TÍR NA nÓg are experiencing something of a revival and for the first time in several years the duo of Sonny Condell and Leo O’Kelly join forces to play The Crane Bar, Sea Road, on Thursday September 18 at 9pm.
In the early 1970s, the folk revival and the impact of rock music inspired a new generation of Irish musicians to produce some of the richest and most innovative music ever made in this country. It was the era of Planxty, The Bothy Band, Clannad, Midnight Well, Mellow Candle, Paul Brady, and Tír Na nÓg.
Tír Na nÓg was a duo of Wicklowman Sonny Condell and Carlow’s Leo O’Kelly. Their music was mostly acoustic based, drawing on Irish folk as well as contemporary rock. The band’s eponymous debut album, released in 1971, showcased Condell and O’Kelly very different styles and approaches to songwriting. What was not in doubt though was the quality of both men’s compositions.
Tír Na nÓg remains many people’s entry point into the duo’s music and for Leo O’Kelly, the album’s opening track ‘Time Is Like A Promise’ is the definitive Tír Na nÓg track.
“We’re just a little biased but we do enjoy the songs as much now as we did then,” O’Kelly tells me. “For me the definitive Tír Na nÓg song has always been Sonny’s ‘Time Is Like A Promise’. We nearly always start our shows with it. It’s a song I never tire of and was one of the first songs we ever played together. It still holds mystery for me and features our close harmonies...sometimes I can’t tell which of us is singing which part!”
Two more albums followed - A Tear And A Smile (1972 ) and Strong In The Sun (1973 ). The albums were well received by the music press and both John Peel and Bob Harris championed them on their BBC radio shows. Tír Na nÓg also enjoyed high profile support slots with Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, Roxy Music, ELP, and The Who.
In 1974 Condell and O’Kelly called it a day. Condell would go on to form Scullion and record solo albums while O’Kelly worked as a producer and recorded a number of solo albums. However from time to time the pair re-form and tour.
“Tír Na nÓg seems to happen in cycles,” says O’Kelly. “We can go for years without playing together and then play a lot in a short space of time...which is what seems to be happening now. Sonny and I always enjoy playing together, and even though we include Tír Na nÓg songs in our solo performances, there is something very special for us which only happens when we play together.”
Gratifyingly for the pair, they find those attending the shows are not just long time fans, but also increasingly include new audiences.
“There is also a renewed interest in Tír Na nÓg from a much younger audience...more abroad than in Ireland,” says O’Kelly. “Our Myspace site was initially set up by an 18-year-old musician and radio DJ from Toronto, Gaven, who has his own psychedelic/acid folk band, The Saffron Sect.
“They have their own considerable following, and recently came over from Canada to play at England’s Green Man Festival. Our Wikipedia archivist Thibaut is a French teenager who knows more about Tír Na nÓg than we do. He came over to Waterford recently with his family especially to see us play.”
As both Condell and O’Kelly remain active in music, do they plan to do any future recording together as Tír Na nÓg?
“We haven’t discussed recording together again but it is always possible,” says O’Kelly. “The bits and pieces I’ve been writing recently are more in a folky vein than previous years and it would be interesting to see how our songs sit together now. We have always written separately, but the combination and juxtaposition of Sonny’s and my songs has always created more than the sum of their parts.”