Hair-raising tales from the Bushmills bands of brothers
Margaret Canning talks to the real-life friends who are the unlikely toasts of the town in the Bushmills whiskey ad campaign, which was marred when one of the American stars ended up in court in Belfast
The striking Bushmills Brothers campaign has flooded Belfast billboards, buses and bus stops with heartwarming images of male friendship. But these men are not professional models.
Instead, they are 29 real-life friends, aged from 25 to 82, who have been sharing the ups and downs of life for decades. Twelve are from Belfast and 17 from New York.
Photographer Platon, whose works have appeared in magazines like Vanity Fair, Time and The New Yorker, was commissioned by Diageo last year to visit carefully-chosen locations in New York and Belfast to photograph real-life male friends. The friends were later interviewed to reveal the stories behind the images for an online tie-in with the images.
It’s one of the biggest advertising campaigns ever launched by drinks giant Diageo and is thought to have cost the company up to £1m — although a spokesman said the cost could not be revealed because of commercial sensitivities. The images are also on display in key markets Bulgaria and the United States as well as Northern Ireland.
The campaign is intended to encapsulate the experiences, stories and friendships that men share, special times between mates “from that memorable best man’s speech to the time that you followed your team to cup glory — moments enjoyed time and time again over a glass of Bushmills Irish Whiskey,” according to the company.
Last week the 17 New York Bushmills Brothers were flown to Belfast to meet their 12 Northern Ireland counterparts and visit the Bushmills Distillery. But the visit was marred by the arrest and charge of Major Dodge (32), a professional actor and one of the New York ‘brothers’, over an alleged indecent assault in Belfast in the early hours of last Thursday during the brothers’ visit.
The company said it could not comment in detail on the alleged offence because it was being dealt with by the courts, but a Diageo spokesman confirmed the campaign would continue. But he added that photographs featuring Mr Dodge were being withdrawn. Asked if the arrest detracted from the impact of the campaign, he said: “We don’t believe it does.”
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We talked to the brothers about their special bond — before the embarrassing episode.
When you've known each other for as many decades as the Bushmills Brothers, you're bound to have plenty of yarns, some of them hair-raising. “There’s one thing you should know about Ted,” John Moore reveals about his friend Ted Meehan. “It's his mop. His big wig ... but it's a taboo subject.”
John and Ted are the older generation of Belfast men — many of them members of the working man's club the Royal Antidiluvian Order of the Buffaloes — who star in Bushmills advertisements portraying authentic examples of male friendship which might possibly be fortified by whiskey. Some New Yorkers also feature in the campaign — and last week, the Belfast and New York brothers met up in Belfast and visited the famous Bushmills distillery. The stories were flowing steadily.
John says: “I've known Ted Meehan for 33 years and met him when I joined the Buffs. We get on very well to this day, so we do.”
Ted's now-absent hairpiece is the elephant in the room. “He's au naturale now, and he's all the better for it. Ever since he's lost his wife, he's always said he'll get rid of it. He had an accident one night a few months ago and it was mislaid. We don't know where it went to — that's the million dollar question. Somebody's got it as a trophy.”
A ginger quiff belonging to Neil 'Squigs' McGuigan, who represents the younger Belfast brothers in a photograph with his mates Brendan Grew, John O'Connor and Gavin Brown, could also be up there in the trophy cabinet with Ted's hair piece.
“I was in America in 2000 with Brendy and two other friends,” Neil says. “One of them had an electric razor and we all shaved our heads. I used to have ginger hair in a quiff, so when that was shaved off, there was no going back. The boys had the honour of taking the quiff away.
“It was a big ginger quiff like Superman, but his hair was getting thinner and thinner, so it had to go,” explains Brendan.
Brendan, whose big forehead is generously pointed out by his friends, met John ‘Burnie Feet' at primary school in Belfast 22 years ago. Two became three when John met Neil and Gavin ‘Sam' joined in about 10 years ago after playing football with the lads at university. The guys unanimously view Gavin, aka Sam, because that's his dad's name, as the best-looking and the wittiest.
“It's not hard when the three fellas look the way they do. Neil's bald as a coot now,” said Gavin, graciously accepting the compliment. As for being the most quick-witted: “That wouldn't be hard, hanging out with those three corpses.”
