"Let The People Sing": A Brief History
Brian Warfield, Noel Nagle and Tommy Byrne today comprise the World's most popular Irish folk group, The Wolfe Tones.
But the Trio's story wasn't one of overnight success. In fact the bones of the group first saw the light of day as far back as 1963.
It was then that three neighbouring children from a quiet working-class Dublin suburb, Inchicore, brothers Brian and Derek and a pal Noel Nagle started playing round the fleadhs of Ireland more for fun than anything else. They used to get together at weekends playing Fleadh cheoils or music festivals, mainly as a pastime. Thoughts of fame and riches were a world apart.
Brian and Noel had taken tin whistle lessons at the Pipers Club in Thomas Street in Dublin, while Derek took up the mandolin for no better reason than his father played it.
During the summer of 1963 the four of them had hitch-hiked across Ireland, from Dublin to Kerry, for a weekend at a Fleadh Ceoil, an annual gathering of traditional Irish musicians where there's lashings of drink and non-stop music. The lads were really there for the beer although they did play and sing, but only for their own amusement.
Brian Warfield recalls what happened next: "I remember arriving in Killarney fairly late at night and looking around for somewhere to bed down. It was two o'clock in the morning as we trooped through the streets of the town and probably, because we had a few drinks in us, we started to play and sing. It was August and there were still some people on the streets. A few of them gathered around us as we sang and after a dozen tunes a fella with an American accent came up and asked us if we knew some song or other. We knew it - and played it for him."
"Afterwards he told us that he was a television producer for a Canadian service and he asked to meet us again the next day. He was shooting a documentary about Ireland and he said he wanted to include a spot with us."
"You could say that this was really our first professional engagement", says Noel Nagle, "The Producer paid us good money for the show so from then on we decided to get ourselves into the ballad game". Surprised that their music was considered good enough for a Television spot abroad, the trio were only too delighted to oblige. Their spot was recorded back in Dublin at the Old Brazen Head and they were payed the princely sum of 25 pounds - more importantly they were making progress.
It was later that year while they were waiting in a pub in the village of Kilrush, County Clare to catch a ferry across the estuary of the river Shannon to play in Ballybunnion, County Kerry that they named themselves " Wolfe Tones". It was in honour of the 18th Century Irish Nationalist leader who was condemned to death by the occupying British forces but cheated the hangman the night before he was to be executed by cutting his own throat. The name and the symbol it evokes in Irish history and republicanism, has inspired them since.
"The name seemed to fit into place from the start, we all nurtured a strong sense of national pride and identity", recalls Brian Warfield.
Still working by day and moonlighting around Folk clubs, The Wolfe Tones knew of the Clancy Brothers, who had a cult following in the United States, Europe and Ireland too with their revival of traditional song and music. In Dublin too a band called The Ronnie Drew Group, soon to become the Dubliners, were drawing big crowds to pubs, clubs and theatres.
At this time the Irish showband boom was all the rage. Most young people flocked to the ballrooms to see and hear the new and exciting sounds of these young muscians and singers. No longer were band members sitting down behind music stands and playing the strict-tempo ballroom music of the yesterday.Now they were wearing bright colourful clothes and moving all over the stage. The showband scene was ushering in a new sound - a new era.
Against all of this, the ballad singers who recalled Irish history or social ills were something of a sideshow - almost a curiosity. Playing in a few pubs that catered for the followers of traditional music, The Wolfe Tones kept going, always having faith in their songs and stories.
But it was at a Fleadh Cheoil in Elphin, County Roscommon where they met a young man that was to make the Wolfe Tones a foursome. They saw a singer-guitarist, Tommy Byrne, and were so impressed that they offered him a job - which he accepted. Like the Warfield's and Noel Nagle, Tommy had learned his music the hard way - from musicians at open air festivals. Now, as one of the Wolfe Tones, he was in a real group even though, like the others, he still had a day job.
So the Wolfe Tones made the only decision open to them and a wise one it turned out to be. They turned professional in 1964. So following the masses, Noel and Brian then moved to England to work for a while. At nights and weekends, they were making quite a name for themselves in the folk clubs as Irish music was quite a novelty in the clubs there.
