Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

Phil Coulter: I'm known as a proud Derry man but my mother came from the Markets area of Belfast and it's where I found my career as a musician

Ahead of his concert in Clonard Monastery next month, the multi-award winning songwriter tells Leona O'Neill how former US president Bill Clinton featured his anthem The Town I Loved So Well on a CD of his favourite songs

Phil Coulter
Phil Coulter
Phil with former US president Bill Clinton in Londonderry in 2014
Geraldine Branigan and Phil with their children Danielle, Daragh, Alexandra, Georgina, Ryan and Dominque after their wedding in Wicklow in 1998
Phil at his Killarney House home in Bray, Co Wicklow
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

He is known the world over for loving his home town of Londonderry so well. What might shock a few people is that legendary musician Phil Coulter is 'half Belfast', and that he loves that town just as much.

The 77-year-old father of nine - who lives in Bray, near Dublin, with his wife Geraldine - has had a glittering musical career spanning five decades.

He has amassed an extraordinary collection of accolades for his work, including 23 platinum discs, 39 gold discs, 52 silver discs, two Grand Prix Eurovision awards, five Ivor Novello awards and three American Society of Composers gongs, in addition to a Grammy nomination, not to mention the Gold Badge from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors in 2009.

And as if that wasn't enough, former US president Bill Clinton put his iconic The Town I Loved So Well on a track list of his greatest songs of all time alongside Simon and Garfunkel.

In August, Phil will perform a special concert at Clonard Monastery in west Belfast, a venue and a city he says that have always been very dear to his heart.

"This concert is a return to Belfast," he says. "The Belfast ingredient is an important part of my growing up. My mother was from Belfast. I am known as a proud Derry man, but the fact is that I am a bit of a mix. Most people assume that I am 100% Derry, but my mother came from the Markets and my father came from Strangford in Co Down.

"My mother came from a family of about 11, which wasn't unusual in those days. Her maiden name was Agnes Austin.

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"We ended up in Derry because my father was in the police. He was an RUC man. He did his initial training outside of Belfast somewhere, got his first posting at Glenravel Street in Belfast and one of his subsequent postings was to Derry and that is how the Coulters ended up there. Once he was posted there, he stayed. There were five children, all born in Derry. So obviously we have very strong Derry links.

"But I also have a huge connection with Belfast. I recollect visiting Belfast and to my young mind it was like Las Vegas. Everything was so big. There were trolley buses and double decker buses. We didn't have those in Derry. I remember as a kid going up for a couple of Derry City FC matches. We got into the cup final and we would have gone up on a special soccer supporters' train. So my dad and a couple of my brothers would have headed up. And because we have so many aunts and uncles there that we had reason to visit, we had the ability to stay over.

"I always thought Belfast was a wildly exotic place. Back in those days, in the Forties and Fifties, travel to the city was a big deal. It would be the equivalent of going to Los Angeles these days. We all thought of it as the 'big smoke'.

"So, when I went up there to Queen's in 1960 I really thought, this was the big league, this was big time, this was the 'big smoke'.

"While I was there I kept running into cousins. Because, with so many aunts and uncles, I have so many cousins my age and I would run into them at dances and on buses. It was like I couldn't have thrown a stone in Belfast without hitting someone who was related to me, and that was before stone throwing became the popular art form it was later to become.

"I spent my formative years at Queen's and I did most of my growing up there. When I went up to Belfast in 1960, at just 18 years old, the world was a very simple place. It was a lot different than it is now. And having been educated at St Columb's College in Derry, which had a very strict ethos which was all about achieving, keeping your head down and getting a scholarship, you didn't get to sow many wild oats.

"So in Queen's it was like being let loose in a toy shop. My time there was very productive. And that was where I found my feet as an adult, where I grew up and found my career as a musician. Belfast played a big, big part in my development.

"It has always lived large in my life. When I started performing, I think the very first concert I did after the success of Tranquility was in the Grosvenor Hall in Belfast. And once we got up a bit of steam and got some wind in our sail, Belfast was very important to us. We used to do a run of a week at the Grand Opera House, which I loved."

Phil says that his love affair with music was not always a smooth one. He hated the piano lessons he was sent to as a child.

