Arguably, the most successful Irish folk band
for the last 40 years. Their blend of great talent, catchy renditions, original songs, and geniune love of the music have given them a timeless quality.
The biggest issue with the Wolfe Tones are their decidedly Republican view in the long, drawn out political and military issue known in Ireland as The Troubles. It is also the reason why many a times their music isn't played much in their homeland and is sometimes conveniently forgotten in the annals of Irish folk music. This is the well known and complicated division between the dominant Protestants and the minority Catholics in the north. The Republicans want a unified Ireland whereas the Unionists rather would have the current setup of a Northern Ireland united with the United Kingdom (though, catholics and protestants don't always fall into these two categories exactly). The Tones are not shy about how they feel, as many of the songs they sing and many they wrote illustrate and celebrate the creation of the Republic of Ireland, the Irish Republican Army, and the Provisional IRA. They do, however, endorse a peaceful unification more than anything else.
Brothers Derek Warfield and Brian Warfield, Noel Nagle and Tommy Byrne were working class lads in a working class suburb of Dublin. Already friends and musicians, Derek, Brian, and Noel headed for a fleadh, or festival, in the ruralesque county of Kerry, the butt of many's an Irishman's jokes (Kerry jokes are the equivelent of Polish jokes in the US). It was there that a Canadian TV producer wanted the boys to play for a documentary about Ireland. They were paid well and this would be the beginning of a new ballad band. They named themselves the Wolfe Tones after 18th century Irish Nationalist leader Wolfe Tone who died rebeling against British forces. They would later join up with Tommy Byrne and the foursome was complete.
While other ballad acts like The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers were more established, the Tones expounded on their devout nationalism and this set them apart from the rest. With songs like "The Foggy Dew", "Up the Rebels", and "Rifles of the IRA", there was no question at all how they felt. Touring through the UK, Ireland, and the United States and riding on the wave of traditional revival around the world, the Tones worked their way up the charts. They have played in venues ranging from countless pubs to Carnagie Hall for more than 35 years now. The work still goes on today minus Brian Warfield, in which they have had a falling out with.
Some of the songs they have written over the years include Some Say the Divil is Dead, Broad Black Brimmer, Joe McDonnell, Celtic Symphony, among many others.
Having actually been to a Wolfe Tones show as recent as December 2002 in New Jersey, I can say there still is plenty of energy left in them. The crowd was rousing especially during the most well known songs and everyone was singing the lyrics wich much gusto. Some of the classic songs that were on the playlist include Sean South of Gerryowen, Boys of the Old Brigade, Celtic Symphony, Get Out Ye Black and Tans, and of course, A Nation Once Again.
Some example lyrics:
Chorus of "Boys of the Old Brigade"
Where are the lads who stood with me
When history was made?
Oh ghra mo chroi, I long to see
the boys of the aul' brigade
Chorus of "Get Out Ye Black and Tans"
Get out ye black and tans, come and fight me like a man
Show your wife how you won medals down in Flanders.
Tell her how the IRA made you run like hell away
from the green and lovely lanes of Killashandra.
The song above is about the black and khaki uniformed British troops sent to Ireland to suppress the uprising during the early years of Ireland's war for independence. They were veterans of World War I. Most likely, this is the origin of the beer drink made with stout and ale.
A verse of "Sean South"
There we're men from Dublin and from Cork
Fermanagh and Tyrone,
and the leader was a Limerick man,
Sean South from Garryowen
The above song celebrates young Sean South, a boy killed during a border raid on the Royal Ulster Constabulary during an IRA campaign from 1956-1962. The other boy killed, Fergal O'Hanlon, is lauded in the more famous song, "The Patriot Game", also the source of the name of Tom Clancy's book.
Style wise, these songs sound a lot like drinking songs and many of them are. Many of these songs are sung after a few jars at a few locals spread through the Emerald Isle. These songs resemble a mixture of music from the American Civil War and traditional Irish music era more than most modern Irish music which is more influenced globally in rock, techno, hip hop, etc (note that American folk music, like from the Civil War, is heavily influenced by Irish/Scottish traditions). This is in stark contrast to the New Age and optimistic, bright eyed folk Irish stereotype that propagates in the US. I suppose it reinforces more the drinking stereotype but nonetheless, the music is very unforgiving in the picture it paints for the history of the country. It bangs into your head how it was not always rolling green hills and thatched roofs that, for whatever reason, still sits in the mind of many of its descendents. These days, while many areas are still undeveloped, Ireland is strong in IT work and has a very modern infrastructure although still lagging behind the bigwigs in the European Union.
The Wolfe Tones defend their music and outlook by calling their music a "musical history of Ireland." Though, how valid this is depend on which side of the fence they sit on. The Unionist have their own though less known collection of stirring and patrotic music. It is very difficult to separate the politics of the situation when listening to music like this. However, even with this in mind, the Tones also sing less contraversal and some traditional songs such as "Irish Eyes", "The Boys of Fairhill", "Streets of New York" among many others. The group's political views can sometimes shadow their talent in music.
Their latest album, "You'll Never Beat the Irish" and published in Nov, 2001, is a double platinum success in the Republic. Their cover of the traditional 19th century nationalist song "A Nation Once Again" by Thomas Davis was voted in as "most popular song in the world" through a BBC poll only in December, 2002. This was the result of a massive campaign put together by Irish and Irish descendents. Many of their past albums have been smashing successes as well garnering acclaim and more platinum releases throughout their history. All these current happenings tell the world that the Wolfe Tones are still very much alive even after almost 40 years.
- Noel Nagle - lead vocals, tin whistle
- Tommy Byrne - lead vocals, guitar
- Brian Warfield - banjo, harp
- ex-member Derek Warfield - mandolin
- my brain
Note: I can be persuaded to sing a few (very badly I might add) with the right "bribes."