Sweeney’s Men

Author’s Note: It seemed to take years from commission to publication, this piece. From an 11,000 word original this very different 2,200 word piece eventually appeared in print. I’m guessing 2003 but it might well have been later. Finding a home for the original version – largely written during a week’s bursary at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan in 2001, I think – was the driving force behind the book  Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History, published by The Collins Press, October 2004.


Sweeney’s Men

Published: Mojo, c. 2003

In the far south-west of Ireland there is a little town called Killorglin. Recalling the surreal, adrift world of Father Ted, this is a place – from deepest antiquity to the present – whose social, economic and cultural well-being rests entirely upon Puck Fair, an annual event in veneration of the goat – indeed, The Goat, King Puck. An imposing crowned statue of one “King Puck” now greets 21st Century visitors to the town. But on a mid-August evening in 1966 the chief topic of conversation amongst the merry-makers was a trio of scruffy ne’er-do-wells with mandolins. Unrehearsed, uninhibited, drawing on American hillbilly music, the English folk revival and the still-cobwebbed Irish tradition, this trio of near homeless buskers – drunk, penniless, and exhausted barely a month into their “career” – were precisely the sort of people the conservative forces of Catholic Ireland were trying to hold at bay. This was Sweeney’s Men, the unacceptable face of Irish music.

Singer-guitarist Andy Irvine was a curly-haired, 24- year-old London-born actor with a Woody Guthrie fixation and beatnik beard, who’d taken guitar lessons from Julian Bream and dated Jane Asher before Paul McCartney. Johnny Moynihan, on bouzouki, was an enigmatic college drop-out from Dublin with an almost heroic aura among his peers. The third was Joe Dolan. A singer, songwriter, and guitarist on the Dublin scene since the early ’60s, this bespectacled leftist dreamer from Galway had once, briefly, been a member of The Capital Showband; captained by Des Kelly, and, in 1966, the hottest property in Irish music.

Showbands dominated Irish music in the mid 60s. By 1966 some six hundred mohair-suited, brass-sectioned bands, generally fronted by Elvis or Jim Reeves impersonators, could be found touring the country on hard-slog schedules, performing to thousands of revellers every night in cavernous teetotal ballrooms. By contrast, Sweeney’s Men in 1966 were out of money, out of luck buskers, running out of places to play. But, as luck would have it, on the day that Sweeney’s Men were busking at Puck Fair The Capitol Showband were packing out a nearby ballroom. Seizing the chance, Dolan buttonholed his old boss, Des Kelly, during an interval and asked him along to see his new band. Kelly was stunned. “It hit me like a sledgehammer,” he says today. “Everyone else was playing three-chord stuff, and out-of-tune three-chord stuff at that, but this was a breath of fresh air – there was order in it, and I loved Andy’s integrity [even if], like the rest of them, he probably had me down as a ‘bourgeois bollox’ at the time.”

Kelly agreed to manage them, and the story of the most important and tempestuous band in Irish history began in earnest.

Andy Irvine and Johnny Moynihan had been aware of each other since the early ’60s music scene that congregated around O’Donoghue’s pub in Dublin. During the summers the two musicians would head off to the country to play at the earnest Establishment-run rural fleadhs. “People on bandstands giving speeches in Irish,” remembers Andy. “They didn’t know what to make of us. People in those days wore suits, had their dinner on the table and went to mass on Sunday. We didn’t do any of these things. We slept in haybarns!”

Drinking too much and sleeping rough, influenced by the weird hillbilly sounds of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Irvine and Moynihan entertained the fleadh audiences on Italian mandolin and Greek bouzouki, both now standard instruments in Irish trad, but both traceable entirely to these two men. “That set us apart,” says Andy, “this very archaic form of [fiddle] accompaniment.”

In between fleadhs, Irvine attempted to form a group with Moynihan and Dolan. Following a number of false starts, including a botched summer residency at the Enda hotel in Galway where Dolan got into a row with the owner (“I think it was immorality,” says Moynihan, “overnighting with a girl. The whole gig collapsed and Andy was desolated. This great summer we were going to have was in ashes”) they piled into Moynihan’s ramshackle red VW van. Along with Johnny’s new girlfriend, English trad singer Anne Briggs, wannabe hillbilly duo Gay and Terry Woods, and with pal Eamonn O’Doherty on makeshift management duties, a tour of laissez-faire country boozers began. But by August, O’Doherty’s contacts were exhausted. “Things were going so ropily that everyone was busking,” says O’Doherty, “including Barbara, my wife!”

