Brian Warfield of The Wolfe Tones told David Hennessy about 60 years of the Wolfe Tones, the threat the group faced going up north during the Troubles and if people want to sing Celtic Symphony, they should be allowed to sing it.
Well known Irish ballad group The Wolfe Tones have been on the road since 1963 making it an incredible 60 years on the road.
The group are set for a big year of celebration making 2024 the milestone year as Tommy Byrne joined the group in 1964 meaning the three members of the group have been playing together for six whole decades next year.
Made up of Brian Warfield, Noel Nagle and Byrne, The Wolfe Tones are known for tracks such as You’ll Never Beat the Irish, Irish Eyes, My Heart is in Ireland, The Streets of New York, A Nation Once Again, Come Out Ye Black and Tans and the song Celtic Symphony which has been the subject of contention as recently as the current Rugby World Cup.
Brian Warfield told The Irish World: “We have a lot planned for next year, it’s our 60th anniversary and it’s a milestone.”
I bet it feels strange to be talking about 60 years of the band, can you believe that? Could you have even entertained the idea when starting out all those years ago? “We could never envisage that when we started off back in 1964.
“We were going for almost a year before Tommy joined.
“When Tommy joined in October 1964, we made that the beginning of the group. We’ve been together since then.
“That’s why we’re celebrating at the 3 Arena next year in October, the same date that Tommy joined.”
You must still be enjoying it to have got this far..
“Absolutely, it’s amazing that people can stay together for so long.
“I think it’s an accolade to all members of the band who made that effort to stay together and to be compatible with one another.”
When you look back on the 60 years you’ve had, you’ve played incredible stages and had incredible times like, what jumps out as a highlight or what’s a particular proud moment for you? “Oh, there was so many across the years.
“We played Carnegie Hall. We played all the great halls over in Australia, we played all the great halls in America, Canada.
“We played all the great festivals around Europe.
“You know, there’s so many things that I could say were highlights: All the great shows in the Barrowlands, the shows in the National in London, we’ll never forget those.
“There’s so many things that are left imprinted, great memories.”
I bet a recent one would be the Electric Picnic show. That was incredible, wasn’t it? “It was amazing and we were very humbled by the fact that so many people came along because we were initially booked to play the smaller tent which holds about 6,000.
“Then they said, ‘We’re gonna have to bump you up to the bigger tent with 14, 000 in it so we knew we would kind of fill that, but we weren’t expecting the enormous crowd that we got, must have ended up with about 35- 36,000 and they were singing the words back. They were singing so loud.
“We were in the tent.
“We couldn’t see the crowd outside but the decibels coming out of the tent were so loud that it eclipsed my monitors. I couldn’t hear a thing.
“The crowd were leading me instead of me leading the crowd in the songs.
“It was just unbelievable.”
Did it surprise you just how good it was?
“We were expecting to fill the tent. People were saying the tent would definitely be full but when you see the aerial photographs of the tent and the shots around it- I think the one that amazed me most was the one done in quick time. You’ll see people converge on the tent from every angle of the picnic.
“It was just unbelievable that there was such a great response.
“As I said, we were very humbled by it.”
Let’s go back to the very beginning and the start of the band. You could never have predicted having such longevity but what were the motivations and dreams early on? “We started out with a love of Irish music and we were very lucky that we got a contract with Fontana records at an early stage.
“We got a contract for five albums and very few people were recording at the time so that put us to the forefront in the ballad scene.
“Then we went to America in ’66, I couldn’t believe that people knew our music because they had heard the records played on the radio stations over there. They were already aware of our songs and music and that was great.
“We didn’t have to break ice. The ice was already broken.”
Was it a bit cooler in the UK in that way?
“Oh no, the enthusiasm in the UK was unbelievable.
“If you go back to all the National concerts there over the years, I used to wonder how the balconies stayed up.
“People would be rocking to the songs and stamping their feet and clapping their hands or whatever and I would see the balcony shake.
“It would be going up and down with the movement of the crowd.
“It was just amazing. There was a huge response among the Irish diaspora in London and around.
