Category Archives: news stories

David Rooney, whose album I’ve been recording piano and vocals for, and his striking portraits of 1916

Arminta Wallace interviewed David the other week and her article appeared in this weekend’s edition of The Irish Times — this weekend was the actual anniversary of the 1916 rising. 

Here, from David’s forthcoming album, and with me on piano, is ‘The Rising’:

1916 as you’ve never seen it before

Arminta Wallace, The Irish Times — Saturday, 23 April, 2016

By his own account David Rooney was an unlikely person to be asked to illustrate a book about the men and women of 1916. “For me growing up, everything associated with 1916 was coloured by the Troubles,” he says.

“My dad grew up near Enniskillen, and came down here to join the guards, getting away from the poisoned land, as he saw it, of sectarianism in the North. And I wouldn’t be alone in this: many people of my generation would have a real repugnance about the continuation of violence.”

But when Rooney got into the nitty-gritty of his research for the project he was fascinated by what he discovered.

“I’ve been reading the 1916 stories for more than a year, and there are so many instances where everything changed in people’s lives – and the lives of everyone around them. They fragmented, altered, spun off in all sorts of directions. Maybe the anvil of an event like this produces really extraordinary arcs of story – or maybe the stories always happen, and we just don’t register it. But when war happens, when conflict happens, the natural trajectory of things is altered. Like the refugee situation now. And we’re still living in the broken mirror of 1916.”

Rooney’s 42 thoughtful black-and-white drawings give the book 1916 Portraits and Lives, a collection of biographical essays published by the Royal Irish Academy and based on the academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography, a visual – and, indeed, emotional – heft that helps it stand out from this year’s 1916 publications.

Originally the plan was to use photographs of the characters concerned, but in some cases the available imagery was of poor quality or simply nonexistent. So the academy’s graphic designer, Fidelma Slattery, had the idea of using original artwork. Its managing editor, Ruth Hegarty, ran with the idea, and Jackie Moore of the Office of Public Works – “the third part of that triumvirate of powerful women”, as Rooney puts it – came on board to support the project by buying the originals for the State.

How did Rooney get so up close and personal with his subjects?

“A friend of mine told me to read James Stephens’s The Insurrection in Dublin. That had a huge impact on the colour of it, because Stephens’s account is really what a journalist would do now. “It’s moment by moment. ‘Here I am on the corner of Abbey Street . . .’ It’s amazing – and an amazingly neglected document.”

The 1916 Portraits and Lives project has taken off to such an extent that it now has a life of its own. The book won a design award and was shortlisted for the 2015 Bord Gáis Energy Book of the Year. The ebook was made available for free download, and such was the uptake – more than 65,000 copies downloaded worldwide – that the offer has been extended until the end of April.

Limited-edition prints of the portraits are available to buy from the Royal Irish Academy’s website, and the originals will be on display at an exhibition in Kilmainham Gaol from May 12th.

As for Rooney himself, after 30 years as a visual artist, the illustrator with the highly distinctive visual “voice” is now developing another voice – as a singer-songwriter.

“There have always been guitars around, and I liked the idea of writing songs but didn’t know where to go to find them.”

A chance meeting with Glen Hansard changed all that. “I went over to his house, and I saw him working on the songs that became his Grammy-nominated album [Didn’t He Ramble]. To see them as pencil sketches – well, I recognised something in that. I thought, I know where to find my songs. They’re in the same well as the drawings, but much further down – and much harder to get at.”

Hansard has become a close friend and a constant source of musical inspiration. And with Declan O’Rourke producing and a band that includes the jazz drummer Conor Guilfoyle and the pianist Jay Wilson, who plays with James Vincent McMorrow, Rooney has now recorded 10 songs for an album due to be released this autumn. “It has been an absolutely incredible journey. With the drawings the best ones come if I get out of the way and let it flow. With music I have to be totally present at all stages of it.”

As for recording and performing, that’s a collaborative process that is a shock to a perfectionist who is used to working at home alone. “I’m in total control of the images. With the music I have to let go. Take that de Valera image. If that was music, okay, I get to do de Valera, but I’ve to get you to do the swan, because you’re the person who can do swans. While we’re rehearsing, the swan is exactly like it’s going to be here. And then comes the day of recording, and you’re thinking more of a goose. ‘Why does it have to be a swan,’ you say. ‘Can’t it be a cormorant or . . . a shag, maybe’?” He laughs. “Yeah. And you have just to say, ‘Okay. Let’s try that’.”

