Belfast Telegraph

Neil Johnston helped launch careers of traditional musicians in his Tele column - now the cream of the folk world are staging a concert in his memory

The much-loved Belfast Telegraph journalist was the chronicler of a golden age of live music. His friend and former colleague Ivan Little talks to the organisers of next month's hooley to end all hooleys

Journalist Neil Johnston. Pic: Bobbie Hanvey
Journalist Neil Johnston. Pic: Bobbie Hanvey
Neil with Ivan Little
Neil working in the Belfast Telegraph features department
Singer Len Graham
Concert organisers Jane Cassidy and Maurice Leyden
Sean Donnelly
Musicians Arty McGlynn and wife Nollaig Casey
The couple in their early careers

A veritable galaxy of stars will pay homage next month to a late and lamented Belfast journalist, who helped to forge a golden era for folk music in Northern Ireland. Yet friends say the emotional concert is one that Neil Johnston would have liked and disliked in equal measure.

The former Belfast Telegraph writer, they say, would be in his element, cradling a whiskey and listening to his favourite musicians. But they insist he'd be uncomfortable that the special gig is in his honour.

For, famously, at a concert Neil was happiest in a quiet corner, the nearer the back the better, savouring the bodhrans, the bards and the barley.

Friends say the fact the musicians he so admired are organising a memorial show for him would have given Neil an intense sense of pride - surpassed only by his embarrassment at all the fuss.

A cornerstone of the Belfast Telegraph and the folk scene here for four decades, he died in August 2012 aged 68, leaving behind a rich archive of work that had won him many admirers all over Ireland.

And although he was an acclaimed feature writer on all aspects of life here, it was his regular folk music column that has led to the Remembering Neil Johnston night at the Duncairn, a north Belfast arts centre, on Saturday, February 9.

The line-up is a Who's Who of musicians, like the Sands Family and Neil's close friend Arty McGlynn, who want to say thanks to him for his contribution to bolstering the music and their careers.

Singers Maurice Leyden and Jane Cassidy have been the prime movers behind the concert, in liaison with Neil's widow Myrtle and their children Catherine and Conor.

"It was essentially my husband Maurice's idea," says Jane.

"And it came about from him collating all of Neil's folk columns in the Belfast Telegraph. Myrtle had gathered together a lot of the articles, but Maurice agreed to help fill in the gaps."

Maurice says: "I searched the newspapers and we now have the full run of folk columns from 1980 to 2003. There are 860 in total.

"We haven't included Neil's work on the Telegraph's diary column, the Ulster Log, or his general news features, or his writing about the Queen's Festival, just his folk articles."

Maurice and Jane - and, indeed, all the musicians taking part in the Duncairn concert - say Neil's column was crucial to cementing what was the golden age of folk in Northern Ireland, and beyond.

Maurice adds: "He had his finger on the pulse of who was playing where and who was up-and-coming. He knew everybody. You could always rely on Neil being at all the gigs at clubs like The Sunflower in Corporation Street."

Jane says: "Wherever you were singing, you would always see two silhouettes at the back of the venue. One would be the late Geoff Harden, who organised the Belfast Folk Festival, and the other would be Neil.

"His enthusiasm in his writing about the music was infectious. It was a comparatively small folk music scene, but Neil injected a lot of energy into it and he encouraged and supported many singers and players.

"He wrote brilliantly about what was happening. And remember: we're talking about a time when the Troubles were raging in Belfast and many people didn't want to go out their front door, let alone go to a gig where a pub would be surrounded by fences and security gates.

"Neil made a big difference to the folk music scene. And his column was so much more than a what's on guide."

Anyone who looks back at Neil's musings about music can see precisely what Jane means.

For he could weave all sorts of magic about all sorts of extraneous topics into the column, which Maurice says was like a social history of Belfast and not just about the development of folk and traditional music.

He adds: "Neil had a wonderful knack of doing marvellous in-depth interviews with a diverse mix of musicians. And I often think that, if researchers in 50 years' time are wondering what people did in Belfast during the Troubles, they would be well-advised to read Neil's columns.

"Musicians travelled hither and thither playing concerts and, like everyone else, we were constantly encountering security checks by the police and Army late at night. You tend to forget about things like that. But Neil's column is a reminder of what everyone came through."

