Journey man: The story behind Michael O’Shea’s mystic folk masterpiece

Like many great legends, the story behind one of Irish music’s most revered cult records starts with a door. Not some metaphorical passageway, but an actual busted door that travelling folk musician Michael O’Shea dragged out of a rubbish skip in Munich in 1978.

After leaving Ireland in the 1960s, O’Shea had played the wandering street performer in London, France and Germany among other countries, but by the late 70s he’d sold his instruments to buy a ticket to Turkey – most notably a sitar he’d learned to play in Bangladesh where he’d earlier spent a few years as an aid worker during the famine crisis.

Stuck for a busking tool, O’Shea took DIY musicianship to a new level. Using the middle part of the door, 17 strings, some phasers and a self-invented “space hole echo box”, he life-hacked a cross between a sitar, a zelochord and a dulcimer that he’d hammer with chopsticks or paintbrushes. “It’s amazing what you will do when you are broke,” he said in 1982.

He called his new creation ‘Mo Chara’ – Irish for ‘My Friend’, and through a series of chance busking encounters, good will and, in his own words, “the planets aligning”, he used a later edition of Mo Chara to record his only album in 1981, released on the experimental label, Dome, run by Wire members Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert.

Long out of print, the dust has been blown off occasionally over the last four decades, with a 2001 CD reissue, chance sightings by record collectors and myth-building by DJs, writers and musicians.

A-129283-1143485530.jpegNow, with the help of archivists, labels (alive and dormant), and the blessing of Michael’s surviving family members, his masterpiece has been gifted back to the world. Michael O’Shea has been restored and resurrected by Dublin label All City Records’ Allchival reissue wing, with a new generation spellbound by its spectral beauty – a hypnotic weave of Irish trad and ancient folk that draws on African and Indian forms, wired together with a faint hum of Radiophonic Workshop circuitry. It’s a transcendent, freeform document of a singular artist’s life up to that day on July 7, 1981, when the magic was bottled.

In the notes for the original release, O’Shea writes of his “checkered history”, and invites the listener to “fill in the gaps” between him being born in Newry then raised in Carlingford, followed by a list of 29 jobs he’d had up until the album’s release, including “Hobo… leather craftsman… sculptor… inventor… psychonaut… catalyst… transvestite.” And while labourer, barman, waiter and packer are probably relatively normal detours for a young drifter musician, you get the idea that his time as an “odd job man” was odder than most. He doesn’t reach “musician” until number 27 on this CV, followed by “traveller” and finally, “instrument maker”.

Some of these gaps are filled in by writers such as John Byrne (2019) and Kevin S. Eden (2001) on the reissues, and Jeanette Leech in her 2010 survey of psychedelic and weird folk, Seasons They Change. Some tales include O’Shea’s time in the British Army, which scandalised his mother – but he eventually made amends by going AWOL, a move that led to him being court-martialled and spending six months in solitary. O’Shea also leaves out a serious double-punch of hepatitis and dysentery he contracted in Bangladesh, which led to him picking up the sitar while he was recovering. There’s also a short-lived residency at the legendary London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s, and he also shared stages with Ravi Shankar, Alice Coltrane and Don Cherry. A collaboration with Matt Johnson of The The sadly fizzled out, as did an album with Rick Wakeman.

Screenshot 2019-02-15 at 13.30.12

Even if the album sounds like an aural scrapbook of the artist’s travels and experiences up until that day of recording, the story of the record itself begins with Wire’s Graham Lewis being stopped dead in his tracks by O’Shea’s playing in Covent Garden in the summer of 1980, while he was out for a pint with fellow Wire man Bruce Gilbert. It’s a chance encounter with shades of Can’s Holger Czuki and Jaki Liebezeit discovering their alchemic Japanese frontman Damo Suzuki busking in Munich in 1970.

Even though Lewis admits it was “a bloody long time ago”, he still recounts to me a vivid memory of the meeting 39 years ago. Graham recalls: “I’d stepped out of The White Lion on James Street for a breath of fresh air, and I became aware of a beautiful noise that appeared to be emanating from down the street towards the old market. I followed it and found a figure in a shop’s entrance, sitting on a portable amplifier, hunched over a multi-stringed box he was beating with a pair of sticks.

“This person had a white turban with a large emerald brooch, huge hooped gold earrings, a navy double-breasted blazer, a cream blouse and pleated knee-length shirt, matching stockings and a pair of black high-heeled shoes with large gold buckles. The shop’s glass entrance produced an audio funnel which was channelling the sound into the open street where it was bouncing off the Opera House… I legged it back to the pub and insisted that Bruce came to ratify this vision! We loved the noise!”

