Murray Leith and Jo Laing
THIS month Glasgow Irish Bands and Gigs catches up with the Legendary Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones. Ireland has a very old heritage and tradition of the bards and Derek Warfield is following that tradition. We are honoured to speak with Derek—veteran member of the legendary Wolfe Tones and the founder of Derek Warfield and The Young Wolfe Tones (above)—in a special two-part interview.
Derek, you parted ways with The Wolfe Tones in 2001 after 39 years performing. What made you set up The Young Wolfe Tones in 2005?
The old band hadn’t recorded a fresh album in 13 years, for this and many other artistic reasons. The three guys also indicated that they wanted to distance the band from the politics and I had given the oration at Soloheadbeg and in a signed letter they said that they didn’t want the band to go in that direction. I could no longer speak at
commemorations. The three guys also registered the name of the band in their names and said they stated were going to operate as Tommy, Noel and Brian formally of the Wolfe Tones. With the peace in Ireland they wanted to take a different direction. No more Go On Home British Soldiers. I also felt that we should have more musicians play with us and I had strong reservations when backing tracks were being used at our live performances.
I felt that a lot of our song lore needed to be recorded, a lot of stories that still needed to be told and I felt I had a lot to offer younger people who wanted to sing and perform around the world, learn more about their history and, of course, the trials and joys of the road. I also really didn’t want the tradition of our patriotic ballads to be lost. I felt that handing down these traditions was one of the worthiest things I could achieve in my life. This has been artistically satisfying for me as there is nothing like a live band and the band with different hybrids has kept me focused and inspired over the years.
The Young Wolfe Tones have been quoted as ambassadors of a new generation of Irish music. Do you feel this fully represents what you are about?
I like to give the band artistic input into many of the songs and feel that the combination of great traditional musicians and singers really helps to highlight the songs and the value of them.
Tell us a bit about each of the band members and what they bring to the dynamics of the band?
Damaris Woods in the banjo player and hails from Meath. Damaris and her brother Jim were founding members of The Young Wolfe Tones and had a heavy traditional music input into the first CD, On The One Road. Since then the band has evolved and some of the members have left to form their own bands or to focus on their personal lives.
Right now we have Damaris Woods, Mylo Moylan on guitar and vocals, Andreas Durkin on keyboards and vocals, Wayne Brereton on bass and vocals and Cormac McGuinness on bass and vocals.
Mylo is a very talented vocalist and during the lockdown a few of the band—including Mylo— hunkered down together so we would be able to record, livestream and learn new material.
Andreas Durkin is from a very musical family in Cavan, with his mam being the very well-known Irish singer Kathy Durkin. Andreas brings a lot of humour into the band and at the same time is a very experienced road warrior. Andreas’s harmonies add greatly to the sound of The Young Wolfe Tones.
Wayne Brereton performs with the band for all gigs in Ireland and Europe and is from Offaly. Wayne is a fluent Irish speaker, has been a tour guide in Kilmainham Jail and I love the patriotic elements that he brings to the band. Wayne is also a very experienced singer and bass player and has performed with many bands over the years. If I was stuck in the trenches Wayne is the one that I know would come and get me.
Cormac McGuinness is from Tallaght in Dublin and currently resides in Florida so he performs all of our US gigs. Again Cormac is the jolly member of the band and is always laughing and joking. The van is a happy place with Cormac in it and everyone always likes him to sit up front when they’re driving as he keeps the spirits high on long road trips. Cormac is one of Luke Kelly’s biggest fans and pretty much knows every Luke Kelly song. He also sings with the same passion that Luke sung with.
We watched most of the members of the band do livestream gigs during lockdown either separately then slowly together until you all ended up performing as one. How did you all find the livestreams during lockdown considering it was unknown territory for most musicians?
Every day was a trial and error and the Amazon packages were arriving daily weekly to try and improve the technology. We all downsized and lived together and we found that the internet had to be upgraded, which was possible thanks to a good friend of mine. We got ourselves into a routine for putting videos together and we all had to upskill ourselves with Facebook Live, Zoom and so on. Eventually we found a happy medium and we really enjoyed connecting with our fans around the world.
