Armagh-based Tony Allen on how Foster and Allen are still singing after all these years

Jenny Lee chats to Co Armagh based Tony Allen about 43 years on the road with folk group Foster and Allen, their appearance on Top of the Pops, finding love in Lurgan and collaborating with Nathan Carter

Tony Allen and Mick Foster, together known as folk legends Foster and Allen, have enjoyed 43 years success, during which time they have recorded over 900 songs
Tony Allen and Mick Foster, together known as folk legends Foster and Allen, have enjoyed 43 years success, during which time they have recorded over 900 songs

TO USE the words of their most requested song, Irish folk duo Foster and Allen are still as popular 'after all these years'. After 43 years on the road, retirement isn't a word that exists in the vocabulary of Mick Foster (69) and Tony Allen (66).

The combination of Allen's lilting tenor voice, allied to Foster's master accordion playing has seen them record over 900 songs and over 30 albums in their career, winning fans all across the world.

I caught up Westmeath-born Tony Allen in Co Armagh, where he relocated after falling for and marrying singer Trionagh Moore-Allen, nine-years ago.

The pair, who each have two grown-up children from previous relationships, first met when she sang backing vocals on their album Sincerely, recorded at Allen's Roseland recording studio in Moate. Trionagh has worked with some of the biggest names in showbusiness, including Van Morrison, and currently tours with Daniel O'Donnell.

After spending Christmas together at their home in Lurgan, Tony is back on the road with his other partner – Mullingar-based Foster, with an Irish tour, followed by a UK tour in March and Australian tour in May.

"We've never had an argument," says Allen about his musical partner, despite their paths having crossed at an early age. "Mick was older than me and when he was playing in a local band in Meath I used to call at their houses and watch them rehearse."

The pair first played together in the band The Mary Landers, before Allen was scouted to replace Brendan Shine in the Kieran Kelly Band. Then in 1973, along with his brother Tom, Allen was part of Doc Carroll's Nightrunners Showband and reunited with Foster.

In 1975 the band were touring in England, when a friend of the band – Pat Callaghan, from Derry – who ran an Irish dance venue in Brixton, asked Allen, on keyboard and Foster, on accordion if they would help him launch his new pub, near Kilburn tube station.

"We played every night that week and it was a great bit of craic. We probably made more money in those seven nights than the whole tour. The Nightrunners broke up shortly after we came home and we formally launched Foster and Allen.

"All good things start in pubs, especially Irish pubs," laughs Allen, whose idea for their 2017 collaboration with country music star Nathan Carter also started with a conversation over a pint.

"Nathan and I were attending a Charlie Lansborough concert at the Grand Opera House in Belfast and we went for a drink with Charlie after at the Crown Bar across the road. We got talking about doing an acoustic version of Status Quo's Burning Bridges, with two accordions and it was a perfect partnership.

"We had great fun doing the video in Belfast with Nathan. When he arrived and opened his accordion case, it turned out him and Mick had exactly the same accordions."

From playing in the Sydney Opera House to appearing on The Podge and Rodge Show, Foster and Allen have had an eclectic range of highlights over the years. But for Allen, their infamous appearance on Top of the Pops in 1982, dressed as Irish leprechauns, was his overriding career high.

The opportunity arose when their second single, A Bunch of Thyme reaching number one in Ireland and 18 in the UK charts, the pair were summoned back from tour in America to appear on in the prime-time music show.

"Mick had never actually seen Top of the Pops, but as a teenager there were two shows I had to see on television – The Monkees and Top of the Pops. We were on with The Boomtown Rats and The Nolans. There were people dancing away on the dancefloor and walls of lights – it was a great experience."

The following year, their hit Maggie once again made the UK charts and reached number on in Australia. Although thought of by many as an Irish folk song, Allen reveals it was actually penned by a Scottish schoolteacher, who went to live and work in Canada and wrote about one of his school pupils.

"The song was then used by Sean O'Casey in his play The Plough and the Stars, but the name Maggie was changed to Nora and recorded as Nora by Johnny McEvoy."

The albums kept coming and in 1993 they even topped the UK video charts. "Take That were number two and Diana Ross was number three," he says proudly.

Their latest release, Putting On the Style, once again reached the top 30 of the UK album charts earlier this year. It features 100 tracks, as a 2 CD as well as a DVD featuring highlights from their music videos and television appearances during the years.

"Some of the videos from way back show Mick with a ponytail and me with hair down to my shoulders," says Allen, who has always had a beard in the group. "It's been long, short, brown and grey," he laughs.

Allen says he will "never tire" of singing their old hits, and even gets told off by wife Trionagh for singing at 4am. "We've 900 to choose from, but will be doing two hours of the most requested hits," he reveals about their gigs in Armagh and Belfast

They will also, of course, leave plenty of time to meet fans at the end of the gigs.

"Nathan Carter blames us for starting meeting audiences after shows. We were about five years ahead of Daniel."

Next autumn Foster and Allen plan yet another album release.

"There's loads we still want to do. I'm always watching and listening to music coming out. Charlie Landsborough, Kevin Sheeran and more recently Derek Ryan have all written for ourselves. We've never recorded with Derek yet, but he's a great lad and a tremendous songwriter."

And what keeps him singing and touring?

"The craic. It's all about entertaining."

:: Foster and Allen bring their Putting on the Style Irish tour to Armagh City Hotel tomorrow (December 28) – see ticketmaster.ie or tel 028 3751 8888. Foster and Allen For A Night To Remember comes to Belfast's Grand Opera House on January 15 (goh.co.uk or tel 028 90241919). For full tour details visit Fosterandallen.ie.