"I was sent to piano lessons, like a lot of kids in Derry," he says. "And unlike a lot of other kids who flourished, I didn't. I hated it and I hated everything about it, especially having to practice. And my piano teacher's approach of trying to instil some kind of enthusiasm into his pupils was that if you played a wrong note you got cracked on the knuckles with a ruler. So I didn't warm to him, or to the piano or to music in general until I went to St Columb's when I was 11 years old.

"By that stage I had been picking up tunes by ear. And I wanted to know how it all worked; how did the left hand work with the right hand. It was a curiosity and a motivation that has stayed with me for life. The best motivation of all is when you want to do something. I wanted to find out more.

"I had a couple of great teachers at St Columb's and music became more and more a part of my whole curriculum.

"We were the first wave of scholarship boys who got to university. I was a working-class boy from the Abercorn Road. My dad was an RUC constable so while we weren't poor, we certainly didn't have too many luxuries. These were the days when it was just about survival.

"An education act opened up third level education to us. It meant that from the working-class Catholic community, you had an aspiration to get to university that would have been closed to you 10 years beforehand. So the likes of Seamus Heaney would never have got as far as Queen's if he had been depending on his father, who was a small farmer in Co Derry.

"So a scholarship opened up Queen's to people like Heaney and myself."

Phil says that he was able to escape Northern Ireland's Troubles through music. As the streets of his home city burned, he was trying to carve his career in London.

"When I finished at Queen's there was only one place I wanted to go," he says. "And that was to London. I hotfooted it over there. If I had any aspirations of being in music, I knew that was the place I had to be.

"So, I was in London when the Troubles started. By the time Duke Street kicked off, I was long gone. I was constantly aware of what was going on. You can't be from Derry, from where I was and when I was, without being politically aware of what was going on. At that stage I was totally committed to breaking into music and London was my base for many years.

"That is not to say the Troubles did not impact on me. One of my contemporaries at Queen's was a man called Sean Armstrong who, when he graduated from Queen's, became a community worker. He was shot and killed.

"So, I didn't have to be in the middle of it all to be touched by what was going on. Just because I was geographically removed from it, didn't mean that I was emotionally or psychologically removed from it."

And Phil's family was not untouched by tragedy. He lost his brother Brian and his sister Cyd in two separate drowning accidents on Lough Swilly.

He later immortalised his siblings in the laments Shores Of The Swilly and Star Of The Sea which he wrote in their memories.

He says his faith remains strong and provides him with a moral compass in life.

"I would be spiritual," he says. "That doesn't mean that I go to mass every morning. Do I believe in religion? Do I believe there is an afterlife? Do I believe there is a difference between right and wrong? Do I believe that there is a code of behaviour that you should aspire to? I most certainly do.

"I have very little patience with people in my business who, because they sell a few records, get a few hits and become successful in the entertainment business, believe that their success entitles them to live their life by a different rule book than everyone else. If they think that that elevates them above ordinary Joes, well, it doesn't.

"I certainly believe in religion. And Clonard is special to me. With my mother being from Belfast, I would have heard her speak of Clonard all the time with such affection. So for me, it's almost like a circle being completed to go back there and perform. It is a very warm and welcoming kind of embrace you get from the place, so I'm very much looking forward to performing there."

Phil is known the world over for his iconic song The Town I Loved So Well. He says that he wrote it at a time when a 'pall of gloom' had descended on Derry. He says that four decades later, despite recent events in the city, he feels totally committed to the new Derry which emerged from the darkness.

"I wrote The Town I Loved So Well in the Seventies," he says. "There was no incident or particular moment in time that sparked it; it was just the general disintegration of the quality of life in Derry.

"It is a love song about my town. It is not a political song with a capital P. It is certainly not a rebel song, despite what some people will try and tell you. It is a love song that decries violence from whatever source it comes.

"There was no one incident. It was a gradual deterioration of life in Derry. I would go back to visit the family there and see this pall of gloom descending on the place. I just felt deeply in my own heart and soul that this should be chronicled in a song.

"And I just rationalised that thought by saying, well, if anyone is going to write it, it should be someone who knows what he's talking about. Someone who has grown up there. So it was something that I really felt I had to do.

