Born January 31st, 1932. Died March 12th, 2022.
Pete St John, one of Ireland’s most successful songwriters, died on March 12th at the age of 90. His legacy is writ large across the folk canon, and his songs have journeyed to the unlikeliest of corners (particularly of the sporting kind), from Croke Park to Landsdowne Road, Anfield in England and Soldier Field, Chicago.
Peter Mooney was born in Inchicore in 1922, the son of Tommy and Lottie Mooney. He was the eldest of six children, and went to school in Scoil Muire Gan Smál and Synge Street CBS. He left school at the age of 16 and completed his electrician’s apprenticeship in Limerick. Dublin wasn’t an easy place to make a living in the mid-late 1950s so Pete emigrated to Ontario, Canada in 1958 where he took what labouring jobs he could find. Within six months he ran into a woman called Gert Gorman who had an electrical contracting company in the US. She and her husband sponsored Pete to move to Washington DC where he was able to work as an electrician. He married his sweetheart Susie Bourke, who was from a well-known Dublin theatrical family with links to both the Gaiety and the Olympia theatres. They had two sons, Kieron and Brian. Pete travelled widely and became involved in the peace movement and the civil rights movement. He remained in the US until 1970, returning to settle in Collins Avenue in north Dublin.
Songs are magic carpets. They can tell a story over and over again without boring the pants off the listener
The Dublin city that Pete returned to was a changed place from the one he had grown up in, and proved to be the spur that inspired his songwriting. He chose St John as his nom de plume, inspired by a middle name he had been given while at school when all the boys in his class were assigned saints’ names. In 1975 he was running a theatre in Petticoat Lane on Marlborough Street, and while fixing an alarm outside a window on the first floor, the ledge on which he was leaning gave way, resulting in a bad fall. He broke his elbow and hip and spent six months in hospital recuperating. It was during this time that he took to songwriting in earnest.
Pete was an extrovert who loved people. He was a voracious reader with a particular interest in Irish history. His son Kieron recalls his father writing The Rare Aul Times during this recovery period, and singing it to his family. The Dublin City Ramblers was the first band to cover the song, but it was Danny Doyle’s version that achieved a real breakthrough. In 1978 he wrote The Fields of Athenry, a tale of a man exiled to Botany Bay for stealing food to feed his family during the Famine. Pete paid close attention to the melding of lyric and melody, and had particular form in writing memorable melodies that sounded timeless, resonating deeply with listeners across all walks of life.
He described his chosen craft with affection: “Songs are magic carpets. They can tell a story over and over again without boring the pants off the listener and maybe take us out of ourselves for a few moments of peaceful escapism. With easy to remember melody lines, the words can tell of times and events in our daily lives that are worth noting or remembering.”
His songbook consisted of hundreds of compositions, including The Ferryman, Waltzing on Borrowed Time and The Furey Man and were recorded by over 2,500 artists. He was a founding member of the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) and was always generous and supportive of younger writers, some of whom he continued to mentor well into his 80s.
Pete was surprised and delighted at the affiliation that emerged between The Fields of Athenry and rugby and football sporting events. He was present in Croke Park in 2007 when Ireland beat England in the Six Nations, and where The Fields were sung three times over. It’s a song often heard in Anfield in Liverpool, and at Glasgow Celtic games, and reverberated around the stadium at Chicago’s Soldier Field when Ireland beat the All Blacks in 2016.
Pete St John (Mooney) lived life to the full, and while he suffered ill health in his latter years, with both diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, he never lost his zest for life. His son Kieron describes his father with affection as a man who had nine lives and lived them all to the fullest. He lived independently at home until his recent admission to Beaumont Hospital.
He is survived by his sons, Kieron and Brian Mooney, their wives Mary-Beth and Stephanie, his siblings Kieran, Kathleen and Joy, and his granddaughters Aislinn and Kiera. He was predeceased by his wife Susie and his siblings, Tommy and Pauline.