‘My home away from home’- Irish Tenor John McDermott Talks of His Roots and Family

By Ed Forry
Reporter Publisher
Singer John McDermott was in Boston during the St. Patrick’s activities last month, a brief overnight stay at the Seaport Hotel- “My home away from home”- between gigs in Salisbury and Scituate.
A native of Glasgow, McDermott’s mom and dad are Scotland natives with deep roots to Ireland: his father Peter’s family are Donegal, his mother Hope’s family (Griffin) are Ballymena in Antrim, just north of Belfast. The family relocated to Ontario Canada in 1965, when the singer was just 10 years old.

John McDermott burst on the music scene in the early 1990’s, when EMI Music issued McDermott’s “Danny Boy.” In those early years, he toured with the Chieftains, and had early success as a solo performer in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. As his popularity grew, in 1998 he headed up a singing trio, The Irish Tenors, and together with Anthony Kearns and Ronan Tynan, the group became hugely popular around the US.
He left the group and returned to solo performing in 2000, and has toured extensively since that time. He developed a special dedication to the plight of veterans, and supports a transitional home for homeless veterans in Washington DC, and has helped raise funds for Fisher House Boston, a facility on the grounds of the VA hospital in West Roxbury that provides a temporary home for families of hospitalized veterans. The BIR spoke with him during his stay at the Seaport Hotel, where he spoke about his parents and the 12 McDermott siblings.
“I’m number nine, three younger than me. It was a tough time,” McDermott says. The weak economy of the mid 60s left his father looking for work in Glasgow, and he made the decision to uproot the family and come to North America.
“We had family in Long Island, family in the states and my father would have gone to the states, but he couldn’t find a job. A guy in Toronto offered a job,” working in coal and ore mines in northern Quebec, about ten hours north of Toronto, he says, so it was off to Canada for them.
The family arrived by ship, and as it sailed up the St Lawrence River in early November 1965, “It was the night of the Eastern Seaboard blackout. The ship hit another ship, and was delayed, and we had to return to Quebec.
“We were a day late getting to Toronto and the guys he was supposed to meet had left, they were gone.
“In Toronto, my father got in touch with a priest and he hooked him up with St Vincent DePaul Church. And they found us an apartment, it was sandwiched between St Vincent DePaul school and St Vincent DePaul church. Several hundred yards down the road was a place called Hyde park, a place where we could go and play, so my father said, ‘There are three reasons you should never be in the apartment- you have three places to go.’
“A guy in Toronto offered him a job the night we arrived. He got the job- he was a glazer by trade.
“God acts in mysterious ways.”
The job that he missed was in McIntyre Mines, ten hours north of Toronto. “Life would’ve been very different because it’s a very French-Canadian area, still is to this day. But six months after that job was offered, the mine closed, so we would’ve been a family of 12 up in northern Ontario.
“As it turned out we all ended up at school, and all the siblings got jobs. We were a family of trades and my father believed in the trades; if you want to continue and get education you can do that but get a trade. So we have electricians, carpenters, pipe fitters. Everyone worked.”
Growing up, the 12 siblings would turn in their paychecks to their father each week, he says. “If there was something left after the bills were paid the boys got something to go buy a pint or two or go on a date- whatever. Today the kids would just spend it, but that was just the way it was. He was a clever man, my dad”
Eight months after settling into the one bedroom apartment, McDermott says his dad found a house to buy, and he went to the bank for a mortgage loan.
“’I’d like to borrow $27,500, enough to buy a house,’ and the bank manager at the time- he later became a great friend- said to him, ‘I admire your fortitude but you don’t have any collateral.’”
At that, McDermott says his dad opened the bank manager’s door, and in marched five McDermott sons- each of them with a letter from their employer.
“They said, if my father ever failed to make a payment on that loan that the bank can have the salaries. And the guy says, ‘you’ve got the loan.’
“My brother lives in that house today.”
In the new neighborhood, McDermott says his dad went out and walked up and down one side of the street, introducing himself and inviting his new neighbors to come visit on the next Friday or Saturday nights.
“The first Friday, no one came; on Saturday four or five came, and three of those people had never met each other and they had lived there for years.”
The next week, he says his dad went down the other side of the street, extending the same invitation. That next Friday and Saturday nights there were even more neighbors coming to the house.
“We had a great time, and after that first week the place was jammed every Friday night and Saturday in the basement of my house, with chairs all way around the room and we got to know each other.”