Damaris and Mylo also did a regular Wednesday and Saturday livestream which streamed directly on to Facebook Live. They rehearsed the song requests daily, often from early morning too late at night. Again we found a new normal and got through it.
I’m delighted to see that so many fans who first came across us on Facebook now arrive at our shows all over the world to thank us. This is what makes it all worth while.
During lockdown we saw you introduce a few new young acts who people may not know onto your live gigs. Do you always believe in giving an opportunity to young talent so they can showcase the next generation of musicians?
I’ve always believed that passing along our tradition of music and song was, and is, as important as the heritage itself. Giving young people an appreciation and value of all our interlinked heritage can inspire young musicians and singers. The music, song and poetry is such an integral part of our nation’s history, past and present. Transmission though generations is the key to keeping our patriotic ballad tradition alive.
Today there are so many talented young acts out there and it is a joy to see them shine and express with passion our powerful song lore that has carried the hopes and the dreams of generations of Irish people. There is great satisfaction in witnessing the young talented musicians progress find their feet and make a very decent career out of performing Irish music and songs.
I also believe that by understanding the sentiment, words, literature and poetic grandeur of our song tradition you will come to realise that our music and song has strengthened our nationality and identity as a nation.
Lastly we are such a musical nation I would like to see music made a compulsory subject in Irish schools from the earliest classroom.
You have played all over the world at many amazing venues, what has been the most memorable and why?
That’s a hard question as we have had so many great and memorable concert appearances. The invitation to Milwaukee Irish Fest by Chuck Ward with The Young Wolfe Tones in 2010 was a total honour, but perhaps performing for President Obama in Washington on St Patrick’s Day 2015 was also one of the highlights of my career.
We were the first ballad band to play since the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem in 1963. The invitation was a huge honour. But the most memorable concert in terms of audience response was in May of 1982. This was the The Wolfe Tones first concert in Glasgow, Scotland, and it was staged at the Apollo Cinema. The venue was closed in 1986 and has since been demolished. It was a huge theatre which held 4000 people and the events were organised by promoter Peggy Jones with the help of her husband Michael Jones.
There had been a long determination by the English authorities through their supporters in Scotland to prevent our band from performing in the city. I had made several attempts to get the band perform in concert going back to the 1960s. My grandmother had encouraged me and to quote her she would say: “You will get a great reception in Glasgow, they will love your songs.” I had approached many of the Irish-owned dance halls but all had said no. Most were scared and many of them expressed in confidence to me if they allowed us to perform their licence would be at risk. We came close and were advertised to perform in concert in 1976 at the Couper Institute, but the hall owners received threats from Loyalist and from the authorities and the show was cancelled. However, with the help of Peggy and her husband Michael Jones we overcame the discrimination.
The concert at the Apollo was a ground-breaking event. There was however the possibility that that British Loyalists might attack the event or those who attended. The first thoughts of encouragement came from my grandmother and my good friend Tommy Gilligan from Glasgow. My grandmother said that there was a priest in Glasgow who was under pressure from the crown authorities to ban the singing of Hail Glorious Saint Patrick in St Andrew’s Church and the congregation then took to singing the song after the Mass outside the chapel. This was cultural oppression or intimidation and its strength was like a barometer, it went up a down as the English monarchy raised its profile.
The high-water mark was in 1953 when Celtic were told to remove the Irish tricolour from Celtic Park something which Chairman Bob Kelly refused, saying that he would change the code of sport to Gaelic Football if authorities persisted in their bid to have the flag removed. The achievements of Celtic FC in the 1960s and, in particular, winning the European Cup, brought much respect to the club and the Celtic community. This remarkable achievement was done with a team that all came within 30 miles of Glasgow City and the able management of a dedicated man, Jock Stein. But the success also brought resentment and envy by those who would begrudge the sporting success, and as the old saying goes ‘success has many fathers and failure is an orphan.’ Celtic’s success also opened a debate because English sporting and cultural control was now claiming Celtic’s success as a British achievement something that was resented by those who supported the club. Claiming success and achievement is part of how the English system of cultural control works. They had persistently done so with Irish and Scottish successes down through the years.
