Murray Leith and Jo Laing
THIS month, Glasgow Irish Bands and Gigs shares the second part of a lengthy interview with the legendary Derek Warfield, formerly of The Wolfe Tones and now performing with his band, Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones.
On April 24, 2016, you were chosen to play at the 1916 centenary commemoration at the General Post Office in O’Connell Stret in Dublin. Tell us about this experience?
That concert, on the actual day of the centenary, was probably one of the most memorable concerts that I ever performed and knowing that all of the band thought likewise made it more special. To play and sing the songs and ballads that paid tribute to the patriotic men and women of the rebellion in that location was of special significance to both the audience and performers. The experience was overwhelming. To look out over O’Connell Street and watch the thousands sing and respond to our patriotic music and song with appreciation and excitement were for all of us treasured moments.
Looking up at the GPO and seeing the building’s columns shining though the sunlight with our national flags flying in freedom was a moment that I will always remember and treasure. We sang The Foggy Dew, I talked about our patriots and how proud that we felt and how much we owed to their sacrifice. We also remembered the innocent whose names we will never know who were victims of British Army, because we should never never forget that British military authority through history in Ireland has always murdered innocent Irish civilians as reprisals for military and political losses, and they did so in 1916, in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday in 1920 and in Derry in 1972 and it was the primary reason that Padraig Pearse called off the rebellion and surrendered.
You reportedly play around 30 festivals in the US each year. How do they compare to the gigs within the UK and Ireland
America is a big country and Irish festivals are now such a traditional part of celebration of all aspects of our Irish musical heritage that the Irish festivals have been a great showcase for many bands from Ireland. They have been the most important advance for the appreciation of our traditions.
Success has many fathers and I would like to express my personal thanks to the Ward family in Milwaukee—brothers Ed and Chuck—whose energy and commitment is sadly missed by all lovers of Irish Heritage. With vision and belief in their Irish musical tradition they founded the Milwaukee Irish festival back in the 1980s. The value they placed in our musical traditions came from their father who loved and published small books of Irish songs and ballads in Chicago. He did so at a time when little or no artistic value was expressed in our song lore. Those books, gifted and signed by the Wards to me, are greatly treasured. The Wards’ father inspired his sons and they gave our Irish musical heritage exposure. We can’t forget too, the crucial help and dedication of the volunteer citizens of Milwaukee who gave their time and energy. Together the Wards and the city provides a showcase stage for hundreds of Irish troubadours to perform and shine the spotlight on our great culture of song and music and dance in that great city of Milwaukee. I have performed there on three occasions and each time was a powerful experience as to how we Irish express our musical tradition.
Of all the songs you play around the world on stage, which one gives you: a) The best reaction? b) The most pride? c) The most memories?
Get Out Ye Black and Tans, The Foggy Dew and The Streets of New York in that order.
Which song always reminds each of you of home when you are away touring in far-off countries and why?
I wrote many ballads that I am proud of but the ballad of Newgrange, Bru Na Boinne has a special place because of its importance, its great antiquity and because it says so much about our nation’s history. Ireland is the oldest and most clearly defined nation in Europe and our island can also boast the fact that the Irish language is the oldest written language in Western Europe. Ireland is a long settled and old country and definitive evidence of its great age is to be seen at passage graves of Bru Na Boinne—Newgrange is its Anglicised name. Ireland was known by many names in the past: Eireann, Hibernia, Scotia, Banba and has always been to Europe an Isle of Saints and Scholars and the last outpost of Europe.
Bru na Boinne is one of the wonders of the ancient Ireland and Europe. There are between 150 and 200 identified passage graves scattered across Ireland. Passage graves are also found in Spain, Portugal, France, Brittany and the Orkney Islands. However, apart from one grave in Gavinus, Brittany in France none have the artistic decoration of Bru Na Boinne. Architecturally, artistically and topographically Bru Na Boinne is the most important and the most artistically ornamented ancient structure in Ireland and Europe. Together with Dowth and Knowth they are Ireland’s and Europe’s greatest treasures of antiquity. The Boyne Valley’s cultural heritage has more to say about Irish and European art and pre-history than any other existing monuments.
