Happy 79th Birthday, Andy Irvine!

“Happy 79th Birthday, Andy Irvine! To celebrate, we’re revisiting a classic interview with the legendary Irish musician – originally published in Hot Press in 1980.”

read the full interview over on

Andy Irvine – On Songwriting, The Road & Woodie Guthrie — A Hidden Culture

In this interview, Andy Irvine chats with Ruth Hazleton about Australia, songwriting, traditional song and his lifetime passion for the songs of Woody Guthrie. It features three songs: ‘Gunshot Creek’, ‘Banks of Bann’ & ‘Polly on the Shore’. From his website: “ANDY IRVINE is one of the great Irish singers, his voice one of a […]

Andy Irvine – On Songwriting, The Road & Woodie Guthrie — A Hidden Culture

Ontago Daily Times: Never Tiring of the road

Folk musician Andy Irvine is touring New Zealand, including stops in Cardrona and Dunedin. Photo:...

Folk musician Andy Irvine is touring New Zealand, including stops in Cardrona and Dunedin. Photo: Supplied

In a long career on the road, musician Andy Irvine has made connections with all sorts of folk, including a special friendship in Dunedin, writes Bill Morris. At the Auckland Folk Festival two weeks ago, I watched Andy Irvine perform his well-loved tune, O’Donoghue’s to a packed marquee.

“When I first set foot in O’Donoghue’s,” the song begins, “A world of music, friends and booze opened up before me.”

The song goes on to capture the magic of Irvine’s early days, when he played and sang in that fabled Dublin pub, alongside musicians who would become icons of Irish folk music.

O’Donoghue’s in the 1960s was a hotbed of music, and a home away from home for the likes of Luke Kelly, Christy Moore and Joe Heaney.

From this scene would spring the Dubliners, and Irvine’s own group, Sweeney’s Men — bands that brought traditional Irish tunes and songs into the heart of Dublin, reviving an interest in the country’s musical culture among younger generations and spearheading the Irish folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s hearing this song, and appreciating the legendary names that populate its lines, that really brings home just what a musical treasure Andy Irvine is.

“O’Donoghue’s was a fabulous place to be,” he tells me.

“I was in there more or less every day. I had a flat just across the road. It was very important to my evolution as a musician.”

London-born, Irvine went to Ireland as an actor, but his life changed irrevocably when he discovered the songs of the American folk singer Woody Guthrie.

Irvine corresponded with Guthrie as he lay dying on his sick bed in a hospital in New Jersey, and Guthrie would remain a guiding light along Irvine’s musical journey.

“I graduated from listening to Woody Guthrie and trying to sound like him, to discovering Irish folk music,” hesays.

Irvine blended the harmonica-accompanied guitar style of his hero with traditional Irish instruments, tunes and songs, as well as writing his own material. This melding of traditions has always informed his career.

“We didn’t really distinguish between English, American, Scottish and Irish music,” he says. “If we liked the song we sang it.”

Eastern European music, in particular, made itself at home in Irvine’s creative soul, and he was part of a group that introduced the bouzouki, originally a Greek instrument, into the Irish scene.

Irvine travelled extensively in Eastern Europe during 1968 and 1969, absorbing many musical influences.

Back in Ireland, he was invited to help record songwriter Christy Moore’s second album, and the group of musicians that gathered to do so would form a new band, Planxty.

Planxty performed their first show, as a support act for Donovan, in Galway in 1972. It was a moment that would go down in Irish music history.

“The audience went berserk,” Irvine tells me.

Blinded by the stage lights, he initially feared the crowd were rioting,

“We were gobsmacked,” he says. “We had no idea that what we were doing was going to be such a success.

“I think that was the biggest buzz of my whole life.

“To this day, if you asked (fellow Planxty members) Christy or Donal what did we think we had that the audience appreciated, we wouldn’t really have the answer.”

Planxty would go on to enjoy huge success throughout Europe, becoming perhaps the most influential Irish traditional band of all time.

“It was very much musicians’ music,” says Irvine.

