The Wolfe Tones
Celtic Collections TRCD 020; 2 CDs; 122 minutes; 2004
Some wag once remarked that we will only really know when The Troubles are over when The Wolfe Tones decommission their instruments. Indeed, stretching the historical parallel further, following an acrimonious split, some quarters even refer to the Official and Provisional Wolfe Tones. The former, as represented by these two double albums and DVD, consists of three of the original members (Brian Warfield, Noel Nagle and Tommy Byrne) while the latter is centred on the fourth, Brian’s renegade brother who appears under the title ‘The Wolfe Tones’ Derek Warfield’.
That aforementioned split was fermented by a recording deal which actually resulted in the band not issuing any new material for a dozen years, but the Republican balladeers re-emerged in 2001 with the enormously popular (well, in Ireland at least) You’ll Never Beat the Irish. Subsequently, in 2003, their 1964 single, A Nation Once Again, surprisingly topped the BBC World Service’s listeners’ poll to discover the ‘world’s favourite tune’.
Named after one of Ireland’s most renowned patriots, Theobald Wolfe Tone, a leading figure in the doomed United Irishmen-led 1798 Rebellion, the band has never held back its Republican sympathies (and indeed once released an album called Rifles of the IRA). Perhaps in the spirit of reconciliation that song does not appear on The Troubles, but there are plenty of others whose titles strongly reinforce the band’s sentiments, not least Go Home British Soldiers, The Men Behind the Wire, Joe Mc Donnell and Joe Reid (the last two named respectively after one of the participants in the 1981 Hunger Strike and the other after a member of the IRA shot in Belfast in 1971). Surprisingly too, in a gesture of even-handedness, the band also performs songs which would not normally be associated with them, such as The Sash Me Father Wore and The Old Orange Flute.
The set consists of 32 tracks, but one senses some degree of padding. For instance, The Lough Sheelin Eviction deals with 19th century events in County Cavan. Hills of Glenswilly is an emigration song and The Green Glens of Antrim simply celebrates the area’s beauty, while the presence of Danny Boy is simply bewildering.
Like all Wolfe Tones’ albums the number of moods can be counted on the digits of a three-toed sloth and are namely ruminative, recriminatory and exhortative. As ever, the best delivery comes from Tommy Byrne (on the right in the above scan) whose rich voice has always explained why the band has been at the forefront of Ireland’s ballad tradition for so long, but the continuous use of unison singing really does become wearing.
According to the cover, the liner consists of a booklet ‘outlining’ the history of The Troubles, but this is far from the case for its bulk consists of notes on the songs which attempt to explain their context and relevance and largely succeed in doing so, albeit from a stance which some might consider partisan. However, since the songs are organised neither chronologically nor thematically there is no sense of being provided with a developmental story. The problem too is that some of the sentimental songs are rendered even more cloying by lush arrangements.
So, does this collection add to the listener’s understanding of the North’s history? The answer is affirmatively negative, though the overall content does suggest that the threesome’s views have mellowed over the years (and some Republicans will doubt the aural evidence on hearing the Orange songs). Still it remains infinitely preferable to the second collection reviewed here, the live At Their Very Best (which has also been issued in DVD format, a fact which explains the somewhat strange reference to ‘a history of Ireland in song featuring imagery of our past’ on the liner’s cover).
Recorded at the National Stadium and at Barrowlands in Glasgow (which might explain why there are so many people wearing Celtic shirts in the audience), this second double-CD set reveals very much why The Wolfe Tones have long been regarded as a rebel-rousing band. Naturally, it forms a greatest hits collection and most of the expected usual suspects are present (Rock on Rockall, The Helicopter Song, A Nation Once Again, etc.), but only the hardiest fan will be able to sustain interest in the CD version since this is effectively just the DVD’s soundtrack.
Still, there can be few people who will purchase these albums on spec and the remainder will be well acquainted with their content in advance.
22nd December, 2004