"I didn't realise that it was going to become the anthem that it has. It is a song which, if you were to put a gun to my head and say over 55 years of songs, hit songs, number-one records and golden albums, you're only allowed to pick one to be remembered for, then it would have to be The Town I Loved So Well.

"And I still do love it so well. I have a daughter now living in Derry, which I am very pleased about. I'm delighted that she has inherited my love of the place. I definitely still have a soft spot for the place."

Phil says that despite recent tragic events in Derry, with the murder of Lyra McKee, rioting and a surge in violent dissident republican activity, he remains hopeful that good will prevail.

"Back in the worst of the times there was amongst a large part of the population almost a sympathy for what was going on," he says. "I don't think that exists anymore and I think that the extremists now would certainly be outnumbered by God fearing, law-abiding people.

"But it only takes a handful of people to make a lot of noise. So I don't despair at all. And I don't think that Derry is going to fall into any abyss.

"I don't think we can be complacent. It would be a terrible admission of defeat to think that a handful of individuals are actually going to dismantle what so many good, hard-working, decent Derry people, community people and politicians went to great pains to build. I think it would be criminal to allow a limited number of people to in any way tinker with that or dismantle that.

"Maybe I'm just too committed to the Derry that has emerged from all the darkness."

Phil moves in celebrity circles and counts Billy Connolly, Liam Neeson and former US president Bill Clinton among his many friends.

"Friends are friends not because they are famous, but because our paths cross in our profession and you either hit it off with someone or you don't," he says. "You have a connection with people, not because they happen to be important, or are a star, but because you have a rapport and you get on and you enjoy each other's company, whether that is Billy Connolly or Liam Neeson or anyone else. The most important thing is that you have to have common ground, you have to be at ease with people. You can't be impressed by the fact that they happen to be stars.

"I have played all over the world and have performed at the White House a number of times," he says. "I haven't performed during Trump's time and I'm not holding my breath for an invitation.

"I think that my time in the White House ran out when Bill Clinton left the premises. Bill was a great follower and fan of mine. He was very supportive and I was invited to the White House a number of times officially and unofficially.

"When he left the White House he still was a great supporter. For a fundraiser for the Clinton Foundation he put together a CD of his favourite 20 songs of all time. And in there along with Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel and Philadelphia Freedom by Elton John or Chelsea Morning by Judy Collins was the Town I Loved So Well by me. So, even after he left, he still acknowledged the affection that he had for our part of the world."

Phil says he still tours the world, although rather than the manic months-long tours of his younger years, he prefers to pick and choose his dates and venues.

"I still do tour the world," he says. "And every January I do a cruise in the Caribbean called the Tranquility Cruise. I have been doing that for 25 years.

"Every couple of years we would do the likes of Carnegie Hall and the bigger venues across America. The days of doing two or three-month tours with concerts every night, I don't do anymore. But I pick and choose the venues that I want and do it in a more civilised and less exhausting manner.

"Touring for me was never this rock and roll lifestyle. What you have to remember is that I was already in my 40s before I became a performer. My career up until then was very much as a backroom boy, as a songwriter and composer, as a piano player and as a musician.

"When you become a recording artist and you start selling records in your own right and you become a touring performer, it is a different story. I was already in my 40s when I made that transition, so I would have thought I had a little grey matter.

"If it had all happened when I was in my 20s I might have lost the run of myself, but at that stage I was already a grown-up man with a family. The rock and roll lifestyle never really appealed to me. I had too much wit when I got on the road.

"That is why I'm still alive and still working and I have no intention of retiring. And that's why I'm in good shape and I'll keep going until I feel like I want to stop."

Phil says he has no intention of hanging up his grand piano any time soon.

"There are two things over which I have no control," he says. "And that is health and audiences. As long as my health keeps up, I'll keep going. And as long as people keep buying tickets to come and see what I do, then I'll certainly be more than happy to come and entertain them.

"When they stop buying those tickets, then maybe I'll get the message that maybe I should just throw my hat in the ring and forget about it. But so far it has all been maintained and my fans and my believers tend to be very loyal and supportive, and I have nothing but good things to say about my audiences who have stayed with me through all of the years.

"I'll keep doing it as long as they keep coming."

Phil will perform at Clonard Monastery on August 6. For information and tickets see ticketmaster.co.uk

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