Singer-songwriter Rich McMahon, born in Coventry and raised in Wicklow, tells David Hennessy about being “being neither one thing nor the other but something in between”
“It’s not really being fully accepted in either camp,” Rich McMahon begins explaining the themes that inspire his debut album, Songs of Exile, Love and Dissent. Born in Coventry before his family moved to Tinahely in Wicklow, Rich found himself shot by both sides growing up in Ireland and since returning as an adult to live in Birmingham.
“The idea of being neither one thing nor the other but something in between. I’m more comfortable with it now than I was. When I came back and I was playing in Irish bands and stuff like that, I was kind of embarrassed to say that I was born in England, I wanted to be the real thing: ‘I’m a real Irishman singing Irish ballads and it was almost something I was a bit embarrassed about’.
“Then I kind of thought what the hell, this is who I am and this is what I am. It’s something that I certainly embraced and certainly in my songs, I think it just gives you a certain view of things.
“Going from Coventry and then just being plonked in the middle of rural Ireland is kind of a weird culture shock. I was ten and kind of lost my accent after two days.”
Rich has shared the stage with established names like Martin Stephenson, Frankie Gavin and the Dubliners’ Sean Cannon. His new perspective on an old theme has won his fans of all ages. Davey Arthtur, who has played with Rich, says: “Rich’s songs combine the contemporary and the traditional…a born entertainer and a nice fella with it.”
The album’s opening track The Imagined Nation deals with a feeling any emigrant would identify with: “It is sort of about someone going back or someone who has a vague idea about Ireland through stories they’re told and things they’ve seen in the media and stuff that they’ve had to piece together and trying to make sense of it all.
“I feel a little bit like that. I do feel like a tourist in Ireland now sometimes. I’ve been away so long but I love it and like anything, we all have a kind of mixed relationship with anywhere where we’re from, that’s kind of part and parcel of it too but I do really enjoy going back to Ireland.”
Another track Inbetweenland starts off with a verse about Rich’s move from England to Ireland before looking at other exiles such as an Eastern European making their home in Ireland: “We’ve been doing it for centuries and I think when we started getting our own immigrants to Ireland, they were often met with hostility which I found very strange, a bit hypocritical in a way. It just seemed it brought out something that wasn’t altogether good. The hostility that perhaps we showed to people who came into our country seemed a bit off, especially given the fact that we’ve spread out all over the world.”
Rich was well into his thirties by the time he decided to embark on a full-time music career. He worked in temping jobs up until this but another thing that held him back was a serious illness that hit him in his twenties: “Yeah, you can get the violins out at this stage. I had cancer in my twenties. I was very ill for a long time. It knocked me back quite a bit, hence why I’m a bit of a late developer. It took a while to get over that.
“I didn’t want to get too X Factor with it but it’s a fact of my life and it’s a reason why at this late stage, I’m not living a conventional sort of life that a 40 something year old man should be living. Life’s kind of short and it’s also quite long as well. You’ve got to do something with it.
“I was literally in the UK for three months when I was diagnosed so me and Maggie, my wife now, had emigrated, for a new life in the UK and I got very ill. I was probably ill before I left and didn’t know it. For about two years, I was out of the loop really. That idea of coming over and having a new life in England, it just didn’t work out that way initially but we stayed here. The NHS was pretty good. Despite all the stick that it gets, they looked after me and I got better over time and here I am.”
Songs of Exile, Love and Dissent by Rich McMahon is out now. Rich is currently performing around the UK.
For more information, go to http://www.richmcmahon.com/.