John Hoban, guitar in hand, standing at the top of Castle Street in Castlebar where he grew up before departing on his world travels in 1970 at the age of 16. PHOTO: THE CONNAUGHT TELEGRAPH

The life and times of legendary Mayo music man John Hoban

THE legendary John Hoban, umbrella in hand, stands at the top of the street in Castlebar where he was born and reflects how his life was shaped so uniquely by it.

He proceeds to cross Main Street to the offices of The Connaught Telegraph, named after its most illustrious editor, James Daly, with the intention of getting some publicity for his recently-launched book, 'Sound Men and Women - yarns, musings, fierce wit', and his wonderful new CD, 'Facing East, Heading West, John Hoban and Friends'.

His familiar face was warmly welcomed inside this parish on a wet afternoon and he was in mighty form for a chat, not only about his writing and his music, but about life in general and the town he loves dearly despite having left it for a long time during a voyage that took him to almost every corner of the globe.

But, as he said himself, he has told that story before, his first book, 'From the Plain of the Yew Tree - the lifetime journey of a county Mayo musician,' revealing all of that aspect of his life and much more.

That book was an intriguing tale of a troubadour who took the reader to Clare Island, London, Connecticut, California, India, Australia and other places - 'from Castlebar to Kandabar' as John described it, where he played music as well as learning, collecting and listening to it.

"The common language of music makes me feel at home everywhere," observed the 69-year-old who left his native town at the age of 16 after the death in 1970 of his father, Castle Street shopkeeper Christy Hoban, his mother Nancy (née Byrne), whose family was originally from Knock, having passed away three years earlier.

Christy, a true covey, had learned his trade in Westport and Glasgow before opening his grocery business in 1937 with Peter Dever, both men still fondly remembered in the county town by a section of the community frequently referred to as 'auld stock'.

John's formative years were very much tied up in his father's business as well as the people who lived in Castle Lane and nearby streets.

"That was the world as far as I knew it. Even the lower end of the town, like Linenhall Street and Tucker Street, were a different world entirely.

"After my father died, everything was virtually gone from the life I had lived up to then and I decided to leave.

"I remember shortly after I returned to Castlebar following my travels in 1990s I sat on the window of the former Bistro Restaurant and started to write about the Castle Lane I had known.

"The words of the song - Castle Lane, Castlebar, 1954 - just flowed out of me as such. It's about all the people, all the sights and sounds I had known as I grew up.

"There is very little of it there now, just a few shops, including Kelly's Barber Shop. But there is a sense to me that the spirits of those who lived in Castle Lane are still present.

"Whenever I go down Castle Lane today, I can feel those spirits from Rattigans at the top to Ivy House at the end - and I can see all those people I knew clearly in my mind.

"I can hear Stephen Garvey and Kevin Collins. When I spoke with Sean Horkan recently, he told me he often feels the same way about Castle Lane. So I was glad to put all my memories in a song as a way of documenting history."

John pointed out there are a lot of references to Castle Lane in his new book, which contains stories, poems and proverbs by people he met during his lifetime.

"Younger Castlebar people may not fully understand what I write and sing about because it was not part of their experience. But the passing on of my stories to them and to the town in general is valuable.

"When I worked in my father's shop, Castle Lane would light up every evening with people playing and practicing music in their homes, like Rose Carney on the cello, while the former Black Cats public house beside our shop was a wonderful place for a sing song and next door lived Sean and Madame Bourke, from where beautiful piano music could be heard every day.

"And then we had Stephen Garvey, the most popular musician in Ireland and further afield in his day.

"He performed in New York every Lent, a time of the year when very little happened in this country entertainment-wise. When we saw him playing on Castle Lane, it was like being in the presence of a rock star.

"We also had JJ Collins, a piccolo player and flautist of the highest order. He was a great friend of Michael Collins and William B. Yeats.

"I remember standing outside his shop and listening to wonderful music playing. It was some education for a young boy growing up.

"My father was also a singer and performed in many local operas with Stephen Garvey. Music was part of people's lives. It was not imported.

