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In all of Ireland s hydra-headed entertainment industry, no other act simultaneously inspires as much love and loathing as The Wolfe Tones, a band who, annually, attract huge support at Siamsa Cois Laoi, while, no less vociferously, their detractors continue to dismiss them as the musical wing of the IRA, and worse. On the occasion of The Wolfe Tones celebrating 25 years together as a group, Eamon McCann went to meet them.
Eamonn McCann, 06 Apr 1989
Cool people tend to hate The Wolfe Tones. It s hot and sweaty people who love them.
Hot and sweaty people generally don t get to cover the music scene for the papers. Indeed, some of the people who do cover the music scene can become quite incoherent when they strive to convey the intensity of their abhorrence of The Tones.
At the heart of the case against them is the suggestion that they deploy crude balladry to engender and exploit nationalist emotion and then take no responsibility for the dangerous fervour which they whip up.
This is a silly suggestion. It s possible for a group of musicians to draw out emotions from within individuals and to give these communal expression. This happens rather readily in packed pubs towards closing time when the conditions for emotional spillage are at their most propitious.
But the notion that musicians, formation dancers or even decorative hem-stitchers can provide the source of such emotion shows not the slightest understanding of from where in the real world political emotions arise.
We never set out to sing rebel songs, says Tommy Byrne. We set out to sing Irish ballads, and at the beginning that s how they were appreciated. It was only when the political circumstances changed that there was a change in the way we were perceived.
The Wolfe Tones have been on the road for twenty-five years. This is one of the genuine twenty-fifth anniversaries, counsels Noel Nagle. It was at the fleadh in Elphin in July 1964 that the other three of us met Tommy, and a month after that, he joined us.
Fleadhs were enormous in Ireland in the sixties. Regiments of hairy people roamed the land in search of a session. It was by no means unusual for tens of thousands, garbed like beatniks, humping bedrolls et al, to foregather for country or provincial fleadhs and for up to a hundred thousand to assemble for the annual national event. There were scenes and sessions that have long since become legendary and lashing and leavings of drink.
It was probably the first generation of young Irish people who felt self-confident about themselves, says Brian Warfield. Economically, things were looking up. Culturally, younger people had thrown off the hang-dog attitude.
A lot of teenagers would have had a few bob in their pockets to head off for a weekend and thought nothing of doing it, which was a new thing. And you could say they were looking for an identity, too.
It paralleled things happening all over, adds Derek Warfield. There was the folk boom in America, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and so forth, and a new interest in ethnic music, roots . Folk clubs were becoming popular in England. Ewan McColl had a big audience among young people there. We were in our teens and we were very enthusiastic about all that. And that s really what The Wolfe Tones developed from.
Brothers Derek and Brian Warfield grew up alongside Noel Nagle in Inchicore. All three were into music from an early age. Brian and Noel learned the whistle at the Pipers Club in Thomas Street. Derek was taught to play mandolin by his father. They began playing around the area as a trio, doing songs they knew form school and the street.
Eventually, like hordes of their contemporaries, they took to hitching to festivals and fleadhs and striking up in the street or pub or wherever they could clear space for themselves. Derek Warfield remembers that it was in Tralee during 1963 s Rose scam that they first had an inkling there might be a future in this stuff.
That s when we originally noticed we had followers. We d be walking form one end of the town to the other and there d be hundreds of people coming after us to see if we d start into a session again.
We d all taken a few days off from work to go down there, for an amateur ballad competition, but the manager of one of the venues said to us, Look, if you can come down again, I ll book you. That set us thinking.
The following year they met a Norwegian who wanted to produce postcards which could be played on a record player.
He was called Caare Jennsen, recalls Brian Warfield. The idea was that there d be a postcard of Wexford, for example, which would also be a recording of The Boys Of Wexford . Jennsen hired us to supply the songs to match the pictures. He became very positive about the group and managed us for a while, got us our first spot on the Late Late, which was in its infancy then. That was a big milestone for us. Things were beginning to happen.
Then they met Tommy Byrne in McDermott s in Elphin, sniffed the scene and resolved to abandon the day jobs, which was a big decision.
Tommy Byrne was a messenger in Guinness, which had the name of being a job for life. Brian Warfield was a trainee photographer. Derek Warfield was a tailor still carries the needle and thread on tour. Noel Nagle was an office-boy and gofor at Lamb s jam factory.
There were some people thought we were crazy, says Derek. That was only natural. We were four teenagers giving up steady jobs.
They parted company with pro-tem manager Jennsen and set about managing themselves. Each was allocated a specific task.
Brian took charge of material and describes days spent in the National Library searching for songs that nobody had popularised yet. Tommy was promoter and publicist. Noel handled correspondence and remembers writing hundreds of letters at a time, to BBC, UTV and RTE producers, every hall manager and pub with a singing lounge in the country, saying We re The Wolfe Tones, we re a ballad group, will you book us? Derek Warfield was front-man and leg-man, went out and about to size up venues and managements and strike the actual deals.
