Philadelphia film maker John Foley met Fergus O’Farrell in 2000, when the musician was working at the reception desk at the Hotel Eldon, which his father owned.
Foley had just cashed out of his dotcom business and was fulfilling a dream: to show his four children the places in Western Europe he had discovered on his business travels “and to go seek our Irish roots.”
I asked John about his friendship with Fergus and this is what he wrote:
My 4 children, Lauren, Sean, Ali, and Julian and I flew into Dublin, rented a van, and made our way from town to town, staying in B&B’s in most places to get to know the towns and the people better. We visited Limerick, Bunratty, The Burren, The Cliffs of Moher, Bantry, Kenmare, Cork City, Baltimore, Cobh, and some other towns as well.. Of course we spent a few days in Dingle and drove the Ring of Kerry.
We were interested in the story of Michael Collins, (ok, I was interested) and so we stayed at the Eldon Hotel in Skibbereen, where Collins had his last meal before his assassination.
This was in the third week of July 2000, and on the 17th, my youngest Julian turned 8. I wanted to get a little birthday cake and a gift for him but didn’t want to leave him alone. I asked the hotel proprietor, a cheerful man in a wheelchair named Fergus O’Farrell, if he wouldn’t mind looking after Julian while I ran an errand.
He and his wife Li were only too happy to help and so off I went to get a cake and a gift.
When I returned, Julian had fallen asleep in the lobby of the Eldon on a couch in the front room.
As we were leaving the hotel on the 18th of July, Fergus gave me two CD’s, and said “I’m a musician, here are some of my records, I hope you like them”. As we drove the road from Skibbereen to Cork City, I popped the CD in and the opening string parts of “Cain and Abel” played through the speakers. I almost drove off the road. I was a professional musician in the 70’s, and I still play when I can. I am a great fan of music and stay as active as I can to hear and learn the best music. This was some of the most beautiful, soulful, mature, and highly competent music I had heard in my life. I had no idea, but we were the guests of a musical genius – someone that the music intelligentsia of Ireland had known for some time – but sadly the international record labels had been keeping a secret.
Over the years I stayed in touch with Fergus, writing by e-mail frequently, speaking on the phone occasionally. I so much wanted to hear Ferg with his band Interference perform, but a throat condition and Ferg’s advancing MD were keeping him from singing and travelling.
Over the years I learned more about Interference – how they were actually a cult legend in Ireland, influencing top artists like the Frames and Hothouse Flowers. I also learned that they were sort of a super-group, as top musicians from Ireland and other parts of Europe would drift into and out of Interference to make records and perform very occasionally.
In about 2002 Fergus was feeling much better and interference began performing again. But their gigs always seemed to spring up very spontaneously and so getting to see them proved impossible. But all the while we continued to correspond and our friendship grew as we schemed to somehow get Interference noticed in America.
I fantasized about interference playing in America – that if I couldn’t get Mohammed to the mountain, maybe I could bring the mountain to Mohammed. The likelihood seemed slim.
By 2006 Ferg and Interference were playing more regularly and he was working on a new record. He sent me “sketches” of songs he was working on – essentially music tracks, maybe just chords, some a little more developed. He may have a verse or a chorus of lyrics, or in many cases he would scat the vocal melody so the lyrics could be developed later. His lyric collaborator, Malcom Mac Clancy, would frequently work that way. I sent Ferg lyrics for one track called “the na na song” (because he scatted the words na na na na na na for the melody), but he wrote back saying he didn’t feel they fit. I later spoke with Malcom about the sketches, and he said “You know, I love that na na song. I submitted two sets of lyrics to Ferg for it and he passed on both. I want to NAIL that song, I love it.” So apparently, the song is important to Ferg and I felt better about not having my lyrics picked.
In 2007, interference were (and in Ireland, that’s how they say it – “Interference are a band….”) scheduled to perform in the Czech Republic, and I tried to work it out to see them there, but I just could not make the arrangement work. Foiled again.
Instead, I decided to schedule a trip to visit Ferg in his home town of Schull in West Cork. There was an International Guitar Festival in Clonakilty in September, and I figured if I could not see Interference, I could hear good music and hang with Ferg and his wife Li.
After I made the arrangements, I happened to go see a little indie film called once at the little art house cinema in Bala Cynwyd. I had seen the trailers, and I knew that Glen Hansard was a wonderful musician and a friend of Fergus’, so I decided to go. About halfway through the movie, there is a scene in Glen’s kitchen where his friends gather for a round of Noble Calls – each person taking a turn singing a song. And there was Fergus and Interference singing one of my favorite songs, “Gold”! I jumped up from my seat and yelled out “atta boy Ferg!” Then I quickly sat down a little embarrassed, but the people around me were nice about it. He had never bothered to mention that he was in a film that would play in America.
The mountain had not come to Mohammed, but a film of the mountain had come.
The trip to Ferg’s along the Irish sea coast was stunning. I passed through the sea coast town of Bonmahon, where my great grandmother and her family had lived. According to civil records, her father was an “ore dresser” in the local copper mines. Being in this part of the world was so moving I had to divide my time between taking photos and videos, quiet reflection, and overwhelming emotion.
The time with Fergus in Schulll, a little sea coast town in West Cork, was wonderful. Sadly, Li was in China – her mother was not well and her amazing intuition told her to get to China right away. Her mother passed away while she was there.
We travelled to the Clonakilty International Guitar festival – and everywhere we went Ferg was treated as royalty. It was great fun getting the collateral royal treatment. Clonakilty is the birthplace of Michael Collins, and it was stirring to walk around town and see portraits and statues of him everywhere.
Ferg and I posed for a picture in front of General Collins in a local hotel where we had dinner.
We drove Ferg’s friend David Bickley home into the nether regions west of Clonakilty in the pouring rain, with me doing my best to drive Ferg’s wheelchair-capable van up winding country lanes with little paving and no light whatsoever. Add to that, the steering wheel was on the wrong side, it was a manual transmission, and the bushes on either side of the road scraped the sides of the van on the narrow rural lanes.
We dropped off David at his home and used the glow of the distant highway and dead reckoning to find our way back to the road to Schull. Somehow we wound up in front of Michael Collin’s homestead, the one that the Black and Tans had burned to the ground. I like to think the Lord was navigating that night.
The trip ended and it was back to America and reality, and Ferg and I continued to talk via email and telephone. In January, Ferg called excited beyond words that Swell Season were playing somewhere in New York, and that Interference had been invited to play – the entire 10 piece band!
I looked at the road schedule for Swell Season and saw that New York’s Radio City Music Hall was slated for May 19th, and Philadelphia’s Tower Theater was set for May 20th. The begging and pleading to get Interference to Philadelphia began immediately.
Word finally came sometime in March that indeed interference would open two shows for Swell Season – at Radio City and in Philadelphia. After eight years of hoping and waiting, the mountain was coming to Mohammed!
The rest of the story you know. Thanks so much for helping to bring out Ferg’s story – I love the guy – the music is a wonderful bonus.