SMALL-TOWN Ireland in the early 1970s was an unlikely wellspring of musical innovation. Yet it was on a dull day in Fermoy, north Cork that, in the summer of 1972, Brian O’Reilly, a local songwriter and session player, conceived of a remarkable progressive folk-rock retelling of The Children of Lir.
With his band Loudest Whisper, O’Reilly imagined a rhapsodic blend of Celtic mythology and Crosby, Stills and Nash revival folk. The connections between ‘prog’ and Irish mythology would later be explored by Thin Lizzy and Horslips. With the Children of Lir double album, Loudest Whisper got there first.
So why haven’t you heard more about the band, who return with an ambitious restaging of Children of Lir — featuring a nine-piece ensemble — at the National Opera House in Wexford this weekend? Blame old fashioned Hibernophobia and the Irish music industry’s obsession, in the 1970s, with approval from the UK.
When Decca Ireland sent a recording of The Children of Lir to their London HQ, they were laughed out of the building. An Irish man singing about swans: was someone having a larf? Recall that this was the ’70s. Political correctness was decades in the future.
“Polydor in Ireland were very excited about it,” recalls O’Reilly. “They gave it to the office in England. If you had an album released in the UK at that time you had made it.
“There wasn’t a lot of music around. For your record to be on the shelves was a big deal in itself. Unfortunately the response in London was ‘What’s this all about – swans?’ So they weren’t going to release it. In the end Polydor Ireland put out around 500 copies.”
Far from a crushing setback, this reversal would contain the seeds of the group’s eventual triumph, he believes. As folk-rock gained in popularity through the ’70s, the Children of Lir became sought after among aficionados.
Scarcity was a guarantee of longevity, according to O’Reilly. Had Polydor UK pressed up 10,000 copies the album might have vanished into obscurity. Instead it achieved a semi-mythological status among collectors.
The project’s unlikely afterlife continued into the 1990s when hippy-era troubadour Donovan, then resident in Cork, participated in a re-recording. However, it was the original 1972 version that remained a holy grail for psychedelia devotees — demand for an original vinyl version remains undiminished even with the subsequent re-release on CD of the album (it is also available on streaming services such as Spotify).
“We got great mileage out of it,” says O’Reilly. The Children of Lir was a collector’s item. It was one of the first concept albums in Ireland at the time. But because Polydor in the UK didn’t get on board, the Irish label became less enthusiastic.”
Fermoy in 1972 was a long way from the centre of the music universe. Life could be grey and tedious, with only visiting show-bands to break the boredom.
“There was a big ballroom, the Top Hat, and there were showbands every week,” says O’Reilly. “During Lent all the dances had to close and the showbands would go to England. The Church really had a grip on life. But there was also a grand hotel and there would be ballad sessions, with people such as The Dubliners. We supported them — it was more folk than rock, and it suited us.”
Despite the lack of opportunities, O’Reilly had a vision and he was determined to stay true to it.
“We started out as a beat group. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry were big influences. The Byrds version of Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ was a major moment for me as a songwriter. From there we evolved into Loudest Whisper. I was writing folky songs. I had been to a few local theatrical productions and I thought… ‘We’ll put together a folk opera and see how it goes’.”
The Children of Lir had its debut as a stage performance in Fermoy in January, 1973. This attracted nationwide attention — including a report on the news — and within 12 months the band, which also included O’Reilly’s brother Paud on drums, were in Dublin working in an album version, with Leo O’Kelly of psychedelic group Tír Na Nóg producing.
Folk music was basking in a new relevance in the US and Europe, with groups such as the aforementioned Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Fairport Convention blending the old and the new. Loudest Whisper saw themselves as explicitly in that tradition.
“I’ve always loved harmonies,” says O’Reilly. “For me it started in the 1950s with the Everly Brothers. It was difficult writing original material in the early ’70s. The showbands were still a big deal. Doing something different was looked at with suspicion. Not a lot was happening and you really felt you had to try. I’m glad we did and it is so satisfying, all these years later, that people still care. At the time, you had no idea however. You were doing it because you felt you needed to.”
Did they seem themselves as part of a wider movement?
“We were aware of Horslips. But they were a Celtic rock band. We had two electric guitars, it is true. However, we were also singing harmonies. People described us as a folk-rock band — a little bit of folk and blues, with injections of Celtic folklore. That was about right. “
He believes the long lifespan of the project owes a lot to the story of The Children of Lir, the haunting quality of which makes it perfect for a progressive rock retelling.
“We performed it in Germany last year and people were absolutely smitten. A German narrator told the story and then we sang in English. They had never heard anything like it. They love the ballads and the trad. This was the first time they had a sense of the ‘mystical’ Ireland. We take this stuff for granted. It’s only when you go abroad you realise you powerful it can be.”