John Tunney

John Tunney grew up in Donegal and is the youngest son of Paddy Tunney, ‘the Man of Songs’. John began singing seriously in his teenage years and the first festival at which he performed was Féile na Bóinne, Drogheda in 1977. He has sung at festivals and taught workshops all over Ireland.

For many years he has been a senior adjudicator at Fleadh Cheoil na h-Éireann. He has appeared on television and radio, on half a dozen CDs, and has been commissioned as an artist in residence to compose new traditional songs.  He has worked in Genealogy, Heritage Consultancy, and Museum Design. He was awarded an Irish ‘design Oscar’ for his work on the Irish music exhibition, Ceol.

In 2000, after twelve years living in Dublin, he moved to Clare and lectures in Heritage Studies at Galway/Mayo Institute of Technology. He is married to Mary and they have one son, Conall, who is also a singer.


The Immigrant

by John Tunney (16th May 2012)


Research, Background and the Songwriting Process

I have been writing songs since about 1983, though most of them have not been in the traditional style. When I started, my song writing was a form of personal therapy that allowed me to write and sing stuff out of my system. As the years went by I began to write for other reasons; I even wrote a couple of songs ‘to order’, not on commission as such, since no one paid me for them!

Inspiration and Composition

In recent years I tend to keep a writing notebook which helps record the process of how individual songs come together. But even using this approach I have come to realise that it is not easy to say what draws me to a topic. Something comes on me and in some way I just know that I want to tackle a particular theme or story. Usually a line pops into my head, often the first line, or even the first verse and that is the start. I once wrote a song for my son. I had the first two lines of what turned out to be the chorus on the very day he was born. The rest of the song did not come along until just before his twelfth birthday. There have been songs that I have had to wrestle with, squeezing every word out of my brain like blood from a stone. In other cases I have composed songs in one sitting; it has been as though someone was sitting at my shoulder whispering, dictating line after line until the entire song – in one case 64 lines – are written out on the page in front of me. However, even in these cases, I have been thinking about the theme for some time, turning it over in my head.  I find writing lyrics pretty straightforward – even when they take a long time, but melodies are a whole other ball game!

Why a Bosnian Immigrant?

In this case I had been toying for some years with writing an Immigration song, one that would explore the experience of an immigrant who has come to Ireland in the recent past. In Dublin I worked with parents of children from diverse backgrounds when I was a chairman of a primary school board of management. I have in the past been involved with an immigrant support group in Ennis and have known quite a variety of overseas students who are attending GMIT in Galway. The song that I have written takes aspects, just threads really, from the lives of many of these people and weaves them into a single imagined narrative. So the song is not about a real person, but someone whose experiences I can parallel in the lives of people that I have met and is, then, I hope, a real story.


Images: Cemetery for Srebrenica Genocide Victims, Exhumations in Srebrenica in 1996

Always when I begin writing a song I never know how it is going to develop and where it is going to finish. As I write, things take on a life of their own and head off in unforeseen directions. Often, sometimes months later, I find myself completely shocked at the references that are buried in the words that I have written and that are only now suddenly clear to me. ‘The Immigrant’ is such a song. 

That a vicious war like the one which took place in Bosnia in the 1990s could have happened in Europe at this time has always amazed and horrified me. (This is the war that has given the language such chilling phrases as ‘ethnic-cleansing’, and such inappropriately named concepts as ‘UN Safe-havens’.) The attitude of what we call ‘the international community’ and the inglorious role played by UN troops on the ground were likewise a source of shock and wonder. All these things have fed into the song.


Images: Mass grave in Srebrenica, and reinterment and memorial ceremony.

In a war in which all sides were guilty of atrocities, the massacre that took place at the mining town of Srebrenica has gained particular notoriety.  Perhaps as many as 10,000 men and boys – I have gone with a lower estimate in the text – were murdered, which has led to talk that it was not genocide but ‘gendercide’. Nevertheless, although females were not murdered in large numbers, it is not possible to overstate the horror faced by the Women of Srebrenica, who subsequently set up an organisation to get justice for themselves and their dead menfolk. In fact the treatment meted out to those women was often appalling, not just in this ‘Safe-haven’, but also right across Bosnia. During the conflict – by no means for the first or last time – rape was used as a weapon of war and the estimates for the total number of women raped is in the range of 20,000-50,000.

I was concerned throughout this project that it would be very easy to sensationalise the things that had happened, to make the easy choices, to paint one side as the ‘baddies’, to opt for the highest casualty figures, the most terrible and most gory details, to blame primarily the cowardice of the Dutch UN soldiers and so on. I have chosen instead to understate these points, telling the story as a traumatised victim might choose to, and to let what is unsaid, the horror – almost beyond words – speak for itself. I hope that this technique has worked; only the listener can judge.


