THE ATLANTIC Pirates have become one of the best known bands in Galway through their constant presence on Shop Street, playing some of the great Irish folk songs.
Yet the four members - James Gallagher (banjo/vocals ), Wayne Wilder (guitar/vocals ), Stephen ‘Pecker’ Dunne jr (banjo/vocals ), and Iven ‘The German’ Markquard (fiddle ) - are not just about playing a few popular Dubliners numbers, the quartet eat, sleep, and breathe folk music, and their love for the genre is equalled by a desire to put Irish folk music back in a position of prominence and popularity.
Introducing the band
James Gallagher is originally from Creeslough in north Donegal and grew up surrounded by music. “Both my father and mother could sing,” he says. “Although they never performed professionally there was always singing in the house and I was always mad about folk singing.”
Eventually James adopted the time-honoured ‘have banjo, will travel’ approach and found himself performing and busking in Cork, then, around two and half years ago a friend suggested he try County Galway.
“A friend of mine who was working in Gort asked me to come up and give it a try there,” he says. “I wasn’t really sure but I tried it for a couple of weeks and then travelled up to Galway city. I was busking outside Garavan’s and stopped in for a pint.
“I got talking to a few people and they let me play a gig there and I decided to stay about the town and I have been working and playing here ever since. I really like the city, people here have an appreciation for folk music and song that I have not seen in any other city or county, and that was a pleasant surprise.”
James and Wayne Wilder, from the Dolphin’s Barn area of Dublin, are the longest serving members of The Atlantic Pirates. The two met a couple of years ago at a party and became friends through their shared interest in folk music.
“Growing up I used to do this Ronnie Drew song, ‘The Rare Auld Mountain Dew’, and I used to imitate his voice,” says Wayne. “Then I met James at a party and later I looked him up and we started to talk about forming a band. I arrived that day and didn’t know how to play a lot of the songs but James showed me the chords on the banjo and said ‘Follow me’. I’m in Galway nearly two years now. I was in Cork but came up here, met a girl and decided to move. She left but I stayed and now I feel Galway is probably, no is, the best city in Ireland.”
The Atlantic Pirates line-up was added to by Stephen Dunne, a man with an impeccable folk music pedigree, being the son of the great folk singer The Pecker Dunne, author of songs like ‘Sullivan’s John’ and one of the most prominent folk musicians from the Traveller community.
“My dad has been a big influence on me,” says Stephen, who is also known as Pecker Dunne jr. “I would be going to his gigs and busking with him and that’s how I got started. One day, when I was about six, I just took up the banjo and started playing. My dad gave me a couple of pointers and let me off with it.”
How did he come into contact with James and Wayne? “I was living in County Clare, where I’m from. I had been working on building sites but I had no work at this stage and I got sick of being in a mobile home doing nothing so I travelled to Galway around the time of the races to do some busking and I met James, who recognised the Pecker Dunne banjo style. I told him who I was and we went and did a couple of gigs that night.”
James recalls with a laugh: “I asked him would he be interested in playing with us and he said ‘Yes’ so I told him ‘You’re on at 5.30pm!”
The band was completed with the arrival of German Iven Markquard. Ivan happened to be on holiday in Ireland at the time and his fiddle playing caught James’ attention. “I was outside Garavan’s and heard him,” he says. “So I went over to Ivan and asked if he would like to join the band. He did a set with us for an hour and he’s been with us since.”
A mix of influences
The Atlantic Pirates are now a fixture on the Galway scene and their passion and commitment to Irish folk song is evident from their performances on Shop Street which often see crowds gather round to listen and applaud at the end - a most uncommon accomplishment for any busker. Also noticeable is the rise of folk singing buskers on the city streets since the Pirates appeared on the scene.
The band’s repertoire draws on songs by The Dubliners, The Clancy Brothers, Donegal song, and the music of the Travellers.
“There are a lot of different influences musically,” says James. “We are four very different people with four different backgrounds. Stephen plays the banjo with a thimble in the Traveller style. My style is frailing, which comes from the old style American music and that is unusual to use in Irish folk, and Ivan is a classical trained musician.”
“My guitar style is more rock based, to give it energy,” adds Wayne. “We do draw from many of the folk artists that came before us, but really I think the band we sound most like is ourselves,.”
Stephen talks about the influence of the Travellers on Irish music and The Atlantic Pirates.
“Travellers have brought a lot to Irish music,” he says. “There have been scores of uilleann pipers and banjo players, and singers with their own style. My father is also a great fiddle player as was his father before him. My grandfather was known as The Fiddler Dunne so that gives you some idea. Playing banjo with the thimble is different and there is no one who will sound like me. Travellers often play the banjo with a thimble, so if you were to give me a plectrum I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
While the Pirates still enjoy busking, they are also stepping up the ladder with formal gigs and concerts. The band enjoy sessions in various bars in the city, a recent charity gig in the Town Hall Theatre, and on Thursday April 19 they will play the stage of Monroe’s Live at 10pm.
“I want to keep folk singing alive and give it a kick up the arse,” says James, “and I noticed that there were no real ballad groups, four people with the two banjos, fiddle, and guitar. I felt it hadn’t been done properly for years.
“I feel we’re hitting the first domino. We still have a hell of a long way to go but it’s the start of something and I hope it’s something good. We are looking towards working on a new album. There have been a lot of people in Galway who have been great, especially Padraig Ó Ceidigh who is managing us. He got us the gig in the Town Hall and playing Pearse Stadium. He has been very good to us.”
Admission to the Thursday April 19 gig at Monroe’s is €5. Tickets are available on the door or through 091 - 583397. A CD of the Pirates’ recordings is available from Opus II and from the band for €10.