Home » Arts & Culture » Pat Costello: A Man For All Seasons

Pat Costello: A Man For All Seasons

BY Bríd Costello

THE world of traditional music lost one of its staunchest champions with the passing of Patrick Joseph Costello earlier this month.

A well-known broadcaster and musician, Pat went by almost as many names as he had passions. Known as Patrick, Paddy, Packie, P, Daddy or Grandad, depending on who he was speaking to at the time, he was a polymath whose breadth of knowledge touched a vast number of subjects ranging from mechanics and information technology to art, poetry and philosophy. And what he didn’t know, he was eager to learn.

Born in 1947, in the parish of Moycarkey, County Tipperary, Pat was the firstborn child of Molly and Jerry Costello. He developed a love for music at a very early age and often reminisced about his first instrument – an upturned biscuit tin and a pair of knives.

“There was always rhythm. It was never noise,” says his sister Peggy, adding their mother Molly bought Pat his first drum kit and later a banjo. “It was in the blood. He said himself he couldn’t accept the credit for any of it, it was given to him. He was just automatically able to make music, it oozed from him, even just when he was playing the biscuit tin.”

Both Molly and Jerry were musical and encouraged Pat to play. Molly would bake apple tarts, bread and scones to keep musicians fed during impromptu sessions in their cottage in Shanballa.

“Everywhere he went Paddy made music and lifelong friends,” says Peggy, adding his love of learning and culture came from Jerry, who was also a keen storyteller.

“To say we got up to all kinds of devilment would be an understatement,” says Michael Stapleton, a life-long friend who was best man at Pat and Rita’s wedding, recalling a memorable night in Glengoole. “We brought this straggler who turned out to be a mechanic at the Garda training college. He was a mean piper and better still had [the pipes] with him. So here we were and Paddy trying to blow up the bagpipes outside the Chapel gates. It was around 4 o’clock in the morning. We had to make a run for it when the cows in the field opposite started mooing at us and we could see the lights coming on in some of the windows in the village. It was on a Friday night come Saturday morning and Paddy was rostered to work Saturday from 8 am so rather than go home he headed to work and had a few hours’ sleep in the boiler house.”

Pat was a lover of art in all its guises, including theatre and amateur dramatics, playing a role as a young man in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. He also had a love for filmmaking and photography, interests he shared with his friend Jim Finn, among others. Jim recalls mishaps in makeshift darkrooms at their homes, and participating in the Cork Festival of Amateur Photography.

“I owe my skills in black-and-white printing to Paddy,” said Jim, adding with a laugh that many of his anecdotes are not suitable for print. “For the rest of my life I will feel honoured that I knew Paddy Costello.”

After being introduced at a party in Ballsbridge in the late Sixties by Albert Murphy (RIP), a mutual friend, Pat and Rita Chambers married in 1970. After setting up home in Killenaule while Pat worked in Bord na Móna, the young couple welcomed their eldest daughters Eimear and Mary.

“There were times when he was living in Killenaule he’d bring us all back to the house for a bit more music and he’d shout down the hallway ‘Petal is there any chance you’d make a few sandwiches for the lads?’ and up she’d get and feed the lot of us,” Michael Stapleton adds. “She’s a very special type of woman Rita.”

When Pat accepted a position as a metalwork instructor at Anco (later to become known as Fás) in 1977 they became one of the many families to settle in the newly established town of Shannon.

“Paddy was part of the music scene in Shannon before we even moved in,” says Rita. “We settled in really quickly.”

Strong bonds were forged with neighbours, including the O’Donoghues, Tierneys, Organs, Lernihans, Meehans, O’Donovans and Lennons. By the time their younger children, Bríd and Pádraig, arrived, the youngest residents of Cronan Lawn were flitting between houses as if they were moving between rooms in their own homes.

“People were [coming] here from different places and were reacting to one another and were meeting and conversing and doing the things that you would normally do if you were in New York or Boston or somewhere, trying to find a new direction and a new life. Shannon was fantastic,” Pat told Clare FM’s Paula Carroll during a Kitchen Sessions taping in Rita’s kitchen in 2018. “This is a new town, it’s a fresh town and it’s still fresh. The people that are here are fantastic, tremendous neighbours. You know [there’s an] extraordinary sense of neighbourliness and friendship.”

