History of Folk, Roots & Traditional Music in NI:1

A comprehensive overview by Geoff Harden - Part 1

Early Days
Folks have, of course, made music since they were able to knock two sticks together or hum a note. But skipping the first few million years’ development, perhaps the first significant musical event here was the decision by some of the forward thinking United Irishmen to call together the few remaining travelling harpers throughout Ireland to the ‘Belfast Harp Festival’, held in the Assembly Rooms in the city centre. More importantly still, they commissioned a young church organist, Edward Bunting, to write down the music played by those eleven musicians over two days in 1792.

Bunting chose his own form of notation which causes disputes among experts even today; this was in part because the instruments were wire strung harps, unlike the normal gut or nylon strings used today. He was inspired to continue collecting and publishing music. Others followed suit, most notably the Chicago police officer Francis O’Neill who concentrated on jigs and reels rather than the slow airs and courtly dances that made up much of Bunting’s work.

Between them, these collectors provided much of the repertoire that kicked off the revival of Irish instrumental music through The Chieftains, who took up the baton from classical composer and arranger Sean O Riada in 1963.

Although these collectors preserved the music that was being played in the ‘big houses’, both music and song continued in private houses, mostly in rural areas. But interest in the cities had all but disappeared by the time the first stirrings of the folk revival, under the guidance of Ewan MacColl and others, was starting in Britain in the ’fifties. And because the music was so much stronger here and was also considered ‘old hat’ by many urban folk, the blossoming folk club scene which occurred in Britain was much less prominent here.

There were several important musicians and singers in Northern Ireland in the early and middle years of the last century who were recognised internationally both as performers and as sources of material. Notable among these were singers Sarah Makem from Keady in County Armagh (whose son Tommy became a major folk star), Paddy Tunney (from Fermanagh) and Robert Cinnamond. From Belfast, violinist Sean McGuire’s remarkable dexterity and arrangements brought him to a world platform and the McPeake Family’s distinctive combination of harmony vocals with uilleann pipes and other instruments also brought them international recognition.

Song collectors John Moulden and Robin Morton did pioneer a folk club, the ‘Ulster Folk Music Society’, in Belfast and from that grew the only serious traditional group to emerge from the north, The Boys Of The Lough – a band which is still a major name on the scene. The original Boys were Morton, Cathal McConnell (a Fermanagh flute player who had moved to Belfast) and Tommy Gunn (a fiddler who had made the same move). The only other traditional club in Belfast in the ’sixties (apart from occasional ones at Queen’s University) was the Pike, run by Derek Peters in Terry’s Bar (Durham Street) and then The Old House (Albert Street).

In Dublin, the success of the Chieftains had had an impact on the hugely popular ‘ballad’ scene – in which many venues ran a sort of cabaret evening with a variety of performers, many of whom would play several different shows in one evening. These singers included some who are still playing such as Johnny McEvoy and Paddy Reilly and they were the commercial spin-off from the success of The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers. But just as showbands here nurtured some more ‘serious’ musicians, the Dublin scene threw up people like Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine and Johnny Moynihan, who were later joined by Christy Moore, with experience of the folk scene in Britain. From this scene grew bands such as Sweeney’s Men, Planxty and The Bothy Band. Irish music was about to enjoy a huge international boom.

The Sands Family - Reproduced with kind permission of NIMICNorthern Stirrings
Most of this passed us by in the north though. Apart from The Boys of the Lough, only the Sands Family where making any serious attempt to make music their profession. The Sands had enormous success in Europe, enjoying hit singles in East Germany. At home, though, they were little known at the time (the early ’seventies). Later in the decade, singer Len Graham began to establish himself as a traditional singer but with these exceptions Northern Ireland may as well not have existed to the outside world of traditional music clubs and festivals.

The English and Scottish folk clubs had begun to open their doors to songwriters in the ’sixties, initially in the form of political songs as encouraged by Ewan MacColl. American visitors such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon ventured into the clubs and came away with their repertoires and styles greatly enriched. In their wake, a whole school of songwriters and instrumentalists emerged who were loosely classified as folk although many of them were thinly disguised pop singers who could not afford to form an electric band. The boundaries became blurred and there was much more crossover between folk and rock as the ’sixties progressed. Even Led Zeppelin, the godfathers of heavy metal, brought elements of traditional music into their repertoire.

Here, Van Morrison’s first steps into the folk scene were notoriously spurned and he stuck to rhythm & blues and rock until many years later, when he teamed up with The Chieftains. Due to the fact that a pirate radio station was part owned by Belfast record company boss Philip Solomons, material on one of his labels (Major Minor) was heavily plugged, leading not only to a hit single for The Dubliners but another for Belfast-born songwriter David McWilliams, whose Days Of Pearly Spencer’ became an international hit. McWilliams was on the fringe of a very small contemporary folk scene in Belfast but nobody else made any mark at the time.

Paul Brady left Strabane to go to university in Dublin and became caught up in the broad music scene there, drawn to traditional music as a member of The Johnstons and staying mainly in that area until he turned his back on it around 1979. It was a curious fact that songwriters, happy to write about Vietnam or nuclear waste, were generally reluctant for many years to write about the political unrest that was all around us (and which, of course, hindered the development of the music scene here).

A group of radical songwriters in Belfast got together (under false names) to record a classic set of albums as The Men Of No Property, including such classics as The Bogside Man (a parody of the shanty The Hogseye Man), Hughes’s Bakery Van and England’s Vietnam. All the participants continued in music with Brian Moore finding success as a songwriter for Christy Moore and latterly as a playwright. Apart from that, locally most of the political writing for many years was strictly in the ‘flag-waving’ mould.

It took Christy Moore to break that mould, when the 1981 IRA hunger strike drew him heavily into northern politics. Both solo and as a member of Moving Heart, Moore made a huge impact with songs reflecting the situation. But still few political writers emerged here at that time. Tommy and Colum Sands did begin to write more and more thoughtful songs reflecting the turmoil around them, leading to Tommy Sands’ hit single There Were Roses. The only other person to make an impact with a political song was Paul Brady, whose The Island was a moving reflection on violence both here and abroad. It was met with a frosty reception from Christy Moore.

As things became a little more settled in the mid to late ’seventies a strong folk club scene did begin to develop. Although pop and rock artists had kept coming to Belfast, folk performers had been conspicuous by their absence, even those a short hop away in Scotland. After an earlier attempt to form a ‘Federation of Ulster Folk Clubs’, a stronger version emerged around 1976, with its own magazine – Ulster Folk News. Downpatrick was unique in having a folk club with its own premises while elsewhere enthusiasts ran clubs in public bars.

The Down Coast Folk Society in Donaghadee was one of the early successes, run by Jackie Dixon (who had earlier run one in the Walnut in Belfast). In Belfast, the Sunflower provided a platform for emerging young bands and brought in many international performers. Also in the capital was the Pure Drop in West Belfast which often had a more political slant. There were others in Armagh, Enniskillen and Derry at the time.

By Geoff Harden

Recommended reading:
‘Irish Folk, Trad & Blues’ by Colin Harper and Trevor Hodgett
Published by: The Collins Press, Cork