After 50 years on the road The Wolfe Tones remain one of Ireland’s pre-eminent ballad groups. Éanna O Murchú meets Brian Warfield to reflect on their golden years of musical success
In the mid-1960s, minutes after the fresh-faced ‘Wolfe Tones’ had completed a week of sell-out shows in the Paris Olympia, the promoter responsible for bringing the young Irish musicians to the banks of the Seine took to the stage to utter a few words.
“A few years ago I made a prediction that a band that played here would go on to great things,” he said. “That band was The Beatles. Tonight I make a similar prediction about these guys you see in front of you…The Wolfe Tones!”
It was a bold statement to make on a Parisienne walkway all those moons ago; in hindsight, his words had touches of clairvoyance.
What he could not have predicted, however, was that almost half a century later The Wolfe Tones would still be packing out venues the length and breadth of Ireland, and far further afield.
When I set out to meet Brian, Tommy and Noel, it is a humid Friday night in early autumn in Wexford town, where the summer has stayed late and there is an energy pulsating from the streets.
That might be down to the fact that The Wolfe Tones are in town to play the Dun Mhuire Theatre.
We have arranged to meet in The Bugler Doyle’s, a pub that rests at the heartbeat of the maritime settlement. You can tell from the queues of people at the bar clutching vinyl records and t-shirts that they want signed – and cameras poised for precious souvenir shots – just where the three musicians are sitting.
“Where would you like to begin,” says the congenial Brian Warfield, extending a warm handshake and the remaining band members as well as tour manager, Dwyer, from Lurgan in County Armagh, are equally as warm in their welcomes. “Where else but at the beginning,” I tell him, and Brian tells me to pull up a stool. With a simple nod of his head, you can tell he has a very interesting story to share.
In 1963 in Bluebell in the Inchicore area of Dublin, two brothers, Brian and Derek Warfield, got together with their friend, Noel Nagle, and decided to form a band.
The music they played was deeply embedded in the Irish tradition and the following year on the recommendation of a fourth band member, Philip Woodnut, they entered a ballad competition which was being run in conjunction with The Rose of Tralee.
The four musicians were triumphant and very quickly had acquired a manager, a Norwegian by the name of Kaaare Jonson, who ran an Aeroviews company in Ireland. Jonson had come to see the lads play, liked what he saw, and offered to manage them. Woodnut, a cooper by trade, felt he was earning enough at the day job and decided being a full-time musician was not for him.
“Later that year we went to the Fleadh Cheoil in Elphin in County Roscommon where we met Tommy Byrne,” says Brian. “We knew straight away he was a talented musician but he needed to be converted to Irish traditional music. “He was more into Joan Baez and Bob Dylan but we got round him pretty quickly. We settled on the name ‘The Wolfe Tones’ because of what the man himself stood for. He is an iconic figure of Irish unity and encompasses all religions and peoples.”
Things happened very rapidly for the young band. Later in 1964, they signed a five-year deal with Fontana and were in huge demand for radio and TV work including a ‘Hootenanny’ slot on the newly established Radio Teilifis Eireann.
Their first album ‘The Foggy Dew’ was released in 1965 and within days it was wearing needles off records all over the country, and at radio stations too.
They were the new kids on the block, in high demand everywhere, and when they first got the call to pack their bags and cross the Atlantic to come Stateside, it was a further step up the ladder in a career that would continue in the ascendancy.
“I was only a lad, 16 or 17, when we arrived in America,” recalls Brian. “I was awestruck. Here was a land that we had only seen in the movies and now all of a sudden we were smack bang in the middle of it. I remember being intimidated and fascinated. There were huge skyscrapers, massive cars and while we loved it, being there also brought a bag of mixed emotions.
“It was a long journey from the moment we boarded the plane, and our mother had said a good few ‘Hail Marys’ that everything would turn out ok for us. “We were put up in a hotel called the Woodworth Hotel in New York and we all shared the one room – you could say we had no real choice but to get on.
“Bill Fuller was the promoter who brought us out there and he owned a City Centre Ballroom in New York where he had us play on a Friday and Saturday night. The rest of the week we played in The Ambassador in Queens. “We didn’t get paid very well at the start but we complained, and we got paid better.
“It was a great experience and you never knew who might pop in from one night to the next.
“Our audiences included everyone from coppers to astronauts, and Liam or Tommy Clancy to Tommy Makem, who might pop in to see what was going on.” The Irish scene was a vibrant one in America in the mid-’60s, and The Wolfe Tones flew over and back from Ireland to play a series of concerts three or four times a year over the subsequent years.
