‘It was finding the feral in Irish trad and rocking out’

Horslips back in their 1970s hey day
Horslips back in their 1970s hey day

Ahead of their gig at Dunluce Castle, JOANNE SAVAGE talks to Horslips bass player and unofficial frontman Barry Devlin about the unexpected success of Celtic prog rock, making music videos for U2 and why he still loves bestriding the stage

What they brought to rock was the anarchy that you find in certain frantic bodhran and fiddle music; their sound was something like a cross between a ceilidlh (or Irish) dance and a rock concert, the electric guitars mixing with the strains of the pipes in a combination that sounds strange but which many audiences responded affectionately to.

Although they enjoyed limited commercial success, Horslips creative output was substantial. Albums such as Happy to Meet – Sorry to Part (1972), Dancehall Sweethearts (1974), The Unfortunate Cup of Tea (1975) and The Book of Invasions (1976) have been a source of influence for contemporary Celtic punk bands like the Dropkick Murphys (whose music was part of the sound track to Scorsese’s movie The Departed, and hinted of an unruly Irish/American population in the mean streets of Boston). Randomly, their single ‘Dearg Doom’ went to number one in Germany on its release.

They have mixed folk and pop influences into their fusion, but it was really the marriage of Celticism and rock with lyrics exploring Irish legends that most attracted a fanbase.

In 1977 they produced Aliens, an album about the experience of the Irish in nineteenth century America and with this they toured Britain, Canada and the US. According to one London based critic, the night they played the Albert Hall was described as the ‘loudest gig since Hendrix’.

The band regrouped with 2004’s Roll Back after a 20 year hiatus and are now set to perform at Dunluce Castle in June, encouraged, by the gig they played at the Odyssey in Belfast in 2009.

To that end bass player and vocalist Barry Devlin, who hails from Ardboe in Co Tyrone and once spent years training as a Columban priest (“I was a good seminarian but had a crisis of faith and as my wife will tell you I’m a natural celebrate”) is talking to the News Letter. From seminarian to rocker has to be one of the oddest career trajectories followed.

Devlin sounds as though he is talking from a bar stool in true rocker fashion. (I assume it is a bar stool because the background is filled with the noise of glasses clinking and people having what sounds like an uproarious time, and it is only lunchtime; Barry is a rocker after all).

When the band first started out, did they really imagine the mad marriage of Celtic and rock would work?

“Some would say marrying rock with Celtic vibes is a musical cul-de-sac but we thought it would work and it did,” says Devlin.

“In 1970 fusion and prog-rock bands were the name of the game. So we decided to fuse rock and Irish trad. Bands that were happening then were Yes, Blood Sweat and Tears and others - some were blues fusion and it was prog-rock that defined the era.

“The trad stuff was our original card. Some of the instrumentation we were using, like the pipes, had the same kind of feral quality that electric guitar has.

“Something that we have indirectly influenced would be the whole genre of Celtic punk - like the Dropkick Murphys in America. A lot of those

bands would site Horslips as an inspiration. Celtic rock has in its own way permeated the rest of the world.”

I ask Devlin how he is today and comment how impressed I am that his CV includes having directed several videos for U2’s Joshua Tree album - regarded by many as the Irish rock group’s most iconic album.

“I’m older and no wiser is how it could must accurately and best be described,” he says of his current mood. “And I’m still labouring under the illusion that I can bestride the stage with the rest of them, even the ones half my age.”

Are you looking forward to doing so? Even after all this time do you still enjoy performing?

“Oh hugely. We did after all take something like a 29-year fag break as a band so we had certainly plenty of time to re-energise,” he chuckles again, and his laughter sounds full of wit and wisdom and madcap antics.

I ask Devlin what he is most proud of having undertaken during his hiatus from Horslips and over the course of his career.

“Well, I’ve been on the dole, but I’ve also directed videos for U2 - even some of the songs from Joshua Tree which I think of as their best album. In fact, if you pause the camera during the video for If The Streets Have No Name, you’ll see a slightly tubby man in a sweater with a panicky look on his face trying to avoid the camera - and that’s me!

“I love Joshua Tree and it was an incredible era to be a part of. Back then they were [U2] one of the biggest bands in the

world and it was fantastic to see. I was lucky enough on occasion to be able to follow them around with a camera.”

Devlin’s conversation is endlessly funny. He’s the kind of man you wouldn’t mind sharing more than a few pints with in the small hours.

Horslips play at Dunluce Castle on June 21. Tickets are available now from www.ticketmaster.ie.