History of Folk, Roots & Traditional Music in NI:2

Part 2 of Geoff Harden's extensive overview


With the success of events at Ballisodare, Lisdoonvarna and Ballyshannon, by the 1980s it was time that Northern Ireland had a folk festival. In 1981 Belfast City Council decided to hold an open air festival, with overblown ambitions inspired more by ‘Woodstock’ than Ballyshannon. Originally mooted for the grounds of Belfast Castle, it was held in Botanic Gardens. It was the height of the hunger strike and both performers and audience shied away from the event, which was headlined by Donovan and Ralph McTell.

The event was held indoors in the years after that, organised by a groups of enthusiasts with Derek Bell (who had moved from the Ulster Orchestra to The Chieftains) as their ‘festival chieftain’. The festival ran for another dozen years before petering out, but it had paved the way for several others that have emerged in more recent years. Most notable among these is the Fiddler’s Green Festival in Rostrevor and the autumn Open House Festival in Belfast.

The Belfast Festival at Queen’s was an oasis of folk all through the ‘troubles’, consistently bringing in performers of a high standard from Britain, Ireland and beyond. Now, many festivals have an element of folk in their programme, especially the west Belfast  Féile an Phobail.

Another form of festival is the Fleadh Cheoil. The Dublin based Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann has been running these for more than fifty years. They are based round a series of competitions on various instruments (and more), held in each county and overseas and culminating in the All Ireland. The local and provincial fleadhs attract huge numbers of musicians who play in the streets and bars over a weekend.

Informal gatherings of musicians in bars are known as sessions and the session scene has been the seed-bed from which many musicians have developed their skills. In Belfast, Pat’s Bar in Dock Street was one of the first session bars, with a strong scene in the ’sixties. In the past few years the number of sessions in the north has increased spectacularly, aided by the fact that many bars will now pay musicians to form the core of a session, instead of just offering a few pints.

Although many of the musicians at sessions play purely for fun or to earn a little pin money, an increasing number have seen music as a way of earning a living, either by performing or teaching. Seeing the success of so many southern musicians, the past thirty years has seen the emergence of many musicians from the north who have made their mark on the international scene.

In years gone by, the main sources of tunes for many musicians were either recordings (and many traditional musicians were captured on 78rpm discs) or the radio. The Irish RTE radio programmes were favourites but the importance of the BBC here should not be under-estimated. There was early (if random) archiving of singers and musicians and David Curry popularised dance music through his arrangements for BBC orchestras. Two important BBC producers played a major part later on. David Hammond and Tony McAuley (both former teachers and both singers) did much good work, mainly through schools’ programmes.

The record business here was always poorly represented with only Outlet and Emerald producing folk material. Emerald tended to the commercial end while Billy McBurney’s Outlet product covered a wide, if somewhat hit and miss, spectrum, including political material from both ‘sides’.

Changing Times

The introduction of late licences for public houses in Northern Ireland on the condition that they featured live music led to a huge increase in the amount of music to be heard, although this was often known as ‘wallpaper music’ and ignored by the drinkers. However, this combined with the rise in clubs and festivals has led to a much more vibrant scene overall with regular concerts in larger venues such as the Waterfront Hall (Belfast) or Millennium Forum (L’Derry).

Changes in the political climate have led to an increased awareness of the music espoused by Ulster Protestants, especially those of Scottish origin. Marching bands and concert flute bands regularly draw on traditional tunes and the fife and Lambeg drum tradition is unique to this part of the world. It is also increasingly acknowledged that emigrants from Ulster to America brought their music with them and this had a huge impact on the development of Appalachian, bluegrass and other forms of country and gospel music.

The pipe band tradition here has become ever stronger over the past two or three decades. The main driving force behind the best bands is the highly competitive series of championships held around the world. Several of our bands have given the Scots a good run for their money in recent years, especially the Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band. Under the leadership of their imaginative pipe major, Richard Parkes, the band has won numerous competitions and three times held the ultimate title, world champions. Parkes has also been involved in pioneering collaborations with uilleann pipers.

The recent campaign to promote Ulster-Scots as a language has also had its musical spin-offs with George Holmes (who also played with the influential Belfast Harp Orchestra), Willie Drennan and others promoting and playing in a number of events. The Ulster Scots Folk Orchestra (led by Drennan and John Trotter) is the best known of these artists. They have four albums under their belts along with others from various spin-off groups.

