Fergal Keane: At a time of deep division on this island Andy Irvine’s music kicked the door off its hinges

It was Cork, in the middle of the 1970s, when I saw Irvine perform as a member of Planxty. During those bleak Republic days, music was an escape

Andy Irvine, now into his 80s, is still packing instruments and amplifiers into his car to head out on the road. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Towards the end of John Steinbeck’s epic novel of dispossession and migration, The Grapes of Wrath, the central character, Tom Joad, talks about an itinerant preacher who’d travelled with the Joad family after they were driven from their land in the Oklahoma dustbowl. This was the 1930s, the era of the Great Depression, and banks were foreclosing on debt-ridden farmers.

Preacher Jim Casey had given up evangelising because of his drinking and womanising. Instead, he’d become a labour organiser but was murdered by strikebreaking thugs hired by ranchers. The man Tom Joad describes was driven by a love for the idea of a universal spirit.

“…one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’t have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, ‘cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ‘less it was with the rest, an’ was whole.”

It was Cork, in the middle of the 1970s, when I first saw Andy Irvine perform as a member of Planxty

One big soul. In these days of hyper-cynicism in just about every area of life there is a temptation to avoid eulogising such a vision. But I am into my 60s. I have spent more than three decades watching the worst that people can do to each other and seen time and again where hateful words can lead.


I am thinking of Preacher Casey’s words because of a person I am privileged to call my friend, a man whose big-hearted example is a fit answer to the rageful intolerance we see too often in Ireland and elsewhere these days. He is a singer, a songwriter, a chronicler of life from the ground up, campaigner for the poor and downtrodden, and the last of the real Troubadours, now into his eighties and still packing instruments and amplifiers into his car to head out on the road. As he sings himself:

“Never tire of the road; Never tire of the rolling wheel; Never tire of the ways of the world.”
Andy Irvine was not surprised that the instruments went missing as there was chaos at all the airports he passed through on his way to Aalborg

It was Cork, in the middle of the 1970s, when I saw Andy Irvine perform as a member of Planxty. That was my first live gig. These were the bleak Republic days. If things were changing with EEC membership it didn’t feel like it as I trudged up the Mardyke to school. Music was an escape. I played a bit in a band. We haunted Crowley’s music shop on MacCurtain street and Pat Egan’s records across St Patrick’s Bridge, where – a novelty of novelties – there were stereo headphones on which you could listen to albums.

But the greatest excitement, a rush of exhilaration I won’t ever forget, was dancing and yahooing with hundreds of others in jeans and check work shirts (the Rory Gallagher version, obligatory among my peers) as Planxty raised the roof with The Blacksmith and Follow Me Up to Carlow and other great songs and tunes from the Planxty and The Well Below The Valley albums.

This was emphatically traditional music, the music of our forebears but Planxty made it hip for a generation seeking to break with a stultifying past. One other early encounter with the band sticks in my mind. I was a junior reporter on the Limerick Leader at the end of the 1970s and wrote a story about how a local nightclub had refused admission to several black students. The story went national and one day I had a phone call.

“It’s Dónal Lunny from Planxty here,” a voice said.

He explained that the band was due to play at the said venue but was going to cancel because of what happened to the students. Instead, the gig was shifted to the university. I am sure it cost Planxty, but that was the kind of band they were.

As for the music, it was as if a door had been kicked off its hinges and a wind came sweeping over us full of joy and heartbreak, lust and poetry, something not containable, always recognisably ours but open to a wider world. At a time of deep division on this island, and between Britain and Ireland, they introduced us to songs from the Scottish and English folk tradition.

I think of their rendition of The Jolly Beggarman, a ballad of seduction collected in Scotland that also inspired a poem of Lord Byron’s.

We’ll go no more a roving, a roving in the night; We’ll go no more a roving, let the moon shine so bright

Planxty was founded by Andy Irvine, Dónal Lunny, Christy Moore and Liam Óg Ó Floinn (Paul Brady, Johnny Moynihan and Bill Whelan would also play important roles). The band guided a generation of young people to the beauty of folk and, in Andy’s case, introduced music he discovered while roaming in the former Yugoslavia in the late 1960s.

