As he sat on a tiny, makeshift stage, playing an acoustic guitar in a Westmeath pub, it was hard to believe that Niall Horan was once a part of one of the world’s biggest boy bands, filling stadiums across the globe. Not because he isn’t extremely talented — the 28-year-old is an accomplished singer, songwriter and musician — but because he’s a genuinely down-to-earth person. He has an innate humility that’s helped him not only to hang on to his fans from the One Direction days, but also build a new, wider audience as a solo artist.
earing white jeans and a tribal-print shirt, Horan was on stage beside his good friend Lewis Capaldi. Their intimate gig in Clarke’s Bar was being recorded for a documentary, called Guinness Presents Niall Horan’s Homecoming: The Road To Mullingar.
“Seriously, he is the funniest person I know,” Horan said of his fellow chart-topping musician. “When you’re with Lewis you never quite know where a night will go, but you’re guaranteed a good time.”
On this night in early August, it was an audience of family, friends and media who were having a good time. Although I was there in a professional capacity, I felt just as excited to meet Horan as I had been when I was 15 years old and obsessed with One Direction.
Eleven years ago, I met the boy band in Tesco in Dublin’s Clarehall. I begged my mam to let me leave school early, so I could start queuing to get wristbands for the free meet-and-greet.
Unsurprisingly, she didn’t agree that the boy band was more important than my Junior Cert classes. Luckily, my friend’s granny came to the rescue and queued for us, and we took over once we had finished classes. After a total of 15 hours of waiting in line, myself and my friend met the five lads we had spent our teenage years obsessing over — albeit only for a few seconds, and pictures weren’t even allowed!
Made in conjunction with Guinness, the Homecoming documentary airs on Virgin Media One tonight. It follows Horan and Capaldi over three days this summer, when they caused something of a social-media explosion as they were spotted travelling around Ireland together. In the programme, we see Horan introduce his friend to chicken fillet rolls and show him the best pubs for a pint. As well as the Clarke’s performance, the pair also enjoyed a busking session on Dublin’s Grafton Street.
The singers became friends a few years back after Horan reached out to Capaldi on Instagram saying he was a fan of his work. Capaldi would later play support for Horan’s Glasgow show as part of his first solo tour, Flicker, in 2018. They had their first in-person meeting over a pint on St Patrick’s Day, and their mutual love for Guinness is why they reached out to the drinks company with the idea for this documentary.
On the night they filmed in Clarke’s, while Capadli cracked jokes and Horan bounced across the small stage, the Mullingar singer’s father, Bobby, told me that it’s easy to see why they get along so well. “I just can’t get over it, he and Lewis put on a fantastic performance today and I can’t be any more thrilled,” he said. “They have come on leaps and bounds, it’s fantastic — and he was an amazing support act.”
Despite being part of one of the biggest ever boy bands, Bobby said he is most proud of his son for staying connected to his roots and admitted that he still worries about him. “You are always worried for your child, but I had nothing to worry about. He kept his feet on the ground and always will. His personality keeps his feet on the ground. It’s nothing to do with me, it’s all him. I am so proud of him for that alone, I am just so proud of him.”
It’s always special to have Niall home, Bobby added, saying that although Mullingar is proud of him, the locals do leave him alone to enjoy time with his family.
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It’s fitting, then, that Horan’s first solo hit, This Town, paid homage to Mullingar. The song, released in 2016, talks about a first love who still lives in his hometown; he wishes he was there with her, but she has moved on to someone new. As he sang it in Clarke’s Bar, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the girl in the song (In the pub that we met he’s got his arms around you) was among the crowd.
Horan’s second big solo hit, Slow Hands, got the audience dancing, with Capadli popping off the stage to bust a move with the locals. Then it was the Scottish singer’s time to shine, as he played his ballad Before You Go to the packed pub, quickly switching his persona from a comedian to serious singer-songwriter.
Next, they sang Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol — which Bobby later told me is one of his son’s favourite tunes. However, the duet was interrupted by Horan giggling over something Capadli had whispered to him, causing the audience to laugh along. They started again from the beginning, and with no interruptions, performed a perfect version for the documentary.
While this wasn’t the first gig I’d been to since the world opened back up post-Covid-19, it was emotional to be in the pub watching people dance and hold hands without worrying about social distancing.
After the set finished, with a wide smile on his face, Horan told me it was good to be home but was even sweeter to be greeted by his friends and family in his local pub. Of course, it wasn’t just a big event for the musician; the bar’s owners, Ciaran and Carole Clarke, were visibly moved by the experience.
Holding back tears, Carole said: “Niall used to come in here on his lunch break and play pool, but don’t tell his headmaster that! We are just so proud and Mullingar is so proud — he is a fine and upstanding representation of what we have. A lot of the younger children are looking at him and they realise they, too, can do it. They don’t have to be afraid, they can go for it. He came in the door today and threw his arms around me and said, ‘Ah Carrie how are ya?’ and I haven’t seen him in 10 years.”
Ciaran says they were emotional, not only because it was a big day for them after struggling to keep going during the pandemic, but because the Fleadh Cheoil — coincidentally themed around homecoming — was also taking place in the town that week. “We are exhausted because we had the Fleadh going on, we had 20 minutes of sleep last night but it’s massive for us because it’s just us — it’s not a big company, it’s just us and our family.”
Word that Niall Horan and Lewis Capaldi were in his pub must’ve gotten around the festival crowd very quickly — afterwards the street was filled with people hoping to get a glimpse of the stars. Teenagers shouted and screamed as they clutched their phones. It brought me right back to being 15, and desperately hoping to get a photo with the Irish lad from One Direction. Fast-forward 11 years, and earlier in the evening, I had swallowed my pride and asked Niall for a photo.
Naturally, Mullingar’s decidedly normal superstar was happy to oblige
‘Guinness Presents Niall Horan’s Homecoming: The Road To Mullingar’ airs on October 16 at 10pm on Virgin Media One.
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