Finbar Furey: When we walked in, people went ‘What in the name of Jaysus is this!’
Finbar Furey on growing up in `Ballyer', appearing on Top of the Pops and how the Beatles wanted his uileann pipes
Finbar Furey: Now, at the age of 71, he is still pulling in plaudits from all directions and has a UK tour on the horizon. Photograph: Ruth Medjber
Within a few minutes of speaking to Finbar Furey, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no such thing as a short answer. The Dubliner, whose reputation as a stalwart of the trad and folk scenes has transmuted into “legend” status for many, has lots of stories, plenty of memories and the time to recount them all.
Today, on the verge of releasing his new album Don’t Stop This Now in the UK (it was released, with a slightly different tracklist, as Paddy Dear in Ireland last year), he is in a particularly nostalgic mood. Looking back on his illustrious career – which saw him take up the uileann pipes at the age of seven at the behest of his musician father, Ted – it’s easy to see how one tangent leads to another. The way Furey tells it, his Ballyfermot childhood was a sepia-tinted fairytale; stories of delivering turf around “Ballyer” on the family’s horses blend into his brief foray into amateur boxing (“I won a few, lost a few”), fishing trips and family picnics.
Then, of course, there was the music. “Our house was full of instruments,” he explains. “My father would have fiddles and flutes and tin whistles in the place, and my mother played the melodeon and the five-string banjo. We entertained ourselves because there was no television in those days. The house was always full of musicians and, at the end of the evening, when everything was put away and you did your homework, the instruments would come out and we’d sit down and play a few tunes. It was always there; music was just a part of who we were.”
Top of the Pops wasn’t great, to be honest. It looked bigger on the television
Calling it an “inevitability” that they would eventually form a band, he initially teamed up with older brother Eddie as “Finbar and Eddie Furey” and they went to Scotland in the late 1960s for a 12-date tour to begin their career proper, rubbing shoulders with Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly and The Corries; “all these great artists”, he nods. “We took the cattle boat to Glasgow from Dublin; 19 hours, I’ll never forget it with the cattle screaming below. We went away for 12 days, and we stayed away for three years.”
‘Top of the Pops’
Eventually bringing their two younger brothers Paul and George into the fold several years later, Furey maintains that the best moments of their huge success in the 1970s and 1980s were not things like their appearance on Top of the Pops or the flashy gigs and appearances. “Top of the Pops wasn’t great, to be honest,” he shrugs. “It looked bigger on the television.”
Instead, he says, the recognition given to him and Eddie for their Gerry Rafferty-penned single Her Father Didn’t Like Me Anyway by BBC radio DJ John Peel in 1972 meant infinitely more – both for their career and the genre.
“We were up against The Beatles and all these great rock bands,” he recalls, chuckling. “The Beatles were in their comfort zone, and suddenly they wanted to find out who were these two kids from Ballyfermot, and what was this instrument that they were playing.”
As The Fureys and Davey Arthur, they continued to push boundaries. “We moved it forward, we put timing into trad music and I started to rock ‘n’ roll a bit with the reels and jigs on stage – because you were supposed to sit up straight and stiff while playing,” he smiles. “It was an exciting time. We had hair down to the back of our necks and earrings and rings on every finger. When we walked into a place, people went ‘What in the name of Jaysus is this!’ We moved the music forward a little bit. Our father would say well done and that was about as much as you got. But you could see he was very proud of what we were at.”
In 1997, Furey made the decision to go solo after decades of playing with his brothers, but he has no regrets about the career move. “We were tied up with management and there was all sorts of crap going on; we couldn’t move with contracts,” he explains. “So we didn’t break up – it was the management around us that broke us up, and I’d had enough. I was writing all of these songs in the late 70s and 80s, and I wasn’t getting a chance to sing them on stage because we were doing the same programme nearly every night. It was that time of life; I’d spent 20 years on the road with my brothers and I spent 10 years with Eddie before that. It was just time for a change.”
His solo career issued Furey with a new creative licence to work with other musicians and songwriters in a way that he had never done before. “I had this great freedom; for the first time, I could actually fly,” he nods. His 2012 album Colours, for example, saw him sing with pop star-turned-actor Shayne Ward and Mary Black, while his appearance on RTÉ TV show “The Hit” in 2013 injected new life into his career after he won the show with the Gerry Fleming-written The Last Great Love Song, which went to number one in the Irish charts.
Now, at the age of 71, he is still pulling in plaudits from all directions. Don’t Stop This Now is a strong collection that is well suited to Furey’s “elder statesman” status. Some songs were written as long as 20 years ago (like Paddy Dear), while his daughter Áine guests on two songs. It is undoubtedly a folk album, but one with elements of blues, rock and trad in the mix.
With a UK tour on the horizon to accompany his deal with BMG UK, Furey remains ambitious even at this point of his career when, I point out, most of his contemporaries are happy to just sit back and play the hits.
“Well, I still do play the hits; I still do Sweet Sixteen and The Green Fields of France and The Old Man,” he contends. “To me, a concert is a session where everybody gets involved and they all sing, so of course they’re expecting [those songs]. But it’s important to put in the new stuff too, to create a nice balance. I like to keep moving forward, but I’ll always keep the favourites in. When you’re on stage, you still have to be Finbar Furey.”
Despite all he’s achieved over the course of his celebrated career, he is most proud, he says, “of just getting to 71 years old”, he chuckles. “I’m still very proud of my brothers. And I’ll always remember my father and mother’s face when The Green Fields of France came out; those days are the ones you remember. Then when Sheila and I got married, and the kids were born and you watch them grow up . . . it’s a tough life, being a musician, and Sheila has been the pillar in all our lives. She’s always been the one saying ‘Come on – you have to do this or you won’t be happy.’”
With so many memories and stories in his head, it’s also time to get them down on paper. He has been working on his autobiography for the past few years with the help of Sheila and his daughter Áine, and plans to finish it in the latter half of this year. “I’ve a great name for it when it comes out: ‘Is It That Time Already?’,” he laughs. “We’ve had a few offers here and there, but I’m not really interested at the moment until it’s completely done. Sure, I could have put it out before ‘The Hit’ and I didn’t – and look at all that’s happened since. So it’s not over yet, not by a long way. There’s plenty more to come.”
- Finbar Furey plays dates nationwide in May and June, including Dublin’s Vicar Street on May 10th.
5 Essential Finbar Furey tracks
1. ‘The Green Fields of France’ (1979)
Eric Bogle’s 1976 song about a young man who died in World War I was immortalised by The Fureys & Davey Arthur three years later and remains a classic.
2. ‘The Red Rose Cafe’ (1987)
Originally a Dutch language song, The Fureys made this jaunty tune a perennial singalong favourite in the late 80s.
3. ‘The Lonesome Boatman’ (1969)
Written by Finbar in his early 20s and showcasing his superb skill on the tin whistle, the song is as haunting as ever almost four decades later.
4. ‘When You Were Sweet Sixteen’ (1981)
A song first published in 1898 by American songwriter James Thorton in 1898, it went on to become perhaps The Fureys and Davey Arthur’s best-known song.
5. ‘The Last Great Love Song’ (2013)
Finbar Furey’s biggest solo success to date, he arranged and produced it after choosing it on RTÉ talent show ‘The Hit’ – and it went on to be just that, topping the charts in 2013.