Rory in the sky

The long-coming canonization of an Irish hero

"You've got to remember, when that was shot, the troubles in the whole north of Ireland were really at a peak. It was extremely dangerous for us to go in there. But Rory felt that it wasn't the kids that were the problem, and that the only way you can unify such a situation is to go in and play."

Backstage at the Electric Ballroom, where I'd brought in turkey sandwiches and where both Gallaghers and Rory's most enduring band--bassist Gerry McAvoy, pianist Lou Martin, and drummer Rod D'Ath--were supplying the liquor, I'd asked Rory if it was true they'd played through bombings in Northern Ireland. In his typical modesty, he downplayed the incident, but I remember McAvoy pulling me aside and telling me how truly frightening it had been.

Donal, too, vividly recalls those performances. "That was just Rory's way. I remember playing Queen's University in Belfast for the students' New Year's Eve party, and 11 bombs went off. And he just went on playing. We were all waiting--12 bombs at midnight, you know?--and we sort of made some inquiries and were told, 'Don't worry, the twelfth one won't go off where you are.'

"Rory just liked doing that for the kids," Donal adds. "We went behind the Iron Curtain when nobody was getting in there. We went in and played Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, a lot of the territories of East Germany--at a time when there was no other reason to do it."

Now, a quarter-century after those tours made Rory Gallagher a hero, his brother can at least ensure that the world can see the Irish Tour '74 film. And the album, which broke Rory in the states, remains one of the finest live records ever made.

For the rest of the decade and into the '80s, Rory enjoyed his greatest visibility in the U.S. He made sturdy inroads on headlining theater tours and in support of acts like Yes and ZZ Top in larger arenas. Incredible studio LPs like Against the Grain, Calling Card, Photo Finish, Top Priority, and Jinx continued to bolster his hero's status overseas--he's sold more than 30 million records worldwide. Though the albums sold modestly in America, a shift in U.S. labels from Polydor to Chrysalis kept PR support at a minimum. And despite a core loyalty that mirrored his global popularity in intensity if not in size, Rory never broke through here in a truly big way.

Always an enthusiastic drinker in the fine rock and roll tradition, Rory nonetheless stayed in shape. Donal confirms that his brother never took recreational drugs or so much as smoked a joint or cigarette. But a growing fear of travel and the stress of a touring schedule that kept him on the road up to 250 nights a year exacted a toll. And a deepening sense of depression eventually caused Rory to seek help.

"I would call it melancholy," Donal says. "To be honest, most of the great artists that I've met all have a sort of terribly sad side to them--no matter how successful they are. Rory had that." In a series of medical treatments that Donal contested all along--and over which he may yet take legal action--Rory was prescribed a variety of extremely addictive anti-depressant medications, many of which, says Donal, have since been taken off the market. "I think Rory found himself very much in a terrible, vicious circle. He was being given drugs by his doctor on prescription--as medicine--thinking that he needed them when he really didn't. I believe that he found himself without much energy from these anti-depressants, and the only energy level he could get was a shot of brandy. And I think that's OK for a while, but eventually it catches up with you."

Rory stayed on the road as long as possible despite an obvious and significant decline in health. Donal says he begged Rory's doctor to put his brother on a program to wean him off the anti-depressants and even contacted a lawyer, telling him he thought Rory was being slowly killed by his doctor. The lawyer said there was nothing, legally, Donal could do.

Eventually, Rory slipped into a coma. He was hospitalized at Kings College Hospital in London, where it was discovered he needed a liver transplant. The surgery that followed was successful, and the guitarist seemed to be on the road to a complete recovery when an infection set in. He never left the hospital.

In Germany, the television stations suspended programming for the night, showing nothing but Rory Gallagher concert films--a practice that has endured each June 14, the date of his death. In Paris, the mayor made a proclamation, and within a week, plans were under way to rename a major street in his honor.

Both in England and Ireland, it was as though a national hero had died. Thousands lined the streets of Cork to give him one last standing ovation. The funeral cortege made its way to the services at the Church of the Descent of the Holy Spirit. He was laid to rest in St. Oliver's Cemetery.

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