It was the beginning of a McDermott family ritual- on the weekend nights, the family would welcome their neighbors, and gathering up chairs in the basement, everyone would be asked to sing their favorite song. Each child would perform a favorite song- “Danny Boy was mine, my brothers was the “Green Fields of France”, Elizabeth was “The Dutchman.” I remember my sisters would sing pop songs,” he says.
For his part, McDermott attributes his musicality in part to those weekly in-home singing sessions in his father’s basement, as well as to the two years he spent in a boy’s choir at St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto. To this day, he says his best friends are old friends from that boys choir.
At school, the boys would spend two hours every day on the music, and each were assigned four days at week at the daily mass- either as altar servers, or in the smaller daily choirs. Every Sunday, the choir would sing at three masses at the Toronto Cathedral: “The ten-fifteen, the 11-fifteen and the twelve-ten masses,” McDermott recalls.
Even as music was an important part of his family life, McDermott simply reveres the memory of his mother and father and the family life they had in Tonronto.
“I am discovering that I am starting to write music. I’ve written some things and I’m surprised when I come up with; I found that it’s really easy if you’re honest with yourself and you write what you’re feeling, if you write what happened, if you just tell the story.
“You know, (my Dad) he always had a line: you never know where the road is going but just keep going to the end of the road; if you come to some hurdles move them over. So this end of the road basically is the story of his life- you leave the shore onto the sea, and you don’t know where you’re going and that’s exactly what you did, you put yourself in his position.
“They were both in their early 50s when they left Scotland, with 12 children, and they leave everything they know- their friends. their lifestyle, everything- for us. It can’t be for another reason- they certainly didn’t do it for themselves. They did it for us and they did it without question. I can remember people coming to the house in the weeks leading up to our departure and my mother giving everything away. She sold nothing, she gave everything away. To those that need it you know. And I think that’s why most of us turned out pretty good.”
McDermott recalled with some emotion that his dad had seen him perform in concert just once, in Toronto, two months before he died. “My dad saw at least the potential for (my) success. In November of 1994, there was a sold out Christmas tour show in Toronto at a place for the Royal Alexandra Theatre, one of the oldest and finest theaters in the country. And it was jammed. And that night, as he stepped out of the car at the front door, he slipped and he struck his head. I had no idea that happened, and the ambulance came and took him away.
“I had a plan in the second half of the show to make my mother and father stand up and be acknowledged. My manager at the time is running around wildly, trying to find someone who looked like my dad. At the hospital, my mother and my brother Tony- he’s the reincarnation of my dad- they said everything is ok, and they stitched him up and put a bandage on him.
“And he got up. And the doctor said ‘Where are you going?’ and he said ‘I’m going to the show.’ And my mother says ‘No, Peter, you lie down.’ My father said ‘You and Anthony can stay here if you like but I’m going to go out and get a taxi and go to the Royal Alexandra.’ And in the second half, when the lights went up, he stood up as proud as hell with that white bandage around his head, and he took his bow. He was very theatrical, and you know... a highlight, it was a highlight…”
He passed away less than two months later, in January, 1995, at the age of 80. Peter McDermott was a World War 2 veteran of the RAF and John remembers he had said to him in 1993, “If you get some success, promise me you will give back and look after the veterans.”
“I never forget him, because he’s on stage with me every night,” the 55 year old singer says fondly. “I have his hat and cane -- his bonnet --and my mother’s scarf.”
On his latest CD, Mc Dermott says there are two tracks dedicated to veterans. “It’s called Journey- this is what the families are going through. He’s never coming home. Bringing Buddy home.
“I see myself wanting to help those that can’t help themselves for no other reason than they have had a lousy break. I find myself trying to help those who I know have the ability but need a break and aren’t in a position to ask for it. I like to do that with young musicians and I’ve done it with a number of them. It’s almost instinct now you know, we are so lucky in having the people who brought us here. You still learn from them.
“My father had a philosophy that he would never tell you what to do, but he was a bugger with this line: he’d say, ‘If I were you, that’s what I would do.’
“I made the mistake of not doing it once and it backfired on me.”
McDermott says he feels especially comfortable in Boston: “I feel Boston is my second home. From day one in 1995 when I did my first show in Boston- after the show we shuffled off to Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain- and it’s a memory that will stay with me until my death.
“That was a night to remember. The only thing they closed at night were the curtains.”