Robbie Dunn: an Irishman in Brisbane
|A number of years ago while I was living in Brisbane, I stumbled across a CD at my local library entitled Just Another Day, by an Irish singer/songwriter called Robbie Dunn. I had a quick peek through the track listing and discovered tunes such as There’s No Place Quite Like Brisbane, Redland Bay and Old Brisbane Town. It didn’t take long for me to realise that I was holding in my hands the holy grail of what Australia By Song is all about – an entire album dedicated to an Aussie city! I always find it inspiring whenever I hear someone reveal their love of this country through song, especially in cases where the artist is foreign to our shores.Raised in Dublin but currently living in the Queensland capital, Robbie is an old-hand at the music scene, and balances his music work along with his family life and also his career as a professional chef. I recently had a chat with Robbie about his background and his music, and it is evident that he’s equally as passionate about his Irish heritage, as he is for his current life as an adopted Aussie.|
Hi Robbie, and thanks for chatting to Australia By Song. Firstly, I was wondering when – and why – you make the move from your hometown of Dublin all the way to Australia?
I came to Brisbane Australia in 1985. I ran away from Dublin. We were seriously drinking and drugging ourselves to death. Our band the “Dublin Balladeers” were very popular, we played nearly 7 nights a week and maybe a couple of daytime gigs during the weekend. Throw in that funny stuff you smoke and a few tabs and you get the picture. It was a treadmill I found hard to get off. You can kill yourself having a good time in Dublin (or “party central,” as they call it). Bring a spare liver if you are going there. It’s the biggest open air asylum in the world where the inmates run the show.
We were sort of like the Pogues and the Commitments all mixed up. The boys were brilliant musicians and they were also great craic, as we say. I did the BBC thing and we were offered tours in the UK all set up for us but we could not get out of the pubs in Dublin. I was running my catering company as well so it was all a bit insane. Throw in the fishing, football, stockcar racing etc. and life was one big party.
We had a death in the family in ’84 and it made me stop and think. I then decided that Australia sounded far enough away from the drinking and I applied to come here. No one would believe me at the time – they kept telling me, “you have everything, why are you leaving?” But it was like a big hand pushing me out of the womb, so I said I was going for two years, and I am still here, although I have been back 11 times so far. I also did a lot of research into Celtic spirituality, which is really Pantheism.
Pantheism does sound like a very interesting and holistic way of life. So, what do you miss the most about Ireland, and what do you find are the benefits of the Brisbane lifestyle?
The main thing I love about Ireland is being with my mates. Over there I am just known as “Dunner,” the stories abound and the laughs we have are fantastic. I was so fortunate to have grown up in such a wonderful country, and to have been born and bred in Dublin was an honour. To stand in Croke Park with 80,000 people at the all-Ireland Gaelic football final singing Molly Malone is the closest to heaven any Dubliner can get. I loved the smell of the sea, the fishing, the Dublin Mountains, but what I do not miss is the weather and that’s why I love Brisbane.
It’s early morning and I am sitting on the veranda of my house in Brisbane, Australia. Sunlight filters through the waving palms and Lilly Pilly’s are in the garden. There is a gentle breeze blowing in across the sparkling waters of Moreton Bay. The air is filled with the scent of Jacaranda trees in full bloom; there is a constant drone of the cicada in the background. It’s intermingled with the scents of a thousand flowering plants and trees, as they show off their vibrant colours in their efforts to attract the butterflies and honey bees that gorge themselves on the sweetness of nature. Parrots sip the nectar from the gumnut tree that hangs over the edge of the fence squawking and chattering in a seemingly endless cacophony of sound as they do so. The half-eaten mangoes dropped by the fruit bats the night before litter the ground under the forty year old mango tree at the top of the garden. It’s paradise here in Brisbane and it’s my place. In fact, the first Archbishop of Brisbane was an Irishman called Robert Dunn – the same name as myself – so it must be a second coming. I tried to leave many times but I am bound to the place.
It’s nice to know Brisbane has that staying power! Tell me a bit more about your music career in general – what inspires you, and how long have you been writing and performing?
