Arts

Barry Devlin on celebrating Horslips' 'extended family' at Horslips Con 2019

Ahead of the second annual Horslips Convention in Belfast, bassist Barry Devlin chats to David Roy about what keeps the pioneering Celtic rockers and their fans coming back for more a decade on from the group's initial reunion

Barry Devlin of Horslips will be back in action with the band at Horslips Con 2019

HORSLIPS shows are more than just mere concerts these days – they're social reunions for the band's pan-generational fanbase and the reactivated Celtic rock pioneers themselves.

Both sets are currently looking forward to getting caught up with each other when the Dublin-bred group return to Belfast for a pair of special shows during the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival next month.

"It's just nice to meet the extended Horslips family at this point – it's a way of keeping in touch," enthuses Co Tyrone-born bassist Barry Devlin of the imminent Horslips Con 2019 at the CQAF Marquee at Custom House Square in Belfast on May 11 and 12.

"When the band came back together again in 2009, we were kind of revisiting a thing that had once been and so were the audience. In a way, we could nearly have sprung anyone from the audience and they could have got up with us and done a Horslips turn, but we were selecting ourselves as player/managers on the night.

"It's fun to meet up with that extended family and that's part of why I like to keep playing. And of course, it's always fun to get out with Johnny, Ray and Jim and act the maggot and pretend that we're young fellas again."

The 'maggots' in question are, of course, fellow Horslips founding members Jim Lockhart (keys), Johnny Fean (guitar) and the latter's younger brother Ray, who has replaced original drummer Eamon Carr as time-keeper of the Horslips' signature trad-informed prog rock gallop.

The eagle-eyed will note the absence of Charles O'Connor from that roll call, the band's former mandolin man/fiddle-abuser – and, it seems, chief 'maggot'.

"Charles has kind of retired," confirms Devlin, who kept himself busy in the wake of Horslips' disbandment in 1980 with an abortive solo career followed by a more successful stint as U2's go-to music video director and as a screenwriter.

"We had a charity gig in Monaghan recently where he appeared for a couple of numbers with us and we had really great fun, but basically he's hung up fiddle and mandolin.

"He has his own little mini-kingdom over in Whitby now, building lakes, follies and fountains – he's been known to handle a mini-digger. We did consider replacing him with a really attractive 20-year-old girl, but in the end we decided that no-one can really replace Charles O'Connor.

"He was always a huge part of the mischief on tours, he got up to incredibly funny stuff. We miss that, without a doubt: he'd a wonderfully cynical attitude to things and a wonderfully sharp tongue. You'd just fall about laughing as you were excoriated by Charles."

As a mark of respect, Horslips have retired their former fiddler's signature tune from their live repertoire in his absence.

"We're basically doing the set we used to do, less Mad Pat, because it's so associated with Charles that it would kind of be sacrilege to do it without him," Devlin explains.

Horslips, with bassist Barry Devlin (far right)

Formed in 1972, Horslips rose to fame in Ireland and far beyond throughout the rest of the decade with a string of classic genre-bending albums like The Táin (1973), Dancehall Sweethearts (1974) and their 'holy trinity', The Book of Invasion (1976), Aliens (1977) and The Man Who Built America (1978).

By the time they called it quits in 1980, Horslips had documented their Celtic rocking crusade across an impressive 10 studio albums and a pair of live LPs, bowing out with an impassioned final performance at Belfast's Ulster Hall in October of that year – a venue the reformed Horslips would return to almost a quarter of a century later for a rapturously received show in 2014.

"When I'm not gigging, I'm often feeling like I want to – occasionally I'll set up my amp in the garden and play for the neighbours," jokes Devlin of the addictive kick he gets from playing with his old friends these days.

"Sometimes I'll find an excuse to go and 'rehearse' up at Jimmy's, which means we get back to talking about stuff."

He adds: "Look at bands like The Specials or whoever, guys who've maybe not contacted each other that much in the 20 years they were broken up, you see the fun they're having again when they play – and it's genuine.

"At that point in their career, they're probably getting back together because it's a bit of fun rather than because they're going to make a fortune at it.

"You get to a certain age – our age – and you're kind of so grateful to be alive, that to actually be able to go out and still gig is fantastic, y'know?"

Horslips in 2010 (l-r) Charles O'Connor, Eamon Carr, Johnny Fean, Jim Lockhart and Barry Devlin

As mentioned, the imminent Horslips Con 2019 is very much a mutual celebration of the band and their fans. It began last year as a one-off event at The Black Box in Belfast organised by Horslips devotee Rob Aiken, but when that hugely successful show attracted fans from right across the globe, clearly it demanded a sequel.

"We always had a tradition of having Horslips parties whenever there was a new album, and all the albums from the 70s are now going through their 40th anniversaries," explains Devlin.

"So last year, Rob did a party for The Man Who Built America – normally the parties were a bit shambolic, but Rob being Rob decided he'd make it a proper gig.

"Originally, we were going to let The Tearaways and The Pox Men play the party and then join them for a few songs at the end, but we actually did a full set as well as a Q&A with Nuala McKeever, which was hilarious."

With this having piqued the interest of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, now the Con is on again for 2019, expanded to two nights (the first already sold-out) and featuring guest live turns from Horslips affiliates including ex-Mamas Boys man Pat McManus ("a championship fiddle player in the Fermanagh-style", notes Devlin) and all-star bluesmen Paddy Goodwin and The Holy Ghosts.

"We're looking forward to it hugely," enthuses the Horslips bassist, who is clear about the nature of the bands' ongoing victory lap, which includes gigs in Cork and north Donegal later this summer.

"We've no ambitions to fill 10,000 seaters or anything of that scale at this point," Devlin tells me. "We just want to keep playing as long as we can and as long as there are people interested in listening."

Horslips performing at Belfast's Waterfront Hall in December 2010. Picture by Declan Roughan

:: Horslips Con 2019, May 11 (sold-out) and 12, CQAF Marquee, Belfast. Tickets for May 12 available via CQAF.com

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