In Las Vegas, you have regularly performed in Ri Rà Irish bar, and in the past at the NAFCSC Celtic Supporters’ Convention. How do you fit in with the Las Vegas dynamic and array of performers?
It is not difficult to play to any audience if they are there for the music and are prepared to listen. I make sure that they do, I tell the stories of the songs. If the audience are celebrating we celebrate with them. I also tell them that the meaning of the words Ri Rà in Irish is ‘boisterous merriment’ and that usually gets them listening and lets the
merriment begin. Also when you have in your line-up someone as great a musician as Damaris her talent on the banjo demands attention and also Andreas and Mylo have such powerful voices that no matter what they sing they have such passion when singing Irish ballads that the audience always respond. I always believe that our music is so varied and powerful that through my performing life I had been able to play in folk clubs, cabaret, concert halls, ballad sessions, discos and festivals with audience participation and all audiences have responded with appreciation and approval.
Following on from that is there any modern artist who you’d like to collaborate with and try something completely different. We’ve seen Billy Ray Cyrus team up with Lil Nas X to bring country and rap together. Who would it be and why?
Paul Simon maybe and Damaris would like to record with her brother Jim.
Derek, you also deliver lectures on Irish history and the history of the Irish in America, how did this arise?
This was a natural progression. I discovered that when the Irish exiles left Ireland they brought their music with them and continued the age-old Irish tradition of composing and writing new songs of the events and issues that impacted their lives. I found that the period where our exiles’ musical creativity can be observed at it most
powerful was throughout the Civil War from 1862-1865. I produced three CDs with the songs ballads and music of the period: Sons of Erin, Clear the Way, and the Bonnie Blue Flag. When collecting the material for those recordings I discovered Irish American ballads from America’s second war with England from 1812-1814 and the revolutionary war from 1776-1783. This was a big surprise at the time, but when I studied the history the reality was that I found that in both wars with England, Irishmen and women played an important and crucial role in the winning America’s independence and, importantly, they left us a musical, poetic and song heritage of their contributions and creativity.
The facts are that the Irish were everywhere and I often quote the fact that when George Washington went out to fight he had 16 Irish-born generals by his side. Washington’s Irish and The Dawn’s Early Light were both CDs that were the product of over five years research and study. The United States was not the only country that was impacted by Westminister’s self-serving rule of Ireland that disposed and dispersed millions of our people around the world.
Australia was another and I produced a CD, Far Away in Australia, to highlight the Irish musical contributions. The CD is a collection of ballads, music and poems of the Irish in Australia. To a lesser extent Argentina and all of Europe, France and Spain in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were destinations where many Irish took refuge from the horror and terror of English attempts to conquer Ireland.
Do you think the young Irish generation these days still have the same interest in Irish history as the older generation did or has the world changed for them?
I do think that history and the arts have paid a price at the expense of technology and science in education in today’s world, but more importantly with the communication that is available today I do not see it as catastrophic. All our history is in our songs—thank God we have them. British authority do not like the reality of their misrule broadcast worldwide, that’s why our tradition has always been are the object of destruction and censorship. All history repeats, but human abuse of power and greed are more difficult to hide in today’s world. It took the Westminister Government 50 years to admit and apologise for the murders in Derry in 1972. But the biggest problem is that many countries like Britain, for example, are selective when it comes to the educational agenda and they do not teach any Irish History in British schools, they only put on the curriculum periods that suit their own interests. So most British kids know more about Stalin and they do about Britain’s impact on native societies worldwide by colonialism. Most students in Britain are totally ignorant of Britain’s misrule in Ireland.
Ireland has a huge amount of talented musicians of all genres. Why do you think such a small island has created some of the best musicians ?
That a great question. We made a bold statement by making our national symbol the Irish harp. We are probably the only nation in the world to have a musical instrument as a national symbol. Music, song and poetry are an integral part of Irish heritage and history and references to their importance are to be found in our earliest recorded written texts. References to music are present in our most ancient historical manuscripts and famed mythological tales and stories. And from the earliest texts of our history we have used our music poetry and verse to honour and celebrate the lives, deeds and events of our great and good. We are a nation of musicians, singers and poets. “It is our best cultural achievement’ Thomas Davis said. No other part of Irish heritage can boast of more varied capabilities, higher claims, stronger powers or greater influences.
