The University of Limerick honours those who have achieved excellence in the realm of the arts, music and culture. Songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and collaborator Paul Brady has exhibited exceptional achievement in all facets of his remarkable musical career. He is one of Ireland’s most successful songwriters, both in his own right and in collaboration with international artists such as Eric Clapton, Roseanne Cash, Curtis Stigers, John Prine, Lulu, Duke Special, Dónal Lunny, Brian Kennedy, Eleanor McEvoy and Ronan Keating. Artists with whom he has collaborated in other ways include Mark Knopfler, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tanita Tikarum, Moya Brennan and Maura O’Connell. In addition to his national and international success as a performer and songwriter, many of his songs have been recorded by major international artists. One of his songs, ‘Eat the Peach’, co-written with Dónal Lunny, is the title track from the soundtrack of the 1986 film of the same name. He is the recipient of numerous national and international music industry and media awards and was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, for his contribution to music over his long and distinguished career.
And what a stellar career it has been. Spanning 57 years to date and showing no signs of letting up, Paul Brady’s public musical journey began as a teenage piano player in the County Donegal seaside town of Bundoran, not far from his native Strabane in County Tyrone. The journey continued in Dublin in the 1960s through his membership of R&B and soul groups, such as The Inmates, The Kult and Rockhouse. The sixties folk revival saw him join The Johnsons, with whom he recorded seven albums. Back in Dublin in the 1970s, Paul joined the second phase of fabled folk group Planxty and later performed as a duo with the legendary Andy Irvine. Eventually emerging in the early 1980s as a solo artist writing and playing across musical genres, there followed a succession of critically acclaimed albums, which initially surprised and soon delighted his legion of followers and drew in a whole new generation of fans. And if all that were not enough, Paul Brady has been described by Bob Dylan as one of his secret heroes.
Paul’s vast contribution to folk and contemporary music stands as a sonic weathervane across the decades and generations – setting standards, influencing trends and representing the very heart and soul of the human endeavour with sparkling clarity. As a songwriter, performer and multi-instrumentalist, his work is best characterised as brave and innovative. He has always ploughed his own furrow. Aside from his musical brilliance, it is worth stressing the very wide range of influences he has drawn from. As a child of the 1950s, the first musical sounds he encountered were the swing, jazz and show tunes of his parents’ generation. Like many other Irish teenagers of the time, Paul was enchanted by the vibrant sounds of fifties rock and roll and sixties pop, Motown, blues and country and western, all of which had an influence on this aspiring, self-taught musician from Strabane, who quickly became equally versed in the Irish folk and traditional canon.
One song in particular brings this to life. From the 1976 album Andy Irvine/Paul Brady, Paul’s adaptation of the traditional anti-recruitment song ‘Arthur McBride’ very quickly became a fan favourite. In terms of popularity, the song would soon be joined by Paul’s sublime interpretation of the nineteenth-century New Orleans folk song ‘The Lakes of Pontchartrain’, which first appears on his 1978 album Welcome Here Kind Stranger. People just love Paul’s rendition of that song, as evidenced by the fact that he has released three separate versions of it, including one through the medium of Irish.
Paul Brady’s willingness to innovate and engage with a multitude of musical styles is most clearly seen on his 1981 album Hard Station. As well as its title track, the album showcases new songs such as ‘Crazy Dreams’ and ‘Nothing but the Same Old Story’. In the latter track, Paul writes about the racism, hostility and suspicion encountered by Irish immigrants. His ability as a songwriter reminds us all about the power of song, evidenced by songs such as ‘Nobody Knows’ (Trick or Treat, 1991), which embraces the complexities of human experience and feelings, and ‘The Island’ (Back to the Centre, 1985), which points to the sheer futility of violence and the hypocrisy and tragedy of war. The latter song’s lyrics warn us about the danger of becoming prisoners of history but also remind us that love can override the constraints of redundant ideologies, such as nationalism.
As well as capturing feelings and emotions sonically, songs can play a powerful social role in telling stories. In Paul’s own words, “writing lyrics is a magical process”. The best of songs include lyrics that are accessible, intelligent and occasionally challenging. Paul Brady’s lyrics are all of these things and more. They are powerful and poetic. The extent to which his heartfelt and beautifully crafted words resonate with listeners all over the world comes as no surprise to us. It is a genius hand that pens lyrics and notes that easily transcend differences and bring together people from all walks of life.
Over four decades, Paul Brady has forged indelible links with the University of Limerick, from performing highly memorable students’ union gigs with Planxty and Andy Irvine in the old Savoy Theatre to selling out shows as a solo artist at our beautiful University Concert Hall. In 2010, he delivered at UL the Francis Roche Memorial Lecture entitled From Holyrood to Hooba: My Life in Music, which detailed his musical journey from his first-ever gig at the Holyrood Hotel, Bundoran in 1968 to the release of his acclaimed album Hooba Dooba in 2010.
It is for his patronage of the university’s Blas Summer School, however, that we are most indebted to Paul. Since 2010, through the Paul Brady Blas Bursary, he has generously sponsored up-and-coming traditional musicians, singers and dancers at the Blas Summer School, which is hosted every year by the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance. Paul’s commitment has made it possible for aspiring musicians, singers and dancers to come to UL, learn from expert tutors and deepen their knowledge and appreciation of the tradition. He has also given his time as a tutor to impart his considerable knowledge on the Summer School. Today we take this opportunity to acknowledge Paul Brady’s contribution to UL and, more broadly, to celebrate and honour his outstanding and enduring musical career.
While the COVID-19 pandemic presented particular challenges for Paul Brady, as it did for many creative people, he managed to turn adversity into new-found creativity by writing and recording a batch of new songs, which we all look forward to hearing. Paul also found the time to write a memoir, which we will read and treasure in the near future.
Chancellor, I present to you Paul Brady and ask that you confer upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.