My family know that when I die, I want my body to leave the house to the dying strains of the Horslips song, Exiles. It’s a haunting tune, from the album Aliens, which tells about Irish people’s farewells to family, friends and home during the Famine, and I think there can be no worse place to be in exile, and nowhere more lonely, than death. It’s the final frontier.
Horslips have been exploring the frontiers of Celtic music since the 1960s, culminating in the trilogy of albums, The Book of Invasions, Aliens and The Man Who Built America which explored Irish history and the forging of new frontiers in the new world.
The band is currently enjoying a renaissance.
“We took a 29 year fag break,” jokes bass player and singer, Barry Devlin. “When we decided to reform we weren’t sure what sort of reaction to expect. Irish people never speak ill of the dead, but we weren’t so sure what they’d say about five old men running around in shrouds!”
Horslips have a close affinity with the North West and with Derry, in particular. The band were regular performers around the Derry, Muff, Moville and Letterkenny areas in the 1970s.
They completed ten albums before deciding with very little notice to call it a day. There was no press release, Charles O’Connor hurled his fiddle into a crowd in Belfast and that was that for nearly three full decades.
“Things had changed hugely,” recalls Devlin. “We did ten albums and toured every day of the week. We were knackered. We also just started to pull in different directions musically. There was a fashion at the time for farewell tours - I think Thin Lizzy were on the third farewell tour at that stage - and as far as we were concerned we’d been taking Irish tunes and messing with their heads and we’d mined the seam, to use a coal mining analogy.”
It was not, however, the perceived lack of commercial success that led to the decision to bring the Horslips journey to an end. At the end, especially with The Man Who Built America, Horslips were making a real name for themselves in the USA. I asked whether the decision to end the journey was based on lack of international success but it seems the true reason was due to tiredness and artistic differences as the music scene changed.
“No. We always wanted to do something else once we had done something,” says Devlin. “People used to say; ‘Why don’t you do another Tain?’ but what’s the point of doing something exactly the same as you’ve already done? I remember Eamonn (Carr) explaining to Polydor that we were going to do an album about the Famine, and that the title would be in Irish. And they were standing back and saying; ‘Now do you want to rethink that?’ We called it Aliens instead.
“We had been through a mighty adventure together, then when we split we sort of took our eye off it and we found out we’d lost our rights (to their back catalogue) and it took nearly 20 years to get a distributor into court to get them restored. That was from 1980 to 1999.”
All five members of Horslips - the others being Johnny Fean and Jim Lockhart - enjoyed successful careers off the stage. Barry Devlin was involved in the production of iconic U2 videos to promote songs from The Joshua Tree, which is widely regarded as the band’s best work. Devlin and Lockhart also filmed a TV series in Irish, in which they retraced the steps of Gortahork-born Micky McGowan, whose book Rotha Mor an Tsaoil (Hard Road to Klondike) was the inspiration for the album, Aliens.
“Rotha Mor an Tsaoil was the original name of the album,” explains the Co Tyrone man. “We went back and followed his trail and sang a lot of the songs from the album. It was the most fun I’d had in 25 years. I love America and it was a privilege to get to so many places you wouldn’t normally get to, paddling up the Yukon and going down mines in Bute. You don’t get a crack at things like that in the normal run of things.”
But around ten years ago, three Derry fans’ devotion to the Horslips legacy brought them all together again.
Jim Nelis, Stephen Ferris and Paul Callaghan created an exhibition of Horslips memorabilia at the Orchard theatre, and the band members all agreed to attend.
“This brought us all under the same roof for the first time since the band ended,” says Devlin. “Jim asked us to come up and once we knew we were coming, we thought we’d perform some songs. So we got back into Jim’s front room, same as we always did, and practised acoustic versions of some songs.
“We were amazed at the turnout in Derry and while this sounds corny, we remembered what it was that brought us all together in the first place. So the second coming started in Derry. But we had no ambitions to tour again, Charles had a recording studio so we went over there and we weren’t sure if it would work, but we worked on acoustic versions and that was how Rollback came about. I was really pleased with that album.”
The band were then approached by promoter Denis Desmond who wanted them to perform in the O2 arena in Dublin.
“We told him the biggest crowd we’d ever played for was around 2,500 in Dublin but he just said; ‘You’ll fill it’. We gave it some thought and spent five days practising and began to think we would get back to Denis to say we would consider his plan.
“But then we heard an ad on the radio saying; ‘They’re back!’ He’d gone ahead and booked the ads before we even agreed! But it was great,” says Barry, unable to resist putting on an accent like an American compere and shouting again: “They’re back!” or as Devlin puts it: “We started bothering people again.”
Horslips also played to a massive crowd in the Odyssey in Belfast to complete a remarkable resurrection. Devlin says that, as well as playing at Dunluce on June 21, the band will perform a couple of gigs in Germany this year, with a couple more pencilled in for Ireland in the autumn.
“There’s some loose talk of going to America next year,” says Devlin.
But first comes Dunluce, and I remark that the old castle seems a perfect fit for the Celtic rock gods, especially as the concert falls on the Summer Solstice.
“It does seem a perfect fit,” agrees Devlin. “I am hugely looking forward to it, we’ll be going through ‘those faded faces, those fierce moustachioed men’,” he adds, quoting from Wrath of the Rain. “And other things from Ireland’s past. Mind, the combined ages of the men on the stage will be older than the castle.”
When I tell him my wife bought me tickets for the Dunluce gig as a birthday present, he laughs: “She really doesn’t like you, does she?”
There had been some chat of Horslips returning to Derry last year but it didn’t happen during the City of Culture programme.
“We will have to make another start at Derry. Maybe you should talk to Jim Nelis about another gig in the Orchard theatre,” says Devlin.
I say I can’t imagine that happening again but he teases: “You just never know.”
Devlin is a laugh a minute when in conversation but speaking about Derry brings a more serious side to him all of a sudden. He mentions former Journal reporter Harry Doherty, who recently passed away. Harry went on to work for Melody Maker, one of the most influential music magazines in the 1970s and 1980s and became a friend of many world famous names.
But he was always a great supporter of Horslips.
“When we first met Harry