Aslan members Alan Downey, Joe Jewell and Billy McGuinness with Lee Tomkins in Cork ahead of this year’s Joy in the Park festival. Photo: Celeste Burdon Photography

Playing Joy in the Park is a ‘no brainer’ says Aslan

Maisie Mould

Aslan have faced troubles that could have broken another band but their determination to keep playing has brought them into a new chapter.

The past year has been a turbulent one for legendary Dublin band Aslan, who are coming to Cork to headline the Joy in the Park festival this July.

Joy in the Park is a free festival held in conjunction with Cork’s mental health services, boasting an exciting music programme, as well as wellness activities and other entertainment.

Their decision to headline the festival was a “no brainer”, said lead guitarist Joe Jewell, “as soon as this gig came up we just said yeah, we’re going to jump on this immediately, because it’s so important.”

Aslan first played in Cork in 1986, and have returned many times since, describing the unwaning “affinity” between Aslan and the people of Cork. Billy, reflecting on the gig in 1986, said: “It was the first time that we travelled outside Dublin and the audience actually sang one of our songs back to us.”

Left reeling from the death of friend and frontman Christy Dignam in June 2023, the remaining band members were faced with the difficult decision of what to do with Aslan’s future.

“We’ve had a disastrous year,” admitted Joe, and said Aslan decided to do Joy in the Park because of what they went through: “it’s so forefront in our minds – mental health – at the moment.”

Christy Dignam passed away last year at the age of 63, following a decade-long illness with Amyloidosis, a rare disease that causes an abnormal protein to grow in the body, leading to organ failure. At the time of his passing, Aslan had been playing for just over 40 years. Christy, along with Joe and aspiring musicians Billy McGuinness and Alan Downey, first set up their band in 1982, and achieved international success with famed tracks such as ‘Crazy World’ and ‘This Is’ becoming much-beloved anthems. After more than 40 years of Aslan, the band that first played in Cork all those years ago is now quite a different one, embarked on a self-described “new journey” after Christy Dignam’s passing. Billy said Aslan is not the band it was two years ago

“You know, it could have easily gone the other way,” he admitted, “We’ve gone through the dark period, and we’ve come out. And now there’s joy in the band!”

Having welcomed singer and guitarist Lee Tomkins to lead vocals, Aslan embarked on their new tour back in March, playing their first gig of the new tour in Cyprus Avenue, in Cork. Lee, 37, who hails from Finglas, said he “grew up on Aslan” and that it was “a great experience to be able to sing with the lads.”

“At the end of the day we’re not doing anything that any other band in the whole of rock and roll history who has lost somebody are doing,” said Joe, adding: “Lee’s energy is different to the way that it was and it has to be that way.”

Billy, lead guitarist and backing vocalist, shared how himself, Joe and Alan “had each other” when they were going through the “dark time” after Christy’s passing.

“All these services [at Joy in the Park] have an open door policy where you can actually go in and talk to people or phone them,” he continued, “And that’s so important because it worked for us. We made that contact after Christy’s passing, and now we’ve come out of it.”

He added: “Never mind Joy in the Park, there’s actually joy in the band! And for the past year there wasn’t. This is only new.”

The band are particularly attuned to the effect social media can have on mental wellbeing.

Billy revealed that the band had been on the receiving end of some negative comments following Christy’s passing, but crediting their maturity and decades in the entertainment industry, Billy laughed: “It’s water off a duck’s back if you get slagged, we’re used to that!”

He added: “But there are kids out there that aren’t used to that and can’t handle it, and that’s where the problem lies.”

Amidst the last few years of a spike in mental health discourse, Aslan says the music industry is changing for the better.

Joe said: “I think through music people are talking about it more. There are a lot of artists now who are coming out and saying ‘look you need to talk to people about issues you have’.”

Drummer, Alan, described music as his happy place: “When a gig is going good, and the sound is good and the lights are on and the audience is singing, bam! You can’t beat it. That’s it. Jam on toast!”

Aslan will be headlining Joy in the Park this July. For more, visit the Joy in the Park website. The Cork Independent is a proud media partner of the festival.