"I was involved in the church choir myself with Fr. Tom Shannon. He gave us a tremendous training. We sang alongside many of the great singers in Castlebar like Jimmy Reilly, Tommy Brett and others.

"They were all tremendous tenors and basses. And there was never a note written down. We learned it all back in the old boys school. I had been involved in operas during my years at St. Jarlath's College in Tuam. I also loved playing football with Mitchels and Celtic, of course.

"I never actually played an instrument until I went to Dublin in 1970. I got a guitar, taught myself, started singing the songs of the day by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen as well as some Irish ballads.

"I got more and more interested in Irish traditional music, as well as the Irish language, and that brought me to London. The more I played, the more I understood other instruments and I learned to teach.

"And teaching helped me to pass on the beauty with which I had grown up. The tremendous beauty I experienced in Castle Lane and Castlebar growing up has always stayed with me. The music brings all that together."

Castle Lane has changed completely from when he grew up, and even its name has changed to Castle Street. But he does not attach much value to nostalgia.

"I regard memories and remembering as much more important. Like remembering Stephen Garvey or our local church organist Sean O'Connell. In the same way as people would remember great footballers like Mick Flanagan and Paddy Prendergast in Gaelic football and Josie Feeney in soccer.

"I place great value in that. I would never compare eras to one another and say one was better. I am interested in thanking the people who have passed on for their goodness shown to me.

"I value the lives that the people of Castle Lane lived. Pakie Kilcourse, the Luddens, Ted Norrison and the Stewarts. And many others. The town has changed, but not much in real terms. The crucial thing is having the memories and sharing them with others.

"I have always connected with the Sacred Heart Home and I play with the choir there every Thursday morning with Jimmy Feeney, Ernie Sweeney, Catherine Clarke and others. It's very nice to sing for the older people whom I have known all my life.

"I am very content to be from Castlebar and living in Castlebar. I never wanted to be from somewhere else, like Nashville. I am proud about that in a certain way."

His new CD is a celebration of playing music with people he has known for most of his life, people like Connie Murphy, Rosaleen Stenson Ward, Richard Waldron, Jimmy Murphy, Paul Waldron, Sean Lavin, Kevin Sykes, his wife Isabela, Gregory Daly and Michael Loftus and Anthony Waldron, two of whom - Jimmy and Anthony - have sadly passed away since the recording was made.

"My late mother was from east Mayo and a lot of the music on the album features musicians from that part of the county, as well as Bonniconlon and Meelick. This is not the music I grew up with. But it's the music I would have heard a lot of during my exile in London.

"It also features a song about The Mall in Castlebar, which is similar to the one I wrote about Castle Lane. The Mall was where my heart was growing up. I consider it the heart of Castlebar. That's where I first stared playing soccer.

"I mentioned three people from the soccer world in the song, namely Ger Staunton, Alfie Killeen and Ber Brady. I also mention Michael Davitt, John Wesley, James Daly, the Imperial Hotel, the Rodgers, Tobin and Horkan families, the Pellys, Margaret Burke Sheridan, Austin (Vaughan), Ivor (Hamrock) and Richie (Hickey) from the library, the Murphys, Dr. Maguire, John Moore and Ernie O'Malley. I think of them all when I think of the Mall."

The album was supported by the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society, Fairfield, Connecticut, where he still travels to teach for a week or so once a year. The two people who commissioned it, Gregg and Clare Burnett, have since passed away.

Asked for the secret to his contentment, he pointed to the value of "being at peace with yourself."

He elaborated: "To achieve it, the music definitely helps. But it's also down to what you believe in. I am not talking about a religious closeness.

"Being at peace with yourself is something you have to work on, like fitness. It's a commitment to be honest and to treat other people the very best that you can. You also have to treat yourself the best that you can. That's the key to it really. To have compassion for yourself. It's not easy.

"We are taught that self-praise is no praise. Be kind to yourself and do that best you can. Increasingly I notice that I am not worried about what others might say about me.

"At 69, I am well into the second half now so worries are diminishing for me. I have found my own way and there is great peace in that, rather than being judged or to judge others. I might not be peaceful all of the time but most of the time I understand that 'I am alright'. No better or no worse than anybody. It's a good place to be," he added.