HAVE YOU heard the one about the Yorkshireman who moved to Galway in the 1970s and changed the course of Irish traditional music forever? Well this is, in essence, the story of Oranmore-based musician Alec Finn and his journey with De Dannan.
De Dannan produced 14 innovative and inspirational albums from 1974 to 2003 and toured the world. Finn’s own instrumental virtuosity has meant he has been increasingly called upon as a session musician both in the studio and in the live arena.
As part of Galway Sessions 2009 Alec Finn guests with Brian McGrath at The Crane Bar on Friday June 19 at 9pm for the launch of Brian’s album Pure Banjo. On Saturday June 20 at 6.30pm in The Crane he joins Sean Garvey and Kathleen Loughnane for a celebration of Irish language and folklore.
Finn was born in the northern industrial town of Rotherham, England, but growing up in an Irish Catholic household the influence of the traditional music and song was never very far away.
“My parents are from Galway so I was brought back and forth as a child,” says Alec. “I’ve been visiting the Williamstown area of the county since I was about two years old. My grandmother had an old radiogram that used to have all the ceili bands and the Irish tenor singer Josef Locke on it.
“My mother played Irish music on the piano and Irish culture was a big part of my upbringing. The area where I grew up was a black sort of a hellhole of a town and as a result I always enjoyed coming to the farm in the west of Ireland. I went to live with my aunt in Ireland when I was about 16.”
In the late 1960s Finn moved to Dublin and became friendly with groups such as The Dubliners, Sweeney’s Men, and Skid Row. He also shared an apartment with an aspiring rock star by the name of Philip Lynott.
“When I first met Phil he’d just formed the band Orphanage with Brian Downey,” recalls Alec. “We ended up sharing a flat together for a couple of years and hanging out in Dublin. Then later when he formed Thin Lizzy and moved to London I saw a lot more of him when I was on tour with De Dannan.
“He used to come to see us play in Boston and London and various other places. The only time I saw him playing though was in Galway in the old Hangar venue when they had just brought out ‘Whiskey In The Jar’. He used to come to Galway even when he wasn’t playing with Thin Lizzy. He used to stay in An Spidéal and go out around the Camus area of Connemara on his holidays.”
As a result of sessions in Hughes’s pub in An Spidéal and The Cellar Bar in Galway city, the collective talents of Alec Finn, Frankie Gavin, Johnny ‘Ringo’ McDonagh, and Charlie Piggott formed De Dannan. They invited Dolores Keane to join as singer with the group in 1975 and this potent combination resulted in invitations to tour outside of Ireland.
“We went down particularly well with American audiences who were used to listening to banjos, mandolins, and fiddles, and we fitted in nicely at bluegrass festivals,” says Finn “We went over first in 1976 with Micho Russell and a whole team of musicians to play the Bicentennial celebrations in Washington.
“After that we travelled to places like Iowa and Chicago and we did so well there that we were invited back the following year. Initially we were just playing music in pubs but suddenly it all took off. It gave everybody a chance to travel and to see the world. Musically we always kept it varied to keep ourselves and the audience amused.”
After much chopping and changing and many line-up adjustments De Dannan decided to disband after the release of Welcome To The Hotel Connemara in 2000. Alec Finn enjoyed critical acclaim with his debut solo album Blue Shamrock and since then has collaborated on albums with Kevin MacLeod, Kathleen Loughnane, and John Carty. The fact that he plays many stringed instruments such as bouzouki, mandolin, and the guitar adds a tender touch to many recordings.
The Greek bouzouki was first introduced to Irish music by Johnny Moynihan in the 1960s but has developed through the playing of virtuosos such as Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny, and Alec Finn.
“A friend of mine was going to Greece and I asked him to bring me back a lute,” says Finn. “He brought me back a bouzouki by mistake and I started to play around with that. If he’d gone down a different street I’d probably still be playing the guitar and my music would’ve gone in a whole different direction.”
For more information on the gigs at Galway Sessions 2009 log on to www.galwaysessions.com or phone 091-587419 for tickets