One of the greatest musical adventures of Andy Irvine’s life began with a boatman who left him in the dry on Sherkin Island in West Cork in the late summer of 1976.
“We were on Sherkin playing at a festival. At the time, there was a special ferry to Baltimore, ”recalls the famous folk musician. “We had to take a flight from Cork to Bristol. Our instruments were returned to the boat. Then the boatman had to decide that the boat was full. Without changing his expression, as we watched him, he slowly left the steamer platform.
It was August 1976 and Irvine was in West Cork with Dónal Lunny, his former member of the traditional Planxty supergroup. They were to travel to south-east Wales, to the iconic Rockfield Studios – a state-of-the-art residential facility where, 12 months earlier, Queen had recorded Bohemian Rhapsody. Irvine, who eventually reached Rockfield, was planning his own rhapsody in the form of a collaboration with another former Planxty comrade, Paul Brady.
“It seemed like a good idea to make an album [together] back then, ”Brady recalls. “Rockfield was one of the promising studios on the British rock scene. We were probably the first folk group to record there. We worked there for about two weeks. We composed the music as we went along. We did a lot of arrangements and rehearsals in the studio. What happened was totally new to us.
The resulting album, Paul Brady / Andy Irvine, was released in December 1976 on Lunny’s label, Mulligan Records. The project saw the duo apply a fascinating Old Timey American folkloric glow to standards such as the Plains of Kildare and Arthur McBride, an 1840s anti-war ballad to which Brady gave a feverish new arrangement.
It met with immediate success. The real surprise, however, is that the record has endured and was discovered by subsequent generations. “One of the greatest albums of traditional Irish songs of all time,” says All Music of Brady / Irvine. “Their unique sound will accompany you long after the music has stopped.”
“An important step in the maturation of the folk tradition,” agreed Katrin Pietzonka, academic in folk music, in her 2013 study on the importance of music to achieve peace in the North. “The album included songs hitherto unknown to the general public. Among these, some were taken from the Complete Collection of Ulster Songs by Irish folk song collector Sam Henry, which the artists arranged in a radically different style.
If Covid restrictions allow, Brady and Irvine will play the record in its entirety at the Cork Opera House later in 2022. To whet appetites, here is the story of how this remarkable meeting of minds came to be. produced.
Brady, from Strabane, County Tyrone, had started performing in r’n’b groups while studying at UCD. Joining popular folk groups in close harmony The Johnstons as singer and guitarist, he moved to New York City in the early 1970s. But in 1974 he returned home and was invited to join Planxty. The hugely influential folk ensemble had been formed by Christy Moore, Dónal Lunny, Liam O’Flynn – and Andy Irvine, the London-born son of a Lisburn mother and Glasgow father.
“I’ve come to the final stages to replace Christy,” Brady said. “I came back to join the group in the summer of 1974. Christy stayed with the group until October. I told him about this recently: he more or less said he wanted to stay in the band for quite a long time until I got established. He didn’t want to let the band flounder without anyone singing. He stayed to help us and left in October.
Planxty were Irish folk superstars. However, life on the road was difficult. And with so many great personalities in the ranks – and even with Moore leaving for a solo career – the collaboration had a natural lifespan, which ended in 1975.
“Everyone was tired,” says Irvine. “We didn’t seem to have a sense of direction. At the same time, you had groups in Britain like Steeleyed Span, Fairport Convention. They had great management and a complete sense of direction. Planxty didn’t really have someone looking after us that much. We found it difficult and we went our separate ways.
But Brady and Irvine had a natural musical chemistry. “We got along really well,” says Irvine. “It wasn’t much of a surprise after the band broke up that we said, ‘Why don’t we both do something?’ At the time, it seemed like a really good idea. was: it flourished.
“We were a natural couple,” agrees Brady. ” I was in [old time string band] the Ramblers of New York and [mid 20th-century folk singer and folklorist] Mike Seeger and people like that. Before joining Planxty, I did a lot of country blues and all that. We had a good relationship, Andy and I. I was also very impressed with his understanding of Eastern European music. I wanted to learn as much as possible about it. The album is the result of our first year, a year and a half of touring together. None of us would have a clue that over 40 years later this would be an iconic record. “
Neither Brady nor Lunny can say for sure who decided to record at Rockfield. Their feeling is that it was probably Donal Lunny’s idea. The studio was in the deep countryside and a 50 minute drive from Bristol.
“We were picked up and driven to central Wales,” says Brady, who was 29 at the time. “At the time, we were recorded for Mulligan Records. Mulligan might have had a contract there. In retrospect, that seems like an odd choice.
Lunny’s involvement was central, Brady says. “He was the producer and he played guitar on a few songs. He played on Andy’s Autumn Gold [the record’s solitary completely original composition] as far as I can remember.
The process has not always been smooth. “The only memory I kept coming back to was the day Paul recorded Arthur McBride. He made a very good take of it. We listened back and were horrified to find that Paul had mispronounced a word, ”says Irvine, who was 34 at the time of the sessions. “The word was ‘proud’. And he said ‘froud’. Shortly afterwards, with the technique of record editing, we would have said: “It’s easy to adjust, we’re just going to take a ‘p’ for another place and substitute it for the ‘f’ ‘. At that time, you couldn’t do that. We had to redo the whole song. ”
Brady would begin writing contemporary songs with Hard Shoulder in 1981, then released a series of successful singer-songwriter records and collaborated with artists such as Richard Thompson and Bonnie Raitt. Irvine, for his part, recorded his first solo LP at Windmill Lane, Dublin in 1979. By then he had reunited with Moore, Lunny and O’Flynn, who reformed Planxty in 1978 and would play together until 1983. In the decades that followed, both artists were surprised by the enduring appeal of the Paul Brady / Andy Irvine LP. Much to their shock, this is now part of their legacy.
“Take your own life – that’s a good phrase,” says Irvine. ” It’s very strange. I don’t know if other musicians have the same feeling: we often see these things from a bit far away. Objectively rather than subjectively. Overall I have to say I’m amazed that anything I’ve been involved in has been such a success. It sounds too humble for words – but it never came as a surprise. “
“There are a lot of great records that never get noticed,” Brady says. “We didn’t expect ours to be particularly successful. It was the music we were making at the time. We did our best to record it as we wanted. Whatever happens, happens. it was successful [in 1976]. People liked the record. It’s old. We didn’t expect it to become this legendary thing.
- With the January date postponed, Paul Brady and Andy Irvine are still hoping to perform at Cork Opera later this year