A new portrait of Aslan front man Christy Dignam looked back at the highs and lows of one of Ireland's most fascinating rock stars 

"He was a little pied piper in the middle of all the other kids in Finglas." Leave it to Christy Dignam’s wife Kathyrn to best sum up the Aslan frontman. They met at 10 years of age, were an item at 14, and she has been a wise counsel in his life ever since.

Christy remains a Finglas folk hero, his struggles with drugs and addiction mirroring those of far too many of his fellow Dubliners, and today as he battles cancer and fights the good fight with Aslan, he also retains that impish and mischievous pied piper quality.

This is Christy was a classic tale of drugs and rock `n’ roll (there may have been sex too) and even if there was nothing particularly new in this leisurely and digressive portrait, man, was the Aslan man good company.

Kathyrn Dignam

He took us through the highs (literally) and lows of his eventful life. This was Christy’s own account of his occasionally heroic and occasionally tragic struggles. Other than his band, the defining moment of that life has been his battle with drugs, a temptation that did for many of his fellows in the battleground of pop stardom. This is Christy circled around the issue like it is was a fast-approaching rumble in the distance and what we got was a fly on the wall, dashboard, rehearsal studio and concert venue look at Dignam in 2017.

Before we engage with the heroin years, we see the day-to-day Dignam, a man who is undergoing cancer treatment while holding down his night job as singer with one of the most enduring acts in Irish rock history.

He is the very essence of a survivor, his wiry body and sharp mind having borne him through hell and he is a witty and occasional sorrowful guide. 

Christy pictured with his two-year-old daughter in 1988

"I always loved Keith Richards," he says. "I always wanted to look like him and now that I do look like him, I’m f***ing raging!" When he visits his 86-year-old father, the man who gave him his voice, Christy remarks: "Dad always got a great tan, we’d always say how did he get that tan?" "From the sun." says Dignam Sr.

Best of all, when Dignam was sacked from Aslan, he recalls the first time he sees his replacement fronting the band; he breathed a sigh of relief and said gleefully "they were crap!"

They certainly were. Without the magnetic Dignam, Aslan had lost the thuggish edge and longing heart that made them such a compelling live act. Archive footage of the band is a reminder of how vital they were between 1986 and 1989. The Hunger (the title alone summing up their mission statement back then) sounds particularly thrilling.

Aslan had the look (the fact that Christy practised the then rock vogue for quasi Messianism didn't hurt), spiritualism, the passion and some of the songs were pretty good too. Surely they were destined for greatness or at least success.

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"We were like the Three Musketeers - except there were five of us - back to back, fighting the world." recalls Christy sitting in his living room over thirty years later. Who would have thought that it would be Christy himself who would become Aslan's very own Captain Rochefort?

We all know the story of how record company largess turned the band’s heads when they were brought over for a coast to coast tour of the US after Capitol Records signed them. When they arrived at JFK in 1988, there were two limos waiting. Christy turned to the unfailingly Falstaffian Billy McGuinness, the man who has talked himself into the band in 1982, and said: "Say nothing - these guys think we’re the Pet Shop Boys."

Paddy goes to Hollywood: Aslan hit America in 1988

The cocaine came first. "People would write their name out with coke and say, `see how much of my signature you can snort.’ Ridiculous." Christy recalls. The heroin was next but it was the crack that really brought him to his knees.

As their singer sank lower into the morass, the rest of the band were left with no choice. McGuinness was forthright and funny; "We f**ed up. That’s it." His fellow band member Joe Jewell added: "He was not the same person. There is no nice way of saying this, we sacked him."

In another one of his urchin but poetic insights, Christy said it best himself. "Heroin was like a beautiful woman in the distance," he confesses to Gay Byrne on the Late Late Show in 1994. "But the nearer you got to it, the uglier it becomes."

But he can also trace the roots of his appetite for destruction back to Finglas and far from the allure of any rock `n’ roll Babylon or, indeed, Narnia. When he was just six years old, Christy was sexually abused by one of his neighbours. "He stripped me, took the laces off my shoes and tied me to a chair and he . . . he abused me." he says matter of factly. "I was changed after that moment. I was never the same . . . " and, of course, like so many working class kids at the time, he told nobody.

Aslan at their sell-out Iveagh Gardens show last Friday

This is Christy was was a stark reminder of an era before the algorithm rock and pop of today. Compared to the professionalism, if not careerism, of another better known north side band, Aslan were always so much more fun. They were certainly always so much more rock `n’ roll. 

Last week, the band sold out the Iveagh Gardens, nestled in the heart of Dublin’s moneyed south side. Christy is working on an album with Finbar Fury and Aslan are still burning, albeit less brightly.

Now haggard but unbowed at 57, the Christy that emerged on this solid rock doc is a man perhaps resigned to fate but still brimming with charisma and with that lion-like spirit lingering in his fragile frame. 

Watch This is Christy on the RTÉ Player

Alan Corr @corralan