In the 1960s, Irish traditional music was pretty well confined to the rural parts of Ireland. A core group of musicians in Dublin set about changing that, laying the foundation for the later success of bands like Altan, The Corrs, and Eileen Ivers.
One of these bands was Sweeney's Men, which was originally formed in 1966 by Andy Irvine, Johnny Moynihan, and Joe Dolan. The trio recorded a handful of singles including "Sullivan's John" before Dolan left to join the Israeli army for the Six Day War. He was replaced by Terry Woods.
The Irvine/Moynihan/Woods trio is the most famous lineup of Sweeney's Men, and their self-titled album from 1968 is one of the seminal recording of Irish folk music. The selection of material came from all over the British Isles and from American old-time music of the 1920s and 1930s. Irvine wrote, "Johnny and I tried to emulate 5-string banjos and mountainy fiddles on our open-tuned mandolins and bouzoukis." The album featured the songs "Sally Brown", "The Handsome Cabin Boy", "Dance To Your Daddy", and a fiery version of "Tom Dooley" which is more like Doc Watson's uptempo version than the dirge-like Kingston Trio recording.
This was the first record to feature the Greek bouzouki in an Irish context. All three members of the band would go on to become well-known and emulated in bouzouki/cittern/octave mandolin circles. According to Irvine, "The bouzouki-mandolin interplay, which later became a strong feature of Planxty, was 'invented' one evening in Johnny's family kitchen in Dalymount, Dublin, as we strove to find an accompaniment for 'Rattlin' Roarin' Willy'."
Irvine left the band in 1968 and was briefly replaced by Henry McCullough. His tenure was short, and Moynihan and Woods recorded The Tracks of Sweeney as a duo in 1969. While the traditional influences are still a strong part of their sound, there was more experimentation involved, mixing in influences from blues and jazz. The album features some wonderful originals, particularly Woods's "Dreams For Me" and "Brain Jam".
After the group disbanded, Irvine went on to play with Planxty and Patrick Street. Moynihan also played with Planxty and also was a member of De Danann and the Fleadh Cowboys. Woods made some duo recordings with his wife Gay and the two of them helped found Steeleye Span. Later, Woods would join The Pogues, appearing first in 1987 on If I Should Fall From Grace With God.
Castle Music has released a CD containing both Sweeney's Men and The Tracks of Sweeney along with the previously unreleased single "Old Woman In Cotton".
liner notes from Sweeney's Men/The Tracks of Sweeney