At 75, Cork Folk Festival headliner Andy Irvine still gets a buzz out of touring and playing his music, writes Joe Dermody.
OREVER the musician’s musician, Andy Irvine also has the somewhat unusual good fortune to be almost universally loved by audiences.
Expect a warm reception this Thursday when he headlines a night in Triskel Christchurch as part of this year’s Cork Folk Festival. His show follows the impressive opening act of Maighread and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, the famed sisters of the Bothy Band and Skara Brae.
“Hardly an opening act, more like a double bill,” Andy jokingly corrects me. Fair point.
Given his unique vocal style, you might expect the mention of Andy Irvine’s name to polarise opinion. Not at all.
In fact, if he were on Facebook, he’d break the ‘Like’ counter. When I tell people I’ve interviewed the London-born singer, literally everyone I speak to says they love Andy. Quickly followed by ‘What’s he like?’
As it turns out, he’s very chilled. I was running late for the interview, stuck in traffic, so I texted to seek a 15-minute delay. He texts back: “No problem, Joe!”
When I land, I begin with an apology. He stops me: “You weren’t interrupting anything. I was only out doing a bit of gardening.”
At 75, the gardening helps keep him fit, he says. And he is very fit. Mind you, he has been on his feet a long time. He began touring with Sweeney’s Men in 1965.
He still does shows all over the world, and he regularly gigs with Mozaik, Patrick Street and Paul Brady. Does he still love it as much as ever?
“I have always enjoyed it,” he says. “When I started out, I had no idea that I’d make a living out of music. I can’t think of a single time when I said to myself ‘I hate this’.
“I have said yes to so many gigs over the years. At this time of the year, I’d usually be going to Germany, usually in November, but I’m not this year. I am doing a show in Argentina in December; there’s a great folk club there that I really like. I’m also a big hit in Patagonia.”
It’s not just for his name that Irvine is big in the Andes. He brings a lot of travel and cultural depth to the way he plays mandolin; mandola; bouzouki; hurdy-gurdy; guitar-bodied bouzouki. His sound connects with people in so many cultures.
Irvine formed the legendary Planxty with Christy Moore, Donal Lunny and Liam O’Flynn in 1982. The band’s epic all-too-brief reunion was captured on a great DVD of their 2004 Vicar Street performances. Any chance of further reunions?
“No one has mentioned it. It’s too bad that it hasn’t happened again. I really enjoyed that. We were better than we had ever been, as energetic as we were as young men, and
musically we were more mature.
“Vicar Street is a lovely place to play, like a big folk club. I also really like the Triskel. I played there a good few times, including a Sweeney’s Men reunion. It feels like a concert venue.”
Last year’s 40th reunion shows with Paul Brady were also a big
success, featuring appearances by Donal Lunny and Kevin Burke. Any more of those on the horizon?
“We are thinking of doing something again next year, but we’re not sure. You can hardly celebrate your 41st or 42nd anniversary. Paul is such a great writer, and it’s good to mix styles. Paul’s main line is a different line to mine. He’s a bit rockier than I am.”
While on the subject of revivals, any chance of Andy reviving his acting career? He appeared in several Abbey productions, had a small role in the film Room At The Top (1959). Then, from about the ages of 8-14, he was a child star in RTÉ’s soap opera Tolka Row.
“I was a great child actor, but then I lost the desire. I did a lot of TV. I was in Tolka Row until 1963, and it was around this time that I started my music career. We were all playing in clubs before we played together. Sweeney’s Men was our first band.
“Then I had a desire to travel. In 1968, I headed to Eastern Europe. I learned a lot of new instruments and new rhythms.
“When I came back to Ireland, other people also started playing those rhythms. I suppose that’s what I brought to folk music.”
That’s a fairly modest account of Andy’s role in the way that Irish folk music broadened and evolved in the 1970s and into the 1980s.
The reality is that he is among the henchmen of choice for all the big names of the folk circuit, not just in Ireland but all over the globe.
I try to confirm one old tale of how the ballad of ‘Little Musgrave’ came into being. One version of the tale goes that Christy Moore found some old lyrics in a library, but no tune; Andy put a tune to it, and it became an all-time favourite for many.
“Whatever Christy said is fine by me. Let the legend stand; I wouldn’t want to be the one to knock it down,” says Andy politely, but firmly.
No guff, no showbiz blarney, nothing but the music. There’s a good reason Andy Irvine remains one of the most celebrated and loved of Ireland’s folk stars, both with the musicians and the fans.
Andy Irvine plays Triskel Christchurch in Cork on Thursday as part of Cork Folk Festival. Also on the bill for the gig are Also Maighread and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill.
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