Andy Irvine: If only Bruce Springsteen wrote a great song challenging Israel
Although he has been inspiring musicians for over half a century, Andy Irvine finds it difficult to place himself where others do, in the upper reaches of the pantheon of Irish musical culture. Ironic, then, that he should have just recorded an album called Precious Heroes
Robert McMillen –
THE last time I interviewed Andy Irvine was face to face in the Radisson Blu nine years ago when he had just moved with this Japanese wife, Kumiko to Fermanagh.
Before we started, he ordered a sandwich and went to the loo but it took him half an hour to get back as people were stopping him and thanking him for giving them a lifetime of musical pleasure.
When he finally sat down, he looked at his now-curled up sandwich with sadness at first, then with the stoicism of a man who has spent most of his adult life on the road.
And Andy finds it very hard to place himself where others do, in the upper reaches of the pantheon of Irish musical culture, someone who has been inspiring others for over half a century.
“A lot of people say that. I never quite got to the bottom of it myself,” he says, almost embarrassed by the praise.
“It’s so often told that one has been an inspiration and it’s really nice to know that, but it’s really hard to understand – I don’t know how to say it really.”
One person who has definitely been inspired by Andy is Luke Plumb, a mandolin player from Tasmania who spent 11 years playing with Shooglenifty and he and Andy have just recorded an album called Precious Heroes.
“There used to be this festival in New Mexico and he used to attend and I’d been there once, and he’d teach musicians how to be Planxty. I thought that was quite charming and slightly mad! He didn’t come in on the ground floor, as it were,” says Andy.
Precious Heroes is all about the unsung ordinary men and women who have done great things in life but who have never gained the recognition of the masses.
Luke Plumb and Andy IrvineWhat is Andy’s definition of a hero and how did the album come together, I ask.
“The people I sing about are all heroes in their own way, from Ballymoney singer Joe Holmes to truck drivers, to Nixie Boran, communist and leader of the Castlecomer miners. Most people have the hero within them somewhere,” he says.
On the album, Andy sings about Frank Ryan and his fight against fascism; political commentator Fintan O’Toole and others believe Trump has begun a trial run on fascism in the USA. Would Andy agree that are we living in dangerous times?
“Yes, I would agree,” he affirms. “I read [O’Toole’s] article myself and it was a real eye-opener in a lot of ways. One certainly had the impression that the world is moving so far right that is it moving into a dangerously fascistic state.
“They way O’Toole underlines the trial runs, as he called it, the fact that you can do something terrible, like the separation of children at the Mexican border – that you can make people feel that this is OK. That is Hitler-like.
“Six or nine months ago I thought this is not going to last. I thought people were surely going to move towards people like Sanders and Corbyn – people would move towards ‘sane’ politicians, but it’s not happening at the moment.
“The situation in Australia is unbelievable. They’re trying to build AUS$5billion worth of coal-powered power stations. The world has gone mad.”
Andy also admits to having got himself into trouble with other musicians for ‘harassing’ them about not going to Israel.
“All of that is quite sad because there are a lot of good people in Israel that one would like to play music for but you have to take a standpoint,” he says.
Planxty, reunited for a concert in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall in 2005, with Andy Irvine second left Picture: Niall Carson“It’s frustrating that the world-famous musicians and singers don’t do a bit more. If Bob Dylan or somebody of his ilk – not that Bob would do it – but Bruce Springsteen, I’ve always felt, could write a great song that would just say ‘F*** it!’ but he’s never quite done that. If he stood for president, which he surely wouldn’t want to be, he’d surely get in. Because that’s the way American people are, they’ve already voted in B-film actor Ronald Reagan.
“However, I always had high hopes for Roger Waters from Pink Floyd and Frances Black – now there’s a hero for you.”
Next up for Andy – no, he never stops working – is an album of Woody Guthrie songs, a project he has been thinking about for as long as he can remember. Recording starts this month. But then Andy comes up with a real surprise.
“In September I’ll also be working with jazz double-bassist Lindsey Horner from New York who played on my album Way Out Yonder. He’s a great musician and a nice guy. He has this idea that we get together and record a ‘jazz-ish’ album of songs that I would have heard my mother sing.
“I’m always going on that my mother didn’t know a whole song from a hole in the ground but she did know a lot of great 30s and 40s standards. I’ve had this idea for quite a long time and was appalled when Dylan jumped the gun and preceded me!
“I haven’t listened to his and I’m not going to, but I really look forward to singing the likes of These Foolish Things. My mother met Jack Strachey, the composer, and I met him once. I don’t know how that will go with my fans but hopefully it will be great music.”
Andy and Kumiko have left Fermanagh for Wexford since we last chatted.
“I decided that at my advanced age it would be better to live in a place that I owned so we bought a house outside Gorey. I miss Fermanagh, I have to say, but where we are now is nice and it’s ours,” he says in a sentence that says a lot about the uneven rewards of being a folk singer, no matter how revered.
Mr Irvine will also be going quite a few live gigs later this year with possibly a gig in Colum Sands’ Rostrevor Folk Club on October 29.
“Then we have four gigs with Dónal Lunny, Paul Brady, Kevin Burke and myself in October,” he says. “There’s also a Liam Ó Floinn tribute concert on 28 October and I’m hoping Ushers Island will be one of the bands playing there.”
Usher’s Island is a new superband that brings together some of the greatest contemporary Irish folk music musicians. Andy Irvine, Dónal Lunny, Paddy Glackin, Mike McGoldrick and John Doyle have played with the most iconic Irish and Irish American bands: Planxty, Bothy Band, Lunasa and Solas.
The majority of the compositions on Usher’s Island are traditional songs and tunes rearranged by the band, along with a handful of originals by Usher’s Island members.
The way the album was made connects with Irish tradition as well. Mike McGoldrick bought a cottage in County Galway, western Ireland that had been used by musicians in the past to hold sessions. McGoldrick turned it into a recording studio for three days.
Throughout Usher’s Island the listener is treated to fascinating storytelling songs and delightful ensemble pieces with superb instrumental interaction and superb solos weaved in. Irish music at its best.
Personnel: Andy Irvine on vocals, mandola and harmonica; Dónal Lunny on vocals, bouzouki, baritone bouzouki, bodhran and keyboards; Paddy Glackin on fiddle; Mike McGoldrick on wooden flute, low whistle and uileann pipes; and John Doyle on guitar, bouzouki and vocals.
Usher’s Island features masterfully-crafted Irish music with dazzling acoustic interplay and exceptionally expressive vocals.