The Wolfe Tones (December 2001)

The Wolfe Tones: B. 1963 D. 2001 RIP

Shite’n’Onions webzine is saddened to report the break-up of one of the most talented well-known and successful folk groups Ireland has ever seen – The Wolfe Tones.
Born in 1963 in the suburb of Inchicore, outside of Dublin, when brothers Brian and Derek Warfield and good friend Noel Nagle began playing festivals, mainly for beer and fun. Then, a trip across the festival circuit in Ireland landed them a by-chance meeting with a Canadian television producer who subsequently included the lads in a documentary about Ireland. “You could say that this was really our first professional engagement”, said Noel Nagle. “The Producer paid us good money for the show so from then on we decided to get ourselves into the ballad game”. Surprised that their music was considered good enough for a Television spot abroad, the trio were only too delighted to oblige. Their spot was recorded back in Dublin at the Old Brazen Head and they were paid the princely sum of 25 pounds – more importantly they were making progress. They added Tommy Byrne and the line-up solidified to the group that would soon be a sensation.

Over the years, the ballad singers recalled Irish history and social ills, raising the stakes of the folk song-balladeer from almost something of a sideshow to worldwide popularity. Playing in a few pubs that catered for the followers of traditional music, The Wolfe Tones kept going, always having faith in their songs and stories. They must have been doing something right, because their fan base remains huge to this day. As well as having sold millions of albums, they were also presented with the keys to two American cities – New York and Los Angeles. Not bad for former buskers.

Over the years, the group has generated their share of controversy, singing old Irish rebel songs (as well as their own) and Pro-IRA tunes, like “Up the Rebels” and others. This generated backlash and the criticism saw protests of various kinds over the years, but the lads remained defiant. They were resilient to criticism and always played by their own rules – played music that appealed to them, and their sense of Irish history – damn the others. Warfield explained: “What we are doing is merely reflecting the feelings of the nationalist people in the North. We are closely identified with their struggle, and it is only natural that we reflect their emotions and feelings in our songs.”

The demise of the group, though sad, can be looked at as a great accomplishment, not only for the Wolfe Tones, but also for Irish folk as a genre to be taken quite seriously. In summation of the demise, Derek Warfield announced earlier in the year, citing musical differences that he was to leave the group. The remaining members of the group plan to continue under their own names. The loss to Irish music is large, but rather than wallow in sorrow, embrace the new musical endeavors of the members and let the Wolfe Tones rest in peace. For all the battles they’ve waged over the last 35 years, they’ve certainly earned it.

Editorial: Fintan O’Toole Rejoices And Appeases Himself

That’s the beauty of the Irish Intelligentsia – they care on a global basis but when it comes to oppression 100 miles up the road they care more about the oppressor then the oppressed. -John Murphy (S’n’O)

Fintan O’Toole, a writer from the Irish Times had this (among other harsh criticisms) to say in his full-length article about the disbanding of the Wolfe Tones:

“They expressed hatred for all things English and whipped up support for violent nationalism. Fintan O’Toole sheds no tears for the Wolfe Tones, who this week played their last gig together…..If the demise of the group in its old form is a sign of the times, it can only be a good one. This, as the rhetoric of the peace process has it, is a win-win situation. A gain both for Irish traditional music and for Irish politics.”

O’Toole, like so many other seemingly “leftist” writers has, to me, missed the point of the Wolfe Tones. The Wolfe Tones were a highly charged, political, edgy group to be sure. A group with fire in their guts who were expressing, as member Derek Warfield has stated numerous times, what they lived, what they saw and how people reacted to it. Reflecting the struggle and the emotions that go along with a life filled with political upheaval and conflict, Warfield and company acted as a musical document of the times. Many times, this included Pro-IRA sentiment, but so what? None of us is so blind as to miss the fact of the troubles of Ireland, troubles that have spanned over many generations. Included in these Troubles is the IRA, of which many people over the years have been supporters. I’m not condemning this, one way or the other – it is simply the way it is.

