Trad legends The Bothy Band on getting the music ‘up to scratch’ and lighting the spark for once-in-a-lifetime concerts

Dónal Lunny and Paddy Glackin talk to Robert McMillen about getting the band back together....

The Bothy Band are returning to the Irish stage after 45 years
The Bothy Band are returning to the Irish stage after 45 years

Thanks God for Strepsils. On December 7, it bucketed down for most of the day and because I had a chest infection, I had to take a taxi to the Redbox recording studios to meet – I despise clichés – but to meet two legends of Irish traditional music, Dónal Lunny and Paddy Glackin.

It turned out we all needed something to suck on, such were the effects of the horrible weather. We were at Redbox to discuss the news – somewhat on a par with the Second Coming in some people’s eyes – that one of the most exciting, innovative and best loved traditional music groups of the 1970s, the Bothy Band, was reforming for a series of gigs, including one in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast on February 25 2024, as part of the exponentially wonderful Belfast Tradfest.

Rock, pop and other musical genres have all had their supergroups and great musicians tend to gravitate towards each other more in traditional music than in an other form but perhaps the post-Chieftains, post-Planxty pinnacle was achieved by the Bothies, whose influence has long outlived its shortish lifespan.

However, you won’t hear Lunny or Glackin ruminate on their legendary status as that would take away from the essence of much of their lives - the music.

The pair bumped into each other in the Shelbourne Hotel in 1970-71ish and Paddy was instantly taken by Lunny’s bouzouki playing.

“I came from a tradition where the accompaniment was piano-based but what Dónal was doing was a kind of counter-melody against what I was doing and I found that really, really interesting,” says Paddy.

A poster for the The Bothy Band's upcoming Belfast show, their first Irish concert for 40 years
The Bothy Band play Belfast in February 2024 (Donal O'Connor)

“I also loved the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the way that that music would criss-cross, if you like, and that’s what Donal was doing too. I was very excited about that and the real enjoyment of actually playing it was always something to look forward to.”

On the other hand, for Lunny, it was the “fiery” playing of Mr Glackin and Paddy’s own natural talent that got his attention.

“Paddy is a fairly fiery player who plays in the Donegal style, which is usually faster than the average way tunes are played around the country, and with more spark,” he explains.

“That was very attractive to me because I’m an energetic player as well, whether I like it or not. I haven’t got a light touch on the bouzouki so I enjoyed playing with Paddy from the very beginning.”

There is, of course, a Donegal connection in that Paddy Glackin’s father is from the county and Dónal Lunny’s mother is from Rann na Feirste in the Donegal Gaeltacht; this might explain the next development in the gestation of the Bothy Band, as Dónal explains: “A few years later we became involved with Mícheál and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill during Gael Linn’s 21st anniversary celebrations when we were kind of thrown together for that.”

“And then, things started to happen,” he recalls.

“Mícheál had ideas and we started sparking off each other. Tríona had lovely songs, Paddy was playing the fiery tunes and it planted a seed and at the band evolved from there.”

There was so much ‘traffic’ on the music scene that ideas and bands came and went and came again and the Bothy Band just grew out of that

—  Dónal Lunny

Dublin in the mid-1970s was a melting pot of musicians where players would be constantly bumping into each other and playing sessions together; that applied to the other people who became members of the Bothy Band, the likes of Paddy Keenan, Matt Malloy, Kevin Burke, Tony MacMahon, all outstanding musicians and creative powerhouses.

“There was so much ‘traffic’ on the music scene that ideas and bands came and went and came again and the Bothy Band just grew out of that,” recalls Dónal.

Something special from stellar musicians

For the listener, from when Mícheál Ó Domhnaill’s driving guitar opens the band’s debut album in 1975, we knew that this was something special with each of the stellar musicians being highlighted on a particular track.

Blazing the trail was the opening set of The Kesh Jig, Give Us a Drink of Water, The Flower of the Flock and Famous Ballymote while the other tracks are not simply masterclasses in musicianship, but have arrangements which revolutionised the playing of traditional music.

Following the success of 1975, the Bothies released Old Hag You Have Killed Me in 1976, cementing their reputation as the great trailblazers of traditional music.

I asked Dónal how it was possible to turn such fine individual musicians into a band of (at least) seven people.

“Well, everybody had their own strengths,” he explains.

“The basic makeup of the band was three front players – pipes, fiddle, flute – then you had guitar, clavinet, and bouzouki.

“The three accompanying instruments, the rhythm section, we had ideas about the arrangements which we’d suggest to the front players and that evolved into having counter-melodies, say, on the fiddle and the same for the fiddler, flute and pipes and just working around that and putting different colours into the arrangements and it just became a really exciting thing to do,” says Donal.

That excitement was shared by both the listening audience and the many people who had found a new love for traditional and folk music thanks to the Bothy Band and Planxty before them.

The band recorded thee studio albums, two live concerts and a Greatest Hits collection but, almost half a century after their formation, the boys are back in town - thanks to a TV company, Big Mountain.

“It was Big Mountain who pursued the idea of a documentary on the band and and they got us interested and suggested, you know, like a week-and-a-half rehearsal and interviews and a concert at the end, so we had an objective but it really sort of threw the focus onto the music,” says Lunny.

“I mean, apart from all of us getting together and reminiscing about things in the interviews, the music was always a central factor.

“So without realising it, it kind of lit the spark again and the band creeped back into action.

“And then when we took to the notion of playing a concert, at the end of that period, we took that very seriously and realise we had to get the music back up to scratch, you know, so it was a big struggle, but, in fact, it worked to very well.”

The Bothy Band are playing in the Waterfront Hall as part of the Belfast Tradfest, giving the many musicians, young and old, who have the band’s DNA flowing through their own music, the once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear one of the few bands who merit the adjective “legendary”.

February 25 2024 promises to be an “I was there” occasion.