Northern Lights: Horslips

Garbhan Downey on the Irish folk rock group who made the Gaelic language, legends and love affairs cool

As the firstborn son of two Irish-speakers and saddled with the most Celtic Christian name in the little green book, it was pre-ordained that I would study my mother tongue. But, unlike French or Latin, Irish was a hard subject to love, in that every text you acquired was written in the 19th century. And everyone who spoke it was old, badly-dressed and a little too earnest for my tastes.

Then, at the Teelin Gaeltacht in 1980, my roommate put on a tape of The Book of Invasions and, not to overstate the point, my life changed. Changed utterly. It was like a 500-watt amp going on in my head. For the first time ever, my Celtic heritage was cool, mysterious and (whisper it quietly) dangerous...

Traditional Irish airs, which sent us to sleep in singing class, suddenly were revamped with fierce, pulsating bass-lines. Deadly-dull fairy tales, like the legend of Diarmaid and Grainne, were transformed into hot and lusty love stories. And dreary long-forgotten battles like the Cattle Raid of Cooley now had more blood than the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Indeed, Horslips frontman, Barry Devlin, recently confessed in an RTE interview that his mother went into a coma a couple of hours after she first saw them play. 'I was probably half-way to a drink-induced coma of my own,' he laughed. Thankfully, both parties recovered quickly.

Back home in Derry, I begged, borrowed and illegally taped every Horslips record I could get my hands on, devastated in the knowledge that the band had broken up just months before I’d first become aware of them.

Bizarrely, my parents were thrilled to indulge my passion. The Horslips were intelligent, lyrical, coherent and, in some cases, served up their songs as orchestral symphonies - albeit very loud ones.

I took Irish to A-level, spending my summers in Donegal, where I learned the riffs from 'Trouble', 'Dearg Doom' and, eventually, 'King of the Fairies' on my acoustic guitar. And yes, being able to play a few Horslips tunes was an even bigger ‘in’ with the passing maidens than coming from Derry and having once spat at Feargal Sharkey. (The ultimate punk compliment, if you’re wondering...)

As our final Irish exams approached, three or four of us from the class would gather in my house to study, swap notes and ask one another oral questions. And while, 25 years on, I’ve forgotten virtually everything I learned that month, I recall clear as day that every session was sound-tracked by either 'Dancehall Sweethearts' or 'The Unfortunate Cup of Tea', depending on what mood Ciaran our resident DJ was in. And we all passed.

So, if I’d never discovered the Horslips, I’d never have gone to university in Galway, where on my very first day I met another Horslips fan, who, 11 years later, I married.

Interestingly, this lady had had a seminal Horslips experience of her own. As a teenager, she hitched to Monaghan with her pal to see the band play live for the first time. They got a lift from a rough-looking gang of lads, who were on their way back from a day’s work. The girls explained that they were going to see this great rock group – adding that they were major fans and had seen them many, many times before in concert.

Imagine their shock, then, when my missus and her mate got into the hall, looked up at the stage and saw before them the five ruffians who had stopped an hour ago to pick them up!

Horslips, of course, have a very strong Northern connection. Barry Devlin hails from Ardboe in Tyrone and is a brother-in-law of the Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney. Devlin actually trained as a Columban priest before joining the band and becoming a 'happy atheist'.

Unlike many groups of their era, Horslips played in the north throughout the Troubles and were welcomed right across the community. And, in 1980, they hosted their last ever gig at Belfast’s Ulster Hall, signing off prosaically with a cover of the Rolling Stones anthem ‘The Last Time’.

Never say never, however. In 2004, a group of Derry fans organised a major exhibition of photos and memorabilia of the band. And unbelievably, all five former Horslips came to the Orchard Gallery, where they performed half-a-dozen acoustic songs for an invited crowd. It was better than Christmas in July, even though I only got to see it on TV.

There have been a few re-appearances since, most notably a tribute show recorded for TG4 in 2006. But again the concerts have been private affairs before select audiences.

This winter, however, the Horslips will perform their first 'open public' gigs since 1980 – one in Belfast, the other in Dublin. For youngsters like me who grew up with the band, it’s the equivalent of a Beatles reunion, only more important. I never got to see the Horslips first time around. I’ll be damned sure not to miss them in the Odyssey on December 3.

Anybody need a grizzled freelance reviewer?