Trad/roots: Shamrock Tenors aim to take Irish song back on to the world stage
A bunch of lads from Lisburn and Larne – and from both sides of the north's tracks, as it were – have tapped into the worldwide appreciation of old-school Irish songs
PEOPLE of a certain age will remember the time when the sing-song was the most important part of the cultural fabric of their lives. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends would call in and each would do their party piece.
Songs would range from come-all-ye’s and ballads to songs from the musicals, chart hits to a wee bit of John McCormack.
Now, when we hear those songs, we feel a warm glow of remembrance and belonging and that’s how I felt watching a video entitled The Shamrock Tenors Live at the Ulster Hall.
It features five wonderful singers – brothers Raymond and Jack Walsh from Lisburn, as is Matt Good, and they are joined by Matthew Campbell and the high-stepping Jamie Johnson from Larne. The quintet perform songs we will all know – Danny Boy, The Fields of Athenry, Will Ye Go Lassie Go, The Black Velvet Band and so on – all gilded with beautiful harmonies and a typically Irish sense of fun.
Now, these are songs that are so popular and sung so often that they can become hackneyed and clichéed but I was lucky enough to get talking to the Walsh brothers this week and I asked them what the enduring qualities of these songs and songs like them were.
“Well, I think a lot of the songs are to do with Irish history and are invariably tragic but the stories they tell are wrapped up in such beautiful melodies,” says Jack.
As he says, “even our accents seem musical to other people” so maybe the Irish have an innate melodic structure hot-wired into them.
This week saw a promo for the Belgian team which was to go to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 which used Seán Ó Riada’s Mná na Éireann as it soundtrack, which shows the international appetite for Irish music. That, in a way, leads to how Raymond came to set up The Shamrock Tenors.
He was doing a bit of work as a guest entertainer on a cruise ship in an exotic part of the world – playing Frankie Valli in a Frankie Valli group, believe it or not – when the idea for the band came about.
“At the end of the show, a lot of people from all over the world would come up to me and, once they heard I was from Belfast, they’d tell me how much they loved Irish melodies and Irish songs and it occurred to me that there weren’t a lot of groups who do that and that I knew a bunch of really talented lads back home who would go down a storm if we came together in a group.
“Yes, there were groups like Celtic Women and The High Kings and Celtic Thunder but I thought it would be great to have a group who represented the north and also both sides of the community,” said Raymond.
So between the cruise ships and the acting jobs he was doing in London, Raymond set up a business which offered the lads some work at home and on cruise ships. This found them performing in places such as French Polynesia, Dubai and India while Raymond himself was performing in Les Miserables in London’s West End.
Once that came to an end, the quartet became a quintet as Raymond joined up. So the five are great singers, singing great songs and the only thing left was to come up with an image, which any of you who have seen the lads in action will know has a certain affinity to a certain television series and a certain boyband.
“The boys will kill me for saying this but the image came about at a time when I was obsessed by Peaky Blinders,” says Raymond. “That’s were the idea for the bangles and the smart waistcoats and ships but as an aesthetic, I can’t lie and say that Westlife weren’t an inspiration.
“I’ve seen them about seven times already, so maybe subconsciously, they were an influence.”
With everything now in place, The Shamrock Tenors had their first gig in the home town of three of the group at the Island Arts Centre.
“We did our first ever gig in the Island arts centre in Lisburn," Raymond recalls, "and with us being a cross-community group, Jamie’s family had come from Larne for the show during which of course, we sang The Fields of Athenry and Grace.
"So later, Jamie went up to the mic and said ‘I never thought I would be in a theatre in Lisburn with a bunch of people from Larne all singing along to the Fields of Athenry’ – so he recited a poem about Sir Edward Carson and the audience loved it that a bunch of lads could get up on a stage to sing about our differences and our similarities and everyone could have a great night."
Indeed Grace, Frank and Sean O’Meara’s song about the love between Grace Gifford and Easter Rising leader Joseph Mary Plunkett, has a special significance for The Shamrock Tenors. Their debut single, it went to number one on the iTunes World Charts this summer, with the video receiving over 1,000,000 views online in the past year.
“We hadn’t really released anything before but at that time, we had just got back from Australia, where we had been on a cruise ship for St Patrick’s Day but the day we joined, Australia shut its borders so we just had to float in the Indian Ocean for 10 days waiting to get back home.
“When we did, we quarantined in our uncle and aunt’s house in Dundrum and when we were running out of things to do we decided to release a song and we chose Grace.
“The next day, another guy in the band, Matthew Campbell, sent us a screen shot, saying ‘Look, look, look boys, we’re number one on iTunes!!”
The Shamrock Tenors seem now to be on the cusp of something big, having been taken on by Daniel O’Donnell’s manager, Ciaran Kavanagh, and the post-Covid possibilities seem limitless.
Let’s hope we see them tour with their band and special guests sometime soon.