"The Band Formally Quits": Horslips reach the end of the street

“The Band Formally Quits”: Horslips reach the end of the street

On November 16th, Ireland’s Original Dancehall Sweethearts will be shooting one last time at the Ulster Hall in Belfast. Horslips, the long-haired psychedelic warriors of 70’s Celtic pop, play their very last gig. It promises to be an evening full of emotions and full of nostalgia.

“The band is making a formal stop in Belfast,” says vocalist and bassist Barry Devlin. He will perform with keyboardist and flutist Jim Lockhart, a co-founder of Horslips, and friends from the group Ray Fean and Fiach Moriarty [the rest of the classic Horslips line-up having retired]. “It’s time for the last performance.”

Devlin turns 76 a week after the Belfast performance, where he received the Oh Yeah Legend Status Award (all part of the Northern Ireland Music Prize ceremony).

Half a century has passed since Horslips weaved the Celtic Rock genre out of thin air. Manifesting itself in Dublin’s literary underground in the early 1970s, this quintet of ex-advertisers was Irish culture’s much-needed conquering hero. They were also hugely successful and an instant hit, with hits like 1973’s Dearg Doom and 1976’s Trouble (With a Capital T).

With these songs and concept albums like the aforementioned Dancehall Sweethearts along with The Táin and The Book of Invasions, Horslips have created something totally original. Playful, epic rock ‘n roll that tapped into the early 70’s “prog” movement. However, they did so while acknowledging the five musicians’ traditional Irish roots. It was a mashup sprinkled with fairy dust.

The music is reminiscent of Pink Floyd dancing around a fairy fortress. With their extravagant mustaches and even more extravagant boots and frilly shirts, Horslips looked like Finn McCool’s honor guard who had just fought their way out of Carnaby Street. In all these decades, no musician has come close to the strange sorcery conjured up by the band.

“Right from the start we looked at Seán Ó Riada,” says Devlin of the Cork composer who mixed Celtic and classical music.

“And fusion bands in the world in rock – guys like King Crimson. And jazz fusion. It was a time of merger. We wanted to do something with rock. We weren’t quite sure what. We really wanted to be a prog rock band. And for passing on the “prog” bit,” he says.

Horslips had a major advantage over other Irish musicians of the period. They were full of confidence – an anomaly at a time when Ireland was saddled with a collective concert of inferiority.

“We thought we were brilliant. We were very happy with ourselves. It wouldn’t have surprised us if we had become the biggest band in the world,” he says.

“It turns out we weren’t. But we said: “Yes – we know that what we are doing is of interest”. And had a long lifespan. We got a terrible kick from the trad establishment back then.

“Part of it was our own fault. People said ‘this is the future of traditional Irish music’. And we didn’t say, ‘No, honestly, we’re not,’ we would take any praise we got, we didn’t make that clear enough.”

Barry Devlin. Image: Steve Humphreys

Dublin in the early 1970s is often remembered as a cultural, economic and social backwater city. However, this is not how Devlin remembers the city of that time. He recalls that it was a time of change and excitement. The old Dublin that produced Brendan Behans and JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man was fading. The one who would give U2 to the world had not yet arrived. And there, in that limiting moment, were horslips.

“The music scene and the poetry scene were just as dynamic as Dublin. It was a transitional period. The Dublin of Behan and Patrick Kavanagh and Luke Kelly became the Dublin of U2. So there’s a 10-year period between ’68 and ’78. It was sort of a melting pot,” he says.

“It was busy. If you look at the 1950s-1960s – books like Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. That was a very visible movement. Between ’68 and ’78 it kind of ducked down. And in terms of rock, there would have been Rory Gallagher, ourselves, [Thin] Lizzy.

“There wasn’t much else to see there. The bands that would explode towards the end of the ’70s: The Blades, U2, Light a Big Fire… they got ready. And of course the awesome The Radiators [a formative Dublin punk crew]. At this point it was a Petri dish. That’s where we came from in part.”

Dublin was changing, he says. And isn’t that always the most exciting time for a city and a scene? “There was no lack of talent. It was an extremely interesting moment. It just hadn’t figured out what it was then.”

