Andrew Weatherall: Fisherman’s Friend

The story of a curious tattoo led to the short  film, ‘Sail We Must’, perfectly illustrating the Andrew Weatherall ripple effect

Photo: Ger Murphy

When Andrew Weatherall died in February 2020, one phrase became a parting mantra for many who were mourning on social media – “Fail we may, sail we must”. These words had been tattooed up the inside of Weatherall’s forearms. While repeating them could do little to ease the pain or lessen the shock, you felt that it was an adieu the Guv’nor might have approved of – a salute, an acknowledgement that the show would have to go on without him, but that his spirit could be there with us at each of our respective helms.

Where Weatherall first came across the phrase was a bit of a mystery. In interviews, he mentioned hearing it from a young fisherman he’d met in Cork, who had regaled him with seafaring tales while driving the producer to a gig in Galway. But none of the interviewers had pushed Weatherall for additional details. It left a few people wondering – who was this mysterious fisherman? And what did he know about Weatherall’s tattoo?

Enter Eric Davidson and Richard Seabrooke of Dublin creative agency, The Tenth Man. Back in February 2021, they reached out to Cian Ó Cíobháin, the DJ who had booked Weatherall to play the Galway gig. Ó Cíobháin shared their intrigue, and duly sent out a rather hopeful tweet – “Does anyone know who the Cork fisherman is in this #Weatherall story & when it happened?”.

Not long after, Ó Cíobháin’s phone started buzzing with tenuous leads, while others echoed his curiosity. And then a guy named Billy Cummings replied, saying the man was a friend of his. His name was Gerard Sheehy, and he was up for talking. The only problem was that he was currently somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

“We were going back and forth on WhatsApp for a while,” recalls Davidson. “He was sending us unbelievable images of the sunset in the fucking Atlantic, videos of him out in gales with winds howling around 20-foot waves. It completely flipped my understanding. I was thinking, ‘He’s out at sea so we won’t hear from him’, but Gerard was like, ‘Nah, I’ve got Instagram and WhatsApp. You know, I’m not a pirate!’”

While they waited for Sheehy to return, Davidson and Seabrooke got the green light from the Weatherall estate to make a film, which was released in February this year under the title, ‘Sail We Must: A Sea Story Of Andrew Weatherall & An Irish Fisherman’. Directed by Rua Meegan and Trevor Whelan, the latter remembers informing his brother, a huge Weatherall fan, about the project when it was in its early stages.

“He gave me quite a harsh warning,” explains Whelan, “telling me there’s such loyal and quality fans of Andrew, and that nothing has been done like this before. If it’s done wrong, it’ll go down very badly. So there’s a lot of responsibility on you guys to get this right.”

Although a meeting with Sheehy was scheduled, Sod’s law meant that Davidson caught Covid just before, forcing him to miss the 10-hour round trip from Dublin to Baltimore, a little fishing village in County Cork with a population of roughly 350. But when they finally met Sheehy, he exceeded all their expectations.

We won’t give away any spoilers, but suffice to say that ‘Sail We Must’ is a heartwarming watch. Alongside archive recordings of Weatherall, plus interviews with Sheehy, Ó Cíobháin and the late producer’s close friend and collaborator, Sean Johnston, the film acts as a brief meditation on why Weatherall touched so many people, and what his chance encounter with Sheehy might reveal – ostensibly because Weatherall and Sheehy’s lives could not have been more different. One was a music producer strutting around east London in a tweed suit, while the other was hauling catch in the Atlantic for four months of the year, not knowing Beck from Bach.

Davidson chuckles as he remembers a Q&A session from the film’s launch party in Dublin, when an audience member asked the panel, “Did you know that Andrew loved fishing so much?”

“I was kinda like, ‘I think you got the wrong end of the stick there’, but it led to an interesting conversation, because Cian said, ‘Andrew didn’t just love fishing, he just loved anything different, anything that he could find out something about’. He sounded like an incredibly curious person, in terms of the books he read, the music he ingested and digested, and also the people he spoke to.”

When Sheehy unexpectedly walked through the doors that night, and Davidson met him for the first time, the unlikely union between Sheehy and Weatherall made complete sense.

“On the night of the launch, the event officially ended at 11pm, but I found myself there until about half one, on my fourth pint of Guinness in the smoking area, still speaking with Gerard,” recalls Davidson. “Sean Johnston spoke about how you couldn’t walk down the street in east London without Andrew stopping to talk to shopkeepers, homeless people, musicians and this vast array of people. I think that’s really the parallel between the two, and their sense of curiosity.”

As our conversation draws to a close, Whelan, in an offhand sort of way, neatly summarises the moral of the story. 

“The weight that our words can carry to each other…” he muses. “No one understands how what you say has such an important meaning to others.”

You can watch ‘Sail We Must’ on YouTube.  

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