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Tír na nÓg – the Irish folk band of eternal youth

tir na nog-n
Tír na nÓg in their heyday

TÍR NA NÓG — land of eternal youth — what a great name for a band. I doubt that Sonny Condell and Leo O’Kelly considered the longevity factor when they got together in Dublin in 1969.

Sonny grew up on a farm in Co. Wicklow where his early musical influences — a mixture of classical music and The Beatles — were enough to get him started on the guitar and provide the inspiration to start writing his own songs.

He went on to form a duo with his cousin and they recorded some songs that sold well enough to encourage him to persevere with his songwriting.

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Meanwhile, over in Co. Carlow, Leo O’Kelly had followed a slightly different musical path playing with The Tropical Showband.

The showbands were often looked down on by other musicians — the so-called ‘heads’ from the rock and pop scene — but they were, by and large, very talented musicians who covered a wide variety of music and were a vital part of the entertainment scene.

Leo later joined The Word — a psychedelic band of the times who played covers of The Doors, Love and The Byrds as well as their own material.

Leo’s first real taste of folk music came when he toured Europe and America with Emmet Spiceland who were riding high at the time with their beautiful harmonies that put them in a different league on the Irish folk scene.

Leo had seen Sonny Condell perform a few times but a chance meeting led to some jamming sessions and the realisation that their styles complemented each other.

They had both been harbouring desires independently to try their luck in London so they went into a studio and recorded some demo tracks of their own songs together with covers of material by Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen and others.

tir na nog new-n
The band performing as they are now

Their arrival and immediate survival in London was a mixture of adventure, comedy and ultimate good fortune on a scale that was probably not appreciated at the time by either musician. It was certainly not something they could have planned in advance.

Carrying guitars and suitcases they met up with some friends from home in a pub in Petticoat Lane and ended up being offered a Saturday and Sunday residency.

Still carrying instruments and cases they headed to Ealing to visit a friend of Sonny’s family who was sharing a flat with two other girls and certainly not expecting them.

An initial confrontation with the friend’s landlady was only resolved when she discovered she had worked in the same sugar factory in Carlow as Leo had. Soon the lads were partying with the girls and went on to meet a recording engineer.

He worked in a studio and offered to sneak them in for some free recording time. Not a bad 24 hours by any standard and they soon had a new demo to haul around to record companies.

Island Records turned them down but Chrysalis Records immediately snapped them up and Tír na nÓg were on their way playing folk clubs and building up a following. The advantage in being with a record company like Chrysalis was the clout that such an association carried.

They were able to perform to bigger audiences and soon they were playing bigger concerts and college tours in Britain and Europe.

Playing the Royal Albert Hall with Jethro Tull as part of a British and European tour certainly did them no harm and their own headlining tours attracted some amazing support acts such as Richard and Linda Thompson and Jasper Carrott among others.

They also gathered influential fans in the media. They did radio sessions with John Peel, Bob Harris and Kid Jensen but eventually after several albums they parted company with Chrysalis and returned to Ireland, going their separate ways for a while.

Both Leo and Sonny pursued solo careers. Leo worked for a while as a producer with EMI and also lived for a time in Amsterdam and London. Sonny formed Scullion with Philip King and continued to record also as a solo artist.

Leo and Sonny got back together in 1985 and toured occasionally but, after a long absence, they released an album, Live at Sirius, which got them gigging together again and they have returned to Britain on several occasions since.

When a musical partnership produces something special it is usually lasting. Long interludes only seem to re-enforce that bit of elusive magic. That should be the case when Tír na nÓg hit the road this month. They should not be missed.

Tír na nÓg play Kitchen Garden Cafe, Birmingham tonight (December 2) and Dulcimer, Manchester tomorrow (December 3).

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