We know from our earliest texts of history that the harp was the musical instrument of choice in ancient Ireland and they varied in size and use. We also know that they were present in almost every household. We have in the accounts of the lives of the Irish nobles and saints that many of them were accomplished harpists and musicians and that music was very much part of their life and faith. It is also stated that many missionary educators took their harpers and musicians with them on journeys throughout Europe. Frederic Ozanam (1813-1853) French scholar writer, lawyer and the founder of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, had this to say of the Irish harpists: “Nothing could equal the renown of the bards of Erin and the skilfulness of their harpers. When the English landed for the first time in that country into which they were destined to carry slavery, their archers paused to ecstasy at the sweet harmony which the native minstrels drew from their instruments. Even today this oppressed nation keeps its harp, the emblem of its genius, in its national arms.”
Charles Hubert Parry, English composer, teacher and historian of music reiterated the words of Davis when he wrote: “Irish music is probably the most human, the most varied, the most poetical in the world and it is particularly rich in tunes which imply considerable sympathetic sensitiveness.” The music and song of Ireland is connected in an intimate way with Irish communities in Ireland and most importantly wherever Irish people settled. Every generation and every aspect of Irish life is expressed in its content. If you read the texts of our most ancient books and annals you will find music, song and poetry there in abundance.
I also believe that music and musicians from Ireland played a very influential role in the development of music across Europe. When the Irish monks and educators went to Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire they brought their music and musicians with them. So the musical tradition is as long as our texts of history. I also believe that it his the reason that we were never conquered. I also believe that music should be a compulsory subject in schools. Music sustained the Irish people through the worst periods of oppression. It also preserved our language and history and it inspired generations of Irish people with words and melody.
Damaris you have been performing with Derek Warfield and The Young Wolfe Tones since their inception. Your exceptional style of banjo playing has people looking to replicate it all over the world. What inspired you, and keeps you playing?
Meeting so any people all over the world and the joy I get from teaching my students is definitely what inspires me.
What do you think the perfect venue would be and why?
We hope to be performing in what we think is a perfect venue—Liberty Hall—this year. Its historical connections with James Connolly are of major importance to all of us. Moreover, the venue has great acoustics, it is also Derek’s home city and he played there with his old band The Wolfe Tones back in 1972, 50 years ago.
As a group you are currently embarking on a tour of the US, England and Ireland. What’s next on the horizon ?
We are really looking forward to the European Irish cruise with the legendary Jonnie Madden and many other great artists and musicians. It has been labelled the biggest season on the high seas. In October, we return to Honolulu and Maui—Hawaii. From February 6-12 we will embark upon our annual cruise through the Caribbean and these cruises are a lot of fun.
When on tour do any of the band have any annoying habits or rituals that you wish they didn’t?
I would say that this band lineup is almost perfect. They are all practical jokers, which can sometimes be annoying!
Touring between venues in the US can be a long journey by road. What do you do to pass the time?
We listen to music, share videos, tell jokes and the driver always gets his preference.
What’s the funniest and worst thing that has happened on tour?
Derek’s trousers fell down going through security. He was carrying a tray of donuts and he never let go off the tray, so the trousers fell but the donuts did not!
Who has been your most influential teacher or mentor?
What is the biggest problem you’ve encountered on your musical journey?
The band not being able to travel to the US during Covid-19 was very tough and dealing with the bureaucracy of immigration and paperwork gets harder every year.
If you could change one thing about the music industry what would it be?
I would like to see the censorship on Irish ballads ended by RTÉ and also an end to how arduous it has become for Irish bands to get visas to tour the US. We shouldn’t have to go through such hardships and expenses given our social, political and historical ties.
What are your interests outside music?
Astronomy, gardening, science and collecting old books.
And finally a fun question for you all. If you could be a song, which song would you be and why?
We don’t think theres a song written yet that aptly describes us all.
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