Some people support the IRA, some abhor it and some have no opinion on it one way or the other because they are not there. This is what the Wolfe Tones sought to change. They wanted everyone to know exactly what it was like to be there. So, to overlook the Troubles and the IRA would be unfair to do. It exists, so it affects people’s lives, and, as people always have, they will record it for prosperity, many times in song, just like the Wolfe Tones have done. To label them as simply musical terrorists is to me, shortsighted.

It seems that O’Toole has also gone a bit overboard in saying that the group had a hatred for all things English, wants to blow all innocent English people to hell, etc. gaining all of this valuable incite simply by reading their lyrics. Does one, should one and can one separate the artist from the songs? I believe so. I’m also willing to bet that the same writers on the left who cheer about the demise of the Wolfe Tones were also the ones who championed rap acts like Public Enemy, the Getto Boys and NWA in the late ‘80’s, hailing them as “street-level poets and reporters who tell it like it is.” With certain songs in their repertoire about cop killing, drug dealing, beating women, jail riots, etc they were praised for “telling it like it is.” The Wolfe Tones, doing the same thing, are chastised. I happen to agree that Public Enemy and NWA were telling about life as they lived it, and if it rubbed people the wrong way – fine, that is the point, to make America uncomfortable to possibly bring about change. I see the Wolfe Tones in the same light. Did Chuck D actually orchestrate, or for that matter, even condone prison riots as the song “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” suggests? No, he did not. Did Ice Cube and Eazy-E actually kill cops as “Fuck the Police” promotes? No, they did not, but they had the prerogative to sing about what they saw, and what their friends and families witnessed. Hell, the Wolfe Tones didn’t even write many of the rebel tunes they sang about. They were singing the songs of their fathers. History is as history does. We cannot change fact. If certain events happened, they happened. Uncomfortable or not.

I realize that a sizable portion of the Wolfe Tones audience and perhaps they themselves do support the rebels of the old country. I’m not that naive. I’m sure a great deal of them do. I also realize I am separated from Ireland by two generations and am not there to live the conflicts and therefore am not qualified to pass judgment on it. I can and do feel qualified to pass judgment on Irish folk MUSIC, and happen to feel the Wolfe Tones were honest in their works and feel they have every right to speak about what they see and feel. Anyone and everyone has that basic right.

O’Toole also cried that the Wolfe Tones used the label of MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever) when documenting the Irish and their history, and tended to whip their crowd into a beer-induced hatred. Well, I can just comment that, as John Murphy said, “the Irish Intelligentsia are champions of the oppressed, until it’s 100 miles up the road” and then they dismiss that as “whining” and care more about those who have done the oppressing. The Irish WERE and, to some extent and in some people’s views, ARE an oppressed people. And when people are oppressed, you can be damn sure they will try to drum up support for their cause. It’s been done throughout history, if O’Toole cares to look.

As for me and my personal feelings of vendettas against songs and their lyrics, I take it all with a grain of salt. In the case of a group like Public Enemy, I feel badly for their ancestors and wish slavery hadn’t happened, but I don’t feel responsible for the actions of others. How can I? I control only myself, and can do nothing about the past except learn from it. Therefore, when certain rap acts sing or speak of “white devils” I don’t feel that list necessarily includes myself. In turn, I would guess that unless any Englishman had directly harmed an Irishman simply for being Irish, they wouldn’t care about old rebel ballads like the Wolfe Tones sing, and if they had directly inflicted pain or still harbor racist feelings, then they should feel the brunt of these songs anger. I also do not feel that patriotism equals nationalism equals racism, but that is a whole separate article altogether.

So, O’Toole expressed his humble opinion, and I, mine. I’m sure there are many who might agree with O’Toole, but I simply feel that if an artist lives in an environment and wants to document the fire that surrounds them, they should have every right to do so. Didn’t punk rock start from those who were dissatisfied and distressed with their world? Wasn’t the narrow reaction it was met with the same as O’Toole expressed?

Often times, as in the case of the Wolfe Tones, these distresses and conflicts create lasting music that actually causes it’s listener to think, to be challenged, and for this, I thank them.

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