Johnny Moynihan has a back catalogue that includes Sweeney’s Men, Planxty, De Danann and much more. Ahead of a reunion tour of Sweeney’s Men that begins in Spanish Point this Saturday night the legendary troubadour who helped form the Dubliners spoke to
Joe Ó Murcheartaigh about his earliest days in Clare when going from hay barn to hay barn on the Fleadh Cheoil circuit of the day.
“That August in Kilrush when the rain was lashing down
And our hotel was that hay barn on the outskirts of town.
We were all sick and feverish and Dolan had the flu
But Johnny produced some whiskey and the sun came shining through.”
Andy Irvine, 1996
JOHNNY Moynihan, Joe Dolan and Andy Irvine were on the road and loved it, but for all the adventure of the open journey it wasn’t as idyllic as the passage of the half a century since sometimes makes it seem.
They had no money; it was lashing rain outside and worse still they nearly all felt just as bad as the weather. It was the Clare Fleadh at Kilrush in 1966 and the three free spirits and extended entourage had taken refuge in a hay barn just outside the town.
What to do?
“We were a pretty miserable crew,” recalls Johnny Moynihan, “so I just slipped away in the wagon and I don’t even know if Andy and Joe and the others knew I was gone.
“There was no point busking on the street so I drove to Kilkee and frog-marched myself into a big lounge with people — a few of my own relations were there on holidays I found out after — sitting around.
“I’d never done anything like that before, confronting people in their comfort zone, but I played a few tunes and sang a few songs. I didn’t carry it off very well but I got enough money to get what I wanted.”
A few hours later Moynihan returned and nonchalantly remarked to his fellow roadies that, ‘a hot whiskey wouldn’t go amiss now’.
‘Whiskey,’ said Irvine, ‘what whiskey, we’ve no money’.
‘Put the kettle on,’ responded Moynihan as he pulled the fruits of his impromptu performance in Kilkee from his pocket — a half bottle of whiskey that became immortalised in Irvine’s ‘My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland’ track on his ‘Rain on the Roof’ album.
The three budding troubadours et al toasted life on the road in that Kilrush hay barn and at the same time prepared for the next leg of their journey.
“It was one big road trip in those years,” says Moynihan. “We went from Fleadh to Fleadh. The Fleadh would be where we’d go to listen to music and we’d then sit around and play a few tunes and sing a few songs. In the summers of ’64, ’65 and ’66 it was like a road movie — we were sleeping in hay barns and cars in those years and it was really happy go lucky as we went from place to place.”
All part of what Moynihan calls his “real education” — the road and the music as distinct from his time as an architecture student in both Bolton Street and University College Dublin. “I was a drop out architectural student,” he reveals, “but I met some great people along the way in college.
“People like the late Eamon O’Doherty, a great man who became a famous sculptor, who played music and travelled around with us and the late Ken Madden, another great fan of Irish music. Ken’s father had a good tape recorder and he’d record every Job of Journey Work and Ceol Tíre by Ciarán MacMathúna and it was in my late teens that I was exposed to Irish music — it hit me like a bomb.
“I had been listening to ethnic music from different parts of the world but one day I heard Ciarán’s programme as I was walking past a radio and I was stuck to the ground when I heard it — I realised that it was music of power and grace and just as good as the stuff I’d been listening to from different parts of the world. When I got interested in traditional music, I was hooked.
“In Dublin that time here wasn’t really any music allowed in pubs — there was the Piper’s Club and the St Joseph’s Traditional Music Club on Church Street. We’d hear the best of musicians there but there was nothing like getting on the road and getting down the country. I decided to hit the road west for the first time.”
Miltown became one of Moynihan’s first ports of call — he’s been coming and going from the place for the past 50 years and more.
“The thing about Miltown was that the people were always so friendly,” he says. “The first day I was ever going into Miltown there was a fella walking towards me. He recognised that I wasn’t a local and he just put out his hand and with a huge smile said ‘welcome to Miltown’. It was so typical of the place and the county and the people generally — remember I was a city boy.
“When you’d go to Miltown there were always enough players in the vicinity that it didn’t have to be a Fleadh or a Darlin’ Girl from Clare Festival. You had Willie Clancy who was a wonderful character, very droll and very funny, Martin Talty, Jimmy Ward and Peadar O’Loughlin, who’s still with us.
“There was great craic in Queally’s and in Tom and Maisie Friel’s — it was just a great place to go and there were two hotels that didn’t charge any us rent because they were hay barns. The late Martin Byrnes, the fiddle player used to refer to them as Shelbourne and the Gresham. One was out the Ennis Road and the other was behind the Central Hotel.
GO back 50 years and the internet will tell you what bohemian life was like down the road from the real Shelbourne, with Johnny Moynihan again one of the cast’s central characters in the musical narrative and folk revival of the day.
It’s 1965 and thanks to YouTube Johnny Moynihan is in full voice on O’Donoghue’s Opera — the film starring Ronnie Drew and a supporting cast of bandmates and customers at the famous public house on Dublin’s Merrion Row.
Moynihan is there in black and white — playing a lead role among of a cast of artists, actors, students, musicians and much more who were immortalised in a film that wasn’t released for over 30 years.
“I was the narrator,” recalls Moynihan, “and the film was a great tour de force. I was the one singing the night before Larry (played by Ronnie Drew) was stretched (hung).”
By then the Dubliners were fully formed and famous, with Moynihan having played an unheralded role in bringing Drew, Luke Kelly, Ciaran Bourke et al together in the first place.
“My girlfriend had a friend who was going out with Ciaran Bourke and we were invited to a party out in Rush,” recalls Moynihan. “Ciaran Bourke met up with Barney McKenna that night. I would have first seen Barney in the Piper’s Club or Church Street Club and quite possibly would have brought him to O’Donoghue’s.
