The Ballad Boom
The Irish Ballad Boom of the 1960's.
By John Lynch
Just as the showband scene was taking off, following the advent of the vinyl record, what was later to become known as "the ballad boom of the 1960's" in Ireland was gathering momentum.  This was spearheaded by a number of groups and solo singers, who recorded songs that had been around for some time, thanks mainly to Irish people's love of folksong.  By putting a rhythmic beat to them, usually with guitar and/or banjo accompaniment, these songs and their singers became very popular, thus giving rise to pub singalong-type ballad sessions, more or less as we know them today. 
But this process had actually begun before the sixties.
In the 1940's, an untrained singer from county Mayo, named Delia Murphy, began recording Irish ballads to light orchestral accompaniment.
Songs in Delia's repertoire included: If I were a Blackbird, The Boston Burglar, Courtin' In the Kitchen, The Moonshiner and, the one for which she is best remembered, The Spinning wheel.  
 Other singers who recorded ballads in a similar vein at that time were Connie Foley, Bridie Gallagher, Willie Brady and Eileen Donaghy. Delia Murphy learned many of her songs from travellers. One notable singer to emerge from the travelling community at this time was a lady from Sunday's Well, Cork, called Margaret Barry known as "the queen of the gypsies". One of Ms. Barry’s albums bore the title ‘Ireland’s Queen of the Gypsies’.
Another singer who performed Irish ballads on the English folk scene in the late 1950's, was Dubliner Dominic Behan, brother of playwright, Brendan whose uncle, Peadar Kearney, penned many songs in the early days of the 20th century, including our national anthem.  Dominic's first recording was an eight-track 10-inch LP, issued by the Topic record company of England, in 1958.
Music - folk music in particular - is handed down from one generation to the next, and so tends to have a natural family trait.  Such was the case with the McPeake family from Belfast who are generally regarded as the first ballad group, insofar as performing in concert and on record is concerned.  Initially, the McPeake Family consisted of a father (the da) and two sons, but by the time they came to record their second album, again for Topic, in 1962, a daughter, grandson  and cousin had been added to the ranks.  Their instrumental combination was a little unusual: pipes and harp, on which they played a few tunes and also used for song accompaniment.  They sang in their own style of harmony long before this kind of thing became fashionable in folk singing and at a time when technology was somewhat unsophisticated. They introduced each item according as they recorded them .
As the sixties progressed, the McPeakes tried to turn themselves into a more commercially-sounding group, but they certainly sounded unique in their heyday. It was they who made famous the song, Will You Go Lassie Go.
Other songs in their repertoire included:  The Jug of Punch,  The Rare Old Mountain Dew and My Singing Bird, all of which formed part of the repertoire of the group who were to open the floodgates of the whole ballad boom i.e.
The Clancys Brothers and Tommy Makem. 
Originally from Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary and Keady, Co. Armagh respectively, they emigrated to America and, in the late 1950's, recorded three LP's on their own Tradition label. They performed around New York's Greenwich Village as America was enjoying its folk revival scene at the time.
 In 1961, they turned professional, got themselves contracted to a major label, Columbia/CBS, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Because they were based in the USA and communications were not then what they are today, it took a little time for their impact to be felt over here but when it did, their style was to have an effect on the Irish ballad scene similar to the effect The Beatles had on the beatgroup scene in the UK.
While the Clancys were making waves in the States, in 1962, a Dublin man by the name of Ronnie Drew, who liked what he heard from Margaret Barry and Dominic Behan, gathered a few friends around him and formed The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group. Some time later, just before their first recordings, Luke Kelly joined them. Rumour has it that the group were looking for a more suitable name around the time that Luke was reading James Joyce’s Dubliners. This apparently prompted the group to  change their name to The Dubliners.
Another Dublin foursome got together in 1964, and appropriately called themselves The Wolfe Tones, after the name of the leader of the 1798 aborted uprising in Ireland.  Patriotic, or ‘rebel’ songs were very much part of the ‘Tones' stock-in-trade. Their first LP, The Foggy Dew, made in 1965, contained a few of these type of songs.  But it was their second LP the following year, ‘Up the Rebels’, which really sounded the freedom bells.