Horslips had gathered in the capital. But they weren’t a “Dublin” group, says Devlin. He was from Tyrone; lead guitarist Johnny Fean from Shannon, Charles O’Connor, the singer and guitarist, was an arts college graduate from the UK; Kells drummer Eamonn Carr to form Beat Poet. Only Jim Lockhart was a Dubliner. And her fan base has always been nationwide.

“It’s kind of a key. We were all country boys. Even Jim Lockhart, who was a dub – his mother was from Cooktown and his father from Belfast. Charles was the archetypal Middlesborough art school grad Johnny Fean, the guitarist giggling [with progressive country outfit Jeremiah Henry]. I came from Tyrone,” he says.

“We settled in Dublin. We all had a strong interest in traditional music. I wasn’t a trad player at all, but very interested. We didn’t know enough to know what we were going to get away with. That was great for us. We didn’t care what people thought of us.

“We didn’t know anyone who thought of us anyway. We didn’t have a gang in Dublin playing the blues or whatever. We found each other in this self-made bubble.”

They will play four songs in Belfast. As previously mentioned, Devlin, who grew up in Tyrone, will also receive the NI Music Prize Legend Award for his role as one of the “Founding Fathers of Celtic Rock”.

The evening will be a poignant end to a busy year for Horslips, who have also released a box set which, following logistical delays, will reach collectors’ hands this winter.

The cover features the band’s “clown” motif; Inside are more than 35 discs of their entire catalog – plus 16 hours of unreleased material. You could hit it on Christmas morning and it would still be buzzing in the corner when you went to bed.

Horslips in 2009: Charlie O'Connor, Eamon Carr, Johnny Fean, Jim Lockhart and Barry Devlin.  Image: Arthur Carron/Collins
Horslips in 2009: Charlie O’Connor, Eamon Carr, Johnny Fean, Jim Lockhart and Barry Devlin. Image: Arthur Carron/Collins

“It’s an amazing thing. Many bands produce coffee table books. As far as I know, we’re the only band that’s produced a coffee table,” says Devlin. “All you need are legs and you could have your dinner on them. It is wonderful.

“Charles O’Connor, who has always been the designer of our artwork… Charles and Mark Cunningham, who made the biography book, made it together – it uses the clown [image] that we used back then.”

Horseslips were never for half measures. And the box set stays true to that over-the-top tradition. “It’s a beautiful looking thing. And, of course, pathetic excess. There are CDs – three DVDs and two books of tremendous beauty. Ephemera… fan club letters, posters. Everything you ever wanted to know about the band.

“And possibly a whole lot about the band that you didn’t want to know. If you’re really a Horslips nerd, it kind of has it all.”

Horslips went on hiatus in the 1980s without ever officially breaking up. But as they moved on with their lives (Devlin composed and wrote screenplays for television), Horslips’ reputation endured.

If anything, it grew when Dearg Doom’s riff was covered for Ireland’s 1990 World Cup song, Put Em Under Pressure. And then, in 2009, they were talked into getting back together.

“There was an underlying attention to songs like Trouble with a Capital T and Dearg Doom. 2007-2008 Denis Desmond [of promoters MCD] said: “You should go back to the streets now.” He said, ‘I’ll dress you’. We said, “What – Vicar Street”. And he said, ‘Nah, we’ll make the point.’” They thought he was out of his mind.

“We said, ‘Dennis, the last time we played Dublin – we played in a 1,200 seater – at the National Stadium.’ And he said, “No, you’re going to fill it [3Arena, as the venue, is today called]. And we did.

“Part of the reason was that although we played at the National Stadium once or twice a year, we played in much larger ballrooms around Ireland. They played at the Astoria in Bundoran – 2,500 people. We were in many ways more of a rural band than a Dublin band specifically. We lived in the counties. And that’s where the support was.”

Horslips could go down in history. But Devlin has no intention of retiring from music. He has a close working relationship with poet Paul Muldoon and won’t be giving up his guitar any time soon, he says.

“Being in a band when you’re my age – that keeps you from being the man in the aisle at Aldi who buys bad jeans,” he says. “You’re allowed to be younger than you should be.”

  • Horslips perform at the Ulster Hall on November 16th as part of the Northern Ireland Music Prize ceremony

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