Brother of Derry pop star speaks of AIDS stigma and devastation

Jimmy McShane in Baltimora.
Jimmy McShane in Baltimora.

Homegrown popstar, Jimmy McShane, rose to fame in the 1980s and led a colourful but tragic life. The ‘Journal’ caught up with his brother Damien to gain an insight into the life of a man ‘people couldn’t help but love.’

After years on the showbiz circuit, Jimmy found fame with Italian band ‘Baltimora’ and their international hit ‘Tarzan Boy.’

Jimmy McShane being interviewed on Dick Clarke's American Bandstand in the US at the height of his fame.

Jimmy McShane being interviewed on Dick Clarke's American Bandstand in the US at the height of his fame.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, the song definitely will as an era-defining tune. The song rose in popularity again in recent years thanks to a well-known pay-day loan TV campaign. Amassing over 100 million hits on Youtube, it’s clear the love for the song lives on. However, what is less well known is the remarkable story of the man behind the music; born May 23, 1957, McShane died of AIDS aged just 37 on March 29, 1995.

Hailing from Ivy Terrace, with his docker father, Harry and Longtower canteen-lady mother, affectionately known as ‘Big Rita’, Jimmy and his brother grew up in a typical Derry household.

Showing talent in Irish dancing from a young age, Jimmy’s daring fashion choices, from crazy hair colours to baggy trousers, set him apart early on. Whilst he had a large group of loyal friends who stood by him throughout his life, Damien said life wasn’t always easy for the star.

“He had a tough time growing up. He had a larger than life personality and naturally people gravitated towards him but his years at St. Peter’s were difficult for him,” he explained, “Jim was bullied the entire time for being different and at the time I never even considered that he was gay, it just wasn’t talked about.”

However, a young Jimmy persevered and began training as a nurse with the Red Cross. But stage-school was calling this creative soul and before long he would move to the bright lights of London.

Moving in the same circles as ‘Pan’s People,’ the dancer-turned-singer landed a gig touring with disco singer, Dee D. Jackson, on her European tours.

During a stint in Italy, the Derry man’s chiselled looks and flamboyant performing skills caught the attention of music producer, Maurizio Bassi. And so ‘Baltimora’ was born.

Their debut single, ‘Tarzan Boy’ saw the band garner international attention, appearing on Dick Clark’s ‘American Bandstand’ at the height of their career.

Supported by people back home but not immune from the unavoidable ‘stick’ for his leopard-print Tarzan costume, the popstar still made regular visits and payments back to Derry, enabling his father to retire early.

However, Jimmy’s success fell as spectacularly as it had risen, and after living in Italy with his partner for a number of years, he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1994.

Making a call home his brother would never forget, the Derry man was anxious about the welcome he would receive.

“Jim phoned my wife, Donna, to ask if he could come home,” Damien said, “My response was why wouldn’t you? Of course finding out my brother had AIDS was a huge shock for the family and something my father struggled with. But it was just another thing to get through together.”

Returning to his childhood room, Jim’s trademark artistic flair came into play, redecorating with £60 per roll black and white polka dot wallpaper, as Damien recalls: “I remember thinking I was glad I didn’t live there any more,” he laughed.

Yet the star’s return home was not welcomed by everyone, with the AIDS epidemic in full swing and the LGBT community fighting for rights, some were not accepting of Jimmy.

Whilst attending a house party in Carnhill he was attacked by a group of youths, “Jim wasn’t a fighter but he always stood up for himself,” Damien added. “They beat him, broke his nose and teeth, solely because he was gay.”

During this turbulent time the family did their best to educate themselves on AIDS, to challenge their misconceptions- including catching the virus from door handles or from drinking from the same cup. “In the end all five of my kids would jump up on the bed with him, there was no reason not to. But locally the stigma of AIDS and lack of understanding still existed.”

Due to the illness that ‘makes you grow old quick’, Jimmy contracted Pneumonia nine times and Senile Dementia began to set in during the final stages.

Hearing that Victoria Hospital was working on a cure for AIDS, Jimmy thumbed a lift to Belfast in his bedroom slippers, believing it was the Royal Victoria and not a hospital in Australia.

He became known to local police, a fact the McShane family became aware of later. “He was very lonely near the end and would call the police at all hours, just to have someone to talk to,” Damien said. “Whoever stayed on the other end of that phone gave my brother a lot of comfort and I’ll always be grateful for that.”

As the illness took hold, it began affecting the 37-year-old’s mental state, at times verging on erratic, yet the media continued to interview him - a move the family did not support, resenting the fact that they had not been consulted about his well-being at the time.

After a short spell in Gransha, the McShanes had to fight for the care he needed and following his final bout of Pneumonia, which resulted in an ambulance call-out, Jimmy would tell his brother of his wish to be ‘pain free and comfortable.’

No longer willing to prolong his life, he told Damien: “Enough is enough.”

The family nursed Jimmy for a further 10 weeks at home with the exceptional care assistance of Abbey Medical, according to Damien. “Dr Black and Dr. Farley were a great support during that time. Advising Jim to take it nice and steady, day by day,” he said.

Spending the last £300 in his bank account on a birthday party for his youngest nephew James, the late-star wanted the children to have one last great day on him.

Dying at the young age of 37, local people came out in force to show their support for Jim. Marking a poignant moment in the final journey of Jimmy McShane, Derry people lined Bishop Street wearing red ribbons as a mark of respect as the funeral cortege made its way to the Long Tower Church.

Jimmy’s memory lives on, we only have to look at the comments underneath his online music videos or see the fans who come from all over Europe to visit his grave. Damien too finds solace in Jimmy’s words: “I’ve done more in my short life than most people do in their long lives. I have no regrets.”

Show your support with a red ribbon this World Aids day, Saturday December 1.