He couldn't read or write, spent much of his working life on building sites and his songs travelled much further than he ever did, but Christie Hennessy was still one of Ireland's most cherished singer-songwriters. His most celebrated song, "Don't Forget Your Shovel", a joyously simple yet mischievously barbed battle-cry for the working labourer, has been described as Ireland's alternative national anthem.
Christy Moore learned it from Hennessy after meeting him in London in 1963 and, two decades later, adapted and lionised the song, turning it into a number one hit in Ireland and a national treasure. Moore sang it with Billy Bragg at a building workers' strike in Western Australia, performed it with Donal Lunny at the gates of Portlaoise Prison during the "Free Nicky Kelly" campaign and sang it at a benefit for the imprisoned Irish republican Joe Doherty at Carnegie Hall in New York. Yet few who sang it along with Moore in different parts of the world had ever heard of the humble Kerry man who wrote it.
That was to change dramatically and unexpectedly in 1992 when the gentle-voiced Hennessy released a melodic, lyrical and emotional album called The Rehearsal, which relaunched his career, achieved unlikely triple-platinum album status in Ireland, produced his first hit single as a singer, "Messenger Boy", and at its peak outsold U2.
It was never an easy ride for Hennessy. The youngest of four boys and five girls, he was born Edward Christopher Ross and raised in a two-bedroomed house in Tralee, Co Kerry, surrounded by music. His father, an electrician and jazz accordion player, died of a brain haemorrhage when Christie was five and his mother, who sang traditional folk songs around the house, struggled to control her youngest son.
He often skipped school and, suffering from severe dyslexia, never learned to read or write. He gave up on school completely when he was 11 and got a job as a messenger boy, having to memorise the address of each parcel he was given to deliver because he couldn't read the labels.
By the time he was 15 he'd followed a familiar path of Irish migrs to London looking for work and finding it on building sites. He was a clever guitarist and at nights he would play in clubs as Christie Hennessy, initially playing old blues numbers, and then painstakingly started constructing his own songs "Don't Forget Your Shovel" was one of his early ones. He was 18 when he met his English wife Gill at a disco in Soho and they soon married and had a daughter. When she was three, he suffered a nervous breakdown "the darkest period of my life" he said later attributing it to frustration at his illiteracy and the barriers it put in the way of his passion for songwriting.
Paradoxically, he surrounded himself with books he couldn't read and, despite numerous attempts to learn with private tutors, he remained illiterate all his life. He'd sometimes spend months on even one line of a new song. "I get a blank tape and sing into it for hours and hours, then listen back to it it's like a jigsaw with me joining up all the bits that I like," he said.
In 1972 he released his first record, The Green Album, on the small Westwood label but, with little publicity or promotion, it made little impact and, with only 500 copies pressed, it has now become something of a collectors' item. Hennessy was forced back on to the building sites to support his family. He continued to play occasional gigs, but it was 20 years before he recorded again, after being discovered by John Peel, whose radio sessions led him somewhat bizarrely to being named at the age of 43 best new act at the Irish Music Awards.
Signed to U2's Son label, Hennessy released his breakthrough album The Rehearsal and the organic charm and sincerity of his songs often sentimental but never cloying tapped into the Irish psyche and found favour on mainstream radio. He was subsequently signed to a major label, Warners, and released four equally popular albums, A Year In the Life (1993), Lord of Your Eyes (1995), The Box (1996) and This Is as Far as I Go (1999). His songs became a magnet for other artists, among them Eleanor Shanley and Tanita Tikaram, while Frances Black and Máire Brennan of Clannad had No 1 Irish hits with covers of "All the Lies That You Told Me" and "Oh Jealous Heart" respectively. Nizlopi namechecked "Don't Forget Your Shovel" on their 2005 Christmas smash, "The JCB Song". Hennessy also got involved on the other side of the studio, producing the Aled Jones album Whenever God Shines His Light (2002) and wrote the theme music for the TV comedy series Get Well Soon.
Yet the unexpected and belated onslaught of fame took its toll and he resolved after This Is as Far as I Go not to make any more records. He still loved to gig, however, and with self-effacing humour and a natural rapport with audiences he remained a popular live performer. Eventually he was coaxed back into the studio to record a brand new album Stories for Sale (2005) with Neill and Calum MacColl, the sons of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. It was, he said at the time, the best thing he'd ever done.
Always painfully aware of his own illiteracy, he worked hard to help others avert the same problems and became patron of the anti-poverty charity Children in Crossfire. Profoundly moved after seeing the poor conditions in which children lived in villages in Kenya, he wrote "A Price for Love", released as a single earlier this year in aid of Children in Crossfire.
He was planning a major tour and was working on a new album of duets when stricken by cancer, thought to be a result of asbestos poisoning contracted during his years working on building sites. The album, The Two of Us, will be released in January.
Colin IrwinReuse content