3. SWEENEY’S MEN
I was playing the clubs in Denmark with another friend of mine, Eamonn O’Doherty, when Joe sent me word that we had landed a gig for the whole summer in Galway. I hurried home.
Joe Dolan and myself at the Enda Hotel in Galway, 1966
(click for larger image)
That August in Kilrush when the rain was lashing down
And our hotel was that haybarn on the outskirts of town.
We were all sick and feverish and Dolan had the flu But Johnny produced some whiskey and the sun came shining through.
Those nights in Sixmile Bridge when the
Songs and music flowed
And when it came to closing the lights were turned down low
And the sergeant from Kilkishen, he would buy us all one more
And we never left the pub before the clock was striking four
My heart tonight is far away across the rolling sea
In the sweet Miltown Malbay it's there I'd like to be
So long ago and far away but nothing can compare
My heart's tonight in Ireland in the sweet County Clare
In the days of Sweeney in the sweet County Clare.
From "My Heart's Tonight in Ireland" by Andy Irvine
recorded on Rain on the Roof
Joe Dolan repacks the Sweeney van, watched by Muriel Garaghty, 1966
(click for larger image)
It was 1966 and for two or three blissful weeks we played in the Enda Hotel, stayed in the little cottages down the back and looked forward to a settled summer. It was not to be. Dolan had a fight with the owner and we were out on our ears.
Moynihan was at this time working in Roscommon. He had just introduced us to the Greek Bouzouki, not that we were very impressed at first; he had also been looking forward to spending the summer weekends playing with us at the Enda and he persuaded us—I didn’t need much persuasion—to continue our season playing around the country.
He gave in his notice and we decided to name ourselves after the pagan king, Suibhne, who was cursed for throwing a pushy cleric’s bell in the lake. We found it quite easy to identify with Sweeney against the power of the clergy in 1960’s Ireland …
We bought an old red Volkswagen van that was to be home for the rest of the summer and beyond.
That first summer of Sweeney’s Men was never to be repeated, quite; somewhere along the way we became professional musicians.
With the onset of autumn, we drifted back to Dublin. We had met Des Kelly on the road. He was the leader of the Capitol Showband and was impressed with our music, offering to manage us. A lovely man if ever there was one; we accepted.
That winter was a hard one. We had little work and lived together in a cold house off the North Strand Road, we couldn’t afford the rent and had to do a runner one weekend.
If it hadn’t been for the Neptune Rowing Club gig on Friday nights, some recording sessions with the Capitol Showband, and the eternal bowl of soup in O’Donoghue’s, we would have been in a very poor way.
Des decided it was time for us to record. We went down to Eamonn Andrews studio in Henry street and Des played bass guitar. We recorded three tracks; Old Maid in the Garrett which became the A side, The Derby Ram which went on the B side, and Sullivan’s John with Dolan singing. This was the one we liked the best. I don’t know what became of it, it was never heard of again.
The single went to number 6 in the Irish hit parade which caused quite a bit of excitement and our star began to rise. Unfortunately, Joe Dolan left us to go to Israel shortly afterwards. He had been there in 1965, as a volunteer at Masada, "digging up history and living in a tent" as he memorably wrote himself, and with the start of what became known as the Six Day War, he headed off to give his support, arriving with typical Dolan luck on the seventh day!
By this time, Johnny and myself were hooked into Sweeney’s Men and the only possible replacement, apart from Paul Brady, who was unavailable in The Johnstons, was Terry Woods and his twelve string guitar.
Sweeney’s was now a going concern and we made another single.
The Waxie’s Dargle was a Dublin song with only a couple of verses but we augmented it with a chorus:--
What are ya havin’? Will ya have a pint?
I’ll have a pint with you sir
And if one of youse doesn’t order soon
we’ll be thrown out of the boozer
It went to number two.
By this time the so called ‘Ballad Boom’ was in full swing. Bands in three piece suits with double basses, banjos and guitars lashed out The Wild Rover, We’re all off to Dublin in the Green and The Banks of the Ohio, taking up a position somewhere between The Clancy Brothers and The Kingston Trio. Sweeney’s Men were somewhat different; we pandered to our own tastes rather than the fashions of the day and though we were up there with the best of them, I think we bemused audiences more than a little.
"Sing something we all know!" We didn’t.
Apart from the ballad lounges and Liberty Hall on Friday nights, we began to play in dance halls. These were £50 gigs, good money at the time but one of the most hellish experiences available! We would only have to play for about half an hour, as a guest spot, and the dancers were supposed to take a break and listen.
The Showbands only used two microphones, one for the lead singer which was turned up high and the other for the brass instruments which was kept quite low. They wouldn’t change the settings for any bloody Ballad Group, so whoever was singing the song in our group took the hot mike and tried to sing and play into it, while the other two played into the "cold" mike. With 2000 people, many of them half pissed, roaring and shouting in a large concrete bunker, it wasn’t always easy to hear the other band members if you happened to be the lead singer! I sang The Old Maid in the Garrett in all twelve keys down in Wexford one night. It sends me into a cold sweat to think about it.
We made an album in the early spring of 1968, in London. Bill Leader produced it for Transatlantic records. I think it took us the whole day!
For some time past I had been planning to make a Balkan journey and I had told the lads I was quitting. We did one final gig in Liberty Hall. Johnny, Terry and I did the first half in our ‘Sweeney suits’ doing the old repertoire and then Johnny and Terry came on with new member Henry McCullough to play the new repertoire that they had been rehearsing. The clothes they wore reflected the changing times and myself and my girlfriend, Muriel, took off into 1968 and Eastern Europe.
People often say "Eastern Europe? Why did you go there?" No very valid reason is the answer. Seems to me, looking back to that time that half of Europe was on the road going somewhere. Mostly, of course, they were going to India and beyond. Beatles, Maharishis and drugs were all in vogue. I really wanted to go somewhere and not being much into vogues, I went to Bulgaria and Romania, dragging my uncomplaining girlfriend with me.
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