Bill Whelan – The Road to Riverdance: From Barrington Street to creating Ireland’s cultural watershed moment in 1994

Bill Whelan

LIMERICK born composer, Bill Whelan recently released his wonderful memoir The Road to Riverdance. The book tells of Bill’s youth growing up in Barrington Street, Limerick, studying in UCD as his love of music production and composition evolved into a full and varied career culminating in the worldwide success of Riverdance.
This Sunday February 26, the Limerick Literary Festival presents an audience with Bill Whelan at Belltable from 3pm. Bill will be interviewed by radio presenter Dermot Whelan and accompanied on stage by friends fiddler Zoë Conway and guitarist John McIntyre.
Bill chatted with the Limerick Post Newspaper this week.
The Road to Riverdance starts with an introduction to Bill’s youth in 1950’s Limerick.
Bill grew up in the Limerick of The Granny’s Intentions and Reform and The Monarchs Show Band where great local musicians hung out in Jack Glynns Music Shop.
Bill would spend hours there.
“I remember them all so vividly, and I looked up to them all I really wanted to be part of that world.”
In the book, he describes the warmth and sustenance of his Limerick childhood, his parents, his neighbours the McCourts and the Jesuit fathers of his early days.
Not all his school days experiences were positive, but he pays tribute to his friends and especially his father who helped him build his first studio.
“He was mad about music and he would have brought me to a lot of things.
“There was the age gap, he was 50 when I was born, so when I was starting to notice things, he was like, you know, 60 something so where a lot of other dads were gonna play sports, and my father was a sportsman but at 60 odd years of age, that’s pretty well kind of finished. So there wasn’t any of that sort of thing, but it was replaced by music.”
One of Bill’s career breakthrough moments was his work with the legendary Richard Harris who summoned him to London.
“When Richard Harris appeared, everything went up six notches. There was a general fizz and always an entourage of starlets.
“It was kind of what we knew about the film business.
“When Harris would turn up in Kilkee, there was a definite atmosphere in the town.
“When he walked into a room he moved air and was a great storyteller.”
Bill’s book reveals the nuts, bolts, sheer effort and serendipities that formed the road to Riverdance, from his early days playing piano in bands to engineering and producing in Trend Studios, working with U2, Van Morrison and Kate Bush, to composing The Spirit of Mayo and Uisce Beatha (later renamed Riverdance).
Great friendships were made along the way and some hard lessons learned early on in regard to the Eurovision winning song ‘What’s Another Year’ written by Shay Healy.
Bill tells in the book that Shay asked him to “throw a bit of Whaylen dust on it,” on the song.
Bill suggested a sax intro and solo to allow for some dynamic colour in the orchestration.
When Ireland won the Eurovision with Johnny Logan singing the song the subsequent record release did not credit Bill as song producer.
Amongst the record company shenanigans, Bill was told at one stage that his part in the song was just a, “figment of his imagination.”
Lessons from that experience were well learned and the mistakes were not repeated.
How did Bill go about making sure that that never happened to again, what should the new producers in Limerick and songwriters make sure that didn’t that doesn’t happen to them?
“Well, it’s a difficult balance to achieve in that sometimes you can be so careful that you lose the job.
But, there are a couple of key things that I think all of us involved in the industry should take care of.
“And that is that if you are contributing something creatively to a project in other words, if you’re writing the song or the lyrics of the song or whatever it is, that you, you get your deal done, even if nobody can predict how the thing is going to go.
“Like Riverdance, nobody really knew what effect that was going to have.
“It’s been such an extraordinary success internationally, that you imagine that the people who created this the producers, the director, myself, that we all had some grand plan.
“The only thing I wanted to do was to have the record out. I wanted to have a record of Riverdance, which is why I raised the money because nobody in the record industry would give me any money. (He raised the money from an insurance company!). I couldn’t afford to pay for an orchestra in the studio and all that so I raised the money elsewhere but not within the record industry.
“But I made sure that all my rights were taken care of before I handed over my work.
“You know, I think that’s really important and without being so paranoid, I have seen people paralysed by paranoia and then everyone says, look, hey, you know what, forget this.
“The awful thing that happened to me with What’s Another Year was that when the work was done, my father’s old saying that eaten bread is soon forgotten began to ring in my ear.”
Bill was told that his input had nothing to do with the success of the record.
“Even modestly, I think I can claim that it did. And Shea (Healy) will certainly admit that and so with Johnny (Logan), because they knew exactly what I did, but, you know, other people put themselves in there as negotiators and they’re representing the record company, and their prize at the end of the day to be able to say to the record company, we’re after getting back those royalties.
“The advice from my experience of a lifetime of work is just get your terms and conditions sorted out early and agreed.
“Afterwards you can haggle about little bits of this here and there.
“But this is an understanding at the start that, if the thing is successful, your input has to be properly acknowledged and paid for then you’re okay.
“Then you can work really in a relaxed way and you don’t build up resentments.
“In my case, I did resent it, I was angry, but at the same time, I turned that anger into something that at the next time, you know, it was the ole ‘fool me once’ you know.”


As Bill returns to Limerick this weekend for The Limerick Literary Festival, he will get a chance to again reflect on the journey that brought him to Riverdance with an audience in Belltable.
When staying in the city, Bill has often stayed at Number One Pery on Barrington Street.
“When I used to stay there, a woman working at the hotel would put me at the window where I could look over at the house where was born. It is literally across the road.”
Bill has no intention of retiring, and a follow up biography is a possibility. These days he celebrates the freedom that Riverdance has given him and picks projects that are close to his heart.
Bill is currently writing a piece for traditional musicians and the Contempo String Quartet in Galway to be performed at the Galway Arts Festival in July 2023.
He has no interest in creating a “Riverdance 2” but he has a large theatre project involving dance and a choir in development at the moment.
Bill Whelan at Belltable this Sunday February 26 from 3pm.