Pat was always eager to play his part in building a sense of community within the town. This meant setting up an improvised cinema in Drumgeely Hall; helping with Community Games and encouraging children to participate in the Tidy Towns competition. Children long since grown up will also recall his floats for Saint Patrick’s Day and a caravan he festooned with dolls and teddy bears for a Children’s Day parade. What little spare time he had, Pat, always faithfully flanked by Rita, spent with the family exploring the Burren, negotiating canoes and kayaks around the beaches of Seafield and Ballyalla lake in Clare, or fostering a love of reading and music at home.

Participating in Shannon Archaeological and Historical Society outings and events were also regular activities. Pat was an active member of the group for several decades, and enjoyed leading outings to local places of historical interest, as well as attending talks given by other enthusiasts. Passing his love of lore and history to young people was once again a passion of Pat’s. Indeed, his daughter Bríd recalls having had more knowledge of Síle Na Gig than was deemed appropriate for her age by her primary school teacher.

“The study and awareness of history and archaeology has regrettably been viewed by a great many people as a rather morbid curiosity in the past,” Pat wrote in a 1987 Chairman’s letter prefacing The Other Clare, The Shannon Archaeological and Historical Society’s periodical. “As an active and enthusiastic society, we would hope to present a different perspective. History provides us with a platform from which we may secure a cultural identity, a sense of direction perhaps. There is no greater pleasure than to see the joy in a young child’s face as the shadowy figures from the history book spring to life in the gnarled weather-beaten stones of some obscure tower house. A keener awareness of the past by all of us would certainly temper the senseless destruction and abuse of our national artefacts and indeed the environment as a whole.”

“I remember one evening in 1988 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Armada we all met to hear some lecturer from Dublin,” recalls Dick Cronin. “He rang at the last minute to say he couldn’t come. Pat volunteered to give the talk. It was absolutely fascinating, down to the leather valves in the Spanish bilge pumps. Pat was also a fluent Gaelic speaker but had the good manners to only use it when all the company were conversant.”

Fuelling young people’s interests, particularly in music, history and any kind of technology, was a lifelong passion. Tutoring sessions with budding musicians was a common occurrence in Pat and Rita’s house.

“I will always remember walking in to the beautiful smell of spices in the kitchen and sitting down wondering which instrument Pat would have out on that occasion,” says banjo and mandolin player, Jamie Kirby, who was introduced to Pat as a young boy. “The first tune, and, to this day, one of my favourites, was The Wind That Shakes The Barley. Pat sat me down and started to talk about ornamentation and correct technique. He had a gentle way of speaking and could make anyone of any age feel at ease. He introduced me to instruments I had never seen before, to musicians I could only learn to appreciate. He talked about influence from bluegrass and folk from all over the world. It’s only now that I truly understand the vast knowledge that Pat was willing to share.

“Pat invited me to attend a gathering of banjo greats at The University of Limerick,” Jamie continues. “I remember the thrill of having to leave school early to be able to go with him. This was the day I got to meet the late great Barney McKenna and Tom Cussen for the first time. In my eyes, Pat and these men were superstars. I was nervous to even sit at the same table as them. Pat has been and will forever be a huge influence on my music.”

“An amazing musician who shared his talents and knowledge with everyone he knew,” adds Dick Cronin. “He had an understanding of all genres of music from classical to soul, jazz, Russian traditions, African rhythms, he was a truly universal bard.”

Indeed, Pat was part of a coterie of exceptional musicians enjoying a vibrant and varied music scene in Clare, Galway and beyond. As well as playing in informal sessions with musicians all over Ireland, Pat played music as part of Shaskeen over several decades.

“In 1988 Shaskeen recorded the album Atlantic Breeze in Greenfield Studios in Headford and Pat Costello came in as the producer,” recalls Tom Cussen. “Pat also produced the next album in 1990, The Mouse Behind The Dresser, and also designed the cover. He went on to produce all four set dancing albums in which he also played.