"Most of the singing was unaccompanied then so our guitars looked a little out of place but anyway we decided to give up our jobs and give the world of entertainment a try", says Tommy, "we went to work across the water in the English folk-clubs in London, Birmingham and Coventry where we created something of a name for ourselves".
But, as Brian recalls "there wasn't much money around, so we sang at night and got ourselves jobs during the day. We worked at all kind of jobs from making furniture, making chewing gum breaking eggs building sites wherever we could make a bob".
By this time there was a massive revival of interest in traditional music back home in Ireland. So the Wolfe Tones decided to pack their bags and carted brown parcels of their belongings down to Liverpool boat and made their way back to Dublin.
A prior contract with their ex-Norwegian manager led to the releasing of a single and an L.P. with fontana under the Phillips label in london. The single was "The Spanish Lady" and the album entitled "The Rights of Man", subsequently renamed "The Foggy Dew" which caused a few raised eyebrows.
In 1966, they released a second album in the Eamonn Andrews studio which created an even bigger stir, called "Up The Rebels!" while two songs from this album were covered by other Irish artists , both of whom found themselves with No.1 hit records!
"It was Liam O Murchu who was instrumental in helping us to get television work through his programme, "Club Ceili", remembers Brian. "He guided us a lot - just like Donncha O Dulaing helped us to find our feet on radio"
Fame Across The Water
July, 1966 was to see "The Wolfe Tones" make the first of many trips to America. In '67 they recorded their third album and it was around then that things really started to get big. The following year they were voted the second most popular group in Ireland.
In the same year they entered into a new management agreement with Oliver Barry and recorded their first album under the Dolphin Label.
Continuing to create an impact, the Tones began spreading their wings all over Ireland - no longer did they have to rely on any one part. On New Year's Eve, 1969 they travelled to New York where they opened Bill Fuller's "Old Shieling Hotel". That was a tremendous success for the group and word of their prowess spread all over the States.
Enjoying a huge success in the United States which continues without decline, they released more albums. In 1972, "Let the People Sing" was added to their list and they playing in France and Norway.
In '73, Brians Composition, "The Helicoptor Song" became a number 1 hit, another album was released and they started diversifying to Canada and Germany.
In 1976, "Across the Broad Atlantic" came out. At this stage the Wolfe Tones were indeed a huge act attracting massive crowds and they played their first concert in the Carnegie Hall, New York.
Since then, the band restrict themselves to two months every year in the States also taking in The U.K., France, Germany, Spain, Holland, Switzerland and Ireland.
"Because of our unique position in the United States, we were given the keys to not one, but two cities, New York and Los Angeles" says Tommy, "Not bad for a bunch of lads who sang Irish folk songs for a living".
Success and subsequent fame have given the rebellious Wolfe Tones the opportunity to collect a wealth of old Irish songs and to write a few new ones. But the Wolfe Tones have never set out to please anybody but themselves. They play and sing the music they like - and they play it and sing it the way that they like. Luckily, a vast number of people throughout the world agrees with their taste.
45 Years On The One Road....
The Wolfe Tones have been cheered and applauded wherever they have stopped to put on a show - whether they have stopped to put on a show - whether it has been in the parlour of the Old Shieling Hotel in Dublin, in the austere Royal Albert Hall in London, in the plush and famous old Olympia in Paris, at open air folk festivals in Brittany, or in any number of concert halls throughout Germany, Sweden, Holland, Norway and Denmark.
They have come a long way from sitting on a roadside in Killarney strumming guitars and blowing through tin whistles for the benefit of a Canadian Television crew. The television people put the Wolfe Tones on the right road and, although it has been uphill most of the way, they hav'nt stopped moving since then...they are now more popular than ever, over 35 glorious years later.
Those of us who have travelled far and wide to see the Tones can tell you that they're getting better all the time. Fame, throughout the years, has made them perhaps a little plumper and a little better dressed but they still sing the best songs in the business. And nothing is going to put a damper on their spirits.
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