The appearance of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem on the Ed Sullivan TV show in 1961 was a defining moment in the modern story of Irish singing. In England and Scotland in the late 1950s the number of folk clubs was growing, the most influential being Ewan MacColl’s Singers Club in London.
At the beginning of the 1960s the Irish state was emerging from the cultural and economic stagnation that marked its first 40 years. The Abbey Tavern in Howth, on the outskirts of Dublin, introduced the first ballad sessions and the country’s first television station, Radio Telifis Eireann, was launched in January 1961.
The great Dublin singer Frank Harte observed that while America and Britain had their folksong revivals, “we in this country have been spared the sacredness of a revival due to the fact that the tradition of singing of songs has never died.”
Barely beneath the surface of a young nation craving respectability, there existed, as ever, a vibrant sub-culture of traditional music and song in rural homes, at fairs, sports events and in some pubs. The only singer of note making recordings and giving concerts from the late 1930s to the early 1950s was Delia Murphy. In the 1950s the McPeakes of Belfast sang using backing instruments, including uilleann pipes and banjo.
The Dance Hall Act of 1935, which had dealt such a blow to traditional music by banning the house dances, could not outlaw family occasions and parties. It is significant that come the ballad boom, a large volume of songs flowed from families such as the O Domhnaills of Donegal, the Tunneys and McConnells of Fermanagh, the Clancys of Tipperary, Sarah and Tommy Makem of Armagh and the Keane sisters of Galway. Added to this were the wonderful and often ribald Dublin street ballads and the songs of Dominic and Brendan Behan.
Peggy Jordan was one of the early organisers of the Dublin ballad sessions. Interested in Irish music since her youth, the home of Peggy and her husband Tom in Kenilworth Square saw many late night sessions of musicians and singers.
During a stay there by Liam Clancy she was asked to bring singers and musicians out to the Abbey Tavern. This was to be the start of a run of ballad sessions at the venue. Soon sessions cropped up in Dublin at the Old Sheiling, the International Bar, the Hollybrook in Clontarf and the ‘Ballads at Midnight’ Saturday night session in the old Grafton Cinema.
In 1962 Luke Kelly returned home after working the English folk clubs. Around the same time Ronnie Drew returned from a couple of years in Spain. Soon they teamed up with Barney McKenna, and Ciaran Bourke at the now famous sessions in O’Donoghues in Merrion Row. Next they were playing regular sessions in the Abbey Tavern and then The Embankment in Tallaght under the name The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group (billed in one rural town as the Ronnie Drew Ballet Group). It wasn’t until 1963 that Luke Kelly came up with the title The Dubliners.
The Clancy Brothers turned up at a Fleadh Ceoil in Co Clare and mingled like royalty. The Kitchen Folk Club was set up in Molesworth Street in 1962 and 1963 saw the forming of the Belfast Folk Song Club. Spurred by the 1950s Beat rejection of the formality of the big band era, The Clancys, with their trademark Aran ganseys and informal stage banter set the trend for the bearded Dubliners.
The vital extra ingredient of the Irish scene was the ease with which folk songs and ballads mixed with instrumental dance music – almost an essential of the new Irish stage repertoire. An example from the Fifties was the singing of Margaret Barry teamed with the fiddle playing of Michael Gorman. Thus the Dubliners and their successors were able to keep their performances going at an energetic pace interspersed with lively dance music from Barney McKenna (banjo) and John Sheehan (fiddle).
Shorter biographies: Eddie Butcher, Dick Cameron, Danny Doyle, The Pecker Dunne, Mick Flynn, Jim McCann, Len Graham, Bobby Lynch, Johnny McEvoy, Dolly McMahon, Ann Mulqueen, Maeve Mulvany, Al O’Donnell, Jesse Owens, John Reilly, Paddy Reilly, Paddy Tunney, Liam Weldon.
The Young Folk
With the success of The Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers, dozens of groups emerged using a formula based on ballads and instruments. Some might include good dance music. The venue shifted from folk clubs and dance halls to the new, larger pubs.
With a string of hits from 1962 onwards, The Beatles demonstrated the appeal of harmony to a young audience. Also in 1962, Bob Dylan, taking the folk route to stardom, released his first album Bob Dylan. Peter, Paul & Mary’s Blowing in the Wind, with its neat harmonies, received regular airplay on Radio Eireann. In 1965 Donovan from Scotland entered the British charts with folk idiom songs like Catch the Wind and Universal Soldier.
In Ireland a new generation grew up ready to accept folk as another idiom like blues, R&B or jazz. Electric guitarist Henry McCullagh, for instance, played for a period in Sweeney’s Men .
Route to folk
A folk or traditional background was no longer a prerequisite: the route to folk and traditional music for the younger Donal Lunny and Paul Brady was through pop and rock. Emerging rockers like Phil Lynnott dallied with folk and his first hit was an electric version of Whiskey in the Jar. The Capitol Showband had a hit with Black Velvet Band. For a few years folk and pop overlapped comfortably.
The Emmet Folk Group – made up of Mick Moloney, Donal Lunny and Brian Bolger broke up in the mid-1960s. Moloney joined The Johnstons and Lunny and Bolger joined the Byrne brothers in The Emmet Spiceland. In 1966 Johnny Moynihan and Andy Irvine joined Joe Dolan to form Sweeney’s Men. A new generation of Irish folk groups was emerging.