Tuesday March 18, 2009

Finbar Furey

Never before had Irish (Uillean) Pipes been brought together with Guitar and voice. It was a first... homegrown in the House of Furey.

'The Untamed Melody Maker'

By Seán McCarthy NUJ

When Martin Scorsese went looking for a singer to perform in his film Gangs of New York, it is no surprise that the award winning director sought out Finbar Furey to fit the bill: rugged, earthy, and true to the heart; heavy with history, guts and gargle.

Finbar is a pristine match for a Scorsese movie, and with over four decades of masterful musicianship and songwriting in the making it's no wonder he was chosen for the part. Finbar is back on the world stage with the new album 'Finbar Furey' and a labour-intensive tour of the East Coast of the United States.

Natives of The Coombe in Dublin, Finbar Furey and his brothers Paul, George and Eddie were born into a family already steeped in traditional Irish music that sprung from the cultural wealth of Ireland's Traveler community.

His father Ted Furey, whose profession as a horse dealer must have filled his days with manys a story and song as he traded around Dublin's Ballyfermot environs, was an accomplished musician and played pipes and fiddle.

Finbar's mother Nora Connolly played the melodeon and a five-stringed banjo, and was herself a celebrated and much loved singer.

It wasn't long before the four young Furey brothers found themselves right in the eye of a gutsy musical storm that began, like a phoenix out of the ashes, during informal music sessions being instigated by their father Ted Furey and his friends Ronnie Drew and John Molloy down at Dublin's now famous O'Donoghue's Bar on Merrion Row.

It was 1958, and Finbar was already exhibiting remarkable talent and skill as a musician. In 1964 he found himself being placed first in the world for playing the Uillean pipes after winning three all-Ireland championships.

Following a string of appearances in highly competitive musicianship events across Ireland, including the Tralee International Festival in 1961 where the brothers walked with three major awards, Finbar and Eddie Furey emigrated to Scotland in 1966 and could soon be found playing in folk music clubs, colleges, and universities throughout Great Britain and all across Europe. And as the venues expanded, the throngs of Furey followers grew larger and larger.

But, as fate would have it, their major breakthrough came from across the Atlantic, when in 1969 they were invited to be opening act for the Clancy Brothers' 1969 tour of the USA.

Such was the reaction from audiences across the United States that all four brothers became headliners themselves, with Paul and George joining Finbar and Eddie onstage as The Fureys.

Then, in 1972, iconic BBC music journalist and broadcaster John Peel awarded The Fureys an enormous break by voting them 'Music Act of the Year'.

With Peel's hugely significant "thumbs up", the music of The Fureys soon became a phenomenon because it was a fresh, original new sound. Never before had Irish (Uillean) Pipes been brought together with Guitar and voice. It was a first... homegrown in the House of Furey.

Their new sound instantly set The Fureys apart from any other act, let alone Irish group. In fact, so controversial was this new sound that The Fureys found themselves being barred from playing in Ewan MacCall and Peggy Seeger's 'Singers' Club' in London as they said it was 'not traditional' to combine the pipes and guitar.

In the meantime, Finbar and Eddie were deep into the woods on their creation of their brand new sound, as they practiced together.

Finbar once told a BBC Radio 2 reporter, "I'd sit for hours practising my pipes on my own but one day Eddie picked up a guitar and backed me. It was a completely new sound, very exciting and completely fresh."

Subsequently of course the original Furey format has received the sincerest form of flattery from a gambit of Irish musical acts and shows from Planxty to Riverdance.

The Fureys had invented, and quite naturally so, a contemporary sound described often as the meeting of the psychedelic era with the roots of a musical family firmly steeped in Ireland's ancient Traveller traditions.

A Pavee paradise of sound was born, and one that would see Finbar, Eddie, George and Paul Furey, joined during the 1970s by Davey Arthur playing their hearts and instruments out and straight to the top of the charts in the one country least likely at the time to have accepted them at all.

