Chatting to Paul Cassidy in Carndonagh's bustling Diamond Café, pre-Level 3 restrictions, the combination of focused musician from the Brodsky Quartet, and the mellow storyteller of Get Beethoven! is immediately apparent.
Paul is a grandson of Inishowen. His mum, Celia, hailed from Drumaweir in Greencastle and his dad, Joe (Joseph), Cassidy, the
youngest of eight children, was from Bankhead at the top of the Mill River in Buncrana. Joe subsequently owned the Railway Bar on Derry's Strand Road.
From being on the run in Moville, to summer holidays in Culdaff and Isle of Doagh, the peninsula has played a large part in Paul's life, as was revealed in his recently published autobiography, Get Beethoven!, a nuanced and compelling read.
The engaging raconteur, himself the youngest of 16, said: “There is a lot of Inishowen in Get Beethoven!. My mother's family home was Charlie Brown's cottage, which many people will know. It is a Greencastle landmark, on the upper road as you are going out to Shroove, where you turn off for Kinnagoe Bay.”
Reminiscent of Roald Dahl's 'Boy: Tales of Childhood', Paul did not shy away from the darker elements of growing up in 1960s and 1970s Derry in Getting Beethoven!, the bigotry, snobbery and religiosity of the times.
There is an excoriating description of his time at St Columb's College or Coulterditz as he describes it in a savage nod to its former principal, Monsignor James Coulter.
Get Beethoven! is a perfectly orchestrated yarn in which Paul handles the messy complexity of family, friendship, love, politics, life in general with absolute aplomb. There is sunshine and shadow in Get Beethoven!
Stirring his coffee, Paul said: “I left Derry when I was 16 for all kinds of reasons. It was the mid-70s, things were a little crazy and I was turning 16.
“I went to the College but me and the College didn't get along, to put it mildly and then I found music.
“There was a little orchestra started up in Omagh of all places called the Western Counties Youth Orchestra and I was 14. I had been playing the violin for a while, but in the most basic way. I was taught by my sister, Bridget [Murphy]. She got me started, she gave me lessons.
“But, I just wasn't into it so much. I could do it. I would win all the Feiseanna. They would trot me out and I would come home with the medals but then put the violin away again and go fishing. But, when I was 14, my dad shipped me off to this orchestra, against my will, I can assure you, on a Friday night," grinned Paul.
As it turned out the Western Counties Youth Orchestra was epiphanic for the young Paul Cassidy.
He said: “It was instantaneous. From the very first second that orchestra kicked in, I was entranced. I think the collective had a lot to do with it. I was along with all of my peers.
“Maybe it was because in Derry in those days you had to just duck and dive because you were likely to get hit or shot or beaten. It was a very aggressive environment, generally, with the war and school was a nightmare. Everything was aggressive and fearful.
“To some degree, looking around at people of my age, just there for one thing and completely loving it, that was an amazing feeling.
“To be in amongst 80 people making this amazing sound, just completely blew me away, so from that moment, I took it very seriously and I would be up till three in the morning practising,” said Paul.
Coming to a realisation it would be impossible to continue his musical studies in Derry, Paul said, 'circumstance took charge'.
Laughing he recalled: “I ran away to London and something amazing happened. I met the Registrar of the London College of Music and within six weeks of me leaving Derry, I was preparing for an audition.
“I had no idea, but I found out very quickly that do an audition for music, you have to play two instruments, so I gave myself a year to learn the piano.
“Initially I worked on the building sites but quite quickly, I realised that was not ideal, in fact it was really silly and the slightest accident could have finished my career in music. So, I got myself indoors, and I ended up in a factory and I did that for more than a year, working all day and practising my music all night.
“And a year later, once I learned how to play the piano, through sheer grit and determination, I got into the Royal College of Music, the crème de la crème. I got a scholarship. As my time at college was finishing, I got a phone call asking me if I would like to audition for the Brodsky Quartet,” said Paul.
During his time at college, Paul had found Chamber Music.
He said: “Previously I had had no idea about anything like that. And a string quartet is like the rock band of chamber music, that's the business. It was a similar experience to the Western Counties Youth Orchestra. The first time I played with a string quartet, I just thought, 'This is what I want to do.'
“And, amazingly, just as I was coming towards the end of my studies, I got a phone call and a quartet, called the Brodsky Quartet, who were all the same age as me and were also coming to the end of their studies, and the viola player had left and someone suggested me and they phoned me and said, 'Would you like to come and audition?'
“That was 40 years ago and I am still there. We do concerts all over the world and we make a lot of CDs.
“Covid-19 has thrown a bit of a spanner in the performance works this year. We were in Holland. We were about to play in Utrecht. We had just arrived and were having a bite of lunch and we were about to go and rehearse. Our rehearsal was scheduled for 3 o'clock and we were just getting up from the table and the promoter came in and approached the table and we thought he was coming to say, 'Hello', because we knew him. The prime minister had just been on TV at 3 o'clock and he
closed the country right away. We did manage to get home,” said Paul, who does not think there will be any concerts at all in 2020.
Six months later Paul is back practising his music again as he and his wife Jacqueline, who is the Brodsky Quartet cellist, and daughters, Holly and Celia, enjoy a summer holiday in Inishowen. He is also editing his second book, Got Beethoven!
Paul revealed: “The Quartet has decided to keep ourselves sane and together by making a series of CDs, that possible with the social distancing regulations.
“The first concert we did together was in Derry, on my Birthday, in Magee, September 13, 1982.
“One of my performance highlights was Sydney Opera House because I love that city and it is such an iconic building. To actually go in there and work in there. Things like that are kind of remarkable. The upside of the horrendous travelling. Going to more unusual places like Mexico. You know, how dare Trump make a wall. How dare he make disparaging remarks about people from Mexico. Given a choice, I know which side of the wall I would be on,” said Paul.
Before parting, Paul said: “Get Beethoven! is about this area. It is about me in Derry and Inishowen. It is entertaining. It is a positive journey. I was in a sticky place on many levels and got out as it were and now I am back with the kids. We are back every summer,” he smiled.
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