Sunday, 14 June 2015

Rich by name, rich by nature: Celebrating the legacy of Rich McMahon

My article in The Harp Newspaper, June 2015

With great sadness and shock we have learnt of the death of Rich McMahon on Monday 18 May, a well-known and much loved songwriter and performer from the Irish community of the West Midlands. Born in Coventry, raised in Wicklow but in recent years an adoptive son of Birmingham, Rich was a talented and vibrant performer who was lead singer of The Father Teds for some years before starting a solo career which was bringing him wide acclaim both locally and internationally.

Rich died just days after playing a successful gig at the Hare and Hounds pub in Kings Heath and was due to play a gig in Nuneaton with Sean Cannon of the Dubliners in early July. His death also comes just weeks after the release of his second solo album, Songs of Exile, Love & Dissent, produced by award winning producer Gerry Diver, whose credits include Sam Lee, Lisa Knapp, Christy Moore and Shane MacGowan.
I first saw Rich McMahon playing at the Kitchen Garden CafĂ© in Kings Heath in 2013 and wrote about his gig in my April article that year. What interested me most about Rich McMahon that night was that this was much more than a pub gig by an Irish folk singer. McMahon’s show that night was called ‘The Imagined Nation: Inventing Ireland Through Words, Images and Songs'. Through a sequence of stories and songs with images and words projected on a screen behind him, he told a story of the Irish diaspora which struck a chord for many of us who belong to the second, third, even fourth generations of Irish migration to the UK in that celebrated Year of The Gathering. Nothing against anyone out there who ‘gigs’, but this was more of a social history through story and performing art and coming shortly after I started these regular articles about Irish diaspora and identity in The Harp, it had a strong resonance.
But neither was Rich McMahon high-brow or academic. His performances were musically raw and simple, in the long tradition of Irish folk singing but with contemporary themes and new perspectives. He could get the intimate audience of a back-street bar clapping and stomping and delivered his music with a broad smile and a cheeky glint in the eye. Just like Paul Murphy whom I wrote about last month, McMahon was another contender for our local title of ‘seanchai’ (Celtic storyteller).

Another place where I had the pleasure of watching Rich McMahon enchant an audience was at Moseley Day Centre where social worker Mick Lynch invited him to play for and work with people with learning disability on such a frequent basis and with such impact that, according to Mick, Friday became known to the service users as ‘Rich Day’. Indeed, here was a man who was truly rich by name and rich by nature – rich I mean in generosity, warmth and inspiration.

I am sad that I will never get to interview Rich McMahon for this spot in The Harp, as was my intention. Prior to this news of his death, his wife Maggie had recently sent me a link to one of Rich’s songs on You Tube called Mansion By The River which explored the theme of the colonial relationship between the poor tenant farmers and their protestant landlord who lived in the big mansion. The video on You Tube features Maggie’s father Bob Matthews wandering poignantly through the ruins of one of these said buildings back home in Ireland. Once again, McMahon’s lyrics look deeper than the factual telling of Anglo-Irish history in contemporary history books and touch upon the memories and emotions of real people and communities who lived near to or on these big estates of the past and built long-established relationships with some of these English or even Anglo-Irish landed gentry. McMahon asks the powerful question, a bit like an old building going to rack and ruin, has there been a wholesale neglect of those parts of our past which are most uncomfortable to recall and discuss?

With great sadness we have to acknowledge never being able to see this beaming face again or hear his passionate voice and guitar live. But unlike the mansion by the river, my wish is that McMahon’s rich body of creative work is not forgotten and that we continue to celebrate and enjoy the artistic legacy left to us by this great West Midlands seanchai.

1 comment:

Gary O'Dea said...

Lovely pice on a lovely guy...well done Pete and thanks for the music Rich.