Des Kelly’s Puck Fair epiphany came not a moment too soon, but even sound management and the trappings of professional musicianship – photos, press coverage, polka-dot shirts and a singles deal with Pye Records – couldn’t civilise Sweeney’s Men.

“The only place I could ever contact them was O’Donoghue’s!” insists O‘Doherty, “But they were eventually all at a squat in Ellis Quay. I remember being there late at night with a load of drink and various substances going around, and no light in the place – bodies everywhere, music everywhere and a lot of strange noises coming from dark corners of the room. I brought my wife there once. She thought she was in hell!”

For the rest of 1966 and into 1967 the band kept the wolf from the door with session work on Capitol Showband singles. But by May ’67 it was Sweeney’s Men who were chartbound. Out of nowhere, Old Maid In The Garret, a rumbustious old music-hall number (with Des on electric bass), cracked Ireland’s Top 10. Offers started rolling in. With perfect Sweeney’s Men timing Joe Dolan decided he was moving to Israel.

The Six Day War had just begun. Dolan, apparently, arrived on the seventh day. Sweeney’s were in crisis. There were two possible replacements: Paul Brady or Terry Woods. Brady, hot property on Dublin’s beat group scene, had just joined clean-cut balladeers The Johnstons.

“Sweeney’s Men were extremely cool,” says Brady. “There was nothing like them in Ireland.” Paul stepped in for an immediate booking in Limerick, but chose to stick with the Johnstons. “I was impressed with Andy from the word go,” says Brady, “but Johnny was one of the most eccentric men I’ve ever met. There was an awful lot of tuning…” (Des Kelly, running a pub years later, once invited Johnny to play. He arrived at the start time with twelve instruments, none of them tuned.)

With the taciturn Woods eventually on board (‘‘Better the devil you know,” says Moynihan) Sweeney’s released a single, The Waxie’s Dargle. It was another Irish chart smash. By now, as Gay Woods recalls, Sweeney’s Men “were stars. They could walk down Grafton Street and be mobbed.”

Lucrative but hellish showband “interval spots” playing to audiences of thousands in rural ballrooms, quickly became available. “I sang Old Maid In The Garrett in all twelve keys down in Wexford one night,” remembers Andy Irvine. ‘It sends me into a cold sweat just thinking about it.’

Des Kelly having decided that they were more trouble than they were worth, Sweeney’s were now being managed by Roddy Hickson and Gerry McDonagh – Dublin hipsters who met through being the only people in town wearing Levi’s. An album was the next step. Nat Joseph at UK label Transatlantic provided the opportunity.

“Pye didn’t want to let us go,” says Terry Woods. “I remember sitting in [MD] John Woods’ office. He rang his secretary and said, ‘Bring up Sweeney’s Men’s contract!’ Twenty minutes later and he rings down again, pretty agitated. She can’t find it. And Roddy says, ‘John, the reason she can’t find the contract is because it’s here…’ He pulls it out of his inside pocket. It had never been signed!’

With Bill Leader producing, the legendary Sweeney’s Men LP was made in May ’68, fuelled, as Terry Woods recalls, by “pint bottles of stout and a load of dexedrine to keep us awake. We did it in thirty-six hours straight. Sitting in an air terminal afterwards Andy couldn’t shut up, his eyes wouldn’t close and his mouth wouldn’t stop.”

Days later Andy played his farewell gig at Dublin’s Liberty Hall. Fascinated by Magyar postage stamps, he had decided to move to the Balkans with his girlfriend Muriel. “Sweeney’s Men were successful enough that I’d saved something like £383 and that was, believe it or not, enough for us to live in Eastern Europe for eighteen months.”

Andy’s replacement was Ireland’s hottest electric guitarist, Henry McCullough. McCullough, who’d stormed Dublin in ’67 with his psychedelic soul group Eire Apparent, had just been booted off a Jimi Hendrix US tour for drug possession. Enjoying a mutual appreciation vibe with Moynihan, McCullough drifted into Sweeney’s Men.