This vision didn’t evaporate like a regular street performance that wafts by on a walk through any big city. Lewis and Gilbert were having a pint with cartoonist Tom Johnson the next day, and told him of the previous night’s encounter. Graham says Tom “knew of Michael”, and gave them an abridged back story.

“He told us how the likes of Rick Wakeman had recognised Michael’s talent and tried to help and promote him, but all had come to nought,” Lewis says. “After we’d met Michael a few times you understood how that might be… he was an elusive free spirit with a developed taste for drink and drugs.

“Regardless, we explained we had a label, Dome, loved his noise and if he wanted to record, we were often to be found at a studio near London Bridge called Black Wing.”

O’Shea took liberties with the open invitation — turning up to Black Wing over a year later, while Lewis and Gilbert were editing the posthumous (at the time) Wire album Document and Eyewitness — the experimental performance art left turn that drew a line under the band’s first phase. No doubt they were channelling mischief and disillusionment with the music industry, so no better man than Michael O’Shea to be knocking on their door.

“I turned up on my bike and found Michael sitting in the garden adjacent to the studio, in summer tweeds, trilby hat and brogues, sitting enjoying a smoke in the warm morning sun,” Graham remembers. “I was both surprised and happy! Thank goodness it was a day we were in the studio. ‘Hey! Hey!’ says Michael. ‘The planets are favourable aligned… today’s a good day to record, if that’s possible?”

The Wire link is a convenient hook for music historians and critics, and Lewis has gone on record before, to proclaim: “I always said it was the best thing we ever did.” It’s also tempting to attribute the smudgy electronics and echoes on ‘Anfa Dásachtach’ and ‘Voices’ to Lewis and Gilbert, who were experimenting with avant-garde circuitry in Dome at the time. However, Graham is quick to deflect any praise back to Michael’s mercurial playing that day — especially on the record’s 15-minute centrepiece ‘No Journeys End’, from its celestial, cyclical motifs, to the delicate patter of sticks on wood that evokes Irish Sean-nos tap dancing. Incredibly, Michael improvised the piece in one take — two if counting a quickly aborted version.

Graham says: “His beaters were made from light paint brushes which were taped in three places to facilitate the playing of chords and sympathetic string drones. He had FX, a phaser and a delay as far as I can recall. He was hunched over with his head down when playing, the very picture of concentration… when he got in a groove he was gone.

“He favoured paint brushes because they were light and springy. The percussive qualities were completely integrated into his sound. Tap dancing, absolutely. It was a kind of Irish-Atlas Mountain-Turkish jiggery-pokery!

“As producers, our greatest contribution was to get him into the studio, get him comfortable, explain the task in hand to Eric Radcliffe, the owner and engineer at Black Wing Studio, and then stand back and support Michael’s exploration of the studio with Eric’s guidance. He was making the Michael O’Shea Album…”

Given O’Shea’s reported self-sabotage and other aborted missions in recorded and live music, the album’s existence feels all the more miraculous. Michael shunned Ronnie Scott’s and the Royal Festival Hall for tube stations, street corners and living rooms. He made another contribution to avant-garde post-punk electronic history with his feature on Stano’s 1983 album Content To Write In I Dine Weathercraft  – another Irish treasure reissued by Allchival last year. The track ‘Seance of a Kondalike’ is another mystical trip on Mo Chara with a further nudge into proto-ambient techno. Word is that between other gaps in his story, O’Shea was embracing the rave scene in the late 80s, but a tantalising new age techno/Mo Chara fusion wasn’t to be. Michael tragically died in 1991, five days after stepping off a bus and being hit by a post van – leaving behind precious few recordings, but a legend that keeps unfurling.

All City Records shop and label boss Olan O’Brien seems humbled by the effect the reissue has had, saying: “We’re delighted with the reaction to the record, and especially delighted that Graham and Bruce of Dome Records had the foresight to take a chance on recording this all those years ago. It showed an incredible vision. Along with Michael, they’re the real heroes in this story.”

As Olan points out, many people are hearing Michael O’Shea for the first time — heartfelt praise from the likes of Pitchfork and Boomkat doesn’t do any harm – but for many others the album has been such a huge part of their lives for years. Keith McIvor, aka JD Twitch of Glasgow duo Optimo — also in the business of unearthing lost treasures on their Optimo Music label — says Michael O’Shea is something of a desert island disc record.

