By David Hennessy
Going since 1997, well known London traditional band The London Lasses are celebrating 25 years this year.
In that time, the band have played Glastonbury and supported massive names in traditional music such as Planxty and The Chieftains.
They have even made an appearance on Eastenders.
They have been described as, ‘One of the best bands on the scene today’ by Irish Music Magazine.
While fRoots said: ‘The London Lasses and Pete Quinn’s emergence is vitally important, acknowledging a forgotten voice in Irish music and rebirthing in magnificently’.
The highly acclaimed traditional band will be launching their 25th Anniversary celebrations and their new album LL25 this week.
We asked founder member Karen Ryan if she can believe it has been 25 years.
Karen, who is also known as the founder and director of the Return to London Town festival, said: “No, it’s hard to imagine where all that time was gone.
“But then I guess when you reach a milestone like that, it makes you maybe sit down and think about all the great things that have happened in that time.
“And then you start saying, ‘Well actually, I guess that 25 years does make sense because there’s been a lot going on in that time.
“Some great times.”
And it was never the plan at all. Never mind 25 years, it was just meant to be one trip to America.
It all began in 1997, when fiddle players Karen Ryan and Elaine Conwell, together with banjo player Pauline Conneely, took a trip to the US where they played a number of concerts from New York to San Francisco, by way of Chicago and other stops.
“I remember the conversation: Pauline and Elaine and I in Pauline’s home kitchen in Bedford.
“She (Pauline) said, ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to be in a band and kind of tour and have the craic?’
“And I think my first reaction was like, ‘Really? You think?’
“And then I think she thought about it a little bit more and she said, ‘Let’s go to the state, have a bit of a holiday and I’ll fix up some gigs’.
“Because Pauline had spent time in the states and knew a lot of the musicians over there already.
“We went over I think for about six weeks but we took in some gigs along the way in the different cities that we were spending time and then it just seemed obvious that the reel which had been around for hundreds of years called The London Lasses just seemed like an obvious label for us.”
Intended as a one-off musical holiday and with accompaniment provided by guests in each city, the trio had such a great experience and were so warmly received that they decided to continue performing together under the title The London Lasses on their return to London, inviting flute player Sharon Whelton to join them.
In 1999, the band, now with Bernie Conneely on banjo, recorded their eponymously titled debut CD with Liverpool pianist Pete Quinn, along with vocalist Sue Cullen and whistle player Grace Kelly.
Over the following two decades the band have recorded a further four albums.
The band have played some of the world’s most prestigious festivals and concert halls, including Cambridge Folk Festival, the Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), Dublin City Hall, Philadelphia Irish Festival, Mayor of London’s St Patrick’s Festival (Trafalgar Square) and the Royal Albert Hall, where they performed the first ever BBC Proms céilí as part of the 2008 season and supported The Chieftains on their 50th Anniversary tour in 2012.
But when asked for a highlight of the two and a half decades of the band, it is none of these that Karen thinks of immediately.
“It’s maybe not the obvious thing to say but when you’re playing together in this group of musicians, you get a real sense of kinship musically and socially.
“I think one of the things that really stands out recently for me was when we had the break during the pandemic, and we had started putting some thoughts together for new tunes for the next album before the first lockdown.
“And then when we came back together in, I think it was probably Elaine’s kitchen, for the first time that we were allowed to and it was like we had never stopped playing together.
“That kind of sense of comfort with these musicians that you’ve played with so much, even though there was that crazy break, we just kind of fell back into playing with each other so easily.
“Of course there are also lots of highlights of exciting places that we’ve been to, and people that we’ve met and played alongside and supported, but that was a real- shouldn’t be, I guess- revelation really, it was just so comfortable.
“And it’s so lovely any time you sit down and play with anybody who is a current or past or a guest member of the Lasses is just so comfortable. It’s lovely.”
Line-ups have changed over time and included band members Dee Havlin (flute, whistle), Maureen Linane Hankins (accordion), Kathleen O´Sullivan (vocal), Elma McElligott (flute, whistle, sax), Bróna McVittie (vocal), Brogan McAuliffe (concertina) and Chris O´Malley (piano).
The Lasses are delighted to include a number of past and present band members on this celebratory recording.
Is it a case of, ‘Once a London Lass, always a London Lass?’ “Oh, absolutely.
“Musically, and friendship wise, you always feel that strong bond together.
“They kind of become part of this almost big family really.
“So yeah, I guess once a lass, always a lass.”
The London Lasses will be launching their anniversary album at a number of events across the UK and Ireland throughout 2023, starting with this special evening in London on Friday.
