Eamonn Campbell died last week and it’s bloody sad.
It’s not just sad because he was a genius guitar player, distinguished record producer and arranger, merchant of craic, and generous guy loved by everyone — literally, it was also because he could connect with people.
“If you met Eamonn, you’d never forget him,” his friends reminisced.
In these depressing culturally bereft times, where people favour headphones to conversations, avoid eye contact and try desperately not to engage with each other, Eamonn was a big shock of white haired charisma and quintessential Irishness who will never be replaced.
“We are heartbroken,” said his band, The Dublin Legends (consisting of Sean Cannon, Gerry O’Connor and Paul Watchorn) in a statement.
The Wolfe Tones claimed there was “no better guitar player anywhere”. The Pogues called him a “lovely man” — while footballer Paul McGrath wrote “there will be a good session in heaven tonight”. Dutch and German newspapers reported his death at the tender age of 70. The list goes on.
Every old man’s pub I went into after news of his death hit, I heard punters retell stories of encounters with him as the Dubliners played in his honour in the background.
“I have a few anecdotes for you,” one fella winked at me, “but I’m not telling you.”
“He was larger than life and he joined a band of characters who were all larger than life — so he fit right in. Those fellas brought joy to Irish people during dark times,” Nicky Black, who drinks in Grogan’s on South Anne Street, recalled.
Then Tommy Smith, a co-owner of Grogan’s, came out from behind the bar to hold both my hands declaring: “Ah no they don’t make people like that anymore. Eamonn and Luke, Barney and Ronnie. They used to come in here at various stages in the 45 years I’ve been here,” he reminisced.
“They were great times. They brought the besotted fans over from Europe.”
Campbell, who was born in Drogheda in 1946, picked up the guitar in the 1960s — and didn’t put it down until he died. He began playing professionally in 1965 with Dermot O’Brien and The Clubmen. During a UK tour in 1967, The Clubmen shared the bill with the Dubliners and a lasting friendship developed between Eamonn and The Dubliners.
In 1972, he became a studio musician, while also composing and playing with a pit orchestra in Jesus Christ Superstar, West Side Story and more. He performed with the RTE concert orchestra, playing guitar, mandolin and banjo and produced hits for Paddy Reilly (most notably The Fields of Athenry), Foster and Allen, Brendan Grace, Philomena Begley and others. In recent years, he produced records for American country singer Billy Jo Spears and The Fureys.
In 1987 Eamonn produced The Dubliners’ 25th Year Celebration album — and it was upon his suggestion that The Dubliners and The Pogues collaborated to record The Irish Rover. An Irish anthem was born, giving them a UK hit and an appearance on Top of the Pops.
Shortly afterwards Eamonn joined The Dubliners and played guitar full time — putting his production work to one side for a time. They enjoyed global successes and hundreds of tours until 2012, when The Dubliners retired after the death of banjo player Barney McKenna.
Not one to give up his great love, Campbell continued with The Dublin Legends until he died in Holland during a tour last week.
“Eamonn played till the end, just days before he died he was still gigging in Holland,” said family friend Brian Hand. “He was ill, but no one expected him to go so soon. It was an awful shock, but luckily his beloved family and were all there beside him.”
“He lived with us for a couple of years in our house in Raheny back in the Seventies and early Eighties. My dad Jim Hand and Eamonn were great friends.
“We bonded over our love of guitars. I wanted to be the greatest player — but he was already. He’d be out playing all day and then composing and arranging music all night.
“I always remember the plumes of cigarette smoke emanating from his room and him drinking coffees with so much sugar in them that the spoon was upstanding in the middle of the cup. He worked so hard,” he enthused.
Musician Paddy Reilly, for whom he produced The Fields of Athenry — the version we all know and love and sing at stadiums when we win or lose matches, said of his great old friend. “I’ve known Eamonn most of my life. I have so many fond memories that I don’t know where to start,” he said.
“We spent ten years together touring — 100 nights a year and closed many a bar together. But Italia ’90 was a highlight.”
Without doubt Italia ’90 was the zenith of craic for any self-respecting drinking Irishman.
“We were there on the Achille Lauro ship,” says Paddy Reilly (the ship had become famous in the Seventies when it was hijacked by the PLO — and it went on to sink in 1994 off the coast of Somalia, after a fire caused by an exploding engine.)
“We were criss crossing the Mediterranean to get to our matches in Cagliari and Palermo,” Reilly recalled. “There were around 2,000 men and three women on board — and Eamonn was in the thick of it. He had the guitar going 20 hours a day. The craic we had. Jesus.”
O’Reilly continued: “You know the way it goes on cruisers — you have to sign your name and then you pay at the end when you leave. They don’t have tills. So we all just signed Georgie Best and Jack Charlton on the receipts — until they got thick with us and they went on shore and bought some tills.
“We drank the ship dry too. They had to go to port to restock. I don’t think they’ve ever seen anything like it.”
My dad fondly recalls a soccer play off in Austria which he and his football-mad friend Eamonn attended together. A cop clad in black leather with bells on rocked up beside them on a chopper outside the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna.
“Ah Jaysis what have we done now,” Eamonn said, rolling his eyes to heaven.
The cop then got out his notepad and pen and asked: “Can I have your autograph please?”
Mike Hanrahan — a good friend, singer and songwriter with Stockton’s Wing, who collaborated with Eamonn — remembers him as a generous man who did a lot for charity and was always very supportive of other musicians.
“He was very generous, not just with his time but also with his music. He started off with the showbands, so he was an electric guitar player — but he switched over so easily when he joined the Dubliners,” he added.
Myself, I know Eamonn from the various rain-sodden Shamrock Rovers matches at the RDS that my dad used to bring my sister and I to in the 1990s. His great friend, the now sadly deceased Ray Treacy, managed Rovers at the time.
At the stadium I’d always see Eamonn’s hair first, then the man. We’d always start giggling as we walked over to say hi, knowing that Eamonn was about to say something hilarious.
He smoked fags, enjoyed the odd Bacardi and pints and didn’t subscribe to the permanently offended, sanctimonious puritanism that is sweeping our once glorious country of saints, sinners, poets and born characters.
Even though he was a well known musician, everyone knew Eamonn — even the lady on the bus opposite me.
“’Tis terrible now that he’s gone now, ’tis…”
The proud Drogheda man, who was the Grand Master at the 2009 Paddy’s Day parade, was a legend — and corny as it may sound, yet another glimmer of old Ireland died with him. Farewell Irish rover. Send our love to Ronnie and Barney. We miss you.
Eamonn is survived by his wife Noreen and children Paddy, Eamonn Jnr, Emma-Jane, Ciara and Niamh, and also by his grandchildren — all of whom he loved dearly