He says: “Trying to ever put together a list of my favourite ever albums would prove impossible but if I could, this would be in there. I have heard this album hundreds of times and yet still hear new things in it every time. The track ‘No Journey’s End’ is one of the most transcendental pieces of music I’ve ever heard and feels like it could last an hour and still not be nearly long enough. A truly remarkable record unlike any other that has finally had a most deserved reissue.”

Producer and DJ Mick ‘T-Woc’ O’Donoghue – who has also released on All City – says he’s a relative late starter, but the sound of Mo Chara has imprinted itself.

“This record has been on my radar only a couple of years, I probably heard about it through fellow disco e cultura DJ and Quare Groove co-compiler Jeremy Murphy,” Mick tells me. “The artist’s backstory, the home-made instrument, cult label and only solo release would make any digger’s ears prick up. But the fact that it’s Irish and that it is actually a really beautiful record makes this really extra special.

“Musically, it kinda occupies this unusual space between times and places that makes it difficult to pinpoint, it’s both otherworldly and exotic but  familiar at the same time. It is totally unique.”

And I know you’re not supposed to read the comments, but one of Michael’s old friends appears below the YouTube upload for ‘No Journeys End’, with an evocative tribute to a genuine free spirit who transcended any scenes or conventions.

Screenshot 2019-02-15 at 13.36.23Writing two years ago, Michele Piteo reveals: “He was genuinely  tuned to the astral plane… these types of moonlit artists shun the spotlight. The real Mike O’Shea loved to play and entertain at home. He had a workshop/bedroom at first in Hampstead, London… after staying overnight, there was sense of another dimension… let alone the eerie sound of the trains passing by at the bottom of his garden… heard from within his home those trains  sounded spooky/otherworldly.

“Super-sensitive and loved humour; loved to entertain his many friends at home more than give concerts or bother to make albums. RIP… Miko, you are much loved and missed and kept us entertained, either clowning around or going into a serious trance state when the sticks were flying over the strings…”

INTERVIEW: “Our man in Ireland”: John ‘Failed Bohemian’ Byrne on his decades chasing the Michael O’Shea story

John Byrne is an Irish writer, record collector, music historian and archivist who has been instrumental in preserving the story of Michael O’Shea. He has written liner notes for the latest Allchival release, and was also thanked on the Wire Music Order CD reissue as “our man in Ireland”. Byrne also contacted Jeanette Leech to ensure O’Shea was included in her survey of psychedelic and weird folk, Seasons They Change. He also jointly curated the amazing All City compilation Quare Groove Vol 1, a collection of early underground Irish electronic music.

I caught up with John recently and he offered up some thoughts on his own journey with the record. In an initial email, he told me: “It’s been a couple of decades of a journey, from most of a couple of years of phone calls to find Mikes family and friends in the late 90s, through a CD reissue that couldn’t get arrested back in 2001, back into obscurity, and onwards through a couple of small twists and turns to today, where it seems this issue is gonna get properly arrested!”

The album clearly means a great deal to you, do you remember the first time you heard it?
I don’t have a definite memory of the first time listening to the album. I likely heard someone like Philip King (still broadcasting to us 37 years later in 2019!) play it back on its 1982 issue. So, I was aware of it on release, but a 14-year-old doesn’t have enough money to buy all the records of interest! Also, this was long before online commerce, and I never saw the record on a shop shelf at the time it first hit.

I read about Michael in the one proper periodical music feature on him that’s still known to us, in Dave Clifford’s VOX magazine. [VOX – Just republished in its entirety by Hi-Tone books, with a wee foreword by my bad self, amongst new writings by several others too.] The following year in 1983, one of the most unique recording events in Irish recording history happened.

Stano’s first album Content To Write In I Dine Weathercraft came into being. I bought it with money gifted from my parents for my 15th birthday, and was floored at the audacity of its variety – still am. Also just reissued on All City records, as well. Everything’s getting refried! The thing that immediately grabbed me about Content was Stano’s collaboration with Michael. ‘Seance Of A Kondalike’ still sounds to me like a time before religion, yes, even pre-pagan. It was truly remarkable that Stano, who was ostensibly from the post-punk generation, could readily find common ground with a travelling hippie troubadour. These things tended to be deeply segregated back then, but Michael was able to cross such barriers with ease.