Maurice and Jane, who are hoping to eventually get all of Neil's folk columns digitised as source material for students and authors to peruse, say the concert was a natural progression for them.

Their first approach was to guitarist Arty McGlynn, who is a Tyrone man, like Neil.

"One of Neil's first columns was about Arty's debut album, McGlynn's Fancy, and he gave it a rave review," says Maurice.

Arty, who'll be accompanied by his wife Nollaig Casey, says he knew the writer from his schooldays.

He reveals: "He was always into his music. And he went on to become a very important man on the Irish folk scene. He was always encouraging me. We stayed in touch right to the end."

Arty and Nollaig played at Neil's funeral. "It was a difficult day," adds Arty.

Another Tyrone man, Sean Donnelly, a respected singer from Killyclogher just outside Omagh, will also be on the Duncairn bill. He says he owes Neil a massive debt. "He was a kingmaker to those lucky enough to arrive on his radar. He quite simply grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and dragged me kicking and screaming into the limelight of the folk scene here," he explains.

Sean recalls how, in the 1980s, when he was "a star performer in my own kitchen", he made a tape of songs handed down to him from his father and other singers in Tyrone and he was persuaded by friends to send it to Neil.

"I thought he would consign it the waste paper bin, but to my great surprise he invited me to come to the Belfast Telegraph to do an interview. The result was a half-page feature, which catapulted me to the attention of folk club and festival organisers at home and abroad," Sean says.

Neil didn't just write about folk music. He also had a stint fronting a Radio Ulster programme called The Wrong Note, but his presentation skills were best suited to his annual hosting role at the legendary Ballyshannon Folk Festival, not far from where he had a cottage that was always filled with music and craic.

Long before he launched his folk column he was promoting the music in the Ulster Log, which, for two years from 1975, I co-edited with him.

The pairing was serendipitous for me, as Neil helped to grow my nascent interest in Irish traditional music into a passion. Along with his trusty mandolin, he also introduced me to my first fleadh cheoil in Portglenone, where along with Denis Murray, later of BBC fame, we caroused late into the night, more chancers than chanters in a village where real singers like Paul Brady, Len Graham and the late Joe Holmes were hitting the right notes in pubs and even chip shops.

Len, who's also playing at the Duncairn, remembers how Neil was enthused by the cross-community nature of the Portglenone fleadh.

He says: "He was a light during very dark times here and he steered a course through the non-sectarian side of the music."

Neil's journalistic peers all sing off the same hymn-sheet: that the Omagh man was one of the most gifted writers ever to get behind a typewriter.

Sitting opposite him for those two years, I soon discovered that he was a wordsmith whose turn of phrase was the equivalent of the Johann Cruyff swivel in the World Cup of the time.

Neither of us knew how to turn a boat, alas.

On one occasion, the unintrepid diary duo took part in a charity rowing competition on the Lagan. We ended up going round in circles and had to be rescued. Oarsmanship was not, as Neil pointed out, as easy as falling off an Ulster Log.

Veteran reporter Deric Henderson, who's also from Omagh, says it was Neil who first "sold" him on the idea of a career in journalism after they met at a table tennis tournament.

Deric, who replaced Neil on the editorial staff of the Tyrone Constitution newspaper, got to know his mentor well and soon discovered his love of music.

"He worshipped the ground Arty McGlynn walked on," says Deric.

"And while Arty was his hero, Neil was mine."

One of the highlights of Neil's musical career came when the group Four Men And A Dog recorded the song Wrap It Up, which he had written about musicians who played the bodhran, the diddly-dee directors as he called them.

The song, with music by McGlynn, didn't exactly earn him a fortune in royalties, but he relished talking about the cheques that popped through the letterbox of his south Belfast home for plays on the radio that the song had all over the world.

However, one piece of writing that he wished he'd never had to compose was a poem in the wake of the bombing that ravaged his home town of Omagh in 1998 with the loss of 29 lives and unborn twins. He wrote:

I lay my wreath where my heart lies

On Drumragh's gentle waters

And floated down through Omagh town

Past the scene of slaughter.

I'll walk its winding banks again

And pledge a vow on leaving

As long as I have breath and soul

So long will I be grieving.

Remembering Neil Johnston takes place at the Duncairn Arts Centre, Duncairn Avenue, Belfast, on Saturday, February 9, 7.30-10.30pm, tickets £10. For more information, go to:

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