Obituary: Pete St John, songwriter who turned the Irish experience of starvation and suffering into heartfelt ballads

Pete St John, who died at the age of 90, was a thoughtful old-school ballad songwriter. His songs, although composed in the second half of the 20th century, resonated with audiences as if they were ballads handed down in oral tradition.

What you need is a simple chorus, a melody that anyone can sing, and the rest will take care of itself,” he once told me during a lunch at his private table, No 24, at Beaumont House in North Dublin. It was a place where he held court with his friend Jim O’Connor and other guests over the years.

The results of his “simple choruses” were songs like Athenry Fieldsand The rare ancient times – songs that weren’t originally hits, but have become so entrenched in the Irish psyche that Athenry Fields became the theme song for Ireland’s appearances in football and rugby worldwide.

The rare ancient times – which has become a standard over the years for bands like The Dubliners, The Wolfe Tones, The Dublin City Ramblers and others – laments the sense of loss at the changing face of the Irish capital, told by a Dubliner who has was “raised on songs and stories”.

The Pillar and the Met are gone,

the Royal long since demolished.

Like inflexible gray concrete

made a city of my city.

He was, said another great Irish songwriter Phil Coulter, “a gentleman, a proud Dub and a true songwriter who contributed at least three classics to the Great Irish Songbook”.

He also had the gift of personalizing his songs, with characters like Michel, the unfortunate deportee from Athenry Fieldsfor “stealing Trevelyan’s corn” (a reference to Charles Trevelyan, who was in charge of famine relief in the 1840s), and Seán Dempsey, the unfortunate soul of The rare ancient timeslamenting the lost landmarks of his hometown.

It was this quality of nostalgia that resonated with people who may not have been traditional followers of traditional Irish music, but who admired the fusion of songwriting and storytelling – and more specifically the pathos, which Pete St John had a unique way of conveying through his music. and the lyrics.

And it was never done lightly. He studied his subjects meticulously, and while he may not have retained the facts in the final version, it was the emotional impact of the story that drew him in.

I got to know him to some degree by being invited to an audience at Beaumont House after he read a story I wrote glorifying the pint of Guinness. Over our lunches – which he insisted on paying for – he made clear to me his desire to try and “get it right” when writing his songs, whether in praise of the pint or the Lumper potato, which was the staple food of the landless Irish. until the Great Famine.

Pete St John was born Peter Mooney, in Inchicore, Dublin, on January 31, 1932, the eldest of six children to what he described as “upper working class”.

His father, Thomas worked at the Smithfield Motor Company and his mother Lotte played the piano. With a teacher at Scoil Mhuire, she encouraged young Peter to sing and play music.

He had what he later described as the “idyllic childhood” of that time, when young children could roam freely in neighborhoods on the outskirts of Dublin city.

He attended Synge Street Secondary School and later graduated as an electrician. He then spent the next two decades in Canada and the United States, where his two sons were born. He eventually settled in Washington DC, where he bought a house and claimed to have worked on the renovation of the White House.

After 20 years he returned to Dublin in the 1970s with his wife Susan (who died in 2010). Returning home, he was struck by the changes that had taken place in his absence – the abandonment of large areas of the city, accompanied by the twin ravages of unemployment and social destitution. The result was his first well-known song, The rare ancient times.

He had started his own business as an electrician, but after falling off a roof, he decided to focus on writing songs, performing and promoting what was called “the boom of ballads”. He opened a folk club at Mother Redcaps in the Liberties, then rented the old Talbot Street cinema for concerts. He also kept the publishing rights to his music, which turned out to be a very wise move considering their huge popularity.

Returning from a tour in 1983, he said his wife Sue told him to “take a good look at yourself” and that he had given up what his character called “gargling”. He never drank alcohol thereafter. But that didn’t stop him from enjoying the pub vibe or frowning on those who enjoyed the bohemian lifestyle associated with the music industry.

In a sense, he became something of a historian, distilling the Irish experience of famine, rebellion and loss into his songs.

Athenry Fields has been recorded by 50 different artists, and the tune has been used extensively in film and television (including a bagpipe version in the film Dead Poets Societywith Robin Williams).

Another of his songs was the catchy political anthem Get up and follow Charlie (co-written with former Fianna Fáil senator and music promoter Donie Cassidy). Pete said he initially rejected overtures to get involved – but he needed a favor from Charlie Haughey, and when the Fianna Fáil leader delivered he agreed. He always insisted it was a personal anthem to the man, not the party.

In broad political terms, he describes himself as a “nationalist”, but his songs cross the political divide. Among them was Song for Omagh, which he wrote to raise money for the victims of the 1998 bombing in the town of Co Tyrone. He also wrote a song for the Road Safety Association in an attempt to discourage drunk driving.

Pete didn’t really like talking about himself or giving interviews. He said his inspiration often came from listening to others, giving as an example how he sat in The Chinaman (a now long-defunct pub near Dublin Castle), where he heard women from neighboring apartments talking .

After Athenry Fields became an anthem for Glasgow Celtic, he was invited to sing it, unaccompanied, on the pitch, with 60,000 Celtic supporters as his backing band. There were claims that the song was an incitement to hatred, given the club’s intense rivalry with Glasgow Rangers, a claim he dismissed.

“It’s just a song about poor innocents caught in a disaster,” he said. “It’s as sectarian as I blow bubbles forever.”

Over the years he has performed many of his standards on shows such as “An Evening with Pete St John”, which played in many theaters around the world, including Broadway in New York.

His songs have been recorded by a variety of ballad groups and singers including Paddy Reilly, Danny Doyle, Mary Black, Daniel O’Donnell, James Last, Luke Kelly, Jim McCann, to name a few.

Pete St John is survived by his sons Kieron and Brian. In accordance with his wishes, a remembrance service will take place at Whitehall Church, Dublin on April 2.