The first episode of the new RTÉ television series ‘Pat Shortt’s Music From D’Telly’ featured Christy Moore performing in The Abbey Tavern in Howth in 1980. Playing beside him in the short clip was Declan McNelis.
It was highlighted to me later by my Dad that the show missed a perfect opportunity to call attention to the fact that Declan was a well-respected musician who was tragically killed after performing a gig in Limerick in April 1987. As there are no major tributes online, I felt it would be of value to collate information and pictures about this well-loved and accomplished instrumentalist.
From Marino on Dublin’s northside, Declan McNelis took up the bass at the age of 12 and in the 1970s and 1980s played with many of Ireland’s leading musicians including Christy Moore, Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, Maura O’Connell, Freddie White, Robbie Brennan, Mary Coughlan, Donal Lunny, Honor Heffernan, Philip Donnelly, Frankie Lane, Pete Cummins and Jimmy Faulkner.
After secondary school, he began studying in UCD with intentions to become a school teacher. But he gave it up to join the Red Peters and The Dublin Floating Blues Band in the mid 1970s. Around this time, he also played with an acoustic blues outfit called Dirty Dozen with Johnny Norris.
From around 1974 onwards, Christy Moore played with Declan, Jimmy Faulkner and Kevin Burke. They had a residency on Monday and Saturday nights in The Meeting Room on Dorset Street. Declan played bass on Christy’s album ‘Whatever tickles your fancy’ (1975) and guitar on his self-titled ‘Christy Moore’ (1976).
In October 1979, Declan set out on the Anti-Nuclear Roadshow to help the campaign against the Carnsore Point nuclear power plans with Freddie White, Matt Kelleghan and Jimmy Faulkner. Together with other groups they mobilised support concerts across the country.
Nicknamed ‘Seagull’, Declan was known for his humour and organising outrageous fund-raising raffles for the campaign – a £1 ticket could led to people winning a bottle of lemonade, a wrapped sandwich or a set of boot studs!
A year later he played a memorable gig in National Stadium with Planxty and The Chieftains.
In 1982, Declan joined the swing and jazz influenced band Hotfoot and played with them until his untimely death. The group featured guitarist Jimmy Faulkner (RIP, 2008) and pianist Dave McHale (RIP, 2009).
The early 1980s also saw him play with the country rock band Honky Tonk Heroes with featured Errol Walsh of Stagalee.
During the late 1980s, Hotfoot had a Thursday night residency at The Savoy in Limerick.
After their gig on the night of Thursday 9th April 1987, Declan was loading gear into the band’s van at the Henry Street side of the Savoy when he was approached by a man who he had earlier had a disagreement. Declan was assaulted, fell to the ground and struck his head.
Initially he did not appear to be badly injured but he later collapsed and was brought to Barrington’s Hospital in the city. He was transferred to Cork Regional Hospital with serious head injuries where he remained in a critical condition. He was put on a life support machine but unfortunately never recovered from his injuries and died late on Sunday evening 12th April.
He was survived by his father Denis and sisters Carmel, Pauline, Dympna and Mary. His mother, Mabel, died in 1985.
A 22-year-old unemployed chef from Limerick was charged with assaulting Declan causing actual bodily harm.
His funeral took place in the Church of of St. Vincent De Paul in Marino and was packed with friends, family and associates in the music world. Among the performers were violinist John Sheehan of The Dubliners, Red Peters and Freddie White who sang Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”. He was was burred in St. Fintan’s Cemetery in Sutton.
In July 1987, friends and family organised a memorial gig in the Olympic Ballroom with Christy Moore, Mary Black, Freddie White, Chris Meehan, Hotfoot, The Fleadh Cowboys and more.
Joe Breen reviewed the special night in The Irish Times (17 July 1987):
The Olympic Ballroom was packed to capacity for the session which featured many of the country’s leading musicians. The atmosphere was refreshingly warm and friendly and the music likewise. There were some stunning displays set by Declan’s band, Hotfoot, with guests Jimmy Faulkner and Keith Donald providing outstanding solos on guitar and sax respectively. Violinist Pat Collins spoke of Declan’s death only to say that he was still among us in spirit and more than one person during the night echoed that remark … It was a great big-hearted happy benefit, albeit one with sincere regret. The Seagull, as Declan was fondly called, would have approved.
In an appreciative article in the Irish Times (15 April 1987), the author ‘C.C’ wrote about Declan’s personality and the impact of his death:
In private a quiet, often solitary person, he will be remembered by his friends and fans alike for his sense of humour, his ability to organise those around him and for a musical ability which blended to perfection with other players. He was interested in all aspects for music and had a wide knowledge of traditional, country and western and jazz, as well as blues and rock. His sudden, tragic has left the music world stunned and grieving. He will not be easily be replaced.
The Fleadh Cowboys released their debut single Johnny Da Vinci in 1987. The b-side ‘Donegal’ was dedicated to Declan. Christy Moore’s 1987 album ‘Unfinished Revolution’ was “dedicated to the memory of Raymond Roland and Declan McNeilis.” Finally, in the same year Donal Lunny dedicated his composition “Declan” to Declan McNeilis which was recorded live on his self-titled debut album.