Many tributes have been paid to Brian Hannon, the former Lord Bishop of Clougher, since his death on Monday. These included words from his son, musician Neil Hannon.
I couldn’t have asked for a better father. Intelligent, patient, encouraging, interested, fun. He was also extremely musical, a wonderful romantic pianist. I have never been shy about letting this influence come to the surface in my work. Thank you dad.”
Brian had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2008. Shortly after, Neil explained how the family was coping. “I try to talk to my dad as normally as possible, it’s important that people with Alzheimer’s aren’t written off or left to rot.”
Neil, who records as Divine Comedy, also gifted his father a beautiful piece of music in 2014. The work was commissioned by the Southbank Center in London. It was an oratorio called To our fathers in distress.
The music recreates a Sunday in the Hannon household during Neil’s youth. They have lunch in the kitchen with a chip before church, then take a walk in the woods and then watch Ireland lose in a rugby match. The piece was written for a new organ in the Royal Festival Hall, and it has the rising dynamics of the great church.
Neil understood the bittersweet nature of work.
“The irony that he will never be able to fully understand or appreciate my new composition To Our Fathers in Distress is perhaps its most relevant raison d’etre.”
The same year of Brian Hannon’s diagnosis, musician Tim Wheeler of Ash learned that his father was also afflicted. George, a former Downpatrick District Court judge, died in January 2011 after six months of care in the Old Age Psychiatry Unit at Downe Hospital.
“I spent a lot of time in the hospital with him,” Tim said, “and saw many other patients and families going through exactly the same thing we did. As my dad deteriorated , I felt very helpless because I couldn’t do anything but visit her as much as possible.
In the spring of 2011, I spoke to Tim and we discussed a possible benefit for the Alzheimer Society. Tim contacted Neil, who agreed to play. He also enlisted the Undertones and so the three bands played Ulster Hall on 3 November during Belfast Music Week. It was a hugely emotional evening which raised almost £30,000 for the charity.
“I thought we could actually do something by using our music to help fight Alzheimer’s disease,” Tim said. “This is a growing global problem and there is no cure yet. The main hope seems to be in prevention and a lot of research funding is needed.
Tim released his only solo album, Lost Domain, in 2014. It was a burning memory of George Wheeler. On songs like Vigil, Hospital and Do You Ever Think of Me? Tim revisited those last raw moments with his dad.
More recently, composer Hannah Peel was moved to write about the loss of Joyce, her 98-year-old grandmother from Lurgan. Her dementia was reflected in the themes of Hannah’s 2016 record, Awake But Always Dreaming, when she imagined Joyce’s inner conversations.
Hannah followed that up a year later with a stunning album, Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia. The instrumentals were written quickly on a synthesizer in Donegal, then arranged for a 29-piece coal band, Tubular Brass. She was basically sending her grandmother’s soul into space.
“We have the power to imagine rockets and spaceships and build them. The most biological discovery in the entire universe is our brain. So I didn’t want her to be that lady who passed out. It was as if I was taking my grandmother a little further into space. Total escape from the reality of what was happening.
Gary Lightbody’s answer to this thread is the Snow Patrol recording, Soon. It’s a farewell to his father Jack, and the 2018 video shows the singer at home with his father, watching Belfast Lough and watching movies at home as his memory fades. Jack passed away in December 2019.
Unfortunately, the number of songs about dementia continues to grow. Ed Sheeran paid tribute to his grandfather with Afire Love. Elvis Costello wrote to Veronica about his grandmother, Molly McManus. He also supported a project called Music and Memory.
“When I wrote Veronica,” he explained, “it was in the hope that the memory loops and misfires my grandmother was often trapped in would comfort her in some way. “
And of course, we cherish the fine example of Glen Campbell, who continued to perform as his memory waned. This period was captured on film, resulting in I’ll Be Me, a heartbreaking image of a classy musician, losing the power of his art. The song, I’m Not Gonna Miss You, is Glen’s farewell declaration of true bravery at work.
Music is one of the gifts that stays with us, long after much of the memory bank has been depleted. It brings recall and comfort. And for our songwriters, it’s an opportunity to give voice to the Long Goodbye.