In May 2008 I spent a wonderful few days at the Listowel Writers’ Week, where my friend David and I had decided to join a series of songwriting workshops. Glen Hansard had originally been slated to lead the course, but being in unexpectedly high demand having won himself an Oscar, he pulled out a few weeks ahead of the event and handed the reins over to Freddie White. The latter is a fine guitarist and singer, but is not notable as a songwriter, so it didn’t result in the participants making great strides in that department. Nevertheless we had some memorable musical adventures, and if I hadn’t been there I would never have met Maeve Sweeney O’Connor.
Maeve was from Donegal and had joined the workshop to see whether she could scratch a persistent musical itch. She was someone who, as I recall, was always scribbling down potential lyrics. She played a bit of guitar, but hadn’t done a whole lot of songwriting. My most vivid memory of her in Listowel was during an afternoon song session in a pub, when she sang a beautiful unaccompanied version of Rufus Wainwright’s Vibrate.
I had been writing songs for a few years prior to my trip to Listowel. One that I was really excited about was a duet called Dear Liza, based on the famous children’s song about the hole in the bucket. I was planning to spend some time in a recording studio later that summer, but wasn’t confident I’d be able to include Dear Liza as didn’t have a female vocalist. I remember nervously asking Maeve if she’d let me play the song for her and perhaps have a go at the female part. She sang it perfectly almost instantly and we even recorded a rough demo version there and then (to which I later added some additional guitar lines).
I was thrilled when she agreed to travel down to Wicklow from Donegal when I was back in Ireland for the recording sessions in August. In the end she sang on every track that we recorded over those two days at Gavin Ralston’s Silverwood Studios. I’m very proud of those songs. Maeve’s vocal on Dear Liza is spot on. It has always reminded me of Briana Corrigan’s singing on The Beautiful South song A Little Time: strong and direct, but with buckets of passion. Maeve’s Donegal lilt adds a welcome measure of feistiness too.
Maeve died on 24 July 2016. I had been in touch with her on and off over the years, but – regrettably – not in recent times. I had sent her a note via Facebook in early July, just to say that I had been thinking of her and was pleased to see that her FB timeline suggested she was about and active. Just a few days later her husband Derek sent an email to say that she was in a hospice and had stage four bowel cancer. She died the following Sunday.
I didn’t know Maeve well, but we shared the intimate experience of making music together. She was a warm, caring person, hugely proud of her children and passionate about theatre and music. She was only 44 when she died.
I don’t think any of us needs reminding that life is short and fragile. (Once again my friend Iain Twigg comes to mind.) Maeve was the kind of person who would accept an invitation from someone she barely knew to drive half the length of Ireland and spend two days hanging around a recording studio to sing backing vocals on a few songs simply because it seemed like a fun and interesting thing to do. She was the kind of person who said, yes, let’s give it a go. I will think of her often.
Maeve also did a superb job on backing vocals on the other songs recorded at that session. You can listen to them all on SoundCloud.