Coulter’s father, also called Phil, encouraged music in the house. He played the fiddle whilst his wife played the upright piano. The younger Coulter recalls this piano, made by Challen, as ‘the most important piece of furniture in the house.
Coulter had written Free The People in anger following internment in Northern Ireland, when people were lifted by the army and imprisoned without charge.
One of Coulter’s most popular songs, ‘The Town I Loved So Well’, deals with the embattled city of his youth, filled with ‘that damned barbed wire’ during the Troubles. ‘It is the one I anguished most over, the one which had to earn respect and perhaps the most auto-biographical tune I have ever written’ ‘The roots of that song go very, very deep, it took time for it to win respect and integrity. That song defines an era and a place that is very dear to my heart.’ He wrote the melody in a matter of days, and poured over the lyrics for months. ‘Every word was carefully weighed,’ he said. ‘I knew that with the wrong choices it could slip over the edge into a rebel song.’ It became a love song about his hometown. He sat down with Luke Kelly in a very ordinary Sheffield hotel, and played the new song. ‘I sang it with my eyes closed,’ he said, nervous that Kelly – who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of folk songs – would deliver a harsh critique. ‘When I finished and opened my eyes, he had tears in his. I knew then it was a powerful song.’ The intensely personal, local song, containing so many specific local references and place names, has struck a chord with people all over the world.
Despite his successes, Coulter has suffered several family tragedies. His son was born with Down’s syndrome and died at the age of four; the song ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’ was written in his memory. He first played the song to Luke Kelly. Because of the personal nature of the song, Luke Kelly felt that the song should not be sung except for special occasions, and not on every performance.
In 2002, Coulter was encouraged by the Save the Swilly organisation to run for Dáil to protect Lough Swilly from aquacultural destruction. After some deliberation, he concluded that work and family commitments would not allow him the time necessary to fill the political position. Phil’s sister, Cyd, drowned in Lough Swilly. One year later he lost his brother, Brian to the same ‘Lake of Shadows.’ His struggle to come to terms with the loss and resulting emotions are captured in his songs ‘Shores of the Swilly’ and ‘Star of the Sea’.
Coulter wrote Cliff Richard’s Congratulations, My Boy for Elvis Presley, and countless other instantly recognisable pop and rock songs. He has worked with icons like Christy Moore, Elvis Costello, Van Morrisson and Sinead O’Connor, the Bay City Rollers, and more recently the male singing group Celtic Thunder. His own solo catalogue is also formidable.
In 1995, the Irish Rugby Football Union commissioned Coulter to write a politically neutral anthem for the Ireland national rugby union team, which represents both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The result was ‘Ireland’s Call’, which is played alongside, and in some cases instead of, ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’. As well as being used by both the Ireland national rugby union team and the junior national teams, “Ireland’s Call” has since also been adopted by the Ireland’s national hockey, cricket and rugby league teams.
Photo: Phil Coulter and Ronnie Drew