Dorothy Hayden Cudahy was partly responsible for boosting their profile Stateside by frequently playing them on her Irish Memories radio show in New York.
However, it was while playing support to the great singer Carmel Quinn – a famed Irish entertainer that had come to America in 1954 – that the band got their big break, playing Carnegie Hall. They would play the first half of the show, and Quinn the second, until eventually they became the headline act themselves. And they have been touring America every year since.
The Wolfe Tones have many achievements from down through the years of which they are very proud, including receiving the Freedom of the cities of New York and Los Angeles and being presented with Philadelphia’s greatest honour – The Liberty Bell.
“We have been given the keys to almost all the Irish-American states,’ says Brian. “There has been a multitude of citations from a variety of statesmen acknowledging us for bringing the Irish story across the water and telling it to the people of America, and the diaspora.
“One event that we are particularly proud of was when a flag was flown representing each member of the band, for a day, over Capitol Building in Washington. It is a great honour to have a lifetime of work endorsed by great people.”
As one might imagine, while fifty years in the music industry will bring with it plenty of highs, there have been a few lows too. And Brian remembers one low in particular.
“We had just finished a run of gigs in Los Angeles and had been invited back to perform in New York,” he recalls. “We finished up on a Sunday and decided to take the train across the country to New York to start the gig the following weekend. When we arrived we were told that the promoter hadn’t sealed the deal and that the gig wasn’t happening. There had been some kind of mix-up and we hadn’t the cash to pay for the flights home.
“We ended up gigging around a few pubs and got a load from a few friends and we got home in the end. We caught up with the promoter too and eventually he paid us what had been promised.”
The life of a musician means long periods of time away from home but Brian points out that they have been particularly lucky to have such understanding wives, and that they often have gone on tour together, with children in tow!
He also recalls a very proud moment when his son called him from Celtic Park (Brian is a massive Celtic fan) and asked him, “Dad, how does it feel to have 65,000 people singing your song?” His son held up his phone and the words of the Brian Warfield-penned ‘Celtic Symphony’ came blasting back to him; it made the hair stand on the back of his neck.
“I write most of the songs,’ he says, “and there are a few in particular that mean a lot to me. ‘My Heart is in Ireland’ was inspired by a meeting I had a with a few young people in Birmingham in England. “They told me that they were second generation Irish but were viewed as ‘Paddies’ in England and as ‘English’ in Ireland, but that their hearts were Irish and would I ever think of writing a song about them. The result was ‘My Heart is in Ireland’.
“Celtic Symphony is another song I am very proud of and it became an anthem in Celtic Park. I have been a Celtic fan since my uncle, who lived in Glasgow, bounced me on his knee and sang ‘Hail, Hail the Celts are Here’ many years ago.”
In 2002, The Wolfe Tones made global headlines after their song ‘A Nation Once Again’ topped a BBC poll to find the best song in the world. The song, originally recorded by the group in 1964, was written in the 1840s by Thomas Osbourne Davis to support the fight for an end to British rule.
Brian remembers the excitement that they felt when they first caught wind of what was unfolding. “The people at the BBC rang us first to tell us that we were in the Top Ten,” he says, beaming broadly. “Then it was announced that we were number one. I was delighted as if something is Irish, and successful, I will cheer it all day, like when U2 had a number one in America with ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’.
“The guy who broke the news to us told us that they had received votes from little known Pacific Islands, Asia, Africa and couldn’t believe that the Irish and their friends had voted in such droves. It was amazing.”
The Wolfe Tones have always done things proudly, and in their own inimitable way. They made a conscious decision from the start to steer clear of the ‘drunken Irish Paddy’ perception that Brian feels is unfairly given to the Irish abroad at times.
They have concentrated on telling their version of the Irish story, and this is a story that has crossed many historical, political and religious boundaries in their fifty years on the road.
Their support of the Six Counties, and in particular those that have suffered as a result of The Troubles, has seen them attract a strong nationalist following down the years. And so to the future. What do the coming years hold for such an accomplished act as The Wolfe Tones?
“Well we’re not the new kids on the block anymore,” Brian concedes with a chuckle. “So we will gradually reel back the amount of gigs we do. “I still love performing and get as much enjoyment out of playing to a room of 20 people as I do a room of 2,000 people.
“But the days of six-week tours of America or the UK need to be cut back.
“I suppose you could say we are semi-retired but we still love what we do.
“And that is a great thing to be able to say after 50 years on the road together.”