By Phil Murphy (from the New Year Annual 2016)
One of the most remarkable stories in Irish music in recent years has been the re-emergence of the Country and Irish scene which is now enjoying a great resurgence. Many of the old brigade are still active, but a whole new audience has been captured by a growing bunch of talented young performers.
The trend recently received the imprimatur of the iconic Late Late Show which put on a Country and Irish Special which proved to be exceptionally popular.
In fairness, in recent years the LLS had been regularly including country and Irish acts in its music slots. The Special featured everyone from Big Tom and Philomena Begley to Daniel O’Donnell, Nathan Carter and Lisa McHugh.
There is extensive country and Irish coverage on TG4 and on many local radio stations around the country and there are also satellite TV and radio channels devoted exclusively to Irish culture and the country music that broadcast worldwide. This is a far cry from 30 years ago when the scene was almost dead and buried with practically zero coverage on national stations and channels.
As the showband scene of the 1960s and 70s began to fade, with musical tastes veering towards cabaret and comfort in the many hotels and large lounges springing up, the Country and Irish performers stuck with their guns and kept the music going for the dancers, here in Ireland and in the many Irish dancehalls dotted around the emigrant hot-spots in Britain.
The likes of Brian Coll and the Buckaroos, Larry Cunningham, Mick Flavin, Philomena Begley, Brendan Shine, Susan McCann, Ray Lynam, Margo, TR Dallas, Declan Nerney, Johnny McEvoy, Louise Morrissey and many more all had their followings, and leading the way was the hugely popular and apparently indestructible, Big Tom.
The whole make-up of Irish radio began to change and these traditional entertainers appeared to sink out of sight and sound on the national airwaves, which now began to concentrate on hours of talk only shows. When music was played, the core Irish sound seldom got a look-in, with the honourable exceptions of the great Donncha O Dulaing, Paschal Mooney, Alan Corcoran during his time with RTE, and a few others.
Though starved of the oxygen of airplay, the performers kept plugging away at a number of traditional venues around the country, mostly away from the ‘trendy’ east coast. One could be forgiven for thinking that the music had sunk beneath the waves forever.
The onset of local radio was a real game-changer. Many of the stations began to devote special programmes to the country and Irish performers and they dominated the request shows, proving that there was a substantial audience out there for their music which had been ignored for all too long.
Special Country Music Weekends became very popular at hotels all over the country and the fans turned out in their thousands to dance the night away.
Telefis na Gaeilge (now TG4) was another major influence; the Irish language channel certainly had its antennae tuned in to the interests and concerns of rural Ireland, putting a great emphasis on Gaelic games and the Country and Irish music scene. They were right on target with shows like Opry an Iúir, Glór Tíre and others.
Daniel O’Donnell, still the major international star who will be back touring next year after his extended break, was a real bridge between the old days and the new. He continued to build an ever-growing audience at home and abroad.
Now, many of the old guard mentioned above have been given a fresh lease of life and they have been joined by a whole crop of talented new performers who have made the music cool and attractive to the younger generation. People such as Nathan Carter, Derek Ryan, Lisa NcHugh, the aspiring new Queen of Country; Johnnie Brady, Jason Travers, Mike Denver, Jimmy Buckley, Robert Mizzell and Patrick Feeney (those latter three also trading as The Three Amigos), Stephen Smyth, Thomas Maguire & Fhiona Ennis and many others have helped to reinvigorate the scene.
The coverage of the music has also embraced the internet and satellite technology with worldwide access now to the Irish country performers on special stations such as Ireland West Music TV, Irish TV and Irish Country Music Radio.
Ireland West Music TV was the brainchild of Midwest Radio which is the local station serving Mayo, Galway, Roscommon and Sligo and it is based at their offices in Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo.
Though possibly not as well known on the east coast, it is the TV station of choice most nights in the west of Ireland pubs and homes, often competing with Champions League and other sports events. It goes out from 8 to 11 most nights and can be viewed on Freesat 157 and on Sky Channel 266 under the title Showbiz TV.
Many of the presenters also double up on Midwest Radio and are extremely well known to a wide audience, including Paul Claffey and Gerry Glennon on at 10 pm Mon. to Thurs. weekly; David Cawley and Angelina Nugent (American Country), Mike Ryan and Brian Magee (Ireland’s Country), Peter Shields (Keltic Country) and the Lawrence John Show.
Irish TV is a very hefty addition in recent years. A rolling 24 hour service, it has been viewed in over 140 countries. And it could hardly be more local with each of the 32 counties guaranteed their own professionally produced half-hour news and feature programme every week, repeated regularly.
They also provide specially commissioned series, such as On The Road With Lisa McHugh, and the music fans are also looked after by The Phil Mack Country Show and by Susan McCann, who has been churning out the hits for years, who presents with Malachi Cush. Irish TV can be viewed across Ireland, the UK and Europe on the Sky platform channel 191, Freesat 400, eircom’s eVision channel 191, free to air boxes and online at www.irishtv.ie and www.irishtv.com
Irish Country Music Radio (ICMR) is another phenomenon based in Limerick which has been broadcasting continually for 24 hours a day via the internet for the past seven years. The station operates through a network of voluntary presenters based in Limerick and in satellite studios around Ireland, in the UK, and in Canada and Australia and they claim to be Ireland’s leading dedicated online country music radio station.
A broad spectrum of music is played, from both established and new artistes, but with a particular emphasis on giving a leg up to those starting out and finding it hard to get heard elsewhere.
Presenters include Alice O’Keeffe, Ann O’Halloran, Brian O’Brien, Eamonn Murphy, , Joe Harrington, John Grimes, J.P. McNelis, Lucia Butler, Margaret Cadogan, Michael Fox, Patricia Barkley, Pam Corbett, Seamus Long etc. Find out about them and the full schedules at www.irishcountrymusicradio.com
This amazing revival of the Irish live music and dancing scene – and the dancing is massively important to the fans who display with pride their prowess at waltzing, quick steps and the jiving – is a phenomenon that we in Ireland’s Own heartily endorse.
It is a part of what we are and it was so nearly lost, and might well have died if it were not for the dogged persistence of the performers and their loyal supporters.
There is every reason to face the future with some confidence.