It was, after all, the height of the troubles in the North, when The Fureys became one of a handful of Irish folk groups to make it on to the BBC weekly television show Top Of The Pops and score enormous success in the British Charts with the release of beautifully haunting songs like 'When You Were Sweet Sixteen', 'Green Fields of France', 'I Will Love You', 'The Lonesome Boatman' and 'Leaving Nancy' among the litany of hits that followed.

After several reformations, Finbar and his brothers, now joined by fellow musician and singer Davey Arthur on tenor banjo, were now household names across Europe.

On a whirlwind tour of the East Coast of the USA, Finbar Furey's unmistakable voice, the one that brings the grave of Willie McBride to mind and the green fields of France to life, is suddenly heard over a crackly mobile phone calling, of all places, from Ambler Pennsylvania.

"It's excellent at the moment!" says Finbar about the release of his brand new album of songs simply titled 'Finbar Furey' (Cosmic Trigger Records). "The album is getting some terrific write-ups, and everything is flying at the moment. And yesterday I just found out that my daughter Áine, who has also just released an album 'Cross My Palm' has been made best female vocalist of the year on a folk programme in Chicago and best album for 'Cross My Palm'. So, it's flying so it is! Fureys everywhere. It's great".

Áine Furey's new album 'Cross My Palm' is also released on Cosmic Trigger and is available everywhere in local record shops (USA and Canada) and also on Amazon, iTunes, etc. You can also visit Áine's website at Á

From a swanlike grace on the Uillean pipes, to his flighty expertise on a tin whistle, to the sorcery he weaves out over the strings on a banjo, Finbar Furey possesses a gambit of talents.

Yet though his skills as a musician are often written about, applauded, and awarded, his equally honed talent as a songwriter can often be overlooked because of his extraordinary ability to play such a wide range of instruments.

One of the most sensitive and passionate of Ireland's songwriters, I'm very curious about how he writes his unique lyrics:

"I just finished a song there called 'Peace One Day In Time', you know. I might read something in the newspapers a few months ago, and what happens is, I put it into storage in my brain. And then something kicks it off. I really don't know how I write the words, you know. I just sit down, and it comes out. Then I'll get an idea of which way to take the song. For instance, the song 'Peace One Day In Time' opens up: 'When young men die, without reason why, the power that money can buy. Young girls weep, with their heart they will keep forever in tears and prayers'. It's an anti-war song, anti-violence. It's about the heartbreak of war. I've often sat down and listened to songs I have written ten year ago. And I've said how in the name of God did I write that! Or indeed, did I write that? You know. I just don't know where a song comes from. It just comes. And I enjoy it".

The new album 'Finbar Furey' contains twelve brilliant songs that were recorded over many years with contributions from countless musicians and engineers - both from the Furey family itself and the many friends who have played on them.

The album's song list includes 'America Cried', 'Travelling Lady', and 'Railway Square' written by Finbar's son Martin Furey of The High Kings.

The new CD is dedicated to Finbar's brothers Eddie, George, and the late Paul Furey, who sadly passed away in Dublin June 17th 2002.

Paul, who has left behind a rich legacy of playing an impressive range of instruments including accordion, melodeon, concertina, whistles, bones, and spoons, as well as singing in the group, is deeply missed:

"Your brother is your brother. It's just love. As they say 'blood is thicker than water', you know. And with Paul and I, we were 'as thick as thieves', the pair of us. We grew up together. He sat beside me in school. We made our first Holy Communion together, we made our Confirmation together. He was only a year and a half younger than I, and when we played onstage he always sat on my right hand side. Any photograph you ever see of the band, Paul sits right beside me on my right hand side. When he was in school, he sat on my right side. There's a big big piece of me missing".

O'Donoghue's pub in Dublin remains as famous as ever, and all because of the likes of The Fureys, Christy Moore, and the late great Ronnie Drew and The Dubliners. The pub is still there and is now a shrine on Dublin's music legend itinerary. It stands yards away from Ireland's Government buildings and Dáil Éireann itself.

