Interviewed, Andy Irvine of Irish supergroup Usher’s Island, heading to FolkEast

Usher’s Island, heading to FolkEast later this month

The FolkEast finale promises to be a memorable one with an exclusive main stage UK festival appearance by Irish supergroup Usher’s Island, which unites two ground-breaking generations of Irish musicians.

 Andy Irvine of Usher's Island
Andy Irvine of Usher’s Island

Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine and Paddy Glackin link the band’s heritage back to the glory days of Planxty and The Bothy Band while two of today’s leading heirs to these pioneers – signature guitarist John Doyle and virtuoso flautist Mike McGoldrick – bring their experience of Celtic and other international roots styles to the mix.

Now in his 70s, Irvine has been influential in traditional Irish music for more than five decades. During that time he’s played with some brilliant Irish musicians in various collaborations and formed bands like Sweeney’s Men to Patrick Street. It’s Planxty who were seen as one of the most influential Irish traditional music bands ever.

“Christy Moore was making an album for Bill Leader in 1971 and insisted on making it in Ireland with Irish musicians. We all got on really well, both socially and musically, while rehearsing and recording it and it was a great pleasure when he asked us later if we’d care to form a band,” he says.

“What Planxty means is still a mystery. Turlough O’Carolan, the blind 17th Century travelling Irish harper was the only man to use the word and many possible translations of it from the Irish have been suggested. Whatever the meaning of the word, he used it as a dedication to his patrons – like Planxty George Brabazon.”

Planxty have already reformed a few times over the years – the last being 2004 – but Irvine says there are no plans for another.

The focus is on Usher’s Island, which came about after Planxty finished in 2005.

“Donal, Liam and myself were keen to continue the same format and we added Paddy Glackin and called ourselves LAPD. That came to an end when Liam dropped out. Still wanting to play such music, we three asked John Doyle and Mike McGoldrick if they would join and they said yes.”

Music wasn’t Irvine’s first career.

“I was a great child actor. But like many another child, I found it hard to become a good ‘juvenile’ actor. At 14 I had lost confidence and assuredness. As my parents had made the huge decision to terminate my academic studies in order I should become a professional actor, I felt I had to continue acting which I did until I was 21.”

With an Irish mother and Scottish father Celtic music influences must have been there from an early age?

“No, my parents were interested in very different music. My mother had been a musical comedy actress before the war and my father liked early jazz.”

Irvine still remembers the first piece of music that made him want to be a musician.

“Julian Bream, who was my teacher of classical guitar, played some Bach for me at my first lesson. I was utterly destroyed emotionally.”

His first public performance is equally memorable.

“I was employed to play at a posh birthday party in the south of England in 1961. I think my fee was 15 guineas, train fare and hotel.”

Touring solo as well as part of bands, Irvine enjoys the mix, adding: “I’ve always regarded myself as a soloist even in bands. I like both sides of that coin.”

When it comes to which of the songs he’s written is closest to his heart, it’s a split between Never Tire of the Road, about Woody Guthrie and The Wind Blows over the Danube. How influential has Guthrie been in his career?

“First and foremost. There are many questions I would like to ask Woody if he were here today. I often dream about travelling with Woody.”

FolkEast runs August 19-21 at Glemham Hall. For those not attending for the day or weekend, it is offering a one-off on the gate £25 ticket for Usher’s Island 7pm performance on the Sunday.

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