 By 1966, the ballad boom was in full swing and rebel songs were the norm.  One of the reasons for this was because the Sean Lemass-led government decided to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 rising in Easter of that year,.  A few weeks before that though, at 1.30 am on Tuesday March 8 to be precise, a newer piece of history was made when a bomb exploded destroying the upper half of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin’s city centre. One of three songs lamenting the downfall of the great admiral was Up Went Nelson by the Go-lucky Four from Belfast. The others were the Dubliners' Nelson's Farewell and the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem’s Lord Nelson. 
But it was not all rebel songs in those days. 
Johnny McEvoy had a Number One Irish chart hit later that year with Mursheen Durkin, as did the Ludlows with a Dominic Behan composition The Sea Around Us. 
The Ludlows consisted of a trio, Jim McCann, Sean Loughran and Margaret O'Brien.  Another of their records was a satire on the scene of ''66 in Ireland, based on the Scottish ballad of the same name: Johnny Lad.
Incidentally, the Ludlows performed two numbers in that year's National Song Contest. They came second to Dickie Rock's Come Back To Stay, with the song The Wind Through the Rafters.  The Ludlows broke up in late 1967, having recorded six singles and one album for Pye Records, a  UK-based company, which took a lot of Irish showband and ballad acts onto their label. 
 Another family group to top the charts in 1966, with the Ewan MacColl radio ballad, The Travelling People, were The Johnstons, from Slane, Co. Meath.  They were two sisters and a brother, but the latter left the following year and was replaced by two men, who went on to become internationally-renowned master musicians in their own right: Mick Moloney and Paul Brady.
Thanks to the talents of the aforementioned, and the Transatlantic record company's desire to have them broaden their repertoire into a more contemporary field, the Johnstons recorded six albums between 1968 and '72, five of which were reissued on CD.  It is a pity, though, that they never achieved the international recognition they truly deserved.
 In the early summer of 1967 The Dubliners, who were then enjoying growing popularity in Ireland, reached the top ten in the UK pop charts with their very sensational Seven Drunken Nights. They were however only allowed sing five!  The Dubliners formation coincided with the birth of television in Ireland, thus enabling them to make a name for themselves which may not otherwise have been the case.  But when it came to their "Late Late Show" appearance to honour their new-found fame, they were not even allowed sing one drunken night. Why?  Because the good people of Raidio Teilifis Eireann, in their wisdom, had already banned the song from the national airwaves and the song could only be heard either on BBC or Radio Caroline, a very popular pirate station at the time.  So on the night in question, show presenter Gay Byrne and the nation were treated to its B-side:  Poor Paddy On the Railway.
Meanwhile, around the same time, another Dublin man, Danny Doyle, burst into the Irish charts, with a song written by Kerryman, Sean McCarthy called Step It Out Mary.
 Danny went on to have two more hits that year: The Irish Soldier Laddie and Whiskey On A Sunday. Johnny McEvoy did the same with The Boston Burglar and Funny Man.  The following year the latter charted with the song Norah.
Another group worth mentioning here also are Sweeney's Men, whose two Pye singles, Old Maid In A Garret and Waxy's Dargle, hit our top ten in '67 and '68.  They were a trio who were primarily interested in American-type folk music. They made two albums for Transatlantic, both of which are available on silverdisc, as are their singles. They were  regarded by many as being ahead of their time. The group consisted of Andy Irvine, a founder member of Planxty in the early 1970's, Johnny Moynihan who was to join later, and Terry Woods who, along with his ex-wife  Gay, made a number of albums. Terry became a member of the punk- folk band The Pogues in the mid-1980's. 
At the time in question showbands were keen to cash in on the ballad boom. Among the best-known of those who did so were: Pat Lynch and the Airchords (The Irish Soldier Laddie), The Johnny Flynn Showband (The Black and Tan Gun),  Johnny Kelly & the Capitol Showband (The Black Velvet Band) and Brendan Bowyer & The Royal Showband (The Raparee).
