The confederacy that was Sweeney’s Men had a huge influence on the development of Irish folk groups. The group was formed in the summer of 1966 by Johnny Moynihan, Andy Irvine and Joe Dolan. Singer, songwriter, artist and guitar player Dolan had been around the Dublin ballad scene in O’Donoghue’s at the start of the 1960s. He had previously been in the Swingtime Aces and Capitol showbands.
The idea of forming a group came after the trio had a short-lived summer residency in the Enda Hotel in Galway. They picked Eamon O’Doherty, later a successful sculptor, as their manager. After a slow start, Des Kelly of the Capitol Showband took over as manager. In early 1967 they recorded Old Maid in the Garret with Andy singing the lead. By May the song was in the Irish Top Ten. Early the following year they had another hit with Waxie’s Dargle. They toured Ireland playing ballrooms, student halls and pub venues.
It was while with Sweeney’s Men that Johnny Moynihan introduced the bouzouki to Irish audiences. As well as guitar, Andy Irvine played mandolin and harmonica. They were pioneers of the use of cross rhythms and counterpoint and their complex blend of acoustic rhythms and folky vocals was to have a profound influence on later folk and traditional groups.
Joe Dolan left the group in the summer of 1967 and, with first choice replacement Paul Brady already committed to The Johnstons, his place was taken by singer and five-string banjo player Terry Woods. In 1968 this trio released Sweeney’s Men, now regarded as something of a cult album. Johnny Moynihan and Andy Irvine in particular had a lot of English, Scottish and American material.
“At the time it wasn’t easy to get a decent repertoire of Irish songs”, Andy Irvine told Judy Murphy for the Irish Times in August 2000. “Colm O’Loughlin’s Irish Street Ballads was about it. And, you’d hear music at fleadhs, but you’d never hear songs, except maybe Sean South from Garryowen.”
Sweeney’s Men put their distinctive stamp on material from the US, Scotland and England. Said Irvine: “If a lyric came with music we didn’t always change that. If we liked the words but not the tune, then we’d manipulate the tune a bit. The main criterion was that the song would have been traditional in some culture. ” Some people didn’t approve “and life on the road wasn’t always a barrel of laughs.”
“The number of people I meet who say they loved us is enormous, but the reality is that Sweeney’s Men weren’t all that popular in their day. If all those people had gone to gigs, we’d have been huge, said Irvine. They did have a regular following, especially in places such as Dublin, Cork and Galway, “but if a gig was in Charleville you’d think ‘Oh Christ, that’s going to be tricky’.”
Later they started getting gigs in dance halls playing to 2,000 or 3,000 while the showbands were on their break, but these performances were often marred by sound complications.
In the summer of 1968 Andy Irvine left to travel in the Balkans. His place was taken by electric guitarist Henry McCullough. When this new trio played the Cambridge Folk Festival, McCullough, in his hippy dress and wild hair, combined with the traditional sounds of Moynihan and Woods drew the attention of the rock press and is said to have paved the way for English electric folk bands like Fairport Convention.
After McCullough left, Moynihan and Woods recorded The Tracks of Sweeney in 1969 before splitting up for good. It was made up of experimental interpretations of traditional and contemporary songs, a dance tune The Pipe on the Hob and four of Woods’s compositions, including Dreams for Me.
After the break-up of Sweeney’s Men in 1969, Terry Woods with his then wife, the singer Gay Woods, went on to form Steeleye Span with Ashley Hutchings. His efforts to bring Moynihan and Irvine with him into this new English group failed. Moynihan and Irvine were reunited for a spell in Planxty. Joe Dolan later worked as an artist in the Maamturk Mountains of Connemara. Woods was rediscovered and recruited by The Pogues in the 1990s.
Sweeney’s Men came together for three one-off performances over the years. The first was at the Ballisodare festival in Co Sligo in the 1980s when Terry Woods joined Andy Irvine and Johnny Moynihan on stage. Then the group was reunited for a special show in Galway in 2000. In 2007 they were awarded the Fiddlers Green Hall of Fame Award, when Paul Brady stood in on stage for Woods at the Rostrevor, Co Down, festival. Terry Woods and Johnny Moynihan got together again when they played as Sweeneys Men at Andy Irvine’s 70th birthday concert at Dublin’s Vicar Street on June 16, 2012 (see video above).
See also The Rocky Road to Success. Joe Dolan on the early days of Sweeney’s Men.
Sweeneys Men – The Legend Of Sweeneys Men. CMDDD932
The Tracks of Sweeney, 1969 (LP)
Sweeney’s Men, 1968 (LP)
Joe Dolan 1942 – 2008 Profile