Fiona O’Brien spoke to Bryan ‘The Godfather’ Rooney about the changing London pub scene, his upcoming documentary and his newfound friendship with Hollywood royalty
Actor Brendan Gleeson uncovers the extraordinary story of the life and music of the Irish trad musician they call ‘The Godfather’ in an upcoming TG4 documentary.
Leitrim fiddler Bryan Rooney has achieved global recognition since emigrating to London as a promising musician in the late 1960s aged just16.
In the show, which goes out on TG4 at 8:30pm on December 29, Gleeson finds out more about the man who has become one of his musical heroes.
“Everyone’s delighted and excited for the show to be coming out now. James Clenaghan, the director, is a friend of mine and asked me years back if I’d be interested in filming something,” Bryan told the Irish World.
“So we started about three years ago and it was just general chatting while walking around. In the end we had hours and hours of footage shot which they’ve cut down nicely to an hour programme.
“It was a great idea by James, he had his work cut out for him, and I probably wouldn’t have done it without him egging me on.
“Brendan was introduced to me through an old musician friend of mine John Carty. We were meeting up to play one day and he brought him along. He said that he likes listening to my music, and I just thought ‘where the hell has he heard it!’
“He’s a great fiddle player now. He plays the banjo and the guitar and he tries a bit of singing too! And he drinks porter!
“He came down and we were on the fiddle and guitar and had a bit of Guinness and we had a great day! The documentary was mentioned to him and he said he’d like to get involved.
“I was delighted, he’s a right sound old bloke. There’s no airs or graces, he’s just the same as the rest of us.”
Rooney has seen a vast change in the London pub scene since he arrived to find work in the 1960s, coming from a family of thirteen siblings.
“It was great for me to have the music as I met a lot of people through it. Although of course I needed to go out on the construction sites to earn a wage and meet non musicians too!
“It’s very different now. For a start there’s not as many people, musicians included, coming from Ireland to London. That time we had a squadron coming over in the 70s and 80s you had all these Irish music meeting up to play and it was nice, it was as much about meeting up to have a chat than to play.
“Now there’s a young generation and it’s money first before they play. I’m not condemning that, as it was going on for too long that we weren’t getting respected at all. Back then, there were even pubs in London that I’d walk into and not be allowed to play. They’d tell me I was allowed a pint but I’d have to keep my case put away!
“You have to go looking for the music now, either by the papers or by ringing one of the managers – that’s amazing now that there are managers!
“It’s probably for the better. Irish music has a more respect now. People from different countries are even playing Irish music – it’s like the Irish language, it’s spreading. One time you’d only hear Irish around Connemara but now nearly everyone in Ireland speaks it.
“It’s the same with the Irish music, it’s advanced a lot. It’s changed completely from he’s played the diddly diddly, to that man’s a musician now they call him.”
Bryan is recognised as one of the master fiddlers of his generations who brought the heart of trad music with him to London and earned him the title of ‘The Godfather’ around the capital.
“I’m not certain where the nickname came about but I’m pretty sure it was John Carty’s brother James that started it. We were playing in the Prince of Wales pub in Kilburn Park one night, probably after hours(!), and he said ‘Let’s have Bryan play a few now on his own…. The Godfather’
“It just stuck after that and we even used it for my first record I released back in 1999. We were wondering what to call it and John said that James Morrison used his nickname ‘The Professor’ so we did the same. We never asked the Carleones for permission about it though!”
The documentary explores the Irish culture in the capital and Bryan remembers the characters he met when he first came over.
“I was very young, I moved over in March and wasn’t to turn 17 until the July, so many of the people I met first were a good bit older. Paddy Casey, Jimmy Power and John O’Shea. They were all great men and had different personalities. It was great to find out what they were about.”
Bryan suffered an accident while in Ireland back in 2012 in which he broke his wrist so he doesn’t play the fiddle as much now, but still gets his musical fix through a newly learned instrument.
“It’s healed a bit now, but I can’t play the fiddle to quite the same level. But I learned the accordion. I play it nearly every day up in the room until my wife comes banging on the door!
“I’m very happy with it. It was nice to take the sting out of not being able to play my fiddle.”
Bryan’s speaks fondly of his two children who were born over here and were immersed into the Irish culture in and around northwest London’s Kensal Green where he is based.
“Michael used to learn from Brendan Mulcare in the Corrib Rest to play the whistle. After a few months I noticed he wasn’t coming on much. We used to drop him off and pick him up again so after a while I asked Brendan ‘what’s the story with the young fella, he only has a few notes?’
“Brendan said to me. ‘Oh, he doesn’t come into me at all. Him and four or five others just go down to the yard and play football instead!’
“But Michael was great on the keyboard, he loved the Pogues and could back all their songs note for note , he really took to it naturally.”
The special one hour documentary which also focuses on the younger generation that Bryan inspired aired on TG4 in December, but has been made available to watch again online here