Sweeney’s Men are set to re-unite for a pre-Xmas gig. For those of you too young to recall them, here’s why you should care…
The past, they reckon, is a different country. In the case of Ireland, the past is several different countries. Run your mind’s eye back to 1967, if you were even born then. Val Doonican’s Aran jumpers are painting John Hinde pictures of Ireland on the BBC. North of the border the emergent civil rights movement, still one Paris Spring away from catching fire, was smouldering on cold wet streets making things uncomfortable for Captain Terence O’Neill. Further south, Eamon de Valera was doing a tolerable impression of the King of Ireland, stately and seemingly unshiftable, a thorn beneath the eyelid of Irish youth culture in its myriad outpourings.
Some of the country’s most influential musicians would emerge over the course of that year. Dr. Strangely Strange coalesced around a house nicknamed ‘the Orphanage’ that would also spawn Thin Lizzy’s first album. On a completely different trip, The Dubliners were on Top Of The Pops with ‘Seven Drunken Nights’.
Somewhere in the mix, a band called Sweeney’s Men was condensing into something approaching a stable line-up. The band had first come together around the nucleus of ‘Galway’ Joe Dolan (NOT to be confused with the other Joe D), Andy Irvine and Johnny Moynihan in Galway during the Summer of Love. Dolan had been reading At Swim Two Birds, Flann O’Brien’s anarchic retake on Buile Shuibhne, and the name Sweeney’s Men was applied, and stuck. Unlike Dolan, who in the spring of 1967 went off to Israel to fight in the Six-Day War. By this stage they had had a top ten hit with ‘The Old Maid In A Garret’ so a replacement was essential.
Stepping into the breach came future Pogues man Terry Woods, self-avowedly the baby of the band. With a passion for old-timey music he was a good fit and moved the band to a shade of relative cool uninhabited by the multitudinous ballad groups of the time. Short-lived as it was, this was the classic line-up of the band; they recorded another hit single ‘Waxie’s Dargle’ and a self-titled album in 1968 before the lure of overseas adventure called out to Andy Irvine and he too left, in his case to open up the Balkans as fertile new land and sow the seeds of a revitalised traditional music which would be forever inflected with the ghosts of odd time signatures.
Planxty was only a horizon away, but in the meantime the legendary status of Sweeney’s Men was being secured. Henry McCullough replaced Andy (as did Al O’Donnell and occasionally Paul Brady) and his electric guitar playing pulled the band again to the outside of the prevailing mainstream and painted the band in another shade of cool. The lure of Joe Cocker’s Grease Band drew Henry to England and The Tracks Of Sweeney was recorded by Terry and Johnny. Always seen as ahead of their time, the duo decided to follow other paths; Johnny’s back to Galway, Terry’s increasingly in England where he has worked, if not lived, for most of the intervening years.
Then Andy hit 70 and they got together to do a set for his celebratory gig, and Henry got ill and they played at his benefit and they acknowledged that the pleasure of playing together was still there and that unlike a lot of bands, they had never fallen out, and that maybe that time they were always so far ahead of is now. So they’ve decided to give it at least one more try.
You can catch Sweeney’s Men at Dublin’s Vicar St. on Friday November 22 before you, or they, get too old.