BIBLECODE SUNDAYS frontman Ronan McManus talks to Geraldine Gilmartin about family, his musical make-up and brother Elvis Costello.
“Music was our family business really. Dad was a musician, so was his father. It sounds like a cliché but every night in our house was like a gig, all of us singing songs with my brother Kieran on piano.”
Ronan McManus grew up in a music-filled household in Twickenham, West London. His father played trumpet with the hugely successful Joe Loss Orchestra, and composed and sang on the classic R White’s Lemonade TV commercial.
Ronan’s four brothers all play music, including the eldest, Declan (from his father’s first marriage) – better known as Elvis Costello. Their father is the glue that binds the brothers musically and emotionally.
“Dad taught us everything we knew,” says Ronan. “From an early age, he taught me how to breathe, project and perform. I got the lead in school plays because I could sing and sang at weddings as a choirboy.
“My first paid gig was for the Richmond and District Irish society at St. Margarets’ church, which dad was involved in. I got pulled out of the back garden where I was playing with grass stains on my knees. I was only supposed to sing one song – Slievenamon – but I carried on. I got £10 and an Ireland football shirt!”
Ronan played rugby aged six to 16 with the London Irish rugby team and became their musical mascot. Parents would put him on the table to sing after games.
His father, whose record collection spanned Miles Davis to Irish folk, specialised more in big bands/jazz, so where did he acquire the Irish song repertoire?
“I probably got into it when my brother Liam’s godfather started sending us Wolfe Tones’ tapes,” Ronan smiles. “I’d nick Dad’s Walkman and listen to them non-stop. I probably learned a lot by osmosis from the London Irish rugby culture too.”
Getting Saturday jobs at Sainsbury’s proved critical. Realising they could get more money performing in their friend’s father’s pub, the Railway Tavern (Hampton Wick), prompted Ronan and brothers Kieran, Ruairi and Liam to launch Sláinte, helped by the loan of a PA from dad.
It was a transformational time for Irish music and consequentially for Irish identity, not just in Britain but globally, with the ascendancy of Irish supergroups such as U2 and the Cranberries, capped by the astonishing Riverdance epidemic.
For Sláinte, it felt normal to mix pop/rock and indie covers alongside traditional Irish material as many bands at the time had Irish connections.
“People of Irish descent were top dog really. And the two things didn’t seem that separate to us. I always had designs of making the charts. I wrote pop and rock songs and we covered material from Crowded House and the Saw Doctors to the Wolfe Tones and Oasis.”
Sláinte eventually mutated alongside other band formations into BibleCode Sundays with Ronan now the only remaining MacManus brother. The BibleCodes enjoy a devoted fan base among the Irish community, particularly in London, performing in London, Ireland and the US – with big brother Declan in 2011 – and a prestigious slot at the Finsbury Park London Feis.
Ronan gigs at least four nights a week, continuing a work ethic that his father absorbed from a Birkenhead dockside upbringing and County Tyrone parentage. “We always learned that from dad – keep working, that’s how you get better. You’re only as good as your last gig.”
Songwriting talent as well as musical prowess is in the genes – and its Ronan’s self-penned material which really showcases his warm vocals, emotional delivery and sensitive lyrics.
His solo debut album Strawberry Hill, recorded for free at a friend’s studio in 2010, is a quality collection of beautifully crafted acoustic guitar based songs which could well take shelf space alongside his elder sibling’s work. The rich timbre of his vocal is strikingly similar to that of his elder brother (as is the physical resemblance).
“I had a load of songs knocking around which didn’t suit the Bible Codes. I’ve always written songs and listened to artists like Neil Finn (Crowded House), David Gray, Ron Sexsmith, and Damien Dempsey.
“I love that ‘one man one guitar’ sound and it’s very hard to create that kind of emotion with a band. I’ve never really felt it was a conflict with the bands. I always had that going on in the background and am bringing it into the public domain now.”
Not surprisingly for such a busy, hard-working musician and dad, the album lay un-promoted but he is now rereleasing tracks online and recording new material.
Was he always aware that he had a famous elder sibling?
“Pretty much. I was one year old when Declan released his first album in 1977 — I remember getting signed photos for everyone in my class at school!” recalls Ronan.
The age gap was always apparent — Declan’s son was of similar age to Ronan, and while Ronan was a teen writing his first songs and struggling with love, Declan was already divorced. It’s only in recent years that “he feels more like a brother” while the death of their father also brought the family closer.
“We started having similar life experiences – he’s had twin boys and I’m a father of three so we’re finally doing some things at the same time. We were close but we’ve become a lot closer since losing dad a year and a half ago. It’s made us realise how important we are to each other.”
Ronan also credits his elder brother as an inspiration which kept the brothers going when friends abandoned the music business as an unattainable dream. “What Declan really did for us when we were growing up was prove it’s possible to make music your career – that really gave us inspiration. We’ve still got the belief.”
Elvis Costello took his stage name from their great-grandmother, Elizabeth Costello, who was born around 1863 — possibly in Galway or Kerry — and ended up in Birkenhead where she married their great-grandfather from Tyrone. Ronan is continuing family research begun by his father to trace her roots in Ireland — any information Irish Post readers may have is welcome!
The links may be somewhat distant but the family’s Irish identity remains strong and fresh. “We were brought up to feel so Irish when we are actually a couple of generations out of Ireland and my mum was English.
“I wouldn’t want to change anything though. I’m proud of being from London — it’s such a great, multicultural city and we’re lucky to have its opportunities.”
Ronan recently changed his name by deed poll back to the original family name of McManus. Their father added the ‘a’ when he was in the Joe Loss Orchestra because it looked better on posters. (Although the MacManus diaspora have no direct family in Ireland, BibleCodes’ member Enda Mulloy’s family home in Mayo is a second home for the band when they tour Ireland.)
Is he a musician or an Irish musician?
“Irish identity has always been a huge part of my life. As I get older, and become a father, where you came from becomes more important. I like to think I’m just a musician but my Irish identity is a huge part of it – the work ethic, the Irish people who came to London, the ‘we’re all in this together’ feeling that was passed on to us with the music.”
This incestuous community of London Irish bands continues to spawn fresh talent — London Irish outfit The Lagan were inspired to form after seeing BibleCodes perform in Boston. “They call us their spiritual big brothers!” Ronan laughs.
Big brothers clearly are inspirational — both blood brothers and the wider London Irish musical brotherhood.
Strawberry Hill is available at iTunes and other online stores. For more info, see www.ronanmcmanus.com and www.biblecodesundays.com