Cork's native son tells Harry Guerin about his new album, 100 Snow White Horses, and looks to the future.

Harry Guerin: Was your decision to choose We Come in the Wind as the first single influenced in any way by what people are living through right now - as a way to get them to think of better times ahead?

John Spillane: Yes. I am hoping that people will enjoy a release from the everyday world into a world of the imagination. When I mention that the album is called 100 Snow White Horses, people say, 'Oh, I'd like some of that'. I don't think people realise the depth of mythology we have in this country. I would like to recommend to everyone in Ireland to read Lady Gregory's Complete Irish Mythology and to get into the works of Turlough O'Carolan. Steve Cooney's new album, Music of the Irish Harpers, is a great place to start.

What We Come in the Wind does is draw from three ancient voyages, or imrams: The Voyage of Bran, The Voyage of Maeldun and The Voyage of St Brendan. A journey through a series of mystical islands represents the journey through life or even through one day of your life. There is a 'penny drop' moment in the song when the listener cops that it is about their life and also their death. This was pointed out to me by Graham Kearns, who plays electric guitar on the track and who experienced this sea-change in the audience at some gigs we played.

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100 Snow White Horses is also a track on the album. What's the story behind it?

100 Snow White Horses is a song I wrote for County Laois when I spent some weeks there in 2016. I was brought up to play my Irish Songs We Learned at School repertoire with kids from National Schools all 'round the county. This was the Laois way of celebrating the 1916-2016 centenary. I taught the kids many Irish-language songs, working closely with Music Generation Laois and the Laois Arts Office. I was based in Stradbally and discovered a world of history and mythology there.

The song is based around a visualisation of The March of the Kings of Laois, an ancient piping tune made popular by The Chieftains. I admit that some lines of the song are borrowed from a tale called The Marriage of Maine Morgor, which is part of the run-up to the Táin Bó Cúailnge. The image of the 100 Snow White Horses is something that I had carried with me for about 20 years before it found its home in this song. When I sang the song on the arts programme on Midlands Radio, the presenter cried. 'Laois never gets anything,' she said.

You've described the record as your "love songs to the Island of Ireland". Does it seem like fate that you were meant to release this album now?

Yes, it seems that this is a good time to release these horses into the Irish mindscape. It seems interesting that people are looking to music, art and literature more than ever during this pandemic - and that people are discovering nature in their local area during lockdown. My Dawn Chorus song seems to be having a deep effect on people. The songbirds can no longer be taken for granted. Nature can no longer be mindlessly plundered. Maybe this is the ideal time to release this album...

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It was an amazing experience for me in 2008 when my Irish Songs We Learned at School album seemed to capture the spirit of the time, the zeitgeist, the end of the Celtic Tiger and the return to traditional values. It was what people were looking for at that time. We will see if these horses, imaginary and all as they might be, might be part of another return to an older dreaming. We need mythology to give meaning to our lives. The mythology of the Churches seems broken; these songs present a more nature-based, native mythology.

The 'love songs to the Island of Ireland' is a vibe that is taken from the Bardic Schools 1200-1600, where Ireland is always treated as a woman. The island is the Goddess personified, she is variously called Éire, Banba, Fodhla, Róisín Dubh, Caitlín Ní hUallacháin etc. This is a vestige of a pre-Christian era when God was a woman. This survives in the Irish moving statues Holy Mary devotion.

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Had you everything done and dusted for the record before the pandemic?

The album itself was done and dusted before the pandemic, but there was a mountain of work to be done around the Fundit campaign we used to produce it. The break from gigging, when I had got over the initial shock, gave me a chance to organise and to put together a team of people who can make this album work. It's all about the teamwork. The album was started at the end of 2018 in London, but I had to go back over when I wrote Under That Old Clare Moon. It was so good it had to go on the album

What have you learned about yourself this past year?

I have learned that the crazy gigging life I've led for the past 30 or 40 years is over and that I am entering the next phase of my life. I turned 60 in January, and what a great way to celebrate it with the release of my 100 Snow White Horses. I know that I will go back gigging, but I think the gigs will be fewer and farther between and I will go about them in a gentler, more mature manner. I'm going to see myself more as a writer than a singer for the next phase.

We do not know what way the gigs will be when we go back. I just hope all the lovely smaller venues that are run on love and on fun will survive this change in our lives. People should realise that the music scene in Ireland is the best music scene in the world. No other country has a network of small, deadly venues in stunningly beautiful parts of Ireland, from de Barra's in Clonakilty to the Community Hall in Fanad, Donegal.

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Has it made you think more about the healing powers of music?

I've always been very aware of the healing power of music. I have seen it on almost a daily basis. I taught music for some years in Cork Prison and Spike Island Prison and to children who were at risk in underprivileged areas, to help them stay out of trouble and to stay out of jail. I have seen people's lives transformed by music. As for myself, I am very lucky in that it has given me a path to follow in life. That is the best thing you can have: a path to follow.

What was the best wisdom you heard during the past 12 months?

That faraway hills are not really greener at all, that the grass under your feet is as green as anywhere. There is no point worrying about money. The worrying does not help the situation in any way. If there is a problem with money, you should sort the problem.

100 Snow White Horses is out now.

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