Belfast folk stalwart Fergus O'Hare on Deep in My Heart, an album of deeply personal songs

Robert McMillen talks to Belfast folk stalwart Fergus O’Hare as he releases Deep in My Heart, an album of songs which matter deeply to him

Fergus O'Hare has been a key figure on Belfast's folk scene since the 1970s
Fergus O'Hare has been a key figure on Belfast's folk scene since the 1970s

In nearly everything Fergus O'Hare does, there is an altruism and a philanthropy at its very heart.

From the early days as a leading light in the People's Democracy at the start of the Troubles, to his pioneering role in the early days of Meánscoil (now Coláiste) Feirste which has grown exponentially since he was its first headmaster in cramped rooms in Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich; to his stewardship of Raidió Fáilte, turning the former pirate radio station into an award-winning community resource all these achievements have the betterment of ordinary people at their heart.

And it's the same in the songs that Fergus has sung over the past half century. They are songs that tell a story about the unnoticed, the 'unimportant' people, ordinary people who are struggling but who keep our society running.

Fergus has now produced Deep in My Heart, a nine-song album with some of the songs that have had real meaning for him.

"I sing," he said, "not because I have a great voice that I want everyone to hear but because I wanted people to hear the story or the message or the points that were being made through the songs."

Of course, that tradition goes back to the 1960s and the great folk arrival that started in the USA but which gave Irish people a new respect for their own traditional songs and music.

Here in Belfast, folk clubs sprung up where young and old could enjoy a mixture of indigenous and imported 'songs of the people' and the newly-composed 'protest songs' that were part and parcel of the heady 'we shall overcome' period of the 1960s.

Fergus was part of that scene, although his interest in folk music began when he was at university in Dublin.

"That was the period of what was called the 'ballad boom' and you had groups and singers trying to make a few bob in Dublin pubs, groups like The Johnsons, Emmet Spiceland, the Chieftains and so on.

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"When those pub gigs were over, the musicians would then head to the folk clubs, from about 11pm to 3 o'clock in the morning. However, there was no alcohol involved. You'd get a cup of tea and, maybe, a bowl of stew," he recalls.

While the scene was vibrant in Dublin, Fergus also was a big fan of the McPeake musical dynasty in Belfast as well as singers like Davy Hammond, so when he came back home to Belfast, he got busy setting up a folk club in Belfast in the early 1970s.

"I had the same idea of making it alcohol-free but a friend of mine, the late Brian Moore, suggested it wasn't a starter and so the first club we started was the Pure Drop, which had different venues but will be remembered best for being in the Green Briar in the foothills of the Black Mountain" says Fergus.

"We started off by giving local artists a platform but slowly we brought in guests such as Eilís Moore and Barry Moore (now Luka Bloom) and things developed from there."

However, Fergus, his sister Máire and Brian Moore also wanted something different and so they set up the Black Mountain Folk Music Society which lasted for a few years, moving from venue to venue.

Then came the Castle Folk Club in the Hercules Bar in Castle Street and then we had the folk club in the Sunflower Bar, founded by the late Geoff Harden, firstly in Corporation Street in the Docks area but now in Union Street in the Cathedral Quarter.

There are undoubtedly enough stories about those clubs to fill an encyclopaedia but sadly, the Sunflower is probably the only folk club left in Belfast.

The bar is situated in an area where many of the Belfast radicals of the late 18th century would have frequented and that idea of seeking radical change is still strong in today's Belfast and a lot of it comes out in songs.

"For me the important thing is that you can change people's minds about what is going on around them through songs," says Fergus.

"You can inspire people through song, you can inform them through song. For example, how many people would know who Kevin Barry was if there wasn't a song written about him, a song that was sung by Leonard Cohen and Paul Robeson amongst other people? The American miner's leader Joe Hill, he's someone else who is known mainly through song."

It's probably due to Fergus's singing of the song Victor Jara that the Chilean's life and death has been brought to many people.

"We organised a night to commemorate Victor Jara and someone who came along told me he had never heard of the Chilean but had done some research when he heard about the gig and was fascinated by the story," says Fergus.

"That is something which happened because of a song so they are important in spreading new ways of thinking to people."

And the nine songs on Deep in My Heart all do that.

The first track, Ewan McColl's Nobody Knew She Was There, tells of the millions of people we all take for granted.

As Fergus writes in the sleeve notes: "This song tells of how those who work in what some would regard as less important roles in society are often made invisible. In reality, many of the under appreciated workers are in fact the essential workers in the community. But they still have to struggle to be seen and to be heard and to be paid a decent wage."

The song Deportees is also a testament to this.

Although the folk clubs of yore might have gone, there is still a lot of singing going on.

The American Bar features an evening every second Thursday where mostly young people turn up to learn new songs, to practice old ones – and to learn Irish. (There is one song in Irish on Fergus's album, Aird Tí Chuan.)

"What's great to see is that these young people, in their 20s or early 30s, people like Joshua Burnside for example, learning songs, learning instruments but also what they are doing is relearning the songs we learned in the 1960s but stopped because we thought they are old-fashioned. Yet these young people are repossessing them and turning them into something new and exciting."

:: Fergus O'Hare's album, Deep in my Heart, is available from An Cheathrú Póilí in Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich and elsewhere