“With us in spirit”: Aslan guitarist Billy McGuinness on life after Christy DignamMike Finnerty 19 Jul 2023
A month has passed since Aslan frontman Christy Dignam lost his battle with amyloidosis, but in the great rock tradition, his bandmates are carrying on.
As a parting gift to fans, the band released their last recording session with Dignam, a cover of the classic song The Fields of Athenry, and guitarist Billy McGuinness said the song “sends shivers up my spine.”
McGuinness spoke to us about how the band are recovering from the loss of their frontman, and spoke candidly about the creative process, what the future holds for the band, and the legacy of his bandmate.
“Me, Joe, and Alan met up after Christy passed, and the first question we asked was do we want to continue?”
According to McGuinness, the answer was unanimous.
“We decided to keep going, because quite frankly we don’t know anything else. We’re working musicians and this is what we’ve been doing for 40 years.”
“We are taking baby steps at the minute, we are taking solace in each other and the music, but we are not looking at gigging at the moment. We’re taking it all as it comes.”
McGuinness said that the release of The Fields of Athenry was a tribute to Dignam, and a “thank you” to the fans for their support during a difficult time.
“We’re not looking at this in terms of charts, downloads, streams, whatever, we just thought this was something we should share with the world.”
The track has become firmly etched into contemporary Irish folklore with the song associated with Irish sporting events, but McGuinness said that they recorded their own version not knowing it would be their last recording with Dignam.
“Little did we know when we were in the studio, recording an Aslan version of the Fields of Athenry, that it would be our final time recording with Christy,” he said.
“As usual he recorded an amazing vocal to the track and like so many cover songs that the band have recorded over the years, Christy put his own unique stamp on it.”
McGuinness cited Dignam’s love of singers like Ronnie Drew, and he felt his bandmate did “an amazing job” of doing the classic song “in the Aslan style.”
When discussing what should serve as the final Aslan release with Dignam, McGuiness admitted the band could not recall what their final recording session was.
“We got in contact with our producer Stuart Gray, and told us it was this cover of The Fields Of Athenry.”
McGuiness recalls listening to the track, and as soon as he heard Dignam’s voice, he knew that the song had to be released.
The month following Dignam’s death has been a “blur” for McGuinness, and admitted that doing the media circuit to promote his work was that bit more difficult without Dignam by his side.
“Whenever we did radio appearances or phone interviews or whatever, I would always be with Christy and he’d handle them so well, but we were always by each other’s side doing these kind of interviews; it’s a bit tougher without him now.”
“Even speaking to you today, I’m like ‘Jesus, today is his month’s mind’ and I think about what his family is going through.”
Dignam’s battle with amyloidosis dominated the last decade of the Aslan story, and the singer’s deteriorating health was a strain on the band.
McGuinness recalls visiting Dignam in Beaumont Hospital “bawling crying” and remembered thinking “this is the end of Aslan” after Dignam received his diagnosis in the early 2010’s.
Yet, the band persevered.
“I just remember the day Christy got that diagnosis, it felt like the rug was pulled from under me, and then two years later we’re playing the Olympia Theatre – for a while, it felt like Christy was invincible.”
The band had organised a 40th anniversary concert at the 3Arena, but the concert was called off as Dignam’s health worsened, which McGuinness said was a difficult decision to make.
“We had these gigs booked for the 3Arena, and we were acutely aware of fans coming up from the country for the night, people booking babysitters, we even knew of fans flying in from the UK for the gigs, and it was really hard on us to cancel the gigs,” he said.
The band does plan to carry on however, and McGuinness said that regular rehearsal with his bandmates is helping him through the grieving process.
“We were in limbo for the best part of a year,” McGuinness said, noting that the band’s final gig was on August 5th, 2022 in Kilkenny.
“We were aware that Christy was in palliative care, but there was this sense of ‘what do we do next?”
“This is what we have been doing for 40 years, but now that we are back in rehearsal again we are still getting the same enjoyment out of our sessions now – if anything, it’s good for our sanity.”
The band does plan to hit the road again someday but when that day comes, their frontman will be with them in spirit.
“Christy will be with us for sure, it’s gonna be like he’s there because the songs are such a part of him and our band.”
“There isn’t a town or city in Ireland we haven’t played, from Donegal, Monroe’s in Galway, the Cork Opera House, and when we do get back on the road we hope the fans will sing for us.”
Radio personality Dave Fanning received significant criticism for his comments surrounding Dignam after his passing, saying that the singer “blew” his image with his drug problems.
When asked about the comments, McGuinness noted that Fanning was very instrumental in helping the band get exposure to begin with and was a champion of the band, but his comments were “bang out of order.”
“More than anything, it was the timing of the whole thing, the family were still very much hurting at that stage, and the comments were wrong, just plain wrong.”
“He should have not gone on Claire Byrne if that’s what he was going to say,” he added.
Since Christy passed, I have been sent hundreds of videos of singer-songwriters from across the country singing Aslan songs, and that would have meant everything to Christy; he would be so happy knowing that he was inspiring fellow musicians.”
“When we recorded the song, we didn’t sense it was anything special, but now that Christy is gone, it has become special. The song has this real power to it now.”
The Fields of Athenry will be available on streaming services from July 20th.