I didn’t manage to find a copy of Michael O’Shea until a small few years later, and then it took a very rabid search for the thing all over the face of London town to find one. Don’t think about emigrating to an English city the week that Margaret Thatcher cuts the dole in half kids, but repatriate Michael O’Shea home to the Irish sod instead! Mark Prendergast was the writer of that Michael O’Shea VOX article. He wrote the very first book on the history of Irish rock music a very short time after this. Michael and Stano were both given pride of place within. (Irish Rock. Roots, Personalities, Directions – O’Brien Press, 1987)

It’s a journey that’s lasted a few decades, but I’d like to know what made you persist again after the CD reissue “couldn’t get arrested”. Why do you think now is the right time?
The time was not right in 2001, because there wasn’t so a great an interest in acoustic or weird folk music at that time, as compared to now. An ever-burgeoning revival of interest in all of the progressive folk musics started in the 1960s has been heavily underway, and constantly superannuating through the last 20 years.

This was only really starting to get going in any serious manner though, back in the early 2000s. The next generation of musicians to come along and get inspired and also get famous doing so – people such as Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart – these only came to proper public attention a very short time after the first reissue of Michael O’Shea. The label that made that reissue wound down operations after the CD release (WMO records –  or ‘Wire Music Order’), as it was the last Wire-related thing that they had in their brief that needed doing. They destroyed the remaining stocks of the CD, thus rendering that CD quite collectible now!

f-a-11-0-1-seasons-they-changeIt was clear that this big weird folk revival thingy was still bypassing Michael O’Shea a few years later. I made online contact with Jeanette Leech, who was in the process of writing her international survey of psychedelic and weird folk, eventually published as Seasons They Change in 2010. I gave Jeanette information on some Irish weird folk recordings, including Michael O’Shea. Jeanette made a fabulous context for Mike in her book. I found an autographed copy of the original Michael O’Shea online shortly before the publication of the book. You can see it reproduced in the new reissue inner sleeve. I got it for pennies then. Other copies were scarce, and all but unwanted before that.

Now, so-called ‘psych-folk’ is a watchword in ever-increasing prices for collectibles in record collecting circles. What happened next was obvious as day, and nobody’s fault. Attention was needed! It was a trade-off between creating a newly collectible artefact, and getting the music out there again. As soon as the book was published, the apparent market value for both previous issues of the album began to climb, and interest began to build. Little things like the one YouTube clip of ‘No Journey’s End’ being perennially available to be heard by folks – this helped to get attention too.

Really in the end, timing meant nothing to me here. If the sequence of events that led to this reissue hadn’t happened, I’m the sort who would be even more hell-bent on making things like this happen anyway, precisely for the same reasons as earlier, to get the music out there again. I’m just grateful that Olan at All City Records had the same interest in getting Michael O’Shea back out there, and doubly grateful that there appears to be an audience this time out.

It’s important that the album reissue has the blessing of Michael’s family. How difficult was it to track them down, and how did they feel about the project?
I was researching a compilation of Irish music in the late 1990s. I wanted the aforementioned duet  with Stano (‘Seance Of A Kondalike’) for it, but I just couldn’t find Michael, or any information on him. It was clear that even by the time of Mark Prendergast’s book that Michael had given up on anything like a performing career. Even though the internet was around for quite a few years by then, you just didn’t have the kind of endemic interconnectedness that we have today. You can find most folks in minutes on the world’s largest online chatroom now, but back over 20 years ago, you might have had 20 months of phone calls and no lead in sight, until the last phone call.

a3868923207_10Folks would scan the entire name lists of phone books to track people. I had gotten nowhere and to the end of my tether, so THAT decision had been made. Off with me on a bus or two to Michael’s Carlingford home place, with a copy of his record under me oxter! On the day that I’d decided to do that, I made one last-ditch attempt. I rang the local post office in Carlingford. The telephone operator there said, ‘I’m putting you on to the local Fianna Fail politician Peter Savage, he’ll know how to find your man’.

I was about to beg not to have one of that number be visited upon me, but it was too late. I was already sharing the phone line with the same hombre. I never had a use for an elected representative before, nor since. Here’s hoping that maintains! I have to give dues to Mr Savage though. He got 20 years of prodigal history reined back inside 20 minutes on another phone line, while I scribbled his eavesdropped findings. I was talking to Michael’s sister Rita in her Dublin work place 20 minutes later. Both she and Michael’s mother had gone south to Dublin decades before. Michael along with his brother Seamus, and their sister Nuala – they had all made London their home since the 1960s..

