The Patriotic Spirit of Irish Music
Derek Warfield is one of the great Irish ballad singers but he’s also much more – a founding member and long-serving front man of the legendary Wolfe Tones, a charismatic all-round performer, a historian, retriever and writer of songs and a man who cares passionately for the Irish song tradition.
Derek, the eldest of four children was born in Inchicore, in Dublin in 1943. He was educated at Synge Street C.B.S. and was apprenticed as a tailor, only to find the lure of a musical career irresistible.
This calling came as no surprise since music, song and entertainment was very much part of Derek’s childhood experiences. His father and mother both played piano and his father also played mandolin. Their musical tastes were wide-ranging and included a love of opera, classical music, all forms of dance and musicals. Derek’s mother taught him songs which he sang at every opportunity, and he made his first stage appearance at the Queen’s Theatre in Dublin at the age of six.
His great love and appreciation of all things musical was also influenced and nurtured by his grandparents.
From he was knee-high to a grasshopper, his mother’s parents Paddy and Anne Byrne Cunningham passed on songs and ballads. He has since recorded them and they’re still very much part of the Warfield repertoire.
His father’s mother, Catherine McDonough Warfield, gave him a mandolin, and he got lessons on the instrument from his father. All of Derek’s grandparents shared a common Irish patriotic spirit that he eagerly sought to be part of and understand.
So it was from this background that Derek was gifted a passion and respect for Irish music and song. And he’s brought that with him through the years, and now hopes to pass it on anew through his work with his band, the Young Wolfe Tones.
You have to go back to the early 1960s, when Derek was helping to rear a young family with his late wife Nuala, to trace the beginnings of the phenomenon that was the Wolfe Tones.
At the time, he was performing regularly with his neighbour in the Bluebell area of Dublin, guitarist Philip Woodnut . They played and sang together informally at fleadhs and festivals from the time they went to the All-Ireland fleadh cheoil in Gorey in County Wexford in August 1962.
So it was that Derek was involved in arranging a get-together at Kilrush, County Clare, in August 1963 that led to the decision to take on a name for the group. The Wolfe Tones were born.
The name itself came, of course, from the Irish patriot of the 1798 rebellion, the lawyer Theobald Wolfe Tone, who’s regarded as the father of republicanism in Ireland. Around that time there was also a band in Scotland called the Emmettones, named after another Irish hero, Robert Emmet.
The Wolfe Tones were Derek and Brian Warfield, Noel Nagle and Tommy Byrne, while Philip Woodnet, Paudy Keohane and Liam Courtney were also involved for a time.
The band was to remain together, singing, playing, touring and recording, for 37 years until Derek’s departure in 2001. By then they had an astounding 17 albums to their credit. Remarkably, in addition to everything that he recorded with the Wolfe Tones, Derek has also composed and recorded 70 of his own songs and ballads. Many of these songs, such as ‘St Patrick’s Day’, ‘Admiral William Brown’, ‘The Ballad of New Grange (Bru na Boinne)’ and ‘The Piper That Played Before Moses’, are modern favorites.
He remains a historian of the Irish song tradition as well, and has spent many hours of research in libraries and collections around the world, as well as building up his own book collection.
Some of the fruits of that work can be seen on no less than 10 solo albums – the highly-regarded ‘ Legacy ‘ (1995), ‘ Libertie ‘ (1998), ‘ Sons of Erin ‘ (1999), ‘ Clear the Way ‘ (2000), ‘Slan Abhaile ‘ (2001), ‘A Nation Once Again ‘ (2002), ‘ The Bonny Blue Flag ‘ (2003), ‘ Songs for the Bhoys Vol 1′ (2004), ‘ Songs For the Bhoys Vol 2′ (2005) and ‘ God Save Ireland ‘ (2006).
The albums reflect Derek’s deep patriotism, and also a lifetime’s study of the events and acts of heroism that have shaped and continue to shape Irish history.
In fact, the songs and ballads which he’s recorded, including his own compositions, say a great deal about the social, political and literary attitudes of past and present generations in Ireland.
He says, “You won’t find the views of the great majority of the Irish people reflected in much of the writing we have from the past. That’s very much coloured by the need to be acceptable to the rulers of the time. To listen to what’s being said by ordinary people you have to turn to the songs.”
In his album ‘Slan Abhaile’, for example, the focus is on the Irish songs, ballads and music that form the lyrical legacy of colonial rule in Ireland. There’s the ballad ‘ The Roll of Honour ‘, a tribute to the Hunger Strikers of ‘ 81, found alongside ‘ Paddy ‘ s Lamentation ‘, a song springing from the exodus during the ‘Great Hunger’, the famine years of the late 1840s.
Another Irish cultural phenomenon – the link with Glasgow Celtic football club for more than a century – is reflected in Derek’s two ‘Songs from the Bhoys’ CDs in recent years.
Derek’s appreciation of the traditions and communities linked with the club is informed by his own family history. His mother’s parents Paddy and Anne Cunningham lived in Glasgow for eight years and sadly also buried one of their eight children there. Paddy was one of many Irishmen who refused to be conscripted into the British army in Scotland during the 1914 -1918 war, saying he would never fire a shot for England . T he family returned home to Dublin in 1915.
Derek has been performing in Glasgow since 1962 and has always been struck by the generous spirit of the people there and their love of Irish song.
American Civil War
Another strand to Warfield’s career has been his interest in the songs of the Irish who took part in the American Civil War. It’s a rich legacy which was almost entirely neglected before Derek began putting together what became three CDs of songs, including some of his own compositions.
He’s also written a book, ‘The Irish Songster of the American Civil War’, to place alongside another book he produced on ‘The Songs and Ballads of 1798′.
He comments, “Looking at the tremendous quality of the songwriting among the Irish over generations in the States, as recorded in libraries and collections across the country, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Ireland lost its greatest talent in those times, particularly in those who starved or emigrated during the Famine years.”
Derek still tours the Civil War battle sites and has regularly performed at re-enactments and commemorations at Gettysburg, Sharpsburg, Harrisburg and other famous battle sites.
“I hope it helps to keep alive the memory of the many Irishmen who fought on both sides,” he says.
And if all that wasn’t enough, Derek also has produced a video called ‘Legacy’ with Apollo Video.
He continues to be kept busy performing throughout Europe and in North America. In 44 years on the road he’s enjoyed many highlights, performing at venues which include the likes of Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Albert Hall in London. There have been countless best-selling albums, number 1 hits and television and radio appearances along the way.
And the story continues with Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones. “I’m really excited about the future with these really brilliant young musicians,” he says. “It’s like a new beginning. They are each superb instrumentalists and singers so they can bring a new dimension to what we offer in the recording studio and on live on stage.
“What’s also very important is that they share the enthusiasm and love I have for the songs of the popular Irish tradition. People can get sniffy about these songs and not many bands are actually doing this material these days, but they’re great songs and part of a legacy which stretches back many generations.
“I believe that these songs will be renewed and will remain important, but you can’t take any tradition for granted. So we’re presenting an old tradition in a new package – and I’ve the same passion for it now as I had when it all started 44 years ago!”