Sons of Southern Ulster at their rehearsal space in Clare, with Rory Meagher in the window (centre).

Documentary maker sets sights on Sons

Multi award-winning documentary maker, Frank Shouldice is once again focusing his lens on Cavan.

Famed for his 2018 film ‘The Man Who Wanted to Fly’, this time Frank is following the arch of Bailieborough band Sons of Southern Ulster as they prepare to headline Whelan’s later this month.

When SOSU last played the hallowed Dublin venue it was close to 30 years ago and in support of one the capital’s brash fledgling acts, the Dixons.

The Cavan band, missing Paddy Glackin (bass), traded under the ‘Panic Merchants’ moniker at the time. Not long after this noteworthy appearance however lead vocalist Justin Kelly opted to move to the States and rest of the band, then in its second iteration, disintegrated into the trappings of conventional maturity.

It wasn’t until after Justin’s mother Sheila sadly passed in February 2009 that the four friends who began this musical journey- Justin (vocals), David Meagher (guitar), Paddy (bass), and Noel Larkin (drums) - sat once again and “played a few tunes”.

In that pivotal moment ‘Sons of Southern Ulster’ was born. One of the songs to surface in that moment of togetherness - ‘Love of Jesus’, about a trip to the Oasis niteclub - even kickstarted the tracklisting to the band’s 2015 release, ‘Foundry Folk Songs’.

Forged in the influence of Teardrop Explodes and Joy Division (‘Still’ era), the band are currently preparing to preform two pandemic delayed concerts- at Whelan’s on Saturday, July 23, followed by Mike the Pies in Listowel, Co Kerry on Friday, July 29.

“That Whelan’s gig was our first and our last there,” remembers Justin of their Dixons support slot.

Justin is now back in his home base of Boston, but had been in Ireland for a four-day rehearsal “sharpener” at David’s home in Clare.

The collaboration with Frank materialised “out of the blue” during Covid, when the documentary maker first approached Justin after hearing their song ‘Pop Inn’ played by Tom Dunne on the radio.

“It was totally out of the blue,” says Justin. “Something grabbed him about the song, and serendipitously his work is taking him back to Bailieborough.”

The upcoming gig in Whelan’s will form part of Frank’s proposed work, Justin saying: “We never expected any of this to happen. We started out doing this just for the craic. It’s funny what resonates.”

Recent rehearsals were interspersed with Frank filming, and despite the added distraction, Justin says the band made “a lot of headway” into determining a final set-list for the night, tickets for which are selling out fast.

SOSU will be supported at their upcoming gigs by Big Boy Foolish, veterans of the Cork music scene with guitarist Ricky Dineen previously of post-punk legends Nun Attax, later renamed Five Go Down to the Sea?

SOSU meanwhile will also have David’s son, Rory, play on stage with them as second guitarist.

Justin states what makes this upcoming tour different to before is that it’s being promoted whereas previously SOSU acted more “on the fly”.

“It took the pressure off in one way but then you remember there’s people paying into this, so it has to be right. We have to produce.”

What tickles Frank’s interest the most about SOSU is how, after the break-up none of them played music for close to 15 years and the life-long school friendship forged upon meeting, circa age 11, in Master Hanley’s sixth class at St Anne’s National School.

Frank is further fascinated with how now, having playing only a handful of gigs, mostly to family and friends including the Bailieborough Arts & Cultural Centre in August 2017, SOSU have built up an almost cult-like following based on two critically acclaimed releases (Foundry 2015, Sinners and Lost Souls 2020), neither of which were either toured or promoted extensively.

“Justin had only moved to Bailieborough with his family who bought [the West End] bar. David’s family had moved back from England the year before. It’s this incredible story of four mates. There is no linear path here. They were the Panic Merchants 30 odd years ago, and reached the end of the road without breaking through and they leave it be. There’s so many reasons they could have just let it go, or members took up with other bands, but the curious thing none of them did.

“Even speaking to them there’s a sense they wouldn’t go back just for the sake of it, but if it was together, that’d be different. Even though now they all live far apart, music is the glue that put them all back together.”

Frank adds: “Bobby Coote had a dream he never let go, but maybe the difference with these lads is they never realised they still had it.

“There’s something I find very interesting about that, them picking up where they left off. Who knows where the film will go? In the much the same way the as the band and how the gig will go, who knows where it’ll take them?

“Potentially it could be their first and last [as a band headlining Whelan’s] and they’re just going for it! They’re making it happen.”