Brendan Graham: 'The truly special songs write us, we don't write them ... we don't find them, they find us'
Brendan Graham, who wrote the worldwide hit You Raise Me Up, tells Barry Egan about losing his job at 48, bagging a Eurovision winner at 49 and what the death of his parents taught him
Between the Flahavan's Oats and the Jacob's Fig Rolls, a man in a small country town supermarket demanded of Brendan Graham: "How did you write the song?"
"Which one?" Brendan countered. "You know fine well which one," the man insisted.
"I don't really know how I wrote it," Brendan pleaded.
"You know all right," the man insisted, before turning on his heel back past the baked beans and out the door.
Written in 2002, that song, You Raise Me Up, has long since become a gargantuan international hit, selling over 100 million copies.
It has been covered by over 100 artists from Josh Groban to Westlife to Daniel O'Donnell and, most recently, Johnny Mathis.
"Of course, if your song is parodied then you know it has truly arrived," Brendan says, referring to Salute to the Underwired Bra by American comedienne, Anita Renfroe.
The real answer to the question the man in the supermarket asked Brendan that afternoon is, he says, that "the truly special songs write us. We don't write them; we don't find them. They find us. Else, how is it explained? How a song can seep out of the wilderness, out of rocks and streams and the deep pool of its own dark history."
He lives with his other half, Mary, "between the mountain and the Mask" in a home that has, he says, "a half-door - and I love the notion that from behind that half-door, the songs go to wherever they will go: to the Superbowl, the London Palladium, Sydney Opera House, a choir in Vilnius, Ellis Island."
Mary came to him through music. He met her in 1967 in the Shamrock Club in London's Elephant and Castle. Much to Brendan's disappointment, however, she and her friend, Maura Reilly, had their tickets for Australia for six weeks after that. "I went out the following year," he says.
But not only that, he married Mary in Perth in 1969 with Fr Brosnan from Kerry officiating at the wedding. Their eldest daughter, Donna, was born in St John of God Subiaco Hospital the following year in Perth. Brendan's job as an industrial engineer took them to live in Melbourne where their twin daughters, Grainne and Niamh, were born in 1972. Two more daughters, Deirdre and Alana, were to follow.
When Brendan, Mary and family came back from Australia to Ireland at Christmas time in 1972, they had, he says, no piano. Brendan would go to his parents' house to "play" the piano. "On hearing my 'playing','' Brendan smiles, "my mother could often be heard to say 'That fella has no voice and he'll break the piano. And she was right."
What he learned from his parents, Enda and Gertrude, was not to take himself too seriously "and just press on with things. Something to do with the Chinese proverb 'Keep a green bough in your heart and the singing bird will come'."
His father died in 1977, his mother 10 years later. Brendan says their deaths "affected me greatly, the suffering they endured but endured with such grace and dignity".
In late-1966, on a red serviette in a Chinese restaurant in London, Brendan wrote the lyrics to Father Dickens and promptly sent it off to Tommy Swarbrigg, his friend from Joe Dolan's band.
By Christmas 1968, Brendan was in Australia when a battered album arrived in the post: Johnny McEvoy's With an Eye to Your Ear. Sandwiched spectacularly between The Beatles' Here, There and Everywhere and Leonard Cohen's So Long Marianne was Father Dickens. "Eventually, a royalty cheque arrived, from Shaftesbury Music in London's Tin Pan Alley - "all £1.1s 5d of it".
Ironically, the writer of Father Dickens almost became literally Father Graham. He spent six months - from September, 1962 to February, 1963 - as seminarian.
"It was scarcely enough time to give it a 'fair go'. I genuinely thought I had a vocation, but I just thought I wouldn't be good enough. I certainly did not like the 'total obedience' angle of it all."
Whatever faith was inside his eternal soul, Brendan Graham had no choice but to draw upon it in 1993. He lost his job as a production manager in a clothing manufacturing company.
"It was almost like someone else's nightmare, such was the shock. There was no money coming in, but the money going out didn't stop, what with five daughters all at different levels of schooling."
They were the soya-bean years for the Grahams. "Anything with soya in it was cheap and shopping was a weekly obstacle course."
The house was re-mortgaged a few times - "all of that, that so many people have suffered in the recent past. I understand that road", he says.
Mary, fortunately, had a job. That was keeping the family afloat. At 48, Brendan wasn't that re-employable, but he never lost hope. Then "a bit of luck stepped in".
That "bit of luck" manifested itself the following year, when Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan won the Eurovision with Brendan's song Rock 'n' Roll Kids.
"I learned to be grateful for what is sometimes taken away," says Brendan, "as much as for what is sometimes given". In 1996, another composition of Brendan's, The Voice, sung by Eimear Quinn, also won the Eurovision.
So, two years after possibly feeling he was on the scrapheap at 48, Brendan had written two Eurovision winners. How did he switch off the demons in his head saying he was finished and get into the head space to be able to write those two life-changing songs?
"Well, I never did really think I was on the scrapheap at 48," he says. "I was doing bits and pieces, which earned me some income, and had more time to write songs.
"So, in a way, I became a full-time songwriter by default. If the demons were in my head, I didn't give them free lodging for long. I needed the head space to get on with things."
And how. As well as being the go-to guy for an international hit, Brendan is also a best-selling novelist (The Whitest Flower, The Element of Fire and The Brightest Day, The Darkest Night). He credits his old English teacher, Fr Henry Flanagan, for inspiring him.
"I like people. I like positive people who create a good vibe around themselves - it's a transmittable thing. I like people who are generous of heart. None of us gets anywhere on our own - it's the people around us, who love and support us, give us space.
"Writing is a fairly isolated undertaking. So, I always try to acknowledge all those people, say a thank-you to others."