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Singing the long goodbye… NI artists and their songs about dementia


Tim Wheeler and Neil Hannon

Tim Wheeler and Neil Hannon

Tim Wheeler and Neil Hannon

There have been many tributes to Brian Hannon, the former Lord Bishop of Clougher, since he died on Monday. Notably there were words from his son, the musician Neil Hannon.

I couldn’t have wished for a better father. Intelligent, patient, encouraging, interested, fun. He was also tremendously musical, a wonderful romantic pianist. I’ve never been shy to let this influence bubble to the surface in my work. Thanks Dad.”

Brian had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2008. Shortly after, Neil explained how the family was managing. “I try and talk to my dad as normally as possible, it’s important for people with Alzheimer’s not to be written off or left to rot.”

Neil, who records as the Divine Comedy, also gifted his father a beautiful piece of music in 2014. The work was commissioned by the Southbank Centre in London. It was an oratorio titled, To Our Fathers in Distress.

The music recreates a Sunday in the Hannon household during Neil’s youth. They breakfast in the kitchen with a fry before church, walk in the woods afterwards and then watch Ireland lose in a rugby game. The piece was written for a new organ in the Royal Festival Hall, and it has the soaring dynamics of the high church.

Neil understood the bittersweet nature of the work.

“The irony that he will never be able to fully comprehend or appreciate my new composition To Our Fathers in Distress is perhaps its most pertinent reason for existence.”

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In the same year of Brian Hannon’s diagnosis, the musician Tim Wheeler from Ash was told that his father was also afflicted. George, a former District Court Judge in Downpatrick, passed in January 2011 after six months of care at the Psychiatry Of Old Age Ward at Downe Hospital.

“I spent a lot of time in the hospital with him,” Tim said, “and saw many other patients and families going through exactly the same thing as we were going through. As my dad’s condition deteriorated, I felt very helpless as there was nothing I could do except visit him as much as possible.”

In the spring of 2011, I spoke to Tim and we discussed a possible benefit for the Alzheimer’s Society. Tim contacted Neil, who agreed to play. He also enlisted the Undertones and so the three bands played the Ulster Hall on November 3 during Belfast Music Week. It was a hugely emotional night that raised almost £30,000 for the charity.

“I thought that we could actually do something using our music to help fight Alzheimer’s,” Tim reflected. “It is a growing worldwide problem and as yet there is no cure. The main hope seems to be in prevention and a lot of funding for research is needed.”

Tim released his only solo album, Lost Domain, in 2014. It was a searing remembrance of George Wheeler. On songs like Vigil, Hospital and Do You Ever Think of Me? Tim revisited those last, raw moments with his father.

More recently, the composer Hannah Peel was moved to write about the loss of Joyce, her 98-year-old grandmother from Lurgan. Her dementia was reflected in the themes to Hannah’s 2016 record, Awake But Always Dreaming when she imagined the inner conversations of Joyce.


Neil Hannon and Tim Wheeler as part of a press call for the Alzheimer's benefit in 2011

Neil Hannon and Tim Wheeler as part of a press call for the Alzheimer's benefit in 2011

Neil Hannon and Tim Wheeler as part of a press call for the Alzheimer's benefit in 2011

Hannah followed that up a year later with a stunning album, Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia. The instrumentals were written quickly on a synthesiser in Donegal and then arranged for a 29-piece colliery band, Tubular Brass. She was essentially sending the soul of her grandmother into outer space.

“We have the power to dream up rockets and spaceships and actually build them. The most biological discovery in the whole of the universe is our brains. So I didn’t want her to be this lady that faded away. It was like me taking my grandmother a step further into space. Total escapism from the reality of what was happening.”

Gary Lightbody’s response to this thread is the Snow Patrol recording, Soon. It’s a farewell to his dad Jack, and the 2018 video shows the singer at home with his father, looking over Belfast Lough and watching home movies as his memory grows dim. Jack passed in December 2019.

Sadly, the body of songs about dementia continues to grow. Ed Sheeran paid tribute to his grandfather with Afire Love. Elvis Costello wrote Veronica about his grandmother, Molly McManus. He also lent his support to a project called Music and Memory.

“When I wrote Veronica,” he explained, “it was in the hope that the loops and misfires of recollection in which my grandmother was often trapped were in some way comforting to her.”

And of course, we cherish the beautiful example of Glen Campbell, who continued to perform as his memory declined. This period was captured on film, resulting in I’ll Be Me, a heartbreaking picture of a class musician, losing the power of his art. The song, I’m Not Gonna Miss You, is Glen’s parting statement, real bravery at work.

Music is one of the gifts that stays with us, long after much of the memory bank has been depleted. It provides recall and comfort. And for our songwriters, it’s the chance to give a voice to the Long Goodbye.

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