This, then, was their set-up from 1965 to 1968 when they were signed by Oliver Barry.
We were very clear in our minds from day one that we d have to take a serious-minded approach, Derek Warfield continues. We d given up our jobs. We had to make a go of it. There s a lesson in it for any young group, I don t care what sort of music, rock, pop, folk, whatever. Apart from your music having to be up to standard, you have to be well-organised.
We took advice from anybody who could teach us aspects of the business, recalls Tommy Byrne, how to shape your set so that it had highs and lows, general stagecraft. Maybe what we were doing looked casual and that s alright, that s what we wanted. But four people don t do that by just walking onstage and being casual. You have to work at it, which we did, hard.
Noel Nagle expands: Irish audiences find it easy to become involved on our show because what we do feels fairly natural to them. We try to bring out on to the stage the sense of enjoyment people get from sitting in the back room of a pub, singing, or back in the house after the pub.
We sing a lot of songs which a lot of people have grown up with, songs which it s easy to join in on, the way at any wedding or party in Ireland there s always a fellow singing a ballad and everybody joins in on the chorus.
We knew that if we could recreate that atmosphere of people enjoying themselves singing together, we d be onto something.
The Tones say that the nationalism of their songs came naturally, too. Derek Warfield: There was a great consciousness at the fleadhs that this was a specifically Irish thing, of people enjoying themselves doing something Irish, taking enjoyment out of being Irish. So while there was a broad range of songs brought to the fore at the fleadhs, it was natural that there should be an emphasis on patriotic sort of themes.
It s just a fact, too, that the history of the Irish people has been a history of struggle against foreign occupation and for our own national identity. It s inevitable that that s going to be the theme of a whole range of folk ballads. You delve down into Irish culture and that s what you find, whether certain people today like it or not.
As well as all that, there was the build up to the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966. There was a general feeling of patriotism around, a heightened sense of history and a sense of satisfaction at the country having made something of itself.
Obviously, that came through in the music which was popular at the time, it certainly came through in our music.
As the ballad scene blossomed The Tones rapidly established themselves as one of the most likely of the myriad new groups. Others to emerge included The Dubliners, The Johnstons, The Ludlows, Emmet Spiceland and solo balladeers Johnny McEvoy and Danny Doyle.
In 1965 we got a Friday night residency in the Four Courts Hotel, then that became Fridays and Sundays, recalls Brian Warfield. We ran our own show, that s the way it was done then. It was up to us to hire a support act if we wanted one.
the sessions became very popular until other venues came looking for us. That was a bit of a change from a couple of years previously when a lot of places didn t want ballad groups on the premises.
Our fans would have been fellows with long hair, jeans and army flak jackets . . . hippies, I suppose.
Tommy Byrne says that in 1966 somebody reckoned there were 600 ballad groups in Dublin alone. In every pub from the Parnell House to O Meara s and all along Capel Street, there d be ballad groups every night of the week. It was ridiculous.
The popularity of the Four Courts residency attracted interest form outside Dublin. Derek Warfield: A Capuchin priest from Cork heard us and came up afterwards and booked us immediately for the Fr Matthew Hall down there. That went well and we were booked back about once every two months. So that established us in Cork.
Our first real tour in Britain happened from somebody hearing us at the Four Courts as well. One thing started to lead to another.
One of the ways it worked was, for example, that a fellow from Newry, Brian McColumn wanted us to put him on in our show and said he d arrange gigs for us in the North in return. That s how we first played the North and met Chris Ryder.
Ryder is the author of a recently-published history of the RUC which portrays the average member of the force as having the patience of Job, the wisdom of King Solomon and the kindly qualities of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He is Ireland s corespondent of the far-right Sunday Telegraph.
He was a big man and a big fan, remembers Noel Nagle fondly. He was working for a Belfast magazine called Cityweek at the time, and he thought the world of The Wolfe Tones. He took us all over, showed us the places around Belfast where the United Irishmen met, where Republicanism was founded, and really helped with publicity, to put us on the map in the North.
Very few people have done as much as Chris Ryder to popularise The Wolfe Tones.
The contrast this suggests between the attitudes Ryder had then and the ideas he has been expressing more recently may not be as sharp as first seems. As The Tones themselves explain it, they weren t regarded in the sixties as a particularly political group.
Brian Warfield: When we started out, songs like The Merry Ploughboy and Come Out Ye Black And Tans were just ballads, just ballads, sung in all sorts of venues all over the country. They were even heard on RTE.
