Fairport Convention - Dirty Linen

Horslips - Dearg Doom

Thin Lizzy - Whiskey in the Jar

The Pogues - Dirty Old Town

Wolfstone Live in Switzerland

Dropkick Murphys - The Fields of Athenry

Last updated

December 9, 2009

The story of Celtic Rock

By Mac Entee

Generally the Celtic nations include Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man, Cornwall, Brittany and Galicia in Spain. Electric folk emerged in Ireland, England and Brittany in the late 1960s as musicians explored the possibilities beyond the boundaries of acoustic folk. 

Sweeney's Men had already extended the boundaries of folk music and their inclusion of electric guitar player Henry McCullough in their performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1968 caused quite a stir, earning high praise in the rock magazine Melody Maker. Their first album Sweeney's Men (1968) is regarded as one of the most influential album in Irish folk music. After the departure of Andy Irvine, Terry Woods joined Johnny Moynihan and they recorded the experimental Tracks of Sweeney, which is regarded by some as a breakthrough album and by others as a conflicted group going off the rails.

Meanwhile in England, Fairport Convention had been dallying with electric guitar and drums in 1968, but hearing Sweeney's Men, boosted by rock guitarist Henry McCullough, at Cambridge gave them the determination on their next album to blend electric with folk tunes. In 1969 Sweeney's Men broke up and Terry Woods and his wife Gay joined a new English group Steeleye Span, who's 1970 album Steeleye Span's Hark! The Village Wait, along with Fairport's Leigh and Leif (1969),  emerged as difinitive albums of English folk rock. Numerous English folk rock groups to follow. Donovan released an album with electric backing, Open Road, in 1970. Woods returned to Ireland and recorded a folk rock album with his wife Gay, after which they formed the Woods Band in 1971. 

Also in 1971, Dublin's Dr Strangely Strange released an album of self-penned hippy songs in the folk idiom. The backing musicians included Gary Moore on electric guitar and Brush Shiels on bass. Tara Telephone were experimenting with poetry, beat and folk. In the same year, Breton harpist Alan Stivell was using guitarist Dan Ar Bras and drums in his band. The album of his Olympia concert in Paris that year sold 1.5 million copies. By 1972 electric folk band Clannad from Donegal were getting a successful career under way.

With the path prepared for them by Fairport and Steeleye, Horslips (right) emerged in Dublin 1972 and their successful single Johnny'sHorslips, Celtic rock group Wedding and the follow up album Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part, blended Gaelic mythology, traditional Irish music and rock 'n' roll. Celtic Rock had found its feet. They combined electric guitar and bass and keyboards with energetic fiddle and experienced home success that lasted for a half dozen years. The also gave a younger Irish audience, tiring of the ballad boom, a new sense of identity. Also in 1972, Thin Lizzy had a major hit with Whiskey in the Jar, a folk song performed completely in the rock idiom, and a song which continues to influence Celtic rock.

Horslips were followed by Spud, the Woods Band, Mushroom and others. But the audience for Irish music that they cultivated among the young was soon syphoned off by progressive traditional groups like Planxty and the Bothy Band. But there were  other reasons for the demise of Celtic rock in Ireland: Celtic mythology was linked in the minds of many younger people with cultural nationalism (the Northern conflict flared up in 1969), compulsory Irish in the schools and oppressive Roman Catholicism, plus the emergence of  homegrown rock groups like Thin Lizzy, The Boomtown Rats and U2.

After their 1980 album The Belfast Gigs, Horslips called it a day but in the intervening years they had enjoyed considerable success in America.

Meanwhile, Scotland saw the emergence of groups like the JSD Band and Spencer's Feat, which in turn led to the founding of Five Hand Reel. Unlike Ireland, Scotland was exploring its nationalist culture and identity, and in 1978 Runrig produced their Scots Gaelic album Play Gaelic. While bagpipes had become an essential element in Scottish folk bands they were then much rarer in electric outfits.

In 1973, Welsh band Edward H Dafis combined rock instrumentation with Welsh language lyrics.

Horslips aside, all these were essentially electric folk or folk rock groups. It wasn't until 1983 that the aftershock of the punk rock revolution of the mid-1970s mingled with London ceili chaos and the Dubliners balladry to create The Pogues. Their performance of The Irish Rover with The Dubliners on RTE's Late Late Show endeared them to Irish listeners and revived the fortunes of the ageing ballad group. Shane McGowan has won many admirers for his song-writing creativity and they went within an ace of having a British No 1 Christmas hit with Fairytale of New York. Significantly they also struck a note of authenticity that younger Irish exiles could readily identify with.

Meanwhile groups such as Clannad (Ireland) and Capercaille (Scotland) combined electric folk to great effect with native language lyrics and were often viewed as the modernised versions of folk and traditional groups. Other groups like The Sawdoctors and Runrig combined country rock with homegrown lyrics. In Connemara John Beag O Flatharta agus Na hAncairi created a straight up country and western sound which fitted remarkably well with the broad vowels of the Irish language lyrics, as it also did the Cajun sound of the Maimin Cajun Band (Youtube)

1989 was a significant year in that it gave us both Wolfstone and Black 47. Wolfstone, according to a founder was a rock band "that uses pipes, whistles and fiddles." It had the added dramatic impact of the lone piper emerging from the shadows, stage left. Black 47, which was founded in New York by Larry Kirwan from Wexford, was one of the first groups to successfully blend punk rock and Irish music. Along with the basic electric punk hardware, the sound included saxaphone, trombone and uilleann pipes and the lyrics were hard-edged.

Punk was also a major influence on the Dropkick Murphys, formed in Quincy, Mass., in 1996. Their songs lyrics have a hard social edge. I'm Shipping up to Boston, based on a Woody Guthrie poem of the same name, was used in Martin Scorcese's The Departed. It is the theme song of many sports teams including The Patriots and Celtics. Another song Tesse is used in Fever Pitch. They have breathed new life into The Fields of Athenry, a fans' favourite. Possessors of a long and impressive CV.

Flogging Molly emerged in Los Angeles in 1997 with their album Alive Behind the Green Door. Electric guitars apart, their instruments closely resemble Irish traditional groups while their influence is punk. Their song The Worst Day Since Yesterday is featured in the film Mr & Mrs Smith. (these references to movies and sports teams serve to highlight the assimilation of Celtic rock into mainstream American culture, in marked contrast to the music's alienation in Ireland). 

Apart from grannie passport bands like The Pogues, Neck and Mahones, Ireland can boast More Power to Your Elbow from the North and Spooks of the Twelfth Lock from Dublin.

Come the new century a plethora of groups emerged in the USA made up of Scottish, Irish, English, Welsh and Newfoundland blood and musicians with no particular Celtic links.They now have a prominent place on the American  Celtic Festival circuit. An organiser of an Irish festival in Chicago commented in 2009:  “We started with the traditional step dancing, pipe bands and folk groups,” she said. "But then we saw how many people the Celtic rock drew, and we knew we had to have a mix".  (See Ramblinghouse blog)

Irish Music Festivals 2009 

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