Broadcast charge

Minister for something, Pat Rabbitte, is trying to instigate a charge on every household in Ireland. He gave two reasons for this in an interview today: there’s a lot of evasion of the TV licence fee, and there’s a seemingly unfair situation currently where hotels pay a single licence fee that covers all the TVs in all the rooms whereas a cluster of separate holiday cottages, say, will have to pay separate licences.

The proposed charge is to be levied on every household, regardless of TV ownership, on the assumption that people access content via their phones or tablets or laptops. Mr Rabbitte doesn’t believe that anyone doesn’t access some kind of content through some kind of device (or, as he put it, he doesn’t think we have cavemen in this country

Jen and I actually don’t have a TV, as I’ve smilingly told licence inspectors in each place we’ve lived in our (as of today!) eight years of marriage. This televisionlessness was mainly an ideological choice. We watched DVDs on the computer, trying one of those delivery services for a while. We quickly discovered box sets and watched ‘A Touch Of Frost’, ‘Alias’, ‘Scrubs’, ‘Lost’, ‘The Wire’, ‘House’, and lots of others. We dabbled guiltily with downloading bad-quality episodes of shows from nefarious sites, and just got a subscription to Netflix there a few months ago when Arrested Development was released. (Maybe someday we’ll get around to watching all of that…) Our current vibe is ‘Lie To Me’, starring the splendid Tim Roth.

It seems to me that the Internet has changed the landscape utterly in this regard in the short space of time it’s been around. I think that what’s needed is a comprehensive survey of how people access content and how people should pay for that access. (The question of ‘if’ people should pay the Irish government to access content that does not originate here will probably not get a hearing…) We already pay VAT on the broadband services we subscribe to and the devices we watch/listen to content on. The TV licence was a tax on owning a television set and, since they were the only show in town, paid for the national broadcaster, RTÉ. I hardly ever watch or listen to RTÉ. If my content usage had a nutritional information label, RTÉ would be listed as ‘trace’. As I understand it, it’s now impossible to watch RTÉ without a subscription service like Sky, anyway?

Survey every household. “Do you have a TV? More than one? How many? How often is each one used? Do you have access to the internet at home?” Even as I write this, I realise that people aren’t going to want to give information like that to the government, though, are they? The government is making big assumptions about how people access content and if they want to bring in a universal household tax like this, they should be able to present those households with a very clear set of logical reasons for the change.

The hotel room thing is a red herring. The evasion thing is an uninformed assumption. I am just not convinced they know what they’re doing. Join the queue, says you…

Tommy Tiernan

Tommy Tiernan did a Hotpress Q&A at Electric Picnic – watch it here on the Hotpress website.  That may be enough to make you wonder what the fuss is about.  Fuss that has surfaced two weeks after the event.  You’ve probably heard something about this story by now but I’d strongly recommend watching the video.  Context is absolutely vital.  It seems quite a frightening place where our words might be taken out of context and used against us, especially if those words form part of a performed characterisation or story.  Fearfully consigning oneself to a life without stories is a fairly joyless prospect.

The interviewer, Olaf Tyaransen, makes a few strange moves during the Q&A including weirdly wrong-footing Tommy by saying he heard Brian Cowen say Ireland was a great ‘land’ not a great ‘brand’…only to contradict himself a moment later.  (I couldn’t find the speech Tommy talks about but, conveniently, Brian Cowen spoke of Ireland as a brand only last week.)

I find the whole thing fascinating.  The entire media furore (it’s hardly a story at all) is based on a biased article by Sunday Tribune writer Ken Sweeney.  It was followed by similarly biased articles by Jim Carroll (on his blog) and David Adams (in The Irish Times).  Each of these pieces suited the contexts they appeared in – Mr Sweeney’s article was cream of the crop Sunday paper material, something to raise the eyebrows over but ultimately entertainment; Mr Carroll’s blog post, although hosted by The Irish Times, is properly his own opinion; Mr Adams’s is in the Opinon section (again of The Irish Times).  The contributions of Alan Shatter TD and the Archbishop of Dublin (his opinion being front page material, of course) bring the thing to a new level with talk of incitement to hatred and racism being bandied about with calls for anyone who isn’t one of Tiernan’s fellow racist idiots to boycott and ostracise him.  Incitement to hatred, in other words.

I hope Hotpress (who published the full transcript today) sell a lot of copies.  More than that I hope that people don’t vilify an intelligent, articulate, joyful, private individual.  I know everyone’s poking fun at the church nowadays – sure it’s all the rage – but there’s definitely something to be said for “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.

Meanwhile the jester gets a kicking from the pitiful boneheads out the back of the castle.