Seán Creedon looks back on the career of one of Ireland’s greatest ballad groups and speaks to two of its founding members.
The showband era of the sixties was huge in Ireland, with large crowds of young people filling dance halls around the country every weekend, hoping to meet the boy or girl of their dreams.
At the same time there was also a boom in ballad/folk groups, where the venues were smaller. While I have no doubt there were some romantic liaisons at the ballad and folk clubs, there probably wasn’t as much of an opportunity as in the dance hall where young people could meet members of the opposite sex for a dance and maybe a long-term arrangement.
A singer from Mayo named Delia Murphy is credited with starting the ballad boom in Ireland in the forties, when she recorded songs to a light orchestral accompaniment. Apparently Delia learned many of the songs from travellers, who were allowed to set up camp by her father on the estate he owned near Hollymount.
Delia’s recordings included If I Were A Blackbird, The Boston Burglar, The Moonshiner and Courtin’ in the Kitchen. Other popular ballad singers from that era included Bridie Gallagher and Eileen Donaghy.
The McPeake family from Belfast are generally regarded as being the first Irish ballad group. Then in the sixties along came The Dubliners, Wolfe Tones and the Clancy Brothers plus a host of individuals like Jim McCann, Johnny McEvoy and Danny Doyle. It wasn’t all male singers and Margaret O’Brien sang with the Ludlows, while the Johnstons family group included sisters Adrienne and Lucy.
Meanwhile a young man named Seán McGuinness from James’s Street in Dublin was getting the odd gig in pubs around Dublin with his group the Quare Fellas, while holding down a full-time job in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs on nearby St John’s Road in Kilmainham.
Seán recalls, ‘‘I remember our first-ever gig, it was in the Kingsway Lounge on Capel Street. We played for free just to get the experience. Initially we called ourselves the Jolly Tinkers, but then found that the name was already in use.’’
The ‘we’ were Seán, his brother Matt, Patsy Watchorn, Mick Crotty and Kevin Geraghty all from the James’s Street/Inchicore/Crumlin area of South Dublin.
The McGuinness family got their musical talents from their mother and father. Mary (Tyson) from Inchicore was a very good piano player. She studied piano in the London College of Music. Their father Matthew, who worked in the postal sorting office in Sherriff Street, was a champion Irish dancer.
Seán’s first instrument was a banjo, which he bought in Waltons on a hire purchase deal of one shilling a week.
When he was starting off in the business Seán was influenced by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.
‘‘They had appeared on the Ed Sullivan show on television in the US, which at that time was seen as a major achievement for an Irish ballad group. I really admired Tommy and the boys and in later years it was a privilege to share a stage with them in various venues in the U.S.,’’ said Seán.