“He brought with him his wealth of music,” continues Tom. “And how to approach it to get things done in a very correct fashion. In later years, when Shaskeen turned to do more concert-style gigs this is where Pat came into his own. He had a huge interest in folk songs and old timey music, and brought this to the band and expanded its repertoire.”

Paddy’s musical travels took him throughout Europe, the United States, Russia and the Caribbean, to name but a few destinations.

At home, Pat loved nothing more than spending an evening playing in a cosy corner of The Honk in Newmarket-on-Fergus, Brogan’s in Ennis or O’Connor’s in Doolin, or enjoying hectic sessions during the Willie Clancy Week in Miltown Malbay. Long-time friend and fellow musician Pat Mullins recalls one night when he, Pat, John Joe Casey and John Lyons were due to play in John Boyle’s bar in Clarecastle. Pat was driving, but all three of his passengers were keen to give advice about where to park.

“Pat said ‘wait there for just a minute’ and went to the boot of the car,” recalls Pat Mullins. “He returned with three steering wheels and handed one to each of us and said ‘ye can park the f-ing car wherever ye want.’ It seems he was working on a project making some sort of go-carts for the kids at the time, which accounts for the number of steering wheels.”

Pat had the opportunity to share his love and knowledge of music with an even wider audience when he joined Clare FM as a presenter. Over the years he fronted and produced a series of programmes, each filled with an eclectic mix of local traditional music and tunes from much farther afield.

“When God created time, and patience, he donated an extra handful of each to Pat,” says a note shared by the Clare FM Team. “How else could he guide fledgling broadcasters, impart wisdom among his peers, educate so many on finer musical traditions, and engineer, produce and present a catalogue of some of the best programmes ever produced in the station’s history? For twenty-five years the master with the distinguished voice and the precise and eloquent elocution weaved his magic across the airwaves of County Clare and much further afield. His fan mail extended all over the world, even to the far reaches of the Philippines. The confines of deadlines would never hasten a programme that was never, in his opinion, good enough, nor would a busy working day ever interfere with the imparting of another great idea for a radio programme. There were so many magical programmes that flowed through that creative head, so many more magnificent words and songs that needed to be heard, so many more wicked chuckles that needed to be shared. Our hearts are heavy and sad, but while the ‘Wheels of the World’ will keep turning, and ‘Gentle Folk’ will resume their business, there’s a distant sound of a banjo carried softly on the ‘West Wind,’ and it’s that which will lift our hearts.”

Pat was acutely aware of the power of music to unite people. On several occasions he spearheaded efforts to raise funds for community causes, including recording Meitheal albums in aid of Clare Care. Most recently he could be seen busking with singer and guitarist Blaise Phelan in Shannon Town Centre in aid of Bunratty Search and Rescue.

“His passion to help others and his generosity in sharing his immense knowledge, has enhanced the lives of all who knew Pat,” says Blaise.

But there were also countless little gestures of kindness and generosity that have gone unrecorded, including his making stew for anti-war protesters; inviting panhandlers for tea, and once giving the pedals from his own bicycle to a tourist who arrived in Shannon Airport only to discover his bike was missing the vital part. At the request of Shannon’s former Parish Priest, Father Tom, Pat designed the Jubilee Garden for Saints John and Paul Church to commemorate Saint Pope John Paul’s visit to Ireland and his blessing of the church’s foundation stone. He equipped and set up a recording studio for students in The Rosses Community School in Dungloe where his daughter Mary was then Deputy Principal. (Mary is now Principal of Shannon’s St Patrick’s Comprehensive School.) Not to mention the innumerate times he helped friends out of IT or audio-visual conundrums.

“Paddy was generous to a fault,” says Rita. “Beyond his musical instruments, CDs, books and recording equipment, possessions really didn’t mean much to him. More than anything, he was generous with his time. He loved nothing more than giving young people a helping hand. Their enthusiasm and energy really fuelled him.”

Many Shannon residents will remember Pat thanks to his involvement with the town’s successful twinning with Guingamp in Brittany. As one of the founding members of the Twinning Committee, Pat played a vital role in setting the tone for an international collaboration that celebrates culture, good humour, friendship and craic.

