The Wolfe Tones pictured on stage.
Alex Fell writes in the foreword to her latest book “it is not possible for a band to be much more successful than the Wolfe Tones in the things that all band members value: chart success, consistently packed venues for years, the keys of cities, platinum CDs, and public accolades for quality. At the same time, it is not possible for a band to be more misunderstood.”
In “The Wolfe Tones Phenomenon” Fell looks at the band in the context of Ireland’s long history up through the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the era of Brexit. “The Wolfe Tones now,” reproduced here, is Chapter 1 of the book.
The Wolfe Tones have been together, at the time of writing, for 54 years – longer than the Beatles and about the same as the Rolling Stones, suggesting hard graft, strong bonds and leadership, effective commercial strategy and consistent entertainment. In this time, they have experienced the greatest success as a consequence: everything a band can experience in terms of highs and lows, and then some.
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The band was started by Brian Warfield and Noel Nagle, and Brian’s brother Derek; later Liam Courtney joined them, and was subsequently replaced by Tommy Byrne. They were also joined for a time by Phillip Woodnut, Derek’s fellow musician
from another band. Now everything is reduced and distilled in all senses with the departure of Derek after 37 years, as a result of serious friction.
The lineup, from left to right on stage, is Brian Warfield, the dynamic force of the band; Tommy Byrne, considered Ireland’s finest ballad singer; and Noel Nagle, who, as a talented traditional tin-whistle player, is responsible for the key Irishness of the sound that opens the door to the Irish diaspora.
Looking at the empty stage while the venue fills, one is struck by the precision of the arrangement of the equipment. Nothing has been left to chance; the only thing missing is guide chalkmarks on the stage. Somebody, Cecil Carter perhaps, working with Dwyer McClorey, the business manager, has eyes with built-in tape measures. Most noticeable is the area on the extreme right around Noel’s stool, which is laid out like the cockpit of an aircraft or an operating theatre – which, in effect, it is. On its own is a laptop, which he supervises, for the PowerPoint projection on the back wall. Beside it is his armoury of tin whistles. No gazing into space for him.
When the band discreetly appear, the wild applause and cheering is spontaneous, unlimited and completely unsolicited.They are immaculately and modestly turned out. They don’t speak, they don’t smile, and as they wait to be counted in, they are, for all the world, like professional orchestral musicians watching the conductor. This should not be surprising because that is what they are and this is what they do, but it is remarkable, given their huge reputation and the tendency of popular music to go for the hard sell. Perhaps some of the fun has been dissipated by implied criticism over the years. They certainly have nothing to prove.
What most other bands do not have to deal with, however, is political controversy and victimization, and the ignoring of their greatest achievements, which would earn others titles (such as Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize), and recognition of their contribution to the national economy. They have withstood this like the Fastnet Rock amidst the storms and crashing waves, and have still kept going. Along the way, they have been caught in the crossfire of internecine propaganda and been criticised, but not necessarily harmed, despite concerted efforts by interested parties.
An example of this was the complaint from a politician from Ulster about a historical song they had recorded being played on a plane to America, “A Nation Once Again,” written by Thomas Osborne Davis in the 1840s, which had been voted the best single of all time in a BBC World Service poll. Even this monumental achievement had been denigrated as being the result of enthusiasm by the Irish diaspora. All entertainment industry votes are the result of enthusiasm, and the Wolfe Tones were the focus. They truly are one of Ireland’s most popular folk and ballad bands worldwide.
Perhaps the absence of fun is in part because of the need not to add fuel to fire by being overtly partisan. In fact, the only discernible messages expressed in Brian’s songs are compassion and the desire for peace, out of implied but identifiable Christian principles.
Then they start to play. What a transformation. With the first song, impressions are changed dramatically by the richness and musicality of the sound, which belies the conservatism of their appearance and is unequivocally Irish. Most striking is the perfect intonation, which means that you can relax and enjoy the concert, knowing that there will not be any discordant shocks. Something that one expects from professional musicians, but which is by no means always forthcoming.
The sound is presently created by Brian on the five-string banjoand vocals, Tommy on guitar and vocals, and Noel on tin whistle and vocals. At other times, Brian plays the harp and bhodrán, but he particularly enjoys the creation of the arrangements of the songs, many of which he wrote. They are
assisted occasionally by Siobhan, Brian’s daughter, with women’s songs and accordion, and by Kiev Connolly on keyboards and additional guitar. He is seen on stage from time to time, as well as working behind the scenes with the arrangements, orchestration and coordination of orchestral musicians on high days and holidays.
Alex Fell is previously the author of “The Complete Book of In-hand Showing” and “The Irish Draught Horse.” She lives in Bantry, Co. Cork. “The Wolfe Tones Phenomenon” can be bought via Amazon.uk and Amazon.com. The publisher, Choice Publishing of Drogheda, may be contacted by emailing [email protected].