Writer and Horslip Barry Devlin a man of many talents
As well as being bass player and singer with Horslips and having written popular TV shows in Ireland and Britain, Barry Devlin has made movies and even U2 videos. Now he's teaching a writing masterclass and Jane Hardy caught up with him – just about...
WHEN Barry Devlin, now implausibly 70, answers the phone at his home in Dublin, he immediately launches into some banter. "Ah, you decided to use my land line, which might just be because of my persistent refusal to answer my mobile," the Tyrone native chirps.
Articulate as a character in one of his own films – as well as being a successful television screenwriter and pop-video-maker, the former Horslips bassist and frontman has written or directed several movies – Devlin is quick-witted and a generous interviewee.
We quickly get on to the subject of bad language via a minor outburst on my part as my phone misbehaves, which makes him laugh.
"To be honest, I don't like swearing. The F-word has become a kind of punctuation in this part of the world," he says. "It needs to be used judiciously. My sister Polly uses the F-word about twice a year, but to devastating effect. You know all about it when she does. And I think people who swear a lot are quite threatening; swearing is really about an entropy of language."
Devlin's aforementioned sibling is a well-known writer and academic; another of his six sisters, Marie, is the widow of the late Seamus Heaney.
The reason we are talking is the fact that Devlin himself is one of the acclaimed scribes teaching courses at the inaugural John O'Connor Writing School being held in Armagh.
Armagh Pulitzer prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon is patron of the enterprise. Muldoon has long been a Horslips fan; he often jetted in from the United States, where he resides, for the Celtic rockers' gigs.
So is the compliment returned by the Horslips man?
"Yes, we're great friends and Muldoon and I are making music together in November," he reveals. "We play bad rock 'n' roll – we go out as The Elderly Brothers."
Devlin's memories of family life growing up with his sisters in Ardboe, near the western shores of Lough Neagh, are colourful. One family legend involves his eldest sister Anne and the second-eldest, Marie, being feted on VE Day.
"They were put on the back of a truck and came back with armfuls of lipstick and chewing gum. They said they'd been to Berlin but my mother suspected that wasn't true."
Asked about his relationship with his late brother in law, Seamus Heaney, Devlin sounds uncharacteristically serious.
"We kind of adored Seamus," he says, "who is greatly missed. He was hauled away at the height of his powers. If you go to the Seamus Heaney Centre in Bellaghy, it's marvellous."
So where does the Devlin genius come from? This is a ferociously talented family, with writers, artists, musicians among Barry's siblings.
"Well, mum was a teacher – funnily enough, Paul Brady's mother was also a teacher – and I grew up in a house full of books. They reflected her taste. We had Thackeray, Trollope, Dickens and more modern titles like [Hugh] Walpole and the Mitfords on the shelves. And we read them."
Mr Devlin snr ran a pub, inevitably called Devlin's: "We didn't have names like The Royal George or the Pig and Whistle in my part of the world," he offers, with an audible smile.
Barry Devlin has a nice anecdote involving a third noted poet, Michael Longley. Sitting next to the north's senior versifier at the Heaney Centre, Devlin says they talked about his old band.
"Michael Longley said Muldoon brought him to a Horslips gig in around 1974, then said at one point 'Now we have to stand on our chairs.' He said he pondered it and wondered whether it would be all right for a practising poet."
Although well known for his career with Horslips, which spans nearly five decades, Devlin has been writing for almost as long – his screenwriting credits include Ballykissangel and The Darling Buds of May – and he directed the videos for some of U2's best-known songs back in the 1980s.
"When writing films, the meaning comes with the piece but with pop videos, you've already got the meaning in the song, so you have to add irony. With I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, which is one of their most sincere songs, I decided to set the video in the least sincere place in the world, so we shot it in Vegas."
History rather than politics happens to be a personal passion and Devlin reveals he's currently reading a memoir about the Battle of Blenheim, in the War of the Spanish Succession.
"I am a great admirer of [the duke of] Marlborough and this book is by Captain Parker from Clonmel; I like European history of the 16th and 17th centuries."
In terms of Devlin's musical tastes, he opts for the classics: "I am listening to Albinoni's oboe concerto. It's an instrument I love, along with the bassoon."
Devlin’s writing work continues, his new film starring Liam Neeson, The Virgin of Las Vegas, due to shoot in December.
“I’ve just finished a feature film for [former U2 manager] Paul McGuinness’s production company who are making this 10-part thing for Sky Atlantic,” he enthuses, referring to new Neil Jordan-directed series Riviera.
He is also continuing to work on new Northern Ireland-set wartime drama My Mother and Other Strangers – filming of the first five-part series, penned by Devlin and produced by the BBC and NI Screen, took place in the north this year.
:: Barry Devlin is leading a masterclass in writing for the screen and stage at the John O'Connor Writing School, Armagh, on November 5. For details see www.thejohnoconnorwritingschool.com