Folk: Boys of the Lough - The New Line

Boys of the Lough. Picture: Contributed
Boys of the Lough. Picture: Contributed
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AFTER nearly 50 years, the Boys of the Lough are still keeping the old tunes alive

Back in the early Seventies, when I was first lending a prog-rock-addled ear to this stuff they called folk music, I acquired an eponymously titled debut album by some outfit called the Boys of the Lough. It opened, I recall, with a lissom Irish reel on fiddle and flute, bearing the same name.

More than 40 years, and 23 albums, on, albeit with a greatly changed line-up and following a period of uncertainty over their future, the Boys of the Lough are releasing their first studio recording as a band for a decade, and... yes, it opens with that same reel, as if declaring their unaltered credentials – to play straight-down-the-line traditional music from Ireland, Scotland and Shetland.

Following multi-instrumentalist Dave Richardson’s departure in 2011, the Boys have regrouped as a quartet, with fiddler Kevin Henderson, who replaced fellow-Shetlander and longstanding member Aly Bain in 2002, Kerry accordionist and singer Brendan Begley, West Clare’s Garry O’Briain on guitar, mandocello and keyboards, and – the one remaining member from the group’s formation in the late 1960s – the Edinburgh-based flautist and singer Cathal McConnell. “We did wonder what would happen when Dave retired. He was such a major part of the band’s organisation,” says Henderson, speaking from his home in Norway, “but we all sat down and said, ‘We all really enjoy doing this. Why give it up?’ So we decided to keep going as a four-piece.”

The band’s status is likely to remain occasional for the near future as its members can have hectic individual schedules – Henderson, for instance also plays with Session A9 and Fiddlers’ Bid, as well as Scandinavian projects such as Nordic Fiddlers’ Bloc and Aamos. Gigs for the Boys, therefore, have been sporadic so far, although they play Belfast and the All Ireland Fleadh Cheoil in Sligo next month and hope to tour more extensively next year. Apart from Rising Fawn Gathering, a co-production with American roots musicians Norman and Nancy Blake, and a concert recording of winter solstice material, the last time the Boys entered a studio to make an album was ten years ago. A new one seemed in order, says Henderson.

The New Line (BOTL Records) was recorded in O’Briain’s studio in New Quay, clinging to the Atlantic edge of West Clare. “We just threw ideas off each other,” says Henderson. “Cathal, of course, is like a walking archive of tunes and songs, so he had a lot of ideas already.”

The result is pretty quintessential Boys of the Lough – a straightforward approach and total ease with their material, both in the inevitable jigs and reels and in gems such as Henderson’s easefully flowing fiddle in his slowed-down version of Da Smugglers, while Begley’s button accordion brio shines in a set of Kerry slides. Begley also gives limpid voice to the old Irish Fill, Fill a Rún Ó and a Scots Gaelic song associated with the late, great Flora MacNeil.

McConnell sings from his vast store with unhurried clarity and affection, including the once popular Boston Burglar, one of two songs on the album from the globetrotting Mayo-born singer and collector Delia Murphy. “Many people know the words of the Boston Burglar,” McConnell reckons, “but not so many sing it.” The rare one of Murphy’s on the album, he adds, is the plaintive Liffey Side, “which my late sister Maura sang to me years ago. I never got round to recording it until now.”

He energetically pursues the reel Chase Her Through the Garden through several keys on whistle, and is enthusiastic about some of the older and lesser heard sets on the album. “Some of these tunes I knew from away back, especially Over the Water to Bessie and The Old Cup of Tea. Some younger players wouldn’t know some of them.”

Fermanagh-born McConnell was a member of the original Boys of the Lough Trio, in the late Sixties, with Tommy Gunn and Robin Morton. Now 71, he sounds philosophical about this latest incarnation: “When Dave left we had to re-organise and the band said to me, ‘What are you going to do Cathal?’ And I said, ‘Well I’m getting old.’ And they said, ‘Well we don’t want you to resign.’”

Is he pleased to be back in harness? “I don’t know. I’m happy enough... for as long as it lasts. The album reflects who we are and what we are: going back to the tradition and letting the music stand on its own. That’s the thing.”

• The New Line is released on 24 July