AS a young hopeful in the 1960s queuing in the Guildhall anxious that BBC TV talent spotters would notice him, Don Knox could not have known it would be 45 years before he’d stand in the Guildhall again – only this time with a paintbrush in his hand.
Many people in Londonderry may well not remember Don’s days in folk rock band ‘Spud’, but they will probably remember his father, popular Presbyterian Minister Rev William Knox, who came to Glendermott Presbyterian Church in 1947.
His mother’s family also has strong ties with the north west. She was the former Miss Lesley Parke, daughter of Rev and Mrs Alan Park, from Ballykelly, where her father was also a Minister. She was the couple’s only daughter, and went on to be an artist specialising in watercolour landscapes.
Rev Knox was the son of Mr and Mrs S B Knox, of Loughlougan, Broughshane and was brought up in connection with First Broughshane congregation.
He was educated at Ballymena Academy, but also went to Magee College and Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated with a BA with Honours in 1930. His studies continued at Edinburgh University and New College, Edinburgh, and Assembly’s College, Belfast and ultimately he was licensed by Ballymena Presbytery in May, 1932.
His quietly effective ministry was very much appreciated by his congregation. He saw a fine hall erected and a new pipe organ installed.
Rev Knox was ordained in the united charge of Ballygawley and Ballyreagh, on May 30, 1933 and he married Lesley Parke in 1940.
He served as Moderator of the Synod of Armagh and Monaghan in 1945 and two years later was installed in Glendermott on July 31, 1947. He resigned as the Minister there on June 30, 1973 and retired to Powfoot, Annan, in Dumfriesshire.
The Minister died on Christmas Day in 2000 and Don commented: “It is almost as if he waited for that day. He had been very aware that it was the 2000th anniversary of Christ’s birth and had an enviably strong faith.”
During Rev Knox’s ministry in the city, at a Congregational Meeting on February 26, 1950, 1st and 2nd Glendermott changed its name to Glendermott. The final chapter was, therefore, written in the re-unification of the two congregations during his tenure.
For his own part, Don, who attended Foyle College when it was at the Lawrence Hill site, has fond memories of the city, but revealed that he was unable to study art at A Level, and life took him on another path – music.
Music was a gift he probably could attribute to his father, and Don ended up touring Ireland, the UK and Europe with his band. It has been a long time since his ‘Spud’ days, but he still plays the electric fiddle and keeps in touch with his former band members and friend and one-time manger, Paul McGuinness, who went on to manage stadium giants U2.
In his younger days Don studied music with the late Lawrence McCann at Oakfield Terrace, who taught him violin and in addition to touring ‘Spud’ recorded three albums, in fact, at one time Spud was so popular that they headlined at the Ulster Hall and appeared on all the terrestrial television channels in the UK and Ireland.
The band ran its course and, after a stint as tour manager to James Galway in the US and Canada, Don went back to his first creative love, painting and the former student of the National College of Art, Dublin, began mural painting and decorative art.
Don has since formed his own company with his son, Knox and Knox (knoxandknox.ie) and his eye for detail can be seen in Clonard Monastery, Carlow County Museum, St Peter’s Cathedrals in Lurgan and Belfast, as well as St Malachy’s.
His contract to restore the ceiling in the council chamber brings him back to the Guildhall after an absence of 45 years. The last time Don was in the building was back in the 1960s when he was auditioning for a BBC talent show.
Sitting in the window of a cafe, overlooking the Guildhall, Don has fond memories of his childhood here: “I grew up here. I lived at Glendermott Manse. My dad was the Presbyterian Minister in Glendermott.”
He began by explaining how he came to end up in a band: “I just took to music. My dad played the fiddle a bit himself and he sent me for lessons in Derry to Lawrence McCann. I just got the Clancy Brothers bug and the Dubliners. I saw the Dubliners in the Guildhall in about 1966 and I got their autographs and I later toured Germany, 10 years later, with Ronnie Drew and became good friends with him...”
Asked if he was related to the Knox family of Prehen, Don replies in the negative, although he was taken with the Prehen homestead: “I have been in the house. It is a fantastic house, and I met Colin Peck, but as far as I know we are of no relation. My dad was from Broughshane in Antrim.”
A creative man, Don was unable to study art at Foyle College: “I couldn’t do it at Foyle, so never really went down that path. But I had always painted and drawn a bit. Eventually a friends of mine who is a designer suggested that I should go to learn the crafts of marbling, guilding and all of that, so I went to London and studied that.
“I developed into doing murals and so I started going to night classes in the National College of Art, but this is more craft than art, really,” he says of his work in the Guildhall, adding: “There are 48 panels on the ceiling of the Council Chamber and they are being decorated with geometric stencil and with 23.5 karat gold emblems in each corner.
“It is quite light and it will be very pretty when it is finished. It was the Minor Hall but it is being called the Council Chamber now and it had had a false ceiling, the original ceiling had been hidden and when they discovered that they had really nice ornate beams and so on, they have revealed them again.”
Working between 30 and 40 feet off the ground, standing on a scaffold, Don admits the work is “very tiring” on the neck.
Although his income comes from art and restoration works, Don still plays and is in contact with his ‘Spud’ bandmates: “I am in touch with them all and I play a few a gigs through the year with Smithy [Michael Smith] the bass player, and I play with another band in Dublin, a bar band basically, two or three times a month, the Rye River Band. I play the electric fiddle.”
Referring to Paul McGinness, he said: “We see each other from time to time and he has a New Year’s Day party every year, but unfortunately I always celebrate New Year in Culdaff, so I don’t get to go to it. But, I see him and I am occasionally in touch with his wife, Kathy.”
While he has no plans to do any more recording work, Don warmed to the idea of playing here during the City of Culture: “It would be nice, yeah. Just by coincidence, we have an old house up at Culdaff that I have restored down over the years down at the sea, and the nice thing about this job is that we are able to stay down at the house at Culdaff and commute in the morning. It’s lovely.”
Asked if he had visited any of his old haunts while he was back in the city, he laughs: “I don’t know how many of my old haunts are still here. Yanner Ell’s is gone, it was cafe that we all went to and smoke cigarettes and spent our dinner money on, so... there have been a lot of changes.”
Commenting on how the city had changed since he’d left, Don is very upbeat: “It’s nice. It feels good and it looks good. It’s great.”
He has an obvious affection for the Guildhall too: “I was dying to get this job when I heard it was out there, and I count myself as lucky to have got it because it is such a fantastic building. I had not realised that. When I lived in Derry I took it for granted but now I can see how it compares with other buildings. I mean, we worked in Dublin Castle, the Dail and some great buildings around Dublin, but this one really is special...”
The new bridge is wonderful. I walked it last night [Friday] and I met an artist called Jim going one way and an electric fiddler called Robert Peebles on the way back. You could not make it up,” he said.