“Even musicians who are too young to remember those days very often quote Planxty as being one of their big influences.”

As a solo songwriter and with bands including Planxty, Patrick Street, Mozaik, LAPD and recently Usher’s Island, Irvine has now recorded dozens of albums.

His 1991 song “Never Tire of the Road,” is intended as a tribute to Woody Guthrie, but might as well describe his own life.

His incessant travels have led him to New Zealand numerous times, and Irvine is well known to many in the folk scene around the country. He maintained a particularly close association with Dunedin songwriter Marcus Turner, until Turner’s death in 2016.

Irvine’s recent Auckland Folk Festival set included Turner’s striking anti-war song When The Boys Are on Parade.

“It’s a remarkable song,” says Irvine.

“It’s perfection in rhyming and scanning. He was a very precise man, and his songwriting is very precise.

“I first met him at Wellington Folk Festival in 1984, and I met him every time I went to New Zealand after that. We really did relate to each other. When I heard about Marcus’ death, I was devastated.”

Throughout his career, Irvine has railed against social injustice and championed workers’ rights. I ask him if he thinks songwriting can still be a force for social change.

“It’s all one can do,” he says.

“I incorporated Woody Guthrie’s chorus into Never Tire of the Road: ‘All you fascists are bound to lose. You’re bound to lose, you fascists are bound to lose’.

“An audience singing that loud makes me feel like I’m doing some good. But I’m probably playing to the converted. People who are right wing fascists don’t come to my gigs.”

Now aged 77, Irvine still can’t entirely put his finger on what continues to get him out touring.

“It’s become a way of life,” he says. “It’s what I do.

“Since I wrote a song called Never Tire of the Road, I can’t really ever tire of the road, can I?”

The gigs

Andy Irvine performs: 

• Cardrona Hall, tonight (Saturday, February 8), 7pm. $20

• 50 Dundas St, tomorrow (Sunday, Feb 9), 7.30pm. $25


ARCHIVE: 2010 – Interview – Andy Irvine – Celtic Society of the Monterey Bay

Andy Irvine

I interviewed Andy Irvine at Don Quixote’s in Felton on June 20th, 2010. Andy plays bouzouki, mandolin, and harmonica and sings in Patrick Street, Mozaik, and also solos. Andy is wonderfully unassuming, so full of experience and knowledge, and a joy to talk with.

Paul Edwards, Celtic Society of the Monterey Bay

I’ve been reading your recollections on your web site. What’s up with your book?

Well, it’s very forward in my consciousness. I do intend to do it, but I keep finding that there are things that have to be cleared away before I have a clear field. You know, I kept a diary from 1961 through 1963. I’ve been transcribing that. It’s got to be in the computer before I start. If you live long enough you have a story to tell.

There’s a fair amount on your web site about your mandolin and bouzouki. What about your harmonica?

The thing about harmonica is you can’t see what you’re doing, so it’s hard to describe. Teaching people to play harmonica, I’d be lost. If you’ve a whole range of diatonic harmonicas, the actual note you’re playing you wouldn’t be aware of. There’s a lot of feel to it.

I learned to play harmonica listening to Woody Guthrie, and I was good friends with Jack Elliott back in the very late Fifties and early Sixties, and he told me that Woody Guthrie played the harmonica upside-down. So I’m really glad that I learned that before I started playing harmonica. So I played it upside-down, and quite often people come up and say, “Hey! You play the harmonica upside-down!” And I say, “Yeah! Woody Guthrie did!”

So what harmonicas do you use?

Well, I generally use Hohner diatonic harmonicas, but I would have a lot of them tuned in what they call the Country Tuning, which means that the reed in 2nd position is sharpened, so it’s played in major scale. I discovered this guy in England called Anthony Dannecker, who used to work for Hohner. He makes up harmonicas out of Hohner components, and he became the guy that I use to tune my harmonicas. I also play an old Hohner Meister Class harmonica.

What drew you to the type of music you play?

