Second generation country and Irish singer Shaun Loughrey talks about mortality, Irishness, and music with fellow Irish Mancunian Michael McDonagh
Sometimes out of deep sorrow and sadness comes hope and new beginings and that is certainly true for award winning Country singer Shaun Loughrey.
Brought up in Sale, then Cheshire but now part of Greater Manchester, his father Johnny Loughrey was a hugely popular Country and Irish singer, who was very big on the circuit, especially in the North of England.
Shaun had no notion of being a singer himself until after his dad died of cancer aged just 59 but the deaths of both his parents and the legacy of his father’s music and fine reputation caused Shaun to make huge changes in his life and career.
I grew up south of Manchester a couple of miles down the road from where Shaun lived and now that he is recovering from his own life threatening illness I talked to him about his extraordinary career.
Of course your dad, who was just a few months older than me, was a very famous singer for the Irish community around Manchester but you had no intention of doing what he did. What did you do first?
“I did an apprenticeship in engineering and worked for two big engineering firms, then I had a number of taxis on the go as I did a bit of taxi work. I was driving and hiring out taxi’s and then I had a complete sea-change and became a country music singer.”
Was it when you became a singer that you came to live in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland?
“Pretty much, yes.”
Growing up in Manchester as second generation was there a big sense for you of being part of the Irish diaspora and part of an Irish community?
“Not as much as some of the lads that I knew, there is a difference and I know what you are talking about, as there were those who lived as if they were completely Irish and ended up working for Irish companies but I was sort of in between and would be exactly the same as you.
“We went to Ireland for holidays every year to see the family and were aware of our Irish roots but there was no Irish dancing in our house and we did not often go to those Irish Centres.
“I have some friends who were similar to me but others who had the idea of being totally Irish, which was constantly promoted within their families and they went on to work for Irish firms and that kept the idea of being Irish alive for them.”
Writer Terry Eagleton, who had been to De La Salle, my school in Salford, had the theory that in those post-War years the mission of the Brothers was to knock the Irish out of us so we would assimilate into middle class English society (or in our in our case Cheshire society) and become solicitors or work in banks. For sure my mother became Hyancinth Bouquet in her Cheshire house, that was her pride and joy.
“My mother was a Mayo woman but her house was like a show house and you were not allowed to sit on anything until you threw a sheet down. She was a legend (laughing) and we think she had OCD but it was not diagnosed back then!”
My mother was the same with plastic sheets on the carpets that got taken up when the priest made a visit but also like me you lost both your parents quite close together, yours in 2005. That changed your life in more ways than one?
“When my dad passed away it was April 2005 and I had spent a lot of time him, as he was in a hospice for seven weeks and I got very close to him during his illness. Relationships with a father are complex.
“Through all my life I felt like I was in his shadow in all aspects of my life, as he was a strong, dark-haired, handsome man who sang great songs – everybody loved Johnny Loughrey. I was either overwhelmed or underwhelmed by the whole thing.
“I am not saying the relationship was not without love, it was full of love but he was not very openly loving, so I spent most of my childhood trying to gain his approval and the closest time I had with my father was when he was ill.
“He was actually unable to do certain things and so I started to help him a lot and that meant that I had a really close relationship with him at the end. Even in the depths of sorrow I managed to gain something from it, and for him too. It was a comfort to him that he had a close relationship with his son in those last weeks and that is all part and parcel of why I said yes to being approached about singing his music.”
Was that soon after your father had died?
“My dad died in April 2005 and mum passed away in June 2005 ,both from cancer. My mother was very strong physically and was determined and would have carried on but she was just not able to do so when the cancer took over.
“Obviously, as in Ireland, people don’t do anything whilst they are grieving but just after my mum died my sister, my older sister, Shel, had apparently said to Kevin McCooey, my dad’s manager, who was also Big Tom’s manager, that ‘our Shaun can sing’. Where she heard that from I had no idea as I had never sang, ever, anywhere. I had never sung on a stage and had never even sung at a family party, so why she said that I had no idea.
“That was the starting point that set the idea with Kevin in his head, that Johnny Loughrey’s son should take over his band. So not long after mum’s death I was helping to promote a song my dad had recorded called Ave Maria Morales as it was dad’s wish and he was very proud of it.
“So I thought Kevin was contacting me about this as he would be more knowledgeable about the music side than I would have been but he just said ‘would you think about fronting your dad’s band?’
“I said Kevin ‘I have never sung in my life! I know the words to one song’ which I’d had a bit of fun with so that’s about it.
“In typical Irish fashion he said ‘Oh you don’t have to worry about, that it will be grand and we will soon get you up to speed.’ And he left that thought in my head. I had a lot going on in my personal life then and there was a lot to think about but it seemed like it was meant to be. So I thought I would give it a go and I went over to Ireland and went into a studio, so they could check me out.