“It was the most exciting thing ever,” says Gay Woods, “Henry walking on, with his long hair, his fringed jacket and his red guitar. I was at the Cambridge Folk Festival gig as well, when they were booed off for ‘going electric’. Thank goodness I witnessed those two moments. They were brilliant.”

“I remember one gig in Mayo where they practically threw us out of the town,” says Henry McCullough. “Throwing coins and shouting ‘sell-out’. The electric guitar would only have been used on certain numbers – mostly as a drone. It wasn’t gratuitous. There was a lot of song-writing going on as well. It was incredibly exciting. By this time even people’s style of dress – particularly Johnny’s – had changed. It was becoming very hippy-ish.”

“Johnny had a flat off Pembroke Street by then,” says Terry Woods, “and he would be there in a loin cloth with a ferret skin hanging from his belt. He’d run over this ferret, taken it home – probably eaten it for all I know – and made the skin into a tin whistle case, like something you’d keep arrows in.”

The legend of this short-lived folk fusion period lives in its tantalising unattainability: a BBC radio session and an Irish TV show – both erased. Eamon Carr, future brains behind Celtic rock gods Horslips, saw the latter. “I remember being astonished,” he says, “and wishing I had a tape recorder. I ranked Henry then on a par with Clapton, Page and Beck. I still believe he was never given his due.”

When Joe Cocker poached McCullough for his Grease Band, Roddy Hickson panicked and told Melody Maker Sweeney’s Men were finished. Woods and Moynihan disagreed, swiftly recruiting one Al O’Donnell – a popular balladeer with a sweet tenor voice. As Gay puts it, “Al had a very organised home life – and that wasn’t a thing to have in Sweeney’s Men.”

Amidst all this, the LP finally appeared. Capturing the dustbowl-Celtic-hillbilly magic of the classic line-up it would be a source book for every British and Irish progressive folk act of note for years to come.

“It set me thinking,” says Christy Moore, the future Godhead of Irish music. “It was pushing out the boundaries and it had an attitude.”

By the next UK tour, November ’68, Sweeney’s Men were an inherently doomed duo of Woods and Moynihan – two eccentrics at, unfortunately, opposite ends of the odd-ometer. “It was becoming too queer for Ireland,” says Gay. There were, however, plentiful gigs at progressive English venues, like Soho’s Les Cousins. “We did a gig there with Al Stewart and David Bowie,” says Terry. “Bowie and Stewart [were] up the back talking about which of them was the better guitar player – such a load of bullshit!”

Second album sessions stuttered, but The Tracks Of Sweeney limped out in December 1969. Moynihan’s dreamlike Standing On The Shore and triple-tracked trad arrangement The Pipe On The Hob were extraordinary, as were Woods’s evocative Dreams and the cosmic Brain Jam. These, and two songs written by McCullough, reveal in glowing embers the lost fire of the McCullough era. Johnny is less sentimental: “When we heard the thing we wanted to remix it. I remember a particularly crushing phone call from a call box somewhere in England, myself and Terry, talking to Nat Joseph and getting nowhere. ‘We have this tape [says Nat], now fuck off!’” Playing their final gig on November 22 1969, a fortnight before the album’s release, was suitable revenge. Moynihan’s words to a returned Irvine had proven prophetic “If Beethoven wanted to join the band it wouldn’t work – there isn’t any band!’”

But it wasn’t quite over. An unlikely coda involves Ashley Hutchings, godfather of British folk-rock, who’d just left Fairport Convention. His plan? To reform the first-album Sweeney’s Men – and join them. He almost managed it, too. Within days, however, Moynihan was off, deciding that he couldn’t stand Terry Woods one moment longer, and taking (a somewhat disappointed) Irvine with him. Hutchings wound up with Gay Woods, Terry Woods, a nervous breakdown and a band called Steeleye Span.

Fleeting resurrections, with various combinations of ex-Sweeneys, have occurred infrequently. The mythical McCullough trio reconvened once for a palpably rancorous in-studio live broadcast on Irish radio in the mid-’80s – during Terry’s Pogues period, Henry’s drinking period and Johnny’s continuingly enigmatic off-the-radar period. In more recent years, Andy Irvine’s songwriting has focused increasingly on that sunlit Sweeney’s strand of his youth. As we go to press, he asserts that the very first line-up of the group may yet exist again, and soon. Stranger things have happened. But not many.

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