Noel Nagle: Sean South Of Garryowen was an extremely popular song at that time, and not thought of as political. (Sean South was an IRA man killed during an attack on an RUC barracks on the Fermanagh border on New Year s Eve in 1956. It says something about Southern Irish attitudes of which more later that less than a decade afterwards a song praising him as a patriotic hero and including him in the pantheon of officially-recognised martyrs That gallant band of Plunkett, Pearse and Tone could be calmly received as having no political content at all.)
Noel Nagle: It was after 1969, after the British troops went in, that we began to detect a difference. We were singing the same songs in the same way but people were putting a different meaning into them. And we began to feel hostility from the press.
Tommy Byrne: Part of the background is that people in the media never appreciated our songs anyway in the way that our audience did. They hadn t been brought up with them. Even the few who would have been brought up with them, when they got their jobs with RTE or wherever, they would want to put that behind them and think of themselves in a different way.
Derek Warfield: I remember us doing a show at RTE and wanting to do On The One Road . The producer said, Oh, no, no, no, no, you couldn t possibly do that. I pointed out that another group had done it a couple of weeks before and he said, Ah, but you d sound as if you meant it .
Tommy Byrne: At that stage we had promoters going over our song order and shaking their heads, Dear me, not that one, and Could you not leave such a one out . But we never did. We never compromised in that way.
Brian Warfield: At the Rathfarnham Inn one night in 1971 or 72 Mick Quinn who was promoting said, Look fellas, I wonder would you mind not playing the national anthem tonight, on account of the political situation.
Noel Nagle: The pressure on us was at its greatest between 1970 and 1975. People would say, don t be bringing politics onto the stage, but in fact there was no problem singing about the black struggle in Alabama or Geordies marching down to London, or the bomb or Vietnam or anything at all, just as long as you didn t zoom in on anything happening on this island.
The Wolfe Tones give Oliver Barry much of the credit for shielding them from the pressures. Barry took over their management in 1968, just as the flak began to fly. Oliver was a very respected man in the business, says Tommy Byrne. The fact that he was out there catching the flak for us was very important. A lesser manager wouldn t have had the credibility.
At the time, Barry was already manager of a country outfit, The Hoedowners, and The Freshmen, by some distance the best-ever of the showbands. His strength lay not in moulding or changing acts but in spotting the nature of their appeal and then marketing it well. A gregarious Corkman with a passion for the GAA and a small-r republican in politics, what he sussed about The Tones was that there was an audience for this music sufficiently deep-rooted in the country not to be vulnerable to the vagaries of fashion or the vituperation of sniffy critics.
Barry also realised that even if the specialist press affected scorn for The Tones, it would still be possible to deliver positive coverage by concentrating on the band s news value. He arranged for People correspondent Tony Fitzpatrick to accompany the band to California in late 1968. The pleasant ambience of LA and Frisco encouraged a series of reports which rivalled the early Chris Ryder for enthusiasm. In subsequent years John Coughlan travelled to report on The Tones triumphs in Europe and Vincent Browne sent a double-page squeal of ecstasy to the Sunday Independent: Wolfe Tones Storm America exclusive . It all helped.
Later, in the seventies, Barry provided The Tones with by far their biggest regular audience, at the Siamsa Cois Laoi which drew a crowd of over 25,000 to Pairc Um Caoimh in Cork for nine successive years from 1979-87.
The Tones invariably filled the spot before the headliner, who tended to be a major-league countryish American Kris Kristofferson, John Denver, Rita Coolidge, Don McLean. Every year The Tones stole the show.
It certainly helped to spread out our reputation, says Noel Nagle. I remember when we met Don McLean he grinned and said, I ve heard about having to follow you guys . . . .
Brian Warfield reckons that, There s a certain element in Cork who regarded the Siamsa as a blood sport. They came especially to see The Wolfe Tones destroy these acts.
The main relevance here of the Siamsa is that the last one, two years ago, was the second day in the double-header which began with a mighty performance from U2. More than 25,000 of the crowd from the first day were among those who jigged and reeled to The Wolfe Tones on Day Two, which was more than mildly intriguing in view of the conventional wisdom that there d be little or no overlap between the two bands audiences. I spent an hour working the field in an effort to resolve the conundrum and spoke to maybe thirty of those who d come on both days. Without exception, they were puzzled that I should be puzzled that they liked both U2 and The Wolfe Tones.
The most common response was along the lines of, Sure aren t they both Irish. And perhaps it s as simple as that, that the pleasure and pride which suffused so many on account of U2 being ours shaded over easily into the celebration of Irishry inherent in The Tones belting out Rock On Rockall .
At any rate, The Tones have been complaining for years about what they regard as the misrepresentation of their audience.
Derek Warfield: We re one of the few acts doing live gigs all over the country five or six nights a week. And we re the type of band that people come up and talk to afterwards. We know our audience. We are playing all the time to people who the previous night might have been listening to Simple Minds or Bruce Springsteen or who might have gone to see Hothouse Flowers as well if they were in town.