It was a progression. The friends that I had when I was in my early teens – when 45’s came out; great music; early rhythm and blues, like Fats Domino; in the mid-Fifties — and they went, “Wow! Hey! This is fantastic!” And I thought, “Yeah, it’s OK, but it’s not what I’m looking for.” And then this fellow, Lonnie Donegan, appeared, singing kind of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie songs. That was when I discovered the music I was interested in, and it was all American — “It Takes a Worried Man” and “Midnight Special” and all that kind of stuff. Then I discovered Woody Guthrie through Lonnie Donegan, because Woody Guthrie is mentioned on the back of one of his records. I was hooked on Woody. So then I got into an old Harry Smith anthology, old ’78s from the 1920s.

Then I belatedly discovered my own folk music. It was common in that day. We all started back in the late Fifties and early Sixties into American music, and then people like Ewan McColl said, “Yes, yes, yes, but there is a lot of good stuff here.” So eventually we all got into ours here.

Celtic Society of the Monterey Bay © 2016


FT: You’re known for your travels, and there can’t be too many spots in the world you haven’t been to. Many artists complain about life on the road, but you seem to thrive on it. Why so?

AI: I’ve always been excited by travel. When I was about 13 I started collecting maps and planning journeys on my bicycle. I started hitchhiking when I was about 17 and often travelled to places just to see what they looked like! I bought a motor bike when I was 19 and travelled all over Ireland on it. I don’t know where all this love of travel came from but it still drives me on.

FT: The new album, ‘Precious Heroes’ is a collaboration with Australian musician Luke Plumb. Can you tell us a bit about it and how it came to be?

AI: I heard Luke Plumb playing at a session in Tasmania, where he comes from and made a mental note to remember him. He joined the Scottish band – Shooglenifty – and a few years later he produced an album for a couple of Australian friends of mine, and did a really good job. I wanted to do something a little bit different and asked him if he’d produce it. That’s how it came about.

FT: The new album celebrates working class heroes, people who have fought the system and that theme has run through your music throughout your career. People like Damien Dempsey and Mick Blake are keeping that tradition of protest alive. Folk music rather than any other type of music, has always been seen, and continues to be seen as the perfect medium for such protests. Why do think that’s so, and is it still the case?

AI: Yes, I think it is the perfect medium for songs of protest and more, for me, a medium of reminding the listener of people who had fought the bad things of the system they lived under. I was always horrified that history in school was about kings and rulers and never even made a mention of those who had fought for the shorter working day and better wages.

FT: Over the years you’ve played with some of the finest musicians in the world. Difficult I’m sure to narrow down, but which stand out? Either in terms of sheer musicality or just who they are?

AI: I’ve spent a lot of my life playing with Donal Lunny, certainly one of the finest musicians in the world. All the bands I’ve been in were made up of great musicians. Mozaik for instance, playing with Bruce Molsky and Nikola Parov, Usher’s Island, playing with Mike McGoldrick, John Doyle and Paddy Glackin, playing as a duo with Paul Brady, Planxty, Liam O’Flynn, Christy Moore, I can’t think of any world famous household names that I’ve played with though! Just the usual suspects!

FT: Are there any musicians that you haven’t played with, that you would like to?

AI – Can’t really think of any! I’m pretty happy with my own set!

FT: Do you listen to other styles of music. Who are listening to at the moment?

AI: I listen to jazz a lot. Miles Davis, Coltrane. I started listening to Charlie Parker many years ago and then got stuck in the 1960s with Miles etc.!

FT: Have you heard any new acts or artists of late, and thought, they are worth keeping an eye on?

AI: I’m very impressed with many of the new young musicians that I’ve heard. I met the Friel Sisters in Newfoundland last summer and our plane home was delayed so they played there while we waited and were wonderful. I also love the girl singer in Lankum, Radie. She’s the best female singer I’ve heard since Dolores Keane.

FT: What the plans for this year?

AI: Solo Tours of Norway and Sweden in April, Canada in July, UK in October and Japan in November. Never tire of the road!