Maurice Cooney: 'Music never leaves you'

Brothers Maurice and Harry Cooney - two lads from the Meadow in Newry - became fixtures on the Irish showband scene and went on a musical journey that saw them win the hugely popular television talent show New Faces as part of Flash and 'watch the bookings roll in'. Maurice Cooney - who says he hasn't lifted an instrument in almost 40 years - reflects on a golden era.

Former showband musican Maurice Cooney: 'Music never leaves you and I still hear the voices and sounds of those long gone.' Picture by Mal McCann.

OUR love of music began in the early 1960s when our parents enrolled us with the renowned Father Moore Choir in Newry. Once our voices broke we knew we still had to be involved with music.

Harry learned the guitar and I picked up the banjo mandolin and G banjo. Before we knew it, we formed a folk group called The Wild Rovers. We performed at local pubs.

We left traditional to play skiffle after I learned the tea chest bass. Skiffle gave way to pop and we became 'Penny Lane'.

Back then we played before all the big showbands of the day at venues like the Castle in Banbridge and the Adelphi in Dundalk.

Then in 1971, Tracy and the Grassroots auditioned for a bass player - and I got it. With my foot in the door of the national music scene, I moved to Dublin.

Within a year I was with Poteen, a Celtic rock band. Next up, I was part of Tomorrow's People, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland. I was totally hooked.

And when the lead singer of Tomorrow's People left, I convinced my brother Harry to give up the security of his civil service job to replace him.

With both of us brothers now on the road, the band-hopping started in earnest. Over the next six years we joined many of the top bands in the country.

Harry went to the Hoot'nannys and then to Dermot Henry and the Virginians. He finally ended up being known as Bloody Morgan in the Limerick-based showband The Pirates.

Meanwhile I moved from one legendary Irish performer to another. First Brendan Quinn, then Roly Daniels, Red Hurley, Cahir O'Doherty and finally with Jim Farley's All-Stars.

By the spring of 1977, Northern Ireland was in turmoil. But the bands played on.

Farley's band split as a Canadian tour didn't materialise. Bizarrely, The Pirates also folded after their Canadian tour.

Harry was then offered a lead singer's gig with Dublin Corporation which was a a top Toronto band. Unfortunately it came to nothing.

So it was back to Newry for the Cooney brothers... Before long we were head-hunted by Cecil Thompson, a top NI promoter and manager.

We resurrected one of Harry's stage names and performed under the title Bloody Morgan Supersound. In September 1977, we got a call to audition for New Faces at the Birmingham Hippodrome and we decided to call ourselves 'Flash'.

Flash included Mickey Loughran, formerly of the The Crypt, on guitar, the late Davy Stuart from The Outlaws on keyboards and on drums, Rick Bleakley. (Rick is father of television presenter Christine Bleakley).

Maurice Cooney, pictured left, and his brother Harry were central figures in the north's music scene during the Troubles - 'for a few hours amidst the turmoil there was a safe space for people of all persuasions, who shared a love for music.' Picture by Mal McCann.

We sailed through the auditions for New Faces. Flash now needed fashion. London's Carnaby Street beckoned and we soon found ourselves being dressed by top designer to the stars, the flamboyant Colin Wild. We felt like celebrities.

Six weeks later it was back to Birmingham for the broadcast. Four celebrity judges scored across three categories - presentation, content and star quality. From a possible maximum of 120 points we got 112; even the arch music critic Tony Hatch awarded us two 10s and a nine.

We made it. The only band from Ireland to win New Faces. Next up we did the TV spectacular Christmas Eve - New Faces.

Bookings rolled in. We could now afford roadies. We bought a state-of-the-art sound system, a 30kw lighting rig along with a new truck and a Jaguar XJ6 for us to travel in luxury. It all felt very rock and roll.

By 1982, Billy Brown of The Freshmen produced a song for us, Build Me Up Buttercup. We recorded it in the Ritz Record studio in Dublin. Billy asked to join the band and we were delighted to have him. We became lifelong friends.

But time creeps up like autumn after the summer.

I have not lifted an instrument in 39 years. Harry, meanwhile, continued to perform with Taxi and they had success, and Harry is still strutting the stage.

I went on to manage bars and nightclubs in London and Jersey and for 10 years I ran the Inn on the Park entertainment complex. Whilst there, I came across my old Dublin flatmate, Louis Walsh, and I was able to give Boyzone their first international gig.

Music never leaves you and I still hear the voices and sounds of those long gone. It is testimony to all the bands who played throughout the 1970s and 1980s in Northern Ireland that for a few hours amidst the turmoil there was a safe space for people of all persuasions, who shared a love for music.

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