When an Ogham stone was chosen as a gift from Shannon to the Breton town, Pat was once again a key player in ensuring the project came to fruition.

“The word Guingamp is French; the Breton name of the town is Gwengamp, and Pat felt that to use the French version would be neither politically correct or appropriate, as Brittany certainly wasn’t French in the time of Ogham writing, whatever about now,” recalls long-time friend John O’Brien. “The problem was that the Ogham alphabet was a bit deficient in characters and sadly lacked, amongst others, the letter W. So extensive deliberations and agonising over what to put on the stone took place. Pat determined that the approximate meaning of Gwengamp in Breton was holy or hallowed encampment (in the military sense). Various local scholars of the Irish language were consulted and acquainted with the limitations of the Ogham alphabet. The eventual solution was arrived at, Ionad Beannaithe, and this is what was cut into the stone, in Pat’s backyard. The stone was mounted on a beautiful wooden base, also designed and finished by Pat, and delivered to Brittany, in the hold of the Costello minibus, (this was in pre ‘people-carrier’ days).”

Twinning Committee members soon became fast friends, and informal visits shored up decades-long relationships.

“When Pat and Rita came to us, Josiane and I, it was a great party every time,” recalls Herve ar Beg. “Singing, music, cooking, bubbles and Irish coffees, radio broadcasts, visiting friends, family and Breton calvars. Pat was as good a handyman as he was a storyteller about County Clare and the history of Ireland.”

Sport played an important role in Pat’s life, too. He would often recount that as a young man he would play soccer in the morning, rugby in the afternoon and hurling in the evening. (Receiving a GAA ban at one point for playing “the foreign game.”) He played for Ballingarry Wasps in Tipperary before taking up number eight, second row and front row positions for Saint Senan’s in Shannon.

Pat’s love of sport and audio-visual technology collided in 1978 when he played a small role in securing Munster’s famous victory against the All Blacks. in his book about the match, Stand Up And Fight, author Alan English recalls a recording of an All Blacks match being flown to Shannon, so that the Munster players could study the team in advance of the game. Given that audio-visual equipment was scarce at the time and Pat was known as somewhat of a technology guru, he was tasked with collecting the recording in Shannon Airport and setting up a viewing for the Munster team. At the time of the book’s publishing, Pat’s identity was a mystery and he was only identified as being six foot two and wearing a red jumper. It was Rita, upon reading the book on holidays, who was able to elucidate English and the man in the red jumper’s identity was revealed.

So many watching the webcam footage of Pat’s funeral in Saints John and Paul’s Church on Thursday, April 2, felt keenly the incongruity of the small sedate ceremony made necessary by current global circumstances with a man whose life was all about people, sound and merriment. However, if we pause and reflect, just as Pat was apt to do, we just might appreciate that his quiet departure from this physical world allows us time. Time to grieve. Time to mourn. Time to cry. So that when the time comes to celebrate his life as befitting a life as rich as his, our hands will have ceased to tremble with emotion, our voices will not be choked by the rush of raw grief, our eyes will not be blinded by the swell of unshed tears. The better to pick up our instruments, raise our voices in song and lift our eyes to the heavens to wonder at the new star shining brightly above us.

About Fiona McGarry

Avatar
Fiona McGarry joined The Clare Champion as a reporter after a four-year stint as producer of Morning Focus on Clare FM. Prior to that she worked for various radio, print and online titles, including Newstalk, Maximum Media and The Tuam Herald. Fiona’s media career began in her native Mayo when she joined Midwest Radio. She is the maker of a number of radio documentaries, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). She has also availed of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to report on development issues supported by Irish Aid in Haiti. She won a Justice Media Award for a short radio series on the work of Bedford Row Project, which supports prisoners and families in the Mid-West. Fiona also teaches on the Journalism programmes at NUI Galway. If you have a story and would like to get in touch with Fiona you can email her at fmcgarry@clarechampion.ie or telephone 065 6864146.

Check Also

‘We need more dissenting voices,’ says emerging Ennis poet

AT 74-years of age Ennis man Martin Knox admits he left it rather late to …