Cel Fay, Tom McHale and me
Cel Fay was inadvertently and innocently involved in one of the most
regretted days or nights of my life.
A couple of months after winning the whistling competition at the All-Ireland Fleadh,
Tom McHale came up to Belfast to stay with me and see if we could get some gigs
together (All-Ireland Champion, endless series of sell-out concerts in the Ulster Hall,
etc. forget it).
In the opinion of any experts who ever heard him, Tom was an even better flute player
than he was whistler, but unfortunately he had pawned his flute to raise the fare to
come to Belfast
So one bright morning we set sail for the Imperial Hotel for a little chat with
Danny Morgan to discuss mutual financial interests and maybe going on somewhere and
organising a session afterwards.
Passing the Bank Buildings just before 10:00 o'clock I glanced up Bank Street and spied
Shughie the barman sweeping out the front of Kellys. I shouted to ask if he had
any pints on the go and the answer was affirmative.
Just one or maybe two for the road, we agreed.
Towards lunchtime we moved upstairs for sandwiches to wash the stout down. Naturally
cronies from local sweatshops drifted in for a pint or two to eat. A jolly
afternoon moved seamlessly into a grand oul evening, with the usual suspects such as
John Windrum/Morrow, John Molloy, and lots of other big red shiny faces looming up and
receding through the alcoholic mists.
Shortly before closing time (hard-hearted 10:00 o'clock then), Billy McBurney came in
accompanied by his oul mate Billy McMillan and announced that as of the day he was the
proud and sole owner of St. Mary's Halls Recording Studio.
On being introduced to Tom and apprised of a brief CV, he suggested that if he could
contact his new recording engineer we might like to pop across the way, a few numbers,
a few pounds, carry-out thrown in by his good self.
Any reasonable person would have said, "Not just at the moment, thanks, I'm rather
indisposed just now and in the interests of the music, etc. Away on with ye.
Shortly after closing time Cel was rattling the key in the lock of the still-to-be-named
Outlet Studios, and we all trooped in behind him, Kelly's Heroes to a man, well provided
with drink but not much sense.
I was arranged behind a five-foot barricade (the shape of things to come) and Tom was
placed at the other side of the room in a telephone box-like structure with the
microphone sticking in through a hole in the front.
I could only hear him when I stood up, he would call the tune and play a short burst
to give me an idea of tempo, etc. Unlike many whistle players, he actually knew
what key he was going to play in, so I had at least that for a start. But when
I sat down to my microphone I could hear nothing at all and had less idea of where
I was and where I was going than Columbus.
I have a vague recollection of Cel coming out several times to tune my guitar for me.
I thought Cel was just having a bit of trouble getting the balance right and kept
thinking, well, we'll make a better fist of it at a later date when we actually start
Then we were in the taxi on the way home with the remains of the carry-out (a measure
of how generous a new-found studio owner can be) and Billy's promised generosity.
I went into Billy's record shop the following Saturday to see how things were and he
asked if I knew anyone who could design record covers (remember them?). I gave him
the telephone number of Jackie Strange, a graphic artist who later went on to greater
things in London.
What with one thing and another, I thought nothing more about it until one Saturday a
few months later I went into Billy's shop and he put on an LP and said, "Listen to this."
It was a whistle with a guitar doing something in the background. My first thought
was, bugger, give half a chance we could have done that (listening closer, later, my
second thought was bugger, I shouldn't have done that).
I didn't believe who it was until I saw the LP cover.
I asked Billy if he couldn't withhold it and let us have another go in the studio,
perhaps with a few more musicians and a few less guzzlicians en suite, but he would
have none of it. His oul business loaf proved right, as I believe Outlet No. 1
has been the one of the best-selling albums in his catalogue, but Cel should have been
accorded headline credit for his valiant shepherding of the stumbling proof of the
effects of the demon alcohol that night.
Another crack at a session together never came about, as Tom went to Germany soon
afterwards to earn a few deutschmarks playing wherever he could. Matty Walsh,
the Dublin bodhrán and gubiron player who now lives in Hamburg told me that he had
heard rumours that Tom was killed in a fight in a pub somewhere near Hamburg.
PS from Fergie: I am reliably informed that Tom actually died in a car accident after a
session in Glassan near Athlone.