HELL, I’M GONNA BE ME
Fergus O’Farrell was an musician of remarkable talent, and even more courage. As frontman for Interference, he was an inspiration to Glen Hansard, Mic Christopher and a generation of Irish bands. But for all his genius and charisma, success never properly
‘Iwas born with a silver spoon,”
sings Fergus O’Farrell in “
Gold. Hell I’m gonna be me/I’m gonna be free.”
It’s a beautiful song, made all the more so by the poignancy of those lines. Because Fergus wasn’t free, except in his mind. He was physically debilitated by muscular dystrophy confined to a wheelchair from his early 20s, and almost entirely to his bed for the last years of his life and dependent on others. By any normal standards, diagnosed at eight years old, Fergus was not born with a silver spoon. And yet such was his gift, for music and for life, his determination “to be me”, that he refused to accept the flat denial of the many things he could not do. He achieved a freedom beyond the confines of his wasted body in a world of the mind, and in the minds of others, where his remarkable voice and talent will live on, despite his death in February last year, aged 48.
From Schull in west Cork, Fergus was the lead singer and driving force behind Interference, the greatest Irish band who never made it. His was an explosive talent a golden voice and rare musical ability coupled with the kind of single-minded determination, as well as good looks and charisma, that should have taken him anywhere he wanted to go. Except that he was shackled to a failing body, with a life expectancy that he defied by nearly 20 years, and still didn’t live to see 50.
“It was a postman in Kinsale who I used to have a drink with, who said it first,” Fergus’s dad, Vincent, tells me. “He said, ‘I’ve been watching your little boy walking home’ — there was a steep hill beside our house — ‘and there’s something funny about his walk.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? He’s got a bit of an unusual swagger.’ Now, I’d been watching him playing football and he wasn’t getting up to the ball as quickly as the others, and I’d been shouting, ‘Get a move on . . .’ so we then started taking him for tests, and finally a specialist said, ‘It’s muscular dystrophy’.” Fergus was eight at the time, and the specialist’s prognosis was, ‘He’ ll be in a wheelchair by 12 and gone by 20’,” says Vincent. That was 1975.
The specialist was wrong — there are many variations of the disease; it causes progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass and has no known cure and he specified the wrong one. But, also, he hadn’t reckoned with Fergus’s remarkable willpower. “Fergus comes from a very stubborn line of people,” says Vincent. “He was determined to do everything he could. All his whole energy was going to go into his music and songs. Nothing was going to get in the way of that.”
Fergus himself once said, “I’ ll give 150pc. I always wanted to be so good that it’d never be this pity thing.” And he was that good. It isn’t pity that makes his music remarkable. The music stands by itself, and although knowledge of his suffering adds a particular resonance, that is a very different thing to pity.
There’s a story Fergus used to love to tell about going to a faith healer. When he was in his late teens and already using a wheelchair, he was taken by his very devout Aunt Mary. “I remember him putting the hands over my head, and a feeling, the equivalent of an orgasm; this complete and utter electricity through my body, and I was going, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been healed’. And, in fact, for the first seconds after the healer moved on, I was afraid to move a muscle, in case it hadn’t happened. And then I went to stand up, and of course it hadn’t happened.”
His aunt was so disappointed, so disbelieving, that she went back afterwards to meet the healer and complained that Fergus hadn’t been cured. The healer, Fergus recalled, “put his hand on the side of my face, and he said, ‘There has been a miracle, it just hasn’t been what you expected’.” To this, Fergus’s response was: “That’s when I knew it was music. Music was my miracle.” Later, he said that at that time he believed that he had been “chosen by God to do music. That’s the kind of faith I had.”
Fergus went to school to Clongowes, where he won the Aloysius Trophy for ‘courage and determination’. The school, back then, wasn’t adapted for students with disabilities, and so Fergus’s friends would carry him up and down the stairs; he could still walk, but climbing was increasingly difficult. Unable to play sport, music became his thing, soon to the exclusion of all else. “We’d been pushing him to do accountancy,” his father says, “but Fergus told us told us, ‘No, it’s not for me’. I tried to fight him on it, his mother tried even harder, and he said ‘No’; he was going to do it his way.”
Fergus formed Interference, a kind of musical collective, while still in Clongowes, with two friends, guitarist James O’Leary and poet Malcolm MacClancy. Straight out of Clongowes, he moved up to Dublin, to the old Winstanley shoe factory in the Liberties that his father had just bought, and which eventually became Mother Redcaps.
“It was just an old shoe factory,” says Vincent, “but we built an apartment for Fergus there, with two or three bedrooms, and the lads used to lift him up the stairs. They had all that space to bring in bands and rehearse. The Hothouse Flowers were in there, The Black Velvet Band were in there; all just young kids. It must have been the hottest scene in Dublin,” he recalls, “and Fergus was at the heart of it.”
It was around this time that director Michael McCormack, who spent over 10 years filming with Fergus for a feature documentary about Fergus’s life,
met him first. “I first saw them play when I was 14. I was working at a Self-Aid charity gig in Blackrock, and all these different bands were playing — The Dixons, the Oliver Brothers, and then this band came out, Interference, and they just had this confidence about them. The singer was holding on to the mike, in what I thought was some kind of mad, rock-star pose. Later, I learned the mike was actually holding him up. His voice hit me straight away; the emotion that he put into every word.”
Fergus himself later admitted that far from feeling confident, “for the first seven years I gigged, I threw up before every gig. I love being on stage. I hate going on stage. The nerves — well, pre-stage energy is a better term for it. But once I start singing, it’s great.”
After Fergus came off stage that night, Michael watched, astonished, as this
charismatic young singer sat himself back into a wheelchair. “I went over to him. He couldn’t escape from me, and I poured forth about how amazing they were. After that, I went to all the gigs, even the soundchecks. I was obsessed. And I began to realise very quickly that I wasn’t alone. All these other young guys who were in the audience regularly with me were forming their own bands: Mundy, The Frames, Kila, The Mary Janes, all the young musicians, and they looked up to Fergus and Interference, because they knew this band was something special.”
Anyone who heard them knew this was the real thing that fragile combination of talent, charisma and drive. At a time, there was huge energy and excitement on the Dublin music scene. Big record companies were actively looking for the next U2, and in that scene Interference were so obviously the ones to watch; the break-out stars. It felt as if it was only a matter of time. Their gigs were few and far between because of Fergus’s condition, but those that happened became events — shows in the old Beal Bocht near Ranelagh, and a near-legendary series of gigs in Whelan’s of Wexford Street.
There were appearances on television, including a music video directed by Gerry Stembridge for RTE, and Interference were again and again tipped by the music press as ‘most likely’ and ‘the next big thing’. But it didn’t happen. To the astonishment of fans, the various A&R men who came and watched their gigs went away with words of encouragement, but no record deals followed. “We can market blindness,” one said, with uncharacteristic if devastating honesty, “but we can’t market a wheelchair.”
“They played far less than other bands,” McCormack says. “Fergus thought he’d be dead by 20, then dead by 30 — he was trying to protect his voice, so they played less than they should have. But when they did, it was like going to Mass. People hanging on their every word. We all believed they’d make it, and were shocked that they didn’t.”
No one was more shocked then Fergus. His belief in his own success was absolute. “Much worse than the muscular