“Kevin had tears in his eyes when from the studio door he heard me, as to him it sounded exactly like my dad. They put a band around me and as you have to launch yourself with a single Kevin chose Love Is All That Happens as my dad had penned that song but it had only been an album track.
“So we recorded that and it sounded like dad singing. That was a good thing and I think he would have been impressed.
That was back in 2005, so tell me what you are up to now?
“Well since then it has been non-stop and I think I have now had nine albums out and three full DVDs, so I have recorded a lot of stuff and I’ve been touring the length and breadth of Ireland and over to Scotland and England and doing every kind of work. Small stuff, big stuff, concerts and festivals”.
What have been the highlights?
“Apart from recording I have played at some amazing festivals and I was also on the American Irish Cruise across the Caribbean. That was amazing with Daniel O’Donnell and Dominic Kirwan.
“I remember being on the open deck under the Caribbean sun looking up at the blue sky and thinking ‘Wow! How did this happen? Where did all this come from, playing here? And I’m getting paid for it too!’
“Also playing before Charlie Pride in Bundoran was a highlight for me but it was also a highlight for my dad as well.
“He was supposed to play before Charlie Pride but took ill and could not do it and a lot of his fans remembered that dad’s opportunity had gone but then he came back again and dad got well, so they put him on and that was a highlight for him too. Charlie Pride is up there, he is a legend.”
Are you still working as hard as you once did or do you take it a bit easier now you have been seriously ill?
“Yes. I had heart failure last year, out of the blue. I was playing with Derek Ryan in Carrickmacross in Monaghan. That was the last gig I did before it was diagnosed and I was told how ill I was.
“I just felt tired and I could not get my breath but did not know what was going on but managed to do the full show but then collapsed and – lo and behold – my heart was only working at ten per cent. I had no idea. I went into the hospital and for ten months I was wearing this special heart vest.
“Instead of having an operation to fit a defibrillator this has one in the vest that works by monitoring your heart and it gives you a shock if anything goes wrong with your heart rhythm.
“You wear it until you make a full recovery or need a defibrillator fitted. I hope and think I am now in the stages of a full recovery but am now back on the road working.
“Trouper that I am, after a couple of weeks of recovery, when I came out of hospital, I started to go back and do a few gigs. If you are self-employed you can’t sit there not working but I don’t do as much as I was doing and I take it just that bit easier”.
Are you coming to the UK soon?
“This year I’m touring with the band and are doing some gigs in the UK and Scotland, they are dances and concerts depending where I am.”
Do you think the success of relative newcomers, young stars like Nathan Carter and Cliona Hagan and others, have reinvigorated the Country music scene and that, in turn, helps people like you?
“They have put it on the map more, so country is more popular now than it was, and they have changed it too.
“They do some of the older stuff but they have a much more modern approach and good luck to Nathan, as he has pushed the boundaries a bit. He lives not far from me in Enniskillen and I see him quite a bit in the bank.
“I am withdrawing money at the Halifax and he is in there constantly stashing deposits. He must be making so much money as he is flying – and good luck to him, as he works so incredibly hard and he just has that X Factor.
“I get away with the English accent to some degree, because of my dad, but he comes on with his Liverpool voice and they just took to him as he is something special.
“I’m over in England in September but with the Galtymore gone there is very little in London, and they are all saying that there is very little anymore.
“There is a dance in Quex Road and a small social scene and not much else now but there is a small concert scene, which is good to get on to, which is mainly for an English audience that likes Country and Irish music – or people from Ireland that have lived here for years or even, like us, who were actually born here in England. That easy listening music is still very popular.
“The satellite TV is also a big help now as there is so little national radio. Actually, all my records are with a guy from Timperley – where you’re from – who has a small warehouse and advertises on the satellite channel and he sells a lot of records.
“We have a new album out in September called Woulda Shoulda Coulda Deluxe, it’s a four-our CD compilation pack of my last four album”.
Are you now fully recovered?
“I’m definitely on the mend and I’m feeling strong. I’m 49 years of age and all this does make you think and be aware that your health comes first.
“My mum and dad were in the hospice together. My dad was in the male section and I would wheel him around to see my mum in the female section.
“It had never been heard of for a couple that age to be in the hospice together, it was heartbreaking.
“I’ve been married twice, and failed twice. Do not marry Shaun Loughrey! My mother always said ‘You are not the marrying kind!’ and maybe she was right. But I have four beautiful children and I enjoy what I do so will carry on doing it whilst I can.
“I have a son called Liam, who is only four, hopefully he is the next generation of Loughrey to carry on the mantle.”