From humble beginnings in working-class Dublin, The Fureys have carved their name in the annals of Irish folk music – and 40 years later they continue to do so as evidenced by an appreciative full-house at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall this weekend.
In the tradition of classic balladeers, the group – whose family membership has changed over the years, the remaining core duo being multi-instrumentalist Eddie and his younger brother, singer-guitarist George – have performed their popular songs in prestigious venues ranging from New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House to London’s Royal Albert Hall. That’s impressive considering they started off playing in O’Donoghue’s Pub in Dublin 1960 for just a few pounds.
This weekend’s Belfast show comprised a nostalgic musical journey spanning several decades interspersed with light-hearted anecdotes about meetings with artists such as comedian-cum-musician, Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty, in Scotland and Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan in the US.
In tribute to their host city, the five-member group, which included Camillus Hiney on accordion and tin whistle, Pio Ryan on banjo and mandolin and Tony Murray on bass, launched their two-hour concert with the song Belfast Mill. Originally titled Aragon Mill and written by activist/folk musician Si Kahn, it laments the loss of mill village culture in this small Georgia town. The Fureys’ interpretation, transposing the sentiments to Belfast, is a classic example of Celtic storytelling through song.
This opening melody was followed by a deeply sentimental composition written by Derry-born singer-songwriter-producer Phil Coulter entitled The Old Man, about the death of a father. There then followed a series of hit songs The Fureys are most well-known for including I Will Love You, When You Were Sweet Sixteen, From Clare To Here, Leaving Nancy and Steal Away.
One of the loudest cheers in the arena arose when the group launched into The Green Fields of France, an anti-war anthem, one of a trilogy written by Scottish singer-songwriter, Eric Bogle – the others being The Band Played Waltzing Matilda and All The Fine Young Men.
The Green Fields of France was written in 1975, a year after bombings rocked Birmingham and Guildford during what is now termed the northern Irish ‘Troubles.’ The bombs unleashed a wave of anti-Irish sentiment in Britain and Bogle said in an interview that his song was meant, in part, to be a reminder that many Irish people fought and died in the trenches in the First World War. The Fureys’ popular 1979 recording remained in the Irish charts for 28 weeks.
During their performance, The Fureys also highlighted the talents of other well-known folk singers with their interpretations of songs such as Early Morning Rain written by Canada’s Gordon Lightfoot for his 1966 debut album Lightfoot; American Tom Paxton’s Every Time from his 1965 album Ain’t That News; as well as Ralph McTell’s Streets of London inspired by the Englishman’s experiences busking and hitchhiking through Europe.
Among audience members was Belfast man Francis McCaffrey (below right), celebrating his 63rd birthday with his Kenyan-born wife, Jacinta (left) and his brother and sister-in-law, Danny and Lorraine. “A really relaxing, enjoyable evening of music, with many of the songs familiar to me down through the years,” he said.
With encouragement from the stage, many people in the packed audience joined in enthusiastically on the lively chorus of Red Rose Café, originally a Dutch song, Het kleine Café aan de Haven, composed and written by Pierre Kartner, also known as Vader Abraham, and released in 1975.
One of the most endearing songs of the evening was This One’s For You sung by Eddie and George, a heartfelt tribute to their brother Paul, the group’s accordion player who died in 2002, and to their own mother, Nora, who with her husband, Ted, was an accomplished musician.
The most haunting melody was undoubtedly the fusion of mandolin and tin whistle by Hiney and Ryan on ‘The Lonesome Boatman,’ a plaintive air written by Finbar Furey, brother of Eddie and George, now a soloist, when he was only nineteen years old.
Belfast’s Waterfront Hall was one of a number of venues in a comprehensive international tour this year coinciding with the release of the group’s new CD entitled, The Fureys 40 Years on……to be continued.