“There’s a real mix on there,” Karen says of the record.
One tune- Planxty, which was written by Thomas Burke- has a particular resonance as it brings back memories of one of the band’s early supporters.
“That was something that I learned when the Lasses was in its infancy from the great Armagh fiddler Brendan McGlinchey.
“I remember we did a double bill concert with him in the Irish Cultural Centre there in Hammersmith and in the lead up to that he wrote a harmony for this Planxty which is very beautiful and taught it to me so that I could play it with him on the night.
“It probably hasn’t really been aired since that time so I resurrected it and been teaching it to some of my students and we’ve put that harmony on the album.
“It’s quite a nice thing to remember back to because sadly we lost Brendan in 2020.
“Brendan McGlinchey actually wrote the endorsement on our very first CD and he was very encouraging of the band in the early days.”
It is also poignant that the record features some of the next generation of traditional Irish musicians in London including Karen’s own daughters Annie and Katie.
“Katie and Annie grew up with the band.
“They have just turned 18.
“And myself and Pete were already involved in the band by the time they were born.
“And before school became full-time, they came with us everywhere.
“They were five and a half weeks when we had to get special doctors certificates to allowed them to fly to a festival in Guernsey and then they came on tour with us to Germany and the states.
“They were surrounded by the music all the time and the people in the band were like their extended family.
“We’d be on tour and it was great Kathleen O’Sullivan would be singing them nursery rhymes in the tour van.
“Elaine’s young children, who are just 12, are on one track which is beautiful. So her son and daughter, James and Orla are playing really lovely stuff.
“That’s also special.
“And then one of my students, who is in her early 20s, Rachel Isherwood, she plays a number of instruments, but she’s playing on a track here on the fiddle.
“And she’s been doing some gigs with us, and she’ll be doing more with us in the future.
“So it is lovely to think some of the next generation are involved.”
Karen says they have had some great times and a massive highlight was playing Glastonbury in 2005.
“We were playing support at the Barbican for Planxty when they reformed.
“Yeah, so that was very, very exciting.
“Paul Charles who programs the acoustic stage at Glastonbury was there because he was organising all of that.
“And he got in touch with us straightway because he really liked the band and invited us to play on the acoustic stage at Glastonbury.
“So that was fantastic.
“We ended up playing immediately before Chas & Dave.
“I remember it was the one gig that we didn’t bring our girls to.
“I mean, they would have been in the buggy at that stage, let’s say and we thought, ‘You know what? It might be muddy. Let’s not bring the girls’.
“And when we got there, it was a particularly muddy year, and we could see some people with wheelbarrows bringing their children around. And we thought, ‘We made the right decision’.
“We did a lovely support slot in the Royal Albert Hall for The Chieftains’ 50th anniversary.
“That was really great.
“We’ve been friends with Matt Molloy for quite some time.
“It was very special.
“We got a lovely response.
“It was a capacity audience that night.
“It was just wonderful. Really, such great ambassadors for Irish music.
“Paddy Moloney, God rest his soul, he was the man who brought traditional Irish music to the stage internationally and paved the way for anybody else who’s ever taken to the stage with Irish music.
“He was a trailblazer so we’ve got Paddy and the Chieftains to thank for any of us ever getting on the stage really.”
The London Lasses have been included on the 3CD compilation Beginners Guide to Ireland (2005) and the Ultimate Guide to Irish Folk (2014).
Their TV and radio appearances include TG4’s Hup and Geantraí, BBC Radio 3’s In Tune, RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta and, perhaps surprisingly, Eastenders.
What brought them to Albert Square? They were brought in to play at the wake of Tom Banks, the Irish firefighter boyfriend of Sharon Watts who died in 2002.
“Gosh, that was a long time ago.
“We played at Tom’s wake, so that was quite an experience.
“We had to mime our instruments along to the track.
“I was playing banjo because Bernie couldn’t make it over, so I was playing air banjo.
“It’s quite easy not to hit the strings with your plectrum and look convincing.
“Pete was fine. You just plugged him out.
“But Elaine had to do the most work because playing air fiddle is quite a challenge: Looking like you’re hitting the strings but actually not hitting the string.
“It was a very long day and you’ve got to have respect for those whose lines are obviously learned and came off 100%.
“Some of them needed a few more takes.
“I’m not going to give away who was who but it was quite the insight.”
On Friday 2nd December highly acclaimed traditional Irish band The London Lasses will be launching their 25th Anniversary celebrations and their new album LL25 at Conway House, London WC1R 4RL.
For more information, go to londonlasses.net or irishmusicinlondon.org.