Phil Coulter: An icon of Irish music

By John Fitzgerald

Phil Coulter has an uncanny way with music. He can give expression to any sentiment, idea, story, or emotion via his writing. His compositions would draw tears from a stone. His song The Town I love so Well has won the hearts of millions; not only in Ireland but across the globe, with its homage to the city of his birth and its heartfelt plea for justice.

It took on a new lease of life when the “armoured cars and the bombed-out bars” of the North passed into history after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. With Scorn Not His Simplicity Phil raised awareness of Down’s syndrome at a time when it was little understood and families worldwide battled against ignorance and prejudice.

The Derry man’s walls are covered with the scores of gold, platinum and silver awards he has accumulated for his soul-stirring music and performances. His musical achievements are jaw-dropping, and not even the dreaded Covid 19 pandemic could hold his creative energies in check or break his indomitable spirit: He swatted up on the latest technology to reach out to his millions of fans.

Philip Coulter was born in February 1942, the fourth of five children in the family. His father, an RUC officer, was from Strangford, County Down and his mother came from Belfast. A Catholic in the predominantly Protestant RUC was rare enough in those days.

Derry had a rich and lively musical tradition, and from an early age Phil couldn’t avoid hearing music in his home because his father played the fiddle and his mother the piano. Both parents encouraged young Phil to take an interest in one or other of the instruments. And if he ventured out of the house, he was likely to hear someone singing or playing behind the walls of any home he passed.

Phil preferred the piano to the fiddle, but initially he struggled with it, even, for a while, coming to hate the sight of it. His music teacher despaired and his father thought the lessons were a waste of time, but Phil persevered and “bested” the piano by other means. He took to playing tunes he heard on the radio, among the first being Buttons and Bows. He made rapid progress and by the end of a three year stint at St. Columb’s Secondary School he was turning heads whenever he sat down to press those alluring keys.

He went on to study music at Queens’ University and shook up that sober institution when he formed his own band. Surprise turned to consternation in some quarters when he announced that he’d be playing rock-and-roll rather than classical music. This seemed to go against his training and the lofty ethos of the University. He also founded the University’s Glee Club which organised musical gigs.

His talent began to get noticed. Then he felt the urge to write songs. While still a student in 1963 he penned Foolin’ Time which became a hit for the Capitol Showband, and co-wrote other compositions and arrangements that also brought success to the performers, including Twinkle who notched up a UK number four hit with Phil’s arrangement of Terry.

When he left Queens’ University in 1964 he continued songwriting, moving to London where he landed a position as arranger/song writer with a music publisher. His career took off like a rocket. Over the following decade he wrote the melodies for a succession of wildly popular songs, including Puppet on a String, which won the 1967 Eurovision song contest for Sandie Shaw prior to becoming a global smash hit; and Congratulations, sung by Cliff Richards which came second in the 1968 Euro contest.

The prolific Derry man was never fazed by success, several Top Ten hits flowing from his magical pen to complement his Eurovision coups. In 1973 he wrote The Town I Love So Well, a song that evoked memories of his childhood in Derry and embodies a powerful plea for peace in a troubled land. Luke Kelly of the Dubliners electrified audiences when he sang it, but countless other performers have brought their own styles and interpretations to bear on this immoral classic, among them Mike Denver, Sinead O’Connor and the Irish Tenors.

It has been translated into many languages and never fails to pull at the heartstrings. It was aptly sung at the funeral of the great John Hume, reminding us of the horrors that had been left behind when blessed peace came once again to a people “bruised but never broken.” He also wrote an anti-internment song called Free the People, a plea for justice in the face of the imprisonment without trial of people from nationalist area in the North.

Phil wrote and arranged most of Joe Dolan’s successful 1983 album, Here and Now, adding to the appeal and glittering star status of the Mullingar man. In 1984 Phil Coulter’s artistry took a dramatic twist when he opted to return to Ireland. He set up a musical company in Bray, County Wicklow, and commenced this new chapter of his career with the release of a solo album, Classic Tranquility.

Among the songs included in the album was Scorn Not His Simplicity, inspired by Phil’s recollection of coping with Down’s syndrome in the family. The “Golden Child” honoured in the song mirrors the experiences of his first son, Paul, who lived with the condition and died in 1969. To this day the song is hailed worldwide as a testament to the need to respect the value and inherent human dignity of people with Down’s syndrome.

The list of singers and actors facilitated by Phil’s writing and expertise mounted; Boyzone, Planxty, Butch Moore, Richard Harris, the Bay City Rollers, Van Morrison ,The Dubliners, Billy Connolly, and The Furey Brothers, among them. In 1995, he penned Ireland’s Call, a special anthem for the Irish national rugby team. It became one of the best loved sporting songs in our history.

When he wasn’t writing songs, producing records or advising the greats of the music world, Phil could be found singing and playing the piano at venues across Ireland and Britain. He was a consummate showman, entertaining with anecdotes and pithy observations of life at his shows, drawing on his varied creative career and his upbringing in a virtual war zone.

And he had plenty to reminisce about. The troubles impinged on his own life on a few occasions: He had been performing at a frequently bombed hotel in Belfast when yet another warning was sounded. He had to seek shelter under a table with a bevy of celebrities but saw the funny side of his encounters with the big names of stage and screen he found hunkering there.

Today Phil lives with his wife Geraldine at their home in Bray. He continues to write and even, despite the Coronavirus challenge, to perform. Availing of the internet and other technology he has sung and played to millions of adoring fans throughout the pandemic, many of them confined to their homes under lockdown.

And the walls of his office abound with reminders of his achievements: 39 gold and 23 platinum records, 52 silver albums, two Grand Prix Eurovision awards, three American Society of Composers awards; a Meteor Award, a National Entertainment Award, a 2009 BASCA Gold Badge Award for outstanding contribution to music….the list goes on. Phil Coulter has come a long way since those childhood days in Derry when he almost gave up playing the piano. Thank God he persisted, and long may this national treasure be with us…to inspire, entertain, and fill our lives with joy.

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