"I can picture Ciarán Bourke who used to be with The Dubliners too. I taught Ciarán how to play the whistle when I was a very young kid. Ciarán used to come up to the house and he wanted to learn how to play the tin whistle so I taught him how to play it. And he got involved with my father with the music, and he said there was a pub called O'Donoghue's pub where there's a guy called John Molloy.

"John was an actor who passed away aswell. And John used to drink in there and they needed a bit of music. So Ciarán brought me and my father there. I was eleven years old at the time. And when I came through the door the first person I met was John Molloy, and then a couple of nights later Ronnie Drew came in. Ronnie had just come back from Spain. He was an English teacher in Spain. And he had given his job up and he wanted to be a folk musician, which he always was. And the very first group that ever played in O'Donoghue's was my father Ted Furey, Ronnie Drew, and Ciarán Bourke. Long before The Dubliners or The Furey Brothers or anybody else.

"That was in 1958. O'Donoghue's was officially 'started' I suppose in 1959, but we were playing music there since '58. But it all grew up there... Luke Kelly was working in England at the time and Luke came back and met up with Ronnie. Then John Sheehan happened to walk in one night, and The Dubliners grew out of O'Donoghue's, you know. We watched 'the boys' take off, you know. We were still kids, and the lads were absolutely massive.

"People like The Clancy Brothers used to come in there to drink then, and it attracted all sorts of attention then with people like Robert Kennedy, who actually had a pint of Guinness in O'Donoghue's. Would you believe that! It just became a very very famous pub, even now. But we started it. My father started it all off. Incredible. They were incredible days".

Incredible indeed, and thankfully we have a new album of songs from Ireland's Favourite Son, all masterfully crafted directly from Finbar Furey's great wealth of music, history and tradition. Indeed, while chatting with Finbar on the phone as he spoke of the memories of his brother Paul, I myself was reminded of my own brother Patrick McCarthy, himself an accomplished traditional musician. Patrick passed away in Toms River New Jersey just two years ago, on March 2nd 2007, only fifteen days before his birthday Saint Patrick's Day. Pat was a very close friend of The Fureys, especially George and Paul.

"I remember my brother Pat always talking about The Furey brothers at home in Clondalkin when I was just a kid. Pat was a brilliant musician himself; a drummer who also played the bodhrán, acoustic guitar, tin whistle, and a little red box accordion that never left his side.

"He would come home late and tell us all how rich with culture and tradition being in the company of The Furey brothers was. Only now am I hearing from my sister Pauline of the long lively nights down at the Wexford Inn in Dublin, another famous Furey Brothers haunt, where Patrick and Pauline could be found amongst the throngs gathered in the pub's smoke-filled rooms to enjoy the music of The Fureys. My brother Patrick, you see, had a rather lively and creative alter ego:

"I remember Patrick well, sure for God's sake. He used to jump up on the table and frighten the life out of the poor women that would be at the concert. He would be dressed up as a rooster! He was a great friend of my brother Paul, who lived in Clondalkin. Patrick was always first in when the door would be open. This was back then when the place would be mobbed. Sure even 'we' couldn't get in, and we were playing there! But you wouldn't know who was going to walk in there.

"Art Garfunkle turned up one night in the audience, and Bob Dylan turned up another night and was in the audience. We used to have a great show, and we kept it very close to the roots of the music, more traditional with the pipes and that. They were great days you know."

And as my mind wanders to the cold waters of Toms River New Jersey where we gathered two years ago with my brother Patrick's dear wife Christina to scatter his ashes into the ocean, Finbar Furey leaves me on the telephone with a grippingly touching and heartfelt dedication of one of his very own beloved songs: "Play a song for Paul and for Patrick. No Fairwells, No Goodbyes."

Ah, the boys live on!

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