Another popular event in the mid-to-late 1960's was the weekly half-hour television programme, ‘Ballad Sheet’, hosted by Shay Healy. In addition to featuring the big names of the day, this programme also gave some lesser-known balladeers a spot in the limelight, and can be credited with the debut television appearance of a man who has since become one of Ireland's most popular entertainers of the 20th century: Christy Moore. 
An album, recorded at Dublin's Gate Theatre in June 1967, entitled The Gatecrashers included a song written and performed by  Shay Healy called Dollymount Strand.
Also featured on this album were Danny Doyle, Pecker Dunne from the travelling community, and another man who was to make a name for himself as a troubadour throughout the 70's and 80's: Paddy Reilly.    
 Another member of not-yet-born Planxty, besides Andy Irvine and Christy Moore, was Donal Lunny, who began his recording career as part of a trio, Emmet Spiceland, along with brothers, Mick and Brian Byrne.  In early 1968, their first single, Mary From Dungloe, marked a turning-point as far as ballads of this nature were concerned.  Up to then, songs and their production were relatively straightforward, whereas this song was somewhat different.  
Emmet Spiceland disbanded in 1969, having recorded one album, five singles and three tracks for a various artists compilation. 
 It goes without saying that records from the ballad boom period are now very hard to come by, though the invention of the internet has made the chances of tracking down specific items a little easier perhaps. 
Other singers who recorded material during the sixties period were: Jesse Owens and Anne Byrne, The Broadsiders, The Ivy Folk, The Tinkers, Al O’ Donnell, Sharon Collen, Dolly McMahon, Maeve Mulvany and a male singer who went by the name of Treacy. It is seemingly impossible to get any information about the latter.  His second of two singles in ‘68 on the Pye label were Sean McCarthy compositions: Murphy's Volunteers on the A.side and  Red-haired Mary on the B-side.
Among the best-known ballad house venues in Dublin in the 1960's were: O'Donoghues of Merrion Row, The Embankment in Tallaght, The Old Sheiling in Raheny and The Abbey Tavern in Howth.
But the ballad boom had its downside too. The musical ability and repertoire of some groups did not extend beyond three or four chords and ten or twelve songs, often poorly copied from other singers. Thus the same songs were recorded over and over again by a dozen or more different acts.
Of course, no story of the Irish ballad boom could be completed without mention being made of the demon drink! Dickie Rock, from the showband scene, is on record as saying that he believed certain songs, for instance, Seven Drunken Nights along with late-night bar-room ballad sessions, heralded the beginning of the present-day drinking problem in Ireland. By virtue of their subject matter many songs it was believed enticed people to drink. One of these, Whiskey In the Jar, was used by Phil Lynott to take his rock group, Thin Lizzy, into the bigtime. Incidentally traditional musician Seamus Ennis recorded a version of this song in the 1950's. 
By the 1970's the ballad boom had peaked but the Dubliners and Wolfe Tones had established themselves as major league acts and were well-managed. A Belfast group, Barleycorn, topped the charts in 1972 with the anti-internment song, The Men Behind the Wire, and made some fine records throughout the decade.  Paddy Reilly and The Dublin City Ramblers built up good followings on the cabaret circuit but much of what they were recording had already been done before them. Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy formed a very successful duo. Their classic double-album, In Concert, brought their live performance into the living-room.  
 Another group to enjoy long overdue success were The Furey Brothers and Davey Arthur, who joined forces in 1976 having been two separate acts prior to that.  
 Audiences also became more sophisticated during the 70's,  and increased means of travel and communication made it possible for groups like Planxty, The Chieftains, Clannad, The Bothy Band, De Danann, etc. to gain international recognition. However this may not have happened to the same extent were it not for the ballad boom.  
(The above article is a transcript of a local radio documentary in early 2000. It did not set out to be an academic essay but rather, a loosely-connected look at the subject matter, based on my own knowledge of it. This documentary was interspersed with musical examples (omitted here) and came together accordingly as I went along).
© John Lynch 2006