John Sheahan is the last surviving member of the legendary 5-piece, The Dubliners. For 48 years, he was, according to fellow band member Barney McKenna, "the memory chip" of the band, or, in his own words, the mortar between the bricks.
John was raised in Marino, on Dublin's Northside, and went to the local Christian Brothers school. It was an education largely rooted in fear and rote-learned faith, apart from one kind Brother, Seamus McCaffrey, who instilled a love of music in both John and The Chieftain's Paddy Moloney, teaching them both the tin whistle. John also received classical training in the violin at Dublin's Municipal School of Music and always felt that that addition of classical theory and technique made him a better folk musician.
In many respects, he stood out among the Dubliners. A trained draughtsman and ESB electrician before he joined the band, he was the Quiet Man, a Pioneer, who steadied the band's volatile hard-drinking members through many turbulent years, right from the day he joined them.
"It was a kind of a baptism of fire in a way, because, the actual day I gave in my notice to the ESB, we had a meeting, that evening. And it wasn't in O'Donoghue's. It was meant to be a business meeting, so we had it across the road in Doheny & Nesbitt's, to give the semblance of a business meeting! So, anyway, during the course of the meeting, there was a bit of a row erupted. I think Barney accidentally kicked Ronnie in the shin under the table and Ronnie thought it was on purpose. There was tables up-ended and pints all over the place, "F*** you!" and "F*** you!", and that's the end of the whole bloody lot now. And I'm driving home with Bob Lynch, who had joined the group with me, and Bob said, "What's going to happen now?" And I said, "Jesus, I don't know. I've given up me good pensionable job today." And I get a ring from Ronnie, two days later. He said, "Are you okay for Friday? We're down in Mullingar." And I said, "I thought the group broke up the other day, Ronnie." "Ah, don't take any notice of that. That happens every couple of weeks." So, that was the only reassurance I got and after that it just kept going and kept going."
John was raised a Catholic and still has a deep-rooted faith, though he's less regular in his Mass attendance these days. He prays regularly, but, for him, composing music is also a form of prayer. He's quite certain that his talent is a gift from God. "Where else could it come from?" That said, he adds,
"I think everybody is born with some gift. And I think the prime purpose of education really is for the educator to discover what gifts each child has and then to foster and nurture that gift and progress it in whatever way they can."
He grew up with a sense of responsibility to fulfil, not only his own gifts, but those of his elder brother, also John, who died as a baby, casting a long, sad shadow over the lives of John's whole family. Recently, he also lost a granddaughter, Sadhbh, also in infancy, and he speaks movingly to Gay about where he sees those two infants now. Not for him the famous railing anger of Stephen Fry, on this series, against a deity who could inflict such loss and pain:
"I suppose the faith does give us consolation. I didn't get angry - I don't think any of the family got angry. There was a sadness, okay, and a definite sense of mourning. But at the same time a consolation in the notion that this little infant is gone to Heaven to its reward. which is another thing that fascinates me: what that must be like for an infant to die and be suddenly cast into the presence of God without having any knowledge, fore-knowledge, of a God, or the language to express anything about a God, beforehand. It must be an amazing feeling for that child. And I suppose that might be part of the consolation: that we have an angel or a saint in Heaven, looking after us. And likewise, my brother, John. It occurred to me that, okay, there's two angels in the family, one is a grand-uncle angel of the other. And they're consoling thoughts. But at the same time, there's a deep sense of mourning there and a loss of a potential life: what it might have been and what it might have achieved."