Joking aside, Gavin says: “They're a great bunch of fellas and very loyal. There's a good squad of us. They're just all very likeable and you could talk to them about anything.”
Neil gives an insight into the craic they have. “They slag me off for being short and bald.
“Brendy, now he gets a lot of abuse for his big forehead.
“As for the clothes, somebody's always wearing something that would get a bit of abuse.
“Jonny, he's known for his dancing. He's a unique dancer and he's got his signature moves. He's ‘Burnie Feet’ — dances like his feet are on fire and kind of points his fingers at the same time.”
There's also plenty of slagging between Nick Marshall, Brain Leider, Brian Parrish and Kevin Kane. The close-knit bunch of New York writers and actors work together in a theatre collective founded by Brian Leider, Kevin and Nick. They recently staged Someone Who'll Watch Over Me by Co Donegal playwright Frank McGuinness. The Bushmills advertisement featuring the four in a mischievous pose has been on wide display. And the matiness isn't faked, as they never stop praising each other. Brian Parrish says: “As a writer, Brian Leider has an amazing ability to transcribe the things that he sees in the world. He's very sensitive. He feels and sees everything, writes it down, and it usually comes out pretty good.
“Nick has enthusiasm and puts so much effort into every project. The kid would jump in front of a train for you. If you needed him, he's always there.
“Kevin is probably the leader. He's the glue that keeps everyone going and keeps everything together. He's the mastermind.”
All four spend a lot of time together. Brian says: “I remember one time we were in the bar and Kevin and I were having a big conversation.
“All of a sudden Nick comes out of nowhere and gives us this enormous hug. I ended up slamming my teeth in Kevin's forehead and gashed it open.
“But we wanted to keep going so we had to rub salt in the wound to stop it bleeding. We couldn't leave the bar one man down. Kevin's even got the scars to prove it.”
Brendy, John, Neil and Gavin have plenty of stories about weekends away and seem to be able to talk about anything. But for the older generation of Bushmills Brothers, their fraternity is sometimes unspoken.
“They know when you're hurt and they know when you're happy. That's the sort of them. They know you like the back of a book,” says Billy Cathcart about his friends from The Buffs. He appears with Leslie Dawson, Roy Hilditch and Billy Graham in a picture which can be seen all over Belfast.
At about 40 years, he’s known Leslie Dawson the longest. “I find Leslie a very easy-going fella to speak to and have a conversation with. He's a nice fella. Genuine and honest, and I think they'd all say the same about me.”
He said football wouldn't cause a rift and a woman certainly wouldn't.
“Jesus, no. I don't think that's worth fighting over. Not at all.”
Like most of his generation, he settled down quite early. “Oh, we did marry young. If you could find a woman, you married her.”
Billy has been in the Buffs for 35 years. “Ask Roy Hilditch about the night me and him were in the pub in Sandy Row.
“He used to work there as a bar man. He was singing, and the blinking roof came in. Every time I see him he brings that up, and that was 20 years ago.
“I don't remember what he sang, but it must have been good.”
More entertainment comes from Daniel Saint-Germain, Kevin McCaffrey, Sean Donnelly and Dublin-born Colin Dempsey. They're comedians on the cut-throat New York stand-up circuit — though Colin has a day job as an engineer, and Kevin writes gags for chatshow host David Letterman.
Kevin says: “You just gravitate towards anyone who's not immediately insane. At open mics there's always half the performers who are flat-out nuts.”
Sean says: “People are so crazy at open mic nights and it's rare to find people who are pretty normal, so that's why we gravitate towards each other.
“It's pretty rare to have a strong friendship in the comedy circuit but we do.”
They all bring something different to the mix, Sean says.
“I'm very trusting. Daniel is probably the most sarcastic — he's always got the quips coming. Colin's pretty clever. He's the quintessential Irishman with lots of charm — I suppose it's in his blood.”
The guys are in awe of Colin's sensible day job. Kevin says: “Colin's a very productive member of society and he does engineering for his day job. There's no fooling around with that. No-one's a temp engineer.”
The comedy circuit might be competitive, but like all the Bushmills Brothers, Daniel, Kevin, Sean and Colin are friends, first and foremost. “When one of us does well the rest of us are really glad for him,” Sean says.