Horslips reach the end of the road

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On November 16, at Ulster Hall in Belfast, Ireland’s original Dancehall Sweethearts make a final tour. Horslips, the long-haired psychedelic warriors of 70s Celtic pop, play what is billed as their final gig. It promises to be an emotional and nostalgia-laden evening.

“The band are officially stopping in Belfast,” says vocalist and bassist Barry Devlin. He will perform with keyboardist and flautist Jim Lockhart, another founding member of Horslips, and with band mates Ray Fean and Fiach Moriarty. [the rest of the classic Horslips line-up having retired]. “It’s time for the last concert.”

Devlin will turn 76 a week after the Belfast performance, at which he will receive the Oh Yeah Legend status award (all part of the Northern Ireland Music Prize ceremony).

Half a century has passed since Horslips wove the Celtic rock genre from scratch. Having emerged in the literary underground of early 1970s Dublin, this quintet of former advertising executives were the conquering heroes that Irish culture desperately needed. They also had huge and immediate success, with hits such as Dearg Doom, from 1973, and Trouble (With a Capital T), from 1976.

With these songs and concept records such as the aforementioned Dancehall Sweethearts with The Táin and the Book of Invasions, Horslips have created something completely original. A mischievous and epic rock’n’roll that draws on the “prog” movement of the early 70s. But which did so while recognizing the traditional Irish roots of the five musicians. It was a mixture sprinkled with fairy dust.

The music suggested Pink Floyd dancing around a fairy fort. With their extravagant mustaches and even more extravagant ruffled boots and shirts, Horslips looked like Finn McCool’s honor guard who had just made their way out of Carnaby Street. All these decades later, no musician has come close to the strange sorcery conjured up by the band.

“From the start, we were watching Seán Ó Riada,” says Devlin of the Cork-based composer who blended Celtic and classical music.

“And in the fusion bands of the rock world – people like King Crimson. And jazz fusion. It was a time of fusion. We wanted to do something with rock. We didn’t know exactly what. We really wanted to be a progressive rock band. And for the ‘prog’ track to be traditional,” he says.

Horslips had a major advantage over other Irish musicians of the time. They were full of self-confidence – an anomaly at a time when Ireland was burdened with a chorus of collective inferiority.

“We thought we were brilliant. We were very happy with ourselves. It wouldn’t have surprised us if we had become the biggest band in the world,” he says.

“It turned out that we weren’t. But we were saying ‘yes – we know what we are doing is interesting’. And had longevity. We received a terrible kick at the time from the mainstream establishment.

“It was partly our fault. People were saying, ‘This is the future of traditional Irish music’. We would take any praise we got. We weren’t clear enough.

Barry Devlin. Photo: Steve Humphreys

In the early 1970s, Dublin was often considered a cultural, economic and social backwater. However, this is not how Devlin remembers the city at this time. He remembers it was a time of change and excitement. The old Dublin that produced Brendan Behan and JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man was fading. Whoever would give the U2 world had not yet arrived. And there, in that liminal moment, was Horslips.

“The music scene and the poetry scene were in as changeable a state as Dublin was. It was a period of transition. The Dublin of Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and Luke Kelly was transformed into the Dublin of U2. So there’s a 10-year period between 68 and 78. It was kind of a melting pot,” he says.

“There was a lot going on. If you look at the 1950s in the 1960s – books like Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. It was a very visible move. Between 1968 and 1978, it sort of collapsed. And in terms of rock, there would have been Rory Gallagher, ourselves, [Thin] Lizy.

“There wasn’t much else that was visible there. The bands that were going to explode in the late 70s: The Blades, U2, Light a Big Fire… they were brewing. And, of course , the great The Radiators [a formative Dublin punk crew]. It was a petri dish at this point. We were partly formed from that.

Dublin was changing, he said. And isn’t that always the most exciting time for a city and a scene? “He was not lacking in talent. It was an extremely interesting moment. He just didn’t understand what it was then.