Making a Mark

All these changes have helped provide a much higher profile for Northern Ireland performers. One of the most successful Irish bands, Altan, was formed in Belfast around the late flute player Frankie Kennedy and another, Four Men and A Dog, is from here. Belfast band Craobh Rua, although little known here, have been touring internationally for twenty years. Guitarist Arty McGlynn has played on or produced countless albums and toured with Van Morrison among others. Kieran Goss, Juliet Turner and Brian Kennedy have become major names as singer-songwriters and the legendary guitarist Henry McCullough (once a member of Sweeney’s Men but mainly known as a rock musician) has moved more and more into roots music: country, blues and folk.

Cara Dillon has enjoyed international success on a par with Frances Black and others from the south. The late Derek Bell was a very important influence, not only on harp music but on the crossover with classical. In the latter area, Belfast composer Shaun Davey has had great success, especially in writing orchestral works featuring the uilleann pipes.

Others who have made an impact include singer-songwriters Brian Houston, Briege Murphy, Mickey MacConnell, Andy White, Iain Archer, Ursula Burns, Anthony John Clarke and Bap Kennedy (brother of Brian). Singer and guitarist Eamon McElholm spent time with Stockton’s Wing before joining American band Solas. Magherafelt country veteran Brendan Quinn has moved towards a more rootsy sound with his band Kickin’ Mule, often with Arty McGlynn on board. Colin Reid’s guitar playing has also brought him great success. Rodney Cordner, from Portadown, has enjoyed many years of successful touring abroad and now runs a club in the town. And Tyrone born Sean Donnelly’s relaxed singing style has won him many admirers in Scotland and further a field.

In the traditional field, the McSherry Family had a brief moment of glory as Tamalin before their gifted piper, John McSherry went on to success in various bands including Lunasa (which also numbers Cookstown bassist Trevor Hutchinson in its ranks), Donal Lunny’s Coolfin and his own At First Light. Portglenone based Deanta had more sustained success, releasing three albums on the American Green Linnet label.

Len Graham toured and recorded for many years with his band Skylark and has also recorded with his wife, singer Padraigin Ni Ullachain, who has her own successful career; Fermanagh singers Rosie Stewart and Roisin White are also in constant demand at festivals around the world. Belfast flute player Harry Bradley is among the best in his field and fellow fluter Brian Finnegan has a successful band, Flook, in England. Fiddler Jim McKillop is another who enjoys a considerable reputation as a soloist. Another acclaimed band, Cran, started out as a northern based trio with Desi Wilkinson on flute and Neil Martin on pipes and cello.

In the more commercial field, Belfast trio Barnbrack have had huge success and the traditional-based Blackthorn have been entertaining for many years; so too have Brier, working in the same area.

American forms such as bluegrass and blues also have their followings and practitioners here – each worthy of a story of its own. Bluegrass has been strengthened by the annual Bluegrass & Appalachian festival in the Ulster American Folk Park. Blues has had a small but devoted following here for many years, pioneered by record shop owner Dougie Knight and pianist the late Jim Daly.

The scene has nurtured some exceptional guitarists including Gary Moore, Jim Armstrong, Eric Bell and Ronnie Greer – who is currently enjoying success in a band with seasoned singer Kenny McDowell. Rab McCullough has a reputation well beyond these shores, as does Maurice Dickson. And, of course, Ballyshannon born Rory Gallagher was almost an honorary ‘local’, having been based near Belfast in the early years of Taste. Bass player Jackie Flavelle (once a member of the Chris Barber band and also a singer and songwriter some years ago) is another who has been heavily involved in the blues scene. And enthusiast / musician Ian Sands has created a successful blues festival in Warrenpoint.

To top it all, Van Morrison’s roots continue to show. Although, as an east Belfast Protestant, he has always found it hard to come to terms with his Irishness, he continues to show it through his music ever since his ground breaking collaboration with The Chieftains, which did much to break down many musical and sectarian barriers. While he would never be described as a folk singer, Morrison represents much of what is best about music in Northern Ireland.

Geoff Harden

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