Pete St John is one of Ireland’s most successful and prolific songwriters.
One of his greatest gifts is the ability to write modern songs in such an authentic traditional style that many people think they date back hundreds of years.
St John’s songs have been recorded by numerous leading performers including The Dubliners, The Dublin City Ramblers, James Galway, Mary Black, Paddy Reilly, Danny Doyle, Johnny McEvoy, Flogging Molly and many more.
Pete St John was born and raised in Dublin. Growing up in the 1940s and 50s, he absorbed the sights and sounds of the city; it was to be a major influence on him and his work for the rest of his life. Despite his musical ability, he didn’t consider music as a career in his youth.
In the early 1950s, like thousands of other Irish people searching for work, he decided to emigrate. He went to Canada first and went on to work in several other countries over the next 20 years including Alaska, Central America and the West Indies.
He worked at various jobs including truck driver, sales official and electrical contractor.
Return to Dublin inspired St John
It was his return to Dublin in the 1970s that was to change his life and his burgeoning song writing career forever. The Dublin that St John saw on his return was very different to the city he had left nearly 20 years earlier.
Old buildings had been torn down by developers and replaced by new office blocks. The country was experiencing hard times and thousands of people were losing their jobs.
Many of the old characters he remembered from his youth had gone. There was a new breed of bureaucrats and entrepreneurs who seemed to be holding sway.
St John set about chronicling these changes in songs like The Rare Ould Times, which laments the changing face of the city, and The Ferryman, which tells the story of the men who used to operate the ferry across the River Liffey before the service was discontinued.
Other St John songs referenced Dublin landmarks and characters. Danny Farrell is about a tinker who descends into alcoholism; Johnny McGory is about an old war hero.
St John also has a wide knowledge of Irish history. His best known song is perhaps The Fields of Athenry, which tells the story of a young man who is transported to Botany Bay for stealing corn to feed his family during the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s.