Horslips had met in the capital. But they weren’t a “Dublin” band, Devlin believes. He was from Tyrone; Shannon’s lead guitarist Johnny Fean, singer and guitarist Charles O’Connor was an art school graduate in the UK; drummer Eamonn Carr, a former beat poet, from Kells. Only Jim Lockhart was a Dubliner. And their fan base was always nationwide.

“It’s kind of a key. We were all country boys. Even Jim Lockhart, who was a Dub – his mother was from Cooktown and his father from Belfast. Charles was the archetype of Middlesborough Art School graduate Johnny Fean, the guitarist was already laughing [with progressive country outfit Jeremiah Henry]. I was from Tyrone,” he says.

“We met in Dublin. We all had a strong interest in traditional music. I was not at all a trad player but I was very interested. We didn’t know enough to know what to expect. It was great for us. We don’t care what people think of us.

“We didn’t know anyone who thought anything of us anyway. We didn’t have any gangs in Dublin playing the blues or anything. We got together in this self-made bubble.”

They will perform four songs in Belfast. As already highlighted, Devlin, who grew up in Tyrone, will also receive the NI Music Prize Legend Award for his role as one of the “Founding Fathers of Celtic Rock”.

The evening will bring a poignant end to a busy year for Horslips, which has also released a box set which, after logistical delays, should find its way into collectors’ hands this winter.

The cover features the band’s “clown” design; inside are over 35 discs containing their full catalog – plus 16 hours of unreleased material. You could slap him on Christmas morning and he’d still be purring in the corner as you went to bed.

Horslips in 2009: Charlie O'Connor, Eamon Carr, Johnny Fean, Jim Lockhart and Barry Devlin.  Photo: Arthur Carron/Collins
Horslips in 2009: Charlie O’Connor, Eamon Carr, Johnny Fean, Jim Lockhart and Barry Devlin. Photo: Arthur Carron/Collins

“It’s something extraordinary. Many groups produce coffee table books. As far as I know, we are the only group to have produced a coffee table,” says Devlin. “All you need are legs and you could dine on them. That’s wonderful.

“Charles O’Connor, who was always the designer of our artwork…Charles and Mark Cunningham, who did the biography book, they did it together – he uses the clown [image] that we were using at the time.

Horslips were never those of half measures. And the box set is faithful to this exaggerated tradition. “It’s a beautiful thing. And, of course, a miserable excess. There are CDs – three DVDs and two books of enormous beauty. Ephemera.. fan club letters, posters. Everything you always wanted to know about the band.

“And maybe you didn’t want to know much about the band. If you’re really an Horslips nerd, there’s kind of everything.”

Horslips went on hiatus in the 1980s, never officially breaking up. But as they went on with their lives (Devlin was composing and writing scripts for television), Horslips’ reputation endured.

If anything, it grew when Dearg Doom’s riff was covered for Ireland’s 1990 World Cup song Put Em Under Pressure. And then, in 2009, they were persuaded to get back together.

“There was an undercurrent of notoriety from songs like Trouble with a Capital T and Dearg Doom. In 2007-2008, Denis Desmond [of promoters MCD] said, ‘You should get back on the road now’. He said, ‘I’m going to put you on’. We said, ‘What – Vicar Street’. And he said, ‘no, we’ll take stock’. They thought he had lost his mind.

“We said, ‘Dennis the last time we played in Dublin – we played a 1,200 seater – the National Stadium’. And he said, ‘no you’re gonna fill it up [3Arena, as the venue, is today called]. And we did.

“Part of the reason was that although we played at the National Stadium once or twice a year, we played much bigger ballrooms all over Ireland. You would play the Astoria in Bundoran – 2,500 people. We were in many ways a rural group rather than particularly a Dublin group. We lived in the counties. And that’s where the support was.

Horslips may be making history. But Devlin has no intention of retiring from music. He has a close working relationship with poet Paul Muldoon and won’t be hanging up his guitar for the foreseeable future, he says.

“Being in a band when you’re my age keeps you from being the man in the aisle at Aldi, buying bad jeans,” he says. “You have the right to be younger than you should be.”

  • Horslips will perform at Ulster Hall on November 16 as part of the Northern Ireland Music Prize ceremony
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