There were ballads in celebration of heroes as diverse as the Land League campaigner, Michael Davitt, and the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg

Then came his own songs, often steeped in his prodigious knowledge of history and fired by conscience.

“About 30 years ago,” he told me recently, “I realised there were very few songs in the tradition that told the story of subjects I thought important. Woody Guthrie [the great American folk-singer and activist] was my shining star and I attempted to write narrative ballads in the style of his great song – Tom Joad.”

There were ballads in celebration of heroes as diverse as the Land League campaigner, Michael Davitt, and the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued thousands of Jews from the clutches of the Nazis, before being arrested by the KGB and vanishing into the Soviet Gulag.

With courage, bluff and sleight of hand you saved 10,000 Jews But when you needed help yourself there was no one there for you; Only apathy and silence, hypocrisy and shame; And anger turns to outrage every time I sing your name Raoul Wallenberg

Our mutual friend, Bill Whelan, a trailblazing composer in his own right, always smiles when he speaks of Andy, remembering his humour, his deep intolerance for any form of bull**** and his fidelity to and unquenchable curiosity for the music. “He’s a true musical touchstone,” Bill says. “He created a repository of music and song which will influence those who engage with folk and traditional music for generations ... we had many laughs over the years but he was always focused on the work.”

There is a rare blend of intelligence and idealism in Andy’s songwriting. He is too clever and too open-hearted to fall for easy sloganeering. Nor is he interested in fame or money, beyond what is needed to sustain his musical life. When he sings against selfishness, greed, racism there is the purity of a voice unencumbered with any kind of celebrity baggage.

I came to know Andy at first through his music and then in person through another mutual friend, the legendary London-based storyteller Kevin Nolan, who became briefly infamous in Enniskillen after knocking out a priest who hit him in school. With Kevin, I attended Andy’s wedding to his Japanese partner Kumiko and there heard for the first time his childhood story. Born in London, the son of a Co Antrim mother and a Glaswegian father, he was sent to boarding school at a tender age. I asked him recently what he could remember of his early days, how they had shaped him.

Fergal Keane, author and foreign correspondent with BBC News. Photograph: Liam McBurney

“I was an only child and for reasons never explained, I was sent to boarding school at the age of three-and-a-half. The trauma of the separation from my mother has deleted most memories of the early days but I remember being five or six and feeling only really secure in bed at night. Here I invented a young girl – a mother substitute – who took care of we boarders. But I was her favourite and was able to sleep in the comfort of her love! A lonely childhood? Yes, but with some pluses; I had a good education and I learned self-dependence. I was at various boarding schools till I was 13 when I was saved from further incarceration by becoming a child actor and living, belatedly, at home.”

After following his mother’s footsteps on to the stage and then screen, Andy discovered the guitar, became a devotee of Woody Guthrie, and headed to Dublin as the 1960s folk revival was gathering pace. Sixty years later, he is still touring, following the music and proclaiming a message of universal humanity that he feels is more relevant now than it has ever been.

“When I was three in 1945, it would have been hard to imagine that the far right and neo-fascism would raise their ugly heads once more, in my lifetime. ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ No truer word was ever spoken. It’s quite shocking in this country to see a re-run of how Irish people were treated by nativist America in the 1840s.”

I go back to where I started this essay. Steinbeck’s character, Tom Joad, is about to flee the work camp because he is wanted by the law. His mother asks him where she will be able to find him, and Tom replies:

“I’ll be everywhere – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build–why, I’ll be there ...”

So will Andy, the last of the troubadours, never tired of the road. He’ll be everywhere. Rolling on from one town to another, from Clonmel to Enniskillen, to Liverpool and London and Hamburg, Sydney, Ljubljana, Cork and Oslo, singing songs that came from generations past, and words of his own that will be sung when he is long gone.