I grew up in a musical family. Everyone in my family sang; it was like growing up in a cabaret show. No matter where we went we had a sing-song, or a “Hooley” as we Irish call it. My mother was the leader of the band, and along with my uncles, aunties, cousins and assorted hangers-on, we could be talking 50 people or maybe more. My mother Rose Thomas could sniff out a piano player from 50 paces. So I cannot remember a time when I did not sing or perform. I sang in various little bands as I grew up.
On the writing side, I started out of the blue at 28 years old, much to my surprise. Before long I was soon on Irish radio and the BBC in England. Life inspires me. I have put some of my deeper material on Jango Radio for people to listen to. Like a lot of other Irish people, I was badly abused by the Catholic Church so there is no shortage of material to write about. As the shrink once said to me, “If it was not for the Catholic Church, my waiting room would be empty.” So I am a recovering ex-Catholic. But I write about anything, and I have written a lot of funny songs which I really enjoy performing.
You wrote and recorded a 12 track album called Just Another Day, based entirely on Brisbane. Where did you get the idea to record such an album, and what are your favourite of the songs?
I did not set out to write an album about Brisbane – it evolved. We were playing nearly every night and the songs just came to me over a period of time. I see the beauty and the wonder of Brisbane and of course the tragedy too. The song Down And Out In Paradise is one of my favorites; also There’s No Place Quite Like Brisbane and Brisbane, The River City which I co-wrote with Martin McMahon, who wrote the bestseller book I Cry For My People.
I think my Brisbane album will receive more acclaim as the years go by. I have sold thousands of copies so far. I feel it captures the city well. Brisbane is changing from being a big country town to a major city so it has a lot of growing pains. As writer, we play a very important part in recording the events that transpire in a city or a nations history.
A number of years ago you wrote a song called I Always Feel At Home In The Country, which I understand has recently received some further attention during the 2011 Brisbane flood appeal. How did this song come to mind, and how were you affected by the floods?
It was great song to write because I feel it captures the essence of Australia and the people who bind the country together. When I was on the road traveling I became conscious of the all roads and bridges that were built by our fore-bearers. We are so fortunate to live the lives we do today. Australia is a great country; if you are willing to work you can achieve anything you want. I saw the floods coming – we had months of rain and it was inevitable what was going to happen. I mean, they built the factories and houses on the floodplains. The river has been flooding there for thousands of years. However, the floods in Toowoomba and in Grantham were totally out of the blue, and were tragic.
I Always Feel At Home In The Country:
Stepping back to Ireland for a few minutes, what are your favorite Irish songs and artists?
My number one Irish song is one from Liam Weldon, the great Irish Seanchai (storyteller), and the song is called Via Extasia. Liam was a mentor to me, and his message was one of peace and love. I met Liam in Tailors Hall in Dublin, he ran the sessions there. It totally changed the direction of my life. He saw gifts in me I did not know I had. (Liam Weldon’s album, Dark Horse On The Wind, is available on iTunes)
Some of my other favourite Irish songs include The Patriot Game, Four Greens Fields and The Town I Love So Well.
Where is the best place for people to discover your own music?
Some of my music is available to listen to on Jango Radio, or if you would like to buy my music then you are welcome to contact me direct by email on rivercityrecords (at) optusnet.com.au. My website is www.robbiedunn.com.
Thanks again for speaking with Australia By Song, Robbie. One final question though: for any Irish ex-pats in the River City, or any Aussies searching for some authentic craic, which pub in Brisbane pours the best Guinness?!
I wrote the song There’s A Hooley On In The Irish Bar Tonight about Gilhooleys in the city. We had brilliant nights there, the place would be packed, the drink flowing, and the boys and girls would think they were in Riverdance. I am very fortunate to have had the life I’ve had.
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So there you have it! Robbie Dunn: a gentleman as Aussie as he is Irish. Do check out some his music; most of his tunes have a quintessentially happy Irish folk feel to them, and if you’re in Brisbane then you may be lucky enough to see him perform or catch one of his interactive live cooking shows.
Right now I’m reminiscing the days I lived in sunny Queensland myself – all I’m missing is the
schooner of XXXX pint of Guinness. As Robbie says, there really is no place quite like Brisbane 🙂