FAME came in his 60th year to singer and fiddle player Dessie O’Halloran of Inishboffin The year 2001 saw him travel from his Atlantic island home off the Galway/Mayo coast to perform in Europe and America.
His song Say You Love Me was the vocal hit of Sharon Shannon’s 2000 album The Diamond Mountain Sessions. John O’Regan has described it as “an up-tempo slice of Irish/Cajun style Vaudeville.”
Since then he has released his own top-selling album of songs and tunes, The Pound Road, named after the road on Inishboffin on which he lived. Animals taken from tenants because of rent arrears were brought along that road to the pound.
In his early teens he learned to play fiddle on the island from Pat Cloherty and he credits islandman Bernard Tierney with being one of his singing mentors. His mother played the accordion and, as he puts it, “some of my father’s people were good singers.”
With his brothers Vince, an accordion player, and Malachy, he emigrated to England in the late 1950s. They worked on the buildings and played the Irish pubs in the evenings. In 1976 Des and Vince recorded an album for the Topic label. Aptly named The Men of the Island, it is now a much-sought-after recording.
Return to ‘Boffin
He returned to ‘Boffin in 1980. In the mid-80s he became part of the popular Inishboffin Ceili Band, which performed to delighted audiences in Galway’s Roisín Dubh. Many musicians would sit in, including Matt Molloy and Sharon Shannon, with whom Dessie was to form an enduring friendship.
Visitors to Days’ pub on the island are used to his personable style. “When he sings in the pub and even when it’s just him, everybody takes notice,” Sharon Shannon told the Irish Times. “Desmond’s voice is rugged and totally unaffected.”
He heard the song Say You Love Me back in his London days on an EP by country singer Hall O Browne. A Kentuckian, he fronted a band called the Timberliners. Since Dessie revived it, it has been recorded by an Irish country an western band.
The Pound Road was produced by Donal Lunny with guests Cathy Jordan of Dervish, Sharon Shannon and Eleanor Shanley. The songs are mainly those Des picked up in his youth on the Island: Courtin’ in the Kitchen, Katie Daly, Patsy Fagan, The Boys of the County Mayo and Eileen McMahon, which Cathy Jordan recorded a few years back.
There are two fiddle pieces from Dessie: Tomin O’Dea’s and Mairtin Byrnes’ Waltz.
The album concludes with the American gospel song Will the Circle Be Unbroken, dedicated to his brother Christy who died some years ago.
Dessie is also a very good sean-nós singer, and regularly sang in Oireachtas sean-nós competitions. Nor, seemingly, has the Gaeltacht begrudged him his success, inviting him in September 2001 to perform at Connemara’s Pléarácha Festival.
When he was 67, he was treated for cancer. He marked his 70th birthday with a party in Galway on August 28, 2010. Sharon Shannon, Joe Burke, Anne Conroy Burke, Frankie Gavin, Matt Keane, Mary Staunton, Tommy McCarthy, Mick Crehan, Gerry Hanley, Rosie Stewart and Dick Hogan were among those who attended. His actual birthday falls on August 29. As well as performing with the Sharon Shannon Band, he sings with the Cunningham dancing family in their show, Fuaim Chonamara.
The Pound Road, Dessie O’Halloran, Grapevine.
The Men of the Island, Dessie and Vince O’Halloran, Topic.
The Diamond Mountain Sessions, Sharon Shannon. Grapevine.