Images: The White Mosque in Srebrenica, The Mayo Flag

In one sense I have tried to use ‘the hero’ to give voice to at least some of the new Irish, the immigrants of the last twenty years, many of whom have found in Ireland a haven from political and religious persecution. Structurally I wanted to take the typical emigration song of the Irish tradition and turn it on its head. So, in this case, Ireland is not the country being ‘escaped from’, but the country that is ‘being fled to’.  Having found the infamous Srebrenica Massacre establishing itself at the centre of the narrative, the decision to make the subject of the song a Muslim was simply a logical one. In any case, the story is thoroughly contemporary, right down to the hero now being employed by an Irish-based multi-national. In my more high-flying moments I would like to think that I have created a powerful and authentic piece of vocal art that meets the aesthetic criteria of Irish traditional singing.

Reference Material

Of all the material that I perused in the National Library undoubtedly the most important text was Susan Woodward’s study ‘Bosnia-Herzegovina: How not to end a Civil War’ published in Civil Wars, Security and Intervention (Eds. Barbara F. Walter and Jack Schneider). Its authoritative, balanced and sober analysis allowed me sieve through all the other things that I read, weeding out the sensationalist and emotional in favour of what we can be fairly sure is true.

Of course in this era of web-based research, I also made plentiful use of the www and all that it can do. In addition, I used my father’s copy of the Holy Koran, which has sat on his shelves for many years, to try and arrive at a prayer to put in the mouth of the narrator that authentically echoes the sentiments to be found in Muslim Holy Scriptures.

Finally, and unexpectedly, I have been able to add a little polish to my song via a wonderful collection of poetry The Death of Night by an Albanian writer Ndrek Gjini, which was placed in my hands by the author himself. Ndrek is an ex-student of my own and indeed is one of those personalities from whom I have borrowed a thread for the ‘hero’ of this song. He has first-hand experience of that terrible conflict and in poems such as ‘The Balkan view’ and ‘A shadow of a frightened man’ he evokes the mood and sense of what transpired in those dreadful years. (Long life to you Ndrek, what poems!)


The Immigrant

Lyrics: John Tunney

Air: “The Emigrant"

When first onto this country as immigrants we came,

You could scarcely understand our speech and you could not say our names.

We were fleeing persecution of a kind you could not know

But now Ireland is our country and our home it is Mayo.

My mind goes back to Bosnia but it mostly makes me sad.

I recall the streets of Mostar where I played when just a lad.

My friends they all loved football but Judo was my game.

In training hall or at tournament there was none that could me tame.

My teenage years were happy, life was innocent and good.

Catholics and Orthodox lived in our neighbourhood.

But Croat, Serb or Bosnian, it was all the same to me.

Under Marshal Tito’s velvet fist, at peace and in most ways free.

In the mines of Srebrenica, where I earned my daily bread.

There I met Katarina and in springtime we were wed.

When Tito died, the war soon came and my country fell apart

With cruelty from every side that would shake the stoutest heart.

Four billion pounds the UN spent the conflict to contain.

‘Lay down your arms and we’ll send troops the Serbs for to restrain.’

But no courage from the Dutch was seen on those five fateful days,

When Mladic he unleashed his thugs, they looked the other way.

With women raped and beaten, more were tortured, some were killed.

Their menfolk trapped and rounded up, or hunted in the hills.

8,000 men and boys were slain, the Serbs no quarter gave,

And cheek to cheek their bodies lay in roughly dug mass graves.

And we who are the lucky ones must live with our shame and guilt.

And ponder why our lives were spared when so much blood was spilt.

Some of us have fled abroad, and to Ireland I did fly.

So here in Castlebar I live and here I mean to die.

At Friday prayers in my local mosque I pray for those murdered friends,

I beg Allah, the All-merciful, from whom all good descends.

To grant us understanding and to make confusion cease,

To keep us on the path of right and between all men bring peace.

So my sons attend the Gaelscoil and they love their Gaelic games.

They play football for the Mitchells where their friends can say their names.

They dream they’ll wear the green and red and to Croke Park they will go

And bring the Sam Maguire back in triumph to Mayo.

Employed by a multi-national now I travel near and far.

From Delhi to Jakarta and from Minsk to Zanzibar.

But no matter where I wander and wherever I may go.

Now Ireland is my country and my home it is Mayo.

Written by John Tunney as part of the As I Roved Out project.

© John Tunney 2012

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