When we arrived at the venue for the run through rehearsal, the police were there and said there was a bomb scare and they were searching the theatre. Nothing was found. I met my good friend Tommy Gilligan who said he was a little upset with the massive police presence outside the theatre, but, as we both agreed, the police were there not to protect, but to intimidate.
Tommy Byrne voiced strong opposition to singing our latest hit ballad, Admiral William Brown. He believed that some of the audience might be offended and he said we better not sing the song at the show, The atmosphere was intimidating with the large police presence, but I strongly disagreed with him about the inclusion of the ballad on our concert programme and I said: “Thatcher has practically no support in Scotland and she has absolutely none in Glasgow.” Let’s just say it was a heated discussion. However, he was re-assured of a rapturous reception when, at least 45 minutes before the concert started, the 4000-strong audience began to chant ‘Argentina, Argentina.’ It was enough to make Thatcher run for the smelling salts and I will always remember Tommy Gilligan and our many friends thought it was a sight and sound to behold. We were all gobsmacked. Tommy was gobsmacked. Oliver Barry, our manager, said to Tommy: “There’s your answer.”
I will never forget the goodwill, warmth and passion of many of the concertgoers on the queue as we walked into the venue, nor will I forget the greeting and reception we received when we took to the stage. It was as if Irish musical heritage of resistance was rising from the dead. It’s a moment in my career that I will never forget and I was thankful that my wife Nuala was there to share the moment with me. She said: “All the sacrifices and hard work were worth it to have witnessed the appreciation and response from the audience.”
The tricolours were draped over the balconies and the scene looked like a cake decorated with Irish and Celtic Flags. The actual stage was about 60 feet above the pit and I said, incorrectly: “I don’t think we will have any stage invaders tonight as it’s too high up.” I was wrong. As we were singing our third song, The Boys of the Old Brigade, I was belting it out and going into the second verse of the ballad. I then looked down to see fingers on the edge of the stage and an elbow and then a young body climbed up and before the bouncers had a chance to react from the wings of the theatre this young fellow put a Celtic scarf around my neck, gave a me a kiss and jumped down into the crowd. Miraculously he was uninjured.
Oliver Barry, The Wolfe Tones Manager of more than 25 years tells this story of the Apollo Concert like this: “I’ve seen the Beatles perform at the Adelphi Cinema in Dublin and their one and only appearance was a mind-blowing experience. I also saw Elvis Presley perform twice in Las Vegas and on both occasions the crowd response was spectacular, but they fade into insignificance compared with The Wolfe Tones’ first performance at the Apollo in Glasgow in 1982.”
Tommy Gilligan was ecstatic. The reasons for the massive police presence was twofold. Firstly, it was probably necessary because of the long history of English Crown supporter’s violent attacks on any visible expressions of Irish identity nationalism. Down through the years there have been persistent attacks by Crown forces or their racist supporters on Irish natives. I always believed that the police were there in such numbers to provoke trouble. The scene was very overpowering and intimidating. There must have been around 100 police visible outside.
It was no surprise to me that there was no sign of any disturbance or trouble from any of the concertgoers. They would not cause trouble. We were always mindful that it only takes one, but thankfully that ‘one’ was never present at any of our shows in Scotland. I asked Michael Jones, Peggy’s husband, who had contacts with the police and he reported that the only incidents were of some drunks who were noisy on the way home from the concert. The police did arrest some of the young concert goers who were innocently walking home singing and many young lads attested to me personally that they were not causing any trouble, but arrested to fill the books.
Part two of the interview with Derek Warfield will feature in October’s edition
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Murray Leith and Jo Laing