday shared fond memories of their time spent with Fergus over the years, and a recurring theme was that of the huge role that his family, and particularly his wife Li, played in his life. Having met first in a hospital in Cyprus after Fergus was taken ill (Li, from China, is a nurse by profession) they were married for 22 years, during which time it was pointed out, Li saved his life on a number of occasions.
Concluding proceedings in the church on Saturday, Fergus’ father Vincent thanked all those who contributed to the occasion as well as staff of Schull and Bantry hospitals, ambulance crews, Dr Brian O’Connell and others who had enriched Fergus’ time in the area.
On a personal note, I first met Fergus O’Farrell through music about eight or nine years ago. The band I’m in played support to Dog Tail Soup (a lineup which contained not only Ferg, but the late Colin Vearncombe also) a few times, and we were even incorporated into an expanded Interference line-up on one occasion. Fergus’ live performances, for me, were profound. They summed up the man as I knew him. To borrow from something I wrote about him online last week – he could make you feel utterly vulnerable yet totally reassured all at once. Vulnerable in terms of how fragile we all are, physically and emotionally – but utterly reassured that music, art and expression – while they might not save you completely – can most definitely lessen the blow when life has slung its worst in your direction. Sail on, Ferg.