Alumni Spotlight

John Spillane: Singer-songwriter

8 Oct 2019
John Spillane, BA 1984

Two-time Meteor award winner, John Spillane, is a musician, songwriter, storyteller and performer.  A talented lyricist, he is one of Ireland’s most accomplished songwriters whose work has been covered by the likes of Christy Moore, Sharon Shannon and Sean Keane. John’s music transports the listener and his live performances have been captivating audiences the world over. A Cork native, the city and its surrounds exert a huge creative influence on him. His singing has an almost sean nós-like quality with a voice described as being “full of honesty, commitment and sensitivity”. We are privileged that John has written a beautiful song about the university, the lyrics of which are printed below. We chat with him about his memories of UCC.

For a young John Spillane, the grounds of UCC symbolised an enchanted land which offered an escape from the bustle of city life. As a student of the nearby St Joseph’s Primary School on the Mardyke, the campus was his own personal playground, and he relished the beauty of its environs.

“I loved the willow trees at the gates and the stretch of river that flows from the College Gates to Gaol Cross.”

The budding songwriter would later go on to study for a BA in Irish and English graduating in 1984. Indeed, it was the university that nurtured his love of language which became the catalyst for the unique lyrical style that symbolises his work.  At UCC, he found inspiration in both Irish and English poetry and was deeply influenced by the lectures of Dr Seán Lucey and Dr Seán Ó Tuama.

“I learned to be inspired by poetry, by literature and by language and that helps me on a daily basis in my song-writing.”

As a student, he expectedly gravitated towards musical pursuits and was involved in events run by An Chuallacht and the Choral Society, both very active at the time. To today’s students he offers some simple, yet timeless advice:

“Enjoy your time in College, have a laugh, don't walk through the centre of the quad, don't drink too much, and pass all your exams.”

THE COLLEGE GATES       Lyrics: John Spillane

On the road west out of the enchanted City at the gates of the college
Stands an ancient weeping willow tree Weeping, weeping silently,
Willow, willow, willow, no need to cry for me

A little white throated swallow flew five thousand miles
Sleeping on the wing, returning from the burning Arabian sands, lands
On the ancient weeping willow tree Weeping, weeping constantly
“Fly into my arms little bird, how I’ve missed your company,
What have you seen, what have you heard,
Where have you been from me?”
Sang the ancient weeping willow tree
Her long green skirts trailing down, down into the dark waters of the river Lee

“I’ve seen a great crowd of people Drowning in a sea of troubles, 
I’ve seen a vast army gathered on the plain,
Willow, willow willow no need to cry for me
O ancient weeping willow tree, how I’ve missed your company 
What have you seen, what have you heard?”
Sang the little sacred bird

“Well I’ve spoken to the owls, I’ve spoken to the professors
To the old men growing pale in their ivory towers
I’d give all their great powers for just one word of kindness, one kind word
Fly into my arms little bird” sang the ancient weeping willow tree

“I’ve seen an army of poets storming a golden tower in a dream
Returning at dawn through the gates of the college
Their faces all pale and drawn
I’d give all their great knowledge
For one word of kindness, just one kind Word
Fly into my arms little bird”
Sang the ancient weeping willow tree
Weeping weeping silently

On the road west out of the enchanted City at the gates of the college
Stands an ancient weeping willow tree, Weeping, weeping, constantly.

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