Stockton’s Wing have only gigged together on three occasions in the last decade, but are now gearing up for three concerts within the space of a week, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh who delves into the back catalogue of the iconic Ennis band as they prepare to hit the stages of Lisdoonvarna and the National Concert Hall.
MIKE Hanrahan wasn’t part of the band, but was always around the band and still remembers the day above many. Back in the day, back in the old homestead in St Michael’s Villa’s.
It was the beginning – the very beginning, with the impromptu gathering of musicians, family and friends being all about what to call the band? They were traditional, they were folk, but it didn’t mean that they had to be slaves to a traditional sounding name, so that’s why Bruce Springsteen name was thrown into the mix and eventually stuck.
“It was my brother Ger,” recalls Mike. “We had Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ album. We were going through all different names and he came up with Stockton’s Wing. It’s from a song on the album called Back Streets, from the line ‘Slow dancing on a moonlit beach as Stockton’s Wing, where desperate lovers park to meet the last of the Duke Street kings’.
“It was dramatic at the time – most band’s names were Irish-related, folklore related, so to come up with something from a Bruce Springsteen song was quite innovative and cheeky. It suited because we always had a cheekiness about what we were doing, a spark,” he adds.
And, the spark has never really left them – it was there ten years ago when first reunion took place in RTÉ Studio 5 for the Radio 1 arts programme Rattlebag; it will be in the Royal Spa Hotel this coming Friday and Saturday night and then in the National Concert Hall on St Patrick’s Day.
“The reunion gigs are great,” says Hanrahan. “You might be rusty and make the odd few mistakes on stage, but generally there’s something that happens. I’ve played three reunion gigs and at the end I’ve always said ‘I’d love to be starting that again’. Not going on tour again, but playing the gig again. There is a magic in the gig. It’s still there for all of us,” he adds.
It’s why Mike Hanrahan, Paul Roche, Tommy Hayes and Maurice Lennon will gather in Lisdoonvarna later this week – old bandmate Kieran Hanrahan won’t be with them because of other commitments, but they’ll be joined by Tony Molloy, Danny Byrt and Steve Cooney as the Wing prepare to take flight with the first of their three reunion gigs.
It was that memorable appearance on Rattlebag in November 2003 that convinced the Wing of the merits of coming together again. They hadn’t been in the same room for a couple of decades until presenter Myles Dungan and producer Aonghus McAnally got them to shed some cobwebs on primetime afternoon radio.
It was as if they’d never been away – Mike Hanrahan on guitar and vocals; Paul Roche of flute and whistle; Tommy Hayes on bodhrán; Maurice Lennon on fiddle and Kieran Hanrahan on banjo.
“It was like riding a bike,” said Paul Roche after they gave ‘Beautiful Affair’, ‘Walk Away’ a blast. “Once we had the first tune played it all came flooding back. It was the same as if we had just left it yesterday, like we’d never been away,” he added.
“It was amazing how it came back,” was Tommy Hayes’ verdict. “Aonghus McAnally said afterwards,” recalled Kieran Hanrahan, “that he couldn’t get over the spark, that it was still there, that we could walk into the studio and still have it.”
“It was exhilarating,” contended Maurice Lennon as the band that first mushroomed in the 1970s rediscovered old tunes, older friendships and got their mojo back – got it back because it never left them.
“It was a stunning night,” recalls Mike Hanrahan ten years on. “The atmosphere was electric. It was a home town gig – when we went on stage to realise that our memory banks were still in tact, that we could summon the tunes and the songs, there was a warmth there.
“Going back to play with the band again and realising the punch that we packed with the sound was exhilarating. It was a powerful sensation, but then again it was great to know that we wouldn’t be touring it either and that it was a once off,” he adds.
It’s something that Stockton’s Wing have been true, because in all there have been just three reunion gigs over the past ten years. But now as they prepare for three within the space of a week, it’s a case of them not coming quick enough.
“We’re not one of these comeback bands,” says Hanrahan, “because we all have our own lives in different areas of the world, doing different things, so a reunion gig is a special event for all of us. We don’t look at it as if we’re going to try and conquer the world again.
“The camaraderie never goes – you mightn’t see each other for a few years, but the craic, the one-liners and the music. It’s all there. The soundcheck is always lovely because we meet and have a bit of fun – then there’s the magic of the gig.
“I spent 15 years of my life with the band. It was really intense, we were a family, we travelled around the country in a van together. There was the understanding of each other on stage.
“It’s not a career for me to get back to Stockton’s Wing – it different than that, much different, it’s to enjoy the moment, it’s to enjoy the audience and occasion, what we were and what we still have,” he adds.
For Hanrahan the magic started when he joined the band in 1979. Prior to that he formed one half of Tumbleweed – the other half was Maura O’Connell and both were asked to join the band.
“It was by accident,” says Hanrahan, “but it was a natural thing as well because I’d been playing with them all the time at sessions, doing all the Fleadhs and Brogan’s Bar with them and all that.
“It was a natural fit for me. I wanted to go on the road anyway and Maura O’Connell was reluctant to go on the road and when the offer came they asked myself and Maura to join. Maura didn’t because she wanted to concentrate on her family business in Ennis, but she told me to go. Six months later she joined De Danann.
“The first thing I did with them – the title track of the album was one of my own songs. That was the Take a Chance album we recorded in ’79 and then went on tour with it the following April – I remember the first gig was in Clonmel Folk Club. It started from there,” he adds.
Now in a way the band has come full circle – the Royal Spa Hotel venue will be like the Clonmel Folk Club all those years ago, small and intimate, while the big venue of the National Concert Hall will be a reminder of the bigger gigs of old.
And there were many – with Sammy Davis Jnr in the RDS, support to Michael Jackson before thousands in Páirc Úi Chaoimh before they helicoptered from there to Galway to play before a few hundred.
“We were always an audience band,” says Hanrahan. “We prided ourselves with having a great connection and closeness with the audience,” he adds.
It doesn’t get much closer or more intimate than playing in a small room before 120 people in the Royal Spa Hotel.