Tones of gold

The Wolfe Tones: Tommy Byrne, Brian Warfield and Noel Nagle

By David Hennessy

Celebrating 50 years since they first arrived on the scene when they come to the UK later this month, The WolfeTones have always been a folk act made to last and were able to charm generation after generation and are now as popular as ever and with fans both old and young. Known for songs such as Streets of New York and My Heart is in Ireland are just two of their many well known hits.

It was in 1963 that the band’s lead songwriter Brian Warfield and Noel Nagle sailed to England as emigrants. They were soon performing at all the folk clubs around London and it was not long before they became one of the top names on that circuit. It was in London they first adopted the moniker The WolfeTones. Brian tells The Irish World: “We played in all the folk clubs around London and Essex and that was a great experience because we were young, we were enjoying what we were doing: They were great times.

“It’s absolutely unbelievable,” says Brian of reaching five decades as a group. “If someone said to me 50 years ago when I was starting on this long, winding road, I would still at it in 50 years’ time, I would have laughed at them. It is an amazing achievement. I really can’t believe it myself, those years have gone so fast and we’ve done so much over the years and it’s been such a colourful and rewarding 50 years, I’m just amazed.

“We never made a plan that we were going to be here 50 years after, the plan was for today and next week and next year and that was it and the years rolled by one after another so fast. All the milestones came: 21 years together, 25 years together, 40 years together, 40 years together and now just an unbelievable 50 years.”

Of course it was the swinging sixties when the band first emerged and it was a time of great upheaveal: “That generation of people were out there to change things and one thing we wanted to do was change the world for the better. At the time we were looking at the way things were done both in Ireland and the world. There was the civil rights movement for people in America, there was anti-apartheid in South Africa. We were in all those movements. All those things meant a more peaceful world and then when we looked at Ireland… Ireland had, through the division of our country, a lot of civil rights problems in the six countries so we felt that that should be addressed as well. We supported the people of the six counties in their efforts to efforts to achieve civil rights.”

They returned to Ireland and soon were in demand for radio and television work. They continued to tour extensively and were always pleased to return to the UK where it first began for them: “We’ve got those emigration songs like Streets of New York and My Heart is in Ireland and indeed all those songs that have gone through many waves of emigrants going to England, America, Australia and beyond. We’re travelling the world for four generations of people and we get it all the time. We’ve gone through the 60s, 70s, 80s, right through all those people and waves of emigration that left Ireland and each of those generations said: ‘Going to see The Wolfe Tones is like going back to Ireland’. And the story of Ireland meant a hell of a lot, probably more to them when they were away than while they were at home. A lot of them said: ‘I came away from that show very proud to be Irish’.”

A passion for The WolfeTones has often been passed down the generations with second and third generation Irish people adopting the band as a symbol of their heritage and a means of learning more about their Irish background: “We have a lot of young people who have come to our shows over the last couple of years and said: ‘Please, please, don’t retire, we’ve only just discovered you’. A new generation comes along and they don’t want to let you go.”

The Wolfe Tones have played in every major concert Hall in all the great cities of the world including the Royal Albert Hall in London, Carnegie Hall in New York and The Paris Olympia. They hold the record of having the fastest and biggest selling no.1 of all time. Their entire album releases have succeeded in reaching the double or triple platinum status.

Their song A Nation Once Again was voted number 1 in a poll held by the BBC to select the best and most popular song in the world over the century. Songs were entered from all countries and genres such as The Beatles, Queen and Mozart but the Tones came out on top. Can Brian pick a highlight from such a career? “We’ve had several wonderful moments throughout the years. It’s difficult to pick out one single occasion but every milestone that we had has always been a wonderful occasion. You always remember things like your first trip to America, the first time you played Carnegie Hall, the time we played the Paris Olympia. All those events are memorable and moments I’ll never forget and there’s hundreds of them.”

There has been sadness too as, like anyone, the band have lost friends along the way: “We’re probably one of the last remaining bands of the ballad boom of the sixties and  we lost some people during the year like Barney (McKenna, The Dubliners) and Jim McCann is very sick but we’re at the age, we’re all very vulnerable. You have to come to terms at some stage with your own mortality. As I say: You live as long as you can and die when you can’t help it. I hope I can postpone that as long as I possibly can. Along the road, we’ve lost many of our great friends and acquaintances over those years and that is always a great sadness to me. There’s a big empty space there.”

For the full feature, see the October 26 Irish World.

The Wolfe Tones tour the UK from October 30. For more information, go to:


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