“When I was in UCD I had resurrected the Folk Music Society there. It had been dormant, so I decided to bring it back. That was where I first met Ronnie Drew. One of the lads in class with me was into flamenco guitar and he spoke about this fella Ronnie Drew who played flamenco guitar and sang songs.
“He was asked to come in to play for the society — in a room in Newman House on St Stephen’s Green. That night Ronnie just blew us all away. It was amazing. That time Eamon O’Doherty had a flat over a pub, Rice’s I think, on Grafton Street and after Newman House we went back there — they next day we brought Ronnie into O’Donoghue’s.
“One year I went to Miltown with Luke Kelly, or else I met him there,” continues Moynihan. “We were after coming back from Miltown and there was a club on in the International Bar on Wicklow Street. I brought Luke with me and as we were going up the stairs Ronnie was coming down the stairs, so the three of us met on the stairs and I introduced them. Pretty quickly after that the Dubliners were formed,” he adds.
THE formation of Sweeney’s Men happened just as quickly, when the lure of open road that had been nurtured in those journeys from hay barn to hay barn in Kilrush, Miltown Malbay and beyond around the country proved irresistible for Moynihan, Dolan and Irvine.
It was 1966 and Moynihan had a day-job working in an architects office in Roscommon, while Dolan and Irvine were down the road in Galway having secured a residency for the summer season in the Enda Hotel on Dominick Street.
“We had two or three blissful weeks in the Enda but it wasn’t to be,” recalls Irvine.
“I came down at the weekends to join in with them,” remembers Moynihan, “but what happened was, unfortunately, but not unfortunately as it might have been a blessing in disguise, is that the lusty Dolan met up with a visiting American lady in the hotel and when the manager heard about this he blew his top and fired the group.
“There was an air of despair, but I said ‘the summer doesn’t have to be ruined — we can just go on the road’. That was it. I handed in my notice and we formed Sweeney’s Men and off we went in our red Volkswagen van.
“Joe had worked in Aghadoe Hotel in Killarney and he knew of a bar in Killarney. Eamonn O’Doherty organised that we’d get a gig there. We just took it from there and one thing led to another. It was in that first year of Sweeney’s Men that a bouzouki came into my possession. It was brought into the country by a man called Tony French — he went to Greece and came back with a bouzouki and sold it to me.”
It was Moynihan’s bouzouki that came synonymous with Sweeney’s Men — in the group’s first coming, later when Terry Woods was drafted in for the departed Joe Dolan and beyond to the present day as Irvine, Moynihan and Woods gear up for their return to Miltown Malbay this Saturday night.
“That first summer of Sweeney’s Men was never to be repeated,” reckons Irvine, adding that “somewhere along the way we became professional musicians.
“We made a single ‘The Old Maid in the Garret’ and went straight in at number six,” remembers Moynihan, “but what we learned afterwards that Joe (Dolan) couldn’t really handle the focus of being a top ten hit and he left the band.
“He went to fight in the Six-Day War,” says Irvine, “but arrived on the seventh day.
“It wasn’t on the seventh day — it was more like the 27th day,” says Moynihan. “I remember our manager Des Kelly said ‘you might have given us some notice Joe’ and he replied ‘well Colonel Nasser didn’t give me much notice’. That was a bit of fun.
“Sweeny’s Men was great fun.”
NEARLY 50 years on the fun that was Sweeney’s Men is set for its reprise in the Armada Hotel in the band’s latest coming that has its genesis in Andy Irvine’s 70th birthday celebrations a few years back in Vicar Street.
“He just got people to play for his birthday,” says Moynihan of a cast that spanned the generations as well as Irvine’s different musical incarnations between Sweeney’s Men, Planxty, Patrick’s Street and Mozaik made up of Moynihan, Terry Woods, Dónal Lunny, Liam Óg O’Flynn, Paddy Glackin, Paul Brady and more.
“The three of us (Moynihan, Woods and Irvine) had one day to rehearse,” recalls Moynihan. “I hadn’t seen Terry Woods for many decades — when he walked in the door I wasn’t even sure it was him. Maybe only because we had a day to rehearse we were in a state of hysteria — very quickly we were laughing our heads off.
“We had good fun on stage when it came to the gig and the next time around we did five gigs around the country. People were very kind, they turned out and it all seemed to click and work,” he adds.
Now comes another series of three gigs, with the Spanish Point concert reviving a link with Miltown going back to the days of the ‘Shelbourne’ and ‘Gresham’, as well as another benefit gig performed by Sweeney’s Men in the town.
Back in 1968 it was a fundraiser for the local swimming club — 47 years on comes a concert in aid of Oidhreacht an Chláir and its traditional music archive and interpretative centre, the Music Makers of West Clare.
“Seán Malone in Miltown was very anxious that we’d come together for a night,” reveals Moynihan, “and because of playing a charity gig there before he felt it would be great if we were brought back. Sean tells the story that in 1968 before the gig we weren’t allowed into the Central Hotel for a meal because of our long hair.
“Afterwards we were walking back up the town and Sean’s mother was frying up mackerel and the smell of it came out and invited us in and she fed us.”
No doubt the food will be served up for Sweeney’s Men in Malone’s this Saturday night once more if needs be, while the Central Hotel would jump at the chance to make amends too.
And over in the Armada they’ll all be singing away to Irvine’s ‘My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland’.
‘My heart tonight is far away across the rolling sea
In the sweet Miltown Malbay it’s there I’d like to be
So long ago and far away but nothing can compare
My heart’s tonight in Ireland in the sweet County Clare
In the days of Sweeney in the sweet County Clare.’