“When we played the National, they came from everywhere, buses were run to the National from all the surrounding areas.
“It was always an unbelievable experience.”
Your song Celtic Symphony has been making headlines over the last period from the Irish women’s football team controversially singing it, Leinster apologising for playing it at the RDS and a more recent furore about it being played at the rugby world cup.
What do you make of it all? “I think it’s ridiculous to be honest. A song is a song. Let the people sing.
“If the people like that song, let them sing it.
“They tried to take it down everywhere else, they don’t allow it on tannoy speakers or anything like that.
“People know what they like. They’ve been told not to sing it but I don’t think you can do that to Irish people.
“You don’t tell them they can’t sing a song.
“You can’t sing about Ireland and it’s just ridiculous.
“The story is the story.
“It is Ireland’s story whether people like it or not.
“That song Celtic Symphony was not about the IRA, it was about Celtic.
“Going through Glasgow, I’m looking at the graffiti on the wall.
“I see it, Up the Ra so I put that into the chorus and that’s the way it was.
“It’s a Celtic song.
“If I wanted to write a song glorifying the IRA, I could do that but that wasn’t the case with this song.
“I think when the girls sang it after getting into the World Cup, they sang it as just a song of jubilation rather than anything else.
“And of course, it was picked up by the cohort that don’t like anything Irish in Ireland, they’re very vocal in the country.
“And they come down upon it.
“And I think they went as far as UEFA to say that this was a sectarian song which it isn’t and it was never fought, no one ever fought that case to say it wasn’t.
“I would have liked to fight that case, it wasn’t my part but the FAI should have done it.”
Brian says Special Branch warned them about going north in the dark days of the Troubles. He also believes the Wolfe Tones were the intended target of the Miami Showband massacre.
“We were definitely under threat at the time.
“We were up in Co. Down and we weren’t allowed to drink at the local pub.
“I think it was in Rostrevor.
“We had to go into the kitchen to have a pint and a sandwich there because they said there was a load of army and security forces drinking in the front bar.
“They were jolly and drinking and laughing the whole way and there was English accents, there was Irish accents.
“There was RUC, there was auxiliary, territorial, whatever you call them. And they were all there together. There was a big cohort and so we weren’t allowed.
“I had a peep in at one stage and saw them all there drinking and whatever but we went back and did the gig, it was in a marquee about a couple of kilometres away from the town and we played the gig and after the gig, I was called over.
“I was told, ‘You can’t go back the main road to Dublin so we’re going to take you over the mountains’.
“So they took us over the mountains of Mourne. We went up the boreens. We were left at the top of the hill, through bog and all kinds of things and straight down into Warrenpoint.
“And they said when we got to Warrenpoint, ‘You know where you are, just go the Dublin road back’, so that was the story of that but the next day the Special Branch said, ‘The Wolfe Tones are not to go up north because they’re under threat’.
“We had a couple of gigs the following week and cancelled those.
“I believe to this day that that was the Glenanne Gang trying to set us up.
“It would have been a checkpoint where they probably would have put a bomb on board our truck and that would be bye bye to the Wolfe Tones.
“But it’s only in hindsight I thought when the Miami were got the following Wednesday I think it was, that they needed to get somebody, they missed us.
“They needed to get somebody to threaten other bands from coming up north.
“After that, we went up north and we were brought up separately in cars sometimes, sometimes we were brought up in a hay truck, another time we were brought up in Gerry Adams’ armoured car.
“He had a big armoured limousine and it was bulletproof and all that kind of thing.
“So we still continued to go north but I was always glad to get out at the border and get across it.”
It must have been a scary time..
“It’s more frightening in hindsight than it was during the experience.
“We were young and we didn’t feel the danger until after the Miami were got, then we knew the danger we were in.
“Up to then if we saw a checkpoint, we didn’t think they were going to put a bomb on board our bus or anything like that.
“We just felt it was another check point.
“When I was up in Derry we were told, ‘Never stop for a dodgy checkpoint’.
“And I said, ‘What’s a dodgy checkpoint?’
“And they said, ‘Well, if you don’t see a big load of army trucks and things around, you just see a fella with a flashlight or something like that, that’s a dodgy checkpoint’.
“(Then) I’m coming out of Omagh on the road back to Dublin and I see this guy with a little flashlight flashing the light for me to stop and I said, ‘What will I do? It looks like a dodgy one to me’.
“So I barged through the checkpoint and they jumped out of the way.
“I thought, ‘My God’. There were hairs on the back of my neck standing up because I thought I was gonna get a bullet any minute.
“Tommy woke up. He says, ‘What’s happening? What is it?’
“I said, ‘I just broke a checkpoint’.
“He said, ‘Well don’t stop now’.
“And I didn’t.”
Brian Warfield made a recent appearance on Joe Duffy’s Liveline show. Joe accused the band of ‘glorifying slaughter’. Brian believes for this and other things Duffy owes them an apology.
Did he cross the line, did he go too far? “He did.
“As a presenter, he shouldn’t be so opinionated and then he allowed people to accuse me of being the new IRA and the Real IRA and all these splinter groups and everything else like that and he never picked up on it.
“He is a mediator there.
“Once again, I go north all the time and people listening to that might think, ‘Oh yeah, these guys are terrorists’.
“If they keep throwing enough mud, some of it sticks and it sticks with people that wouldn’t like ya anyhow.
“I wouldn’t like them to be thinking those kind of thoughts.
“They put the thoughts into their head, and it could be dangerous for us.”
The Wolfe Tones have not been on the Late Late Show for many years.
“Yeah, it has been a long time.
“I think it was proposed to them alright but eventually, I think with pressure from the people in Ireland, they would like to see the Wolfe Tones on for their 60th anniversary.
“It’s a milestone in Irish music history and we’d like to get on to tell our story.”
What about beyond the big 60th milestone? Are you set to continue or is there any talk of retirement? “Not at the moment, we’re doing the 60 years next year. Tommy’s 80 next year and Tommy said, ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to do anymore after that’.
“So it’s under discussion whether it will be the last or not but I think Tommy might change his mind.
“But up to now he’s saying, ‘That’s going to be my swansong’.
“That’s what he wants to do.
“I’ve known Tommy change his mind before but I don’t know. Noel feels the same way as well but you never know what happens.
“They want to finish, there’s still a bit of life left in Brian Warfield.
“I’d rather die onstage than die in a nursing home.”
Brian has revealed he recently travelled to London to enquire about treatment for the Essential Tremor in his hand before he was advised not to go ahead with it.
“It’s very embarrassing at times when you can’t hold a cup of coffee or cup of tea or whatever.
“They’ve put me on medication that calms it down.
“It’s an area in your brain that controls your movement and it can be treated.
“So I went to London. I went to Charing Cross Hospital there, I met with a lovely, lovely man and he went through the whole thing with me.
“He told me about the procedure and he said, ‘It’s not as simple as you think it is’.
“He said, it’s a five hour procedure and at the end of it, it can be about six months to recover.
“And then I asked him a question. I said, ‘Look, if you were me, what would you do?’
“And he said, ‘If I was you, I wouldn’t get it done’.
“And I said, ‘That’s good enough for me’.
“He said, ‘We’ll up the medication a bit’.
“And he said, ‘If the pints work for ya going on stage and calms your tremor, keep doing it’.
“And he said we’ll control it that way.
“He said it’s better than getting the procedure done.”
Before we let Brian go, we think it may be remiss not to mention his brother Derek who was also in the band for many years before leaving in 2001.
“We walk different paths,” Brian says of Derek.
“We don’t actually crash into one another,” he adds after speaking about how much time his brother spends gigging in America.
“It’s 21 years ago now since Derek left the band.”
The Wolfe Tones celebrate 60 years next year.
They play Electric Ballroom in London on 16 and 17 November, although these shows are sold out a show on 27 November has been added, they also play The Barrowlands in Glasgow on 18 November, Styx in Kirkcaldy on 19 November, Scanlons in Birmingham on 25 November and Leeds Irish Centre on 26 November.
For more information, click here.