2001 CD reissue

[Before the 2001 CD reissue] A few weeks after I found the O’Sheas, I found Wire biographer Kevin S. Eden’s plea for information on Michael, as he wanted to reissue the album as his last project for his WMO label. I sent him an email telling him that if he wanted to talk to Michael, he’d have to dig him up… The CD reissue went from there. Myself and Stano met an old musician friend of Michael’s called Larry Burns by chance in a Dublin café a few weeks later. Quite an amount of what we know about Michael’s music life is from Larry’s anecdotal testament. I got info from Larry in Dublin and in my Cork home, and Kevin interviewed all three O’Shea siblings together in London town. So me and Kevin Eden more so, we put together all the information that we could pool for the first Michael O’Shea reissue. I got credited with things I didn’t do, and not with things that I actually did, but who cares? It got done

I’ve been speaking to Rita about her brother since then. She spent her professional life as a matron in a Dublin children’s hospital. She’s given lots of information that only a family member would know regarding Michael, and it means a lot that she was excited about the prospect of her brother’s record well, becoming a record again! I wish I had the larger word space now that was possible in the earlier CD reissue to let Michael’s family give testament again. Michael’s siblings have led very different lives to him, but their memories of their departed brother have been inviolably invaluable.

Do you think people in Ireland are becoming more curious about parallel music histories and legacies beyond the typical rock/trad/pop route we get fed through Reeling in the years etc? (I’m also thinking here of the awesome Quare Groove Vol 1, cheers for that!)
If we ain’t blooding them, this post-colonial culture has curdled everything! But seriously, there is a slow-dawning awareness that there is more than the surface you describe, waiting to be scratched.

Still, those nostalgia programs can get people’s curiosity up too. More people are looking for recordings from the Irish past now; time was when you nearly knew every single person who had such a predilection, not long ago. Many of the few reissues of things that happen are often because the artist themselves has survived and thrived long enough for them to get curious to see their things exhumed, so they just go and do it themselves. Good on them, but it really is to be hoped that other folks would take up the cudgels for musicians, and get more stuff back out there.

The stalwart traditional labels are good at getting their old catalogues refried, but they of course have a preservationist perspective.  It’s quite remarkable how much musical activity can take place on one tiny island. It’s not completely mapped out yet, but we’re working on it. We’ll have to work fast. In most walks of life, the lack of preservation in a post-colonial culture is all pervasive. Every person’s passing is an unquantifiable loss, in their area of endeavour. It’s like capturing a gone world while it’s still disappearing on front of you, almost. A few generations later, and it’ll be non-existent.

The idea of Michael getting into rave and electronic music is a really tantalising, bittersweet prospect. Do you know how much he embraced the culture or whether he had many plans in that scene?
I was told by musical friends that he was experimenting with mixing his dulcimer playing with the new ‘dance’ music of the late 80s, but that’s pretty much all we know. I might surmise that it could  have been very hard to tether Michael’s improvisational flights onto a quantised rhythm. It takes a very particular type of verve to get something real out of such fusions, but it looks like we may never know what Michael’s experiments were like.

There are very few known surviving recordings at all, and nothing of that type. We could hope that this new Michael O’Shea release might prise something out. If anyone has tapes out there, I’m more than all ears!

It must be borne in mind that Michael had an abiding interest in electronics since the dawning of the fusion of electronics into rock music, back in the late 1960s. He hardwired his acoustic instrument into deep electronic effects long before house music hit London, pretty much as soon as he started hand-building the things even, over 40 years ago.

There were but a few consistent acousto-electric experimenters before him in weird folk music, at least those who were willing to completely meld the very ancient with the very modern in this same integral manner. He went in deeper than anyone. There’s nothing in the world of acoustically generated, but electronically processed sound quite like ‘Anfa Dásachtach’, the closing piece on Michael’s album. France’s Emmanuelle Parrenin comes close to this. She ran the equally ancient hurdy-gurdy through similar kinds of electronic effects, not long before Michael invented his Mo Chara. These folks were the last frontier though. The number of interesting progressive acoustic musicians had long been on the dwindle, since the first half of the 1970’s. By the time of Michael O’Shea and it’s heavy acousto-electro experiment in 1982, this was an all but extinct music, until the next folk revival came along…

Michael O’Shea is available at All City Records, 4, Crow St Dublin 2, and can be ordered here. Many thanks to Graham Lewis, Olan at All City, John Byrne, JD Twitch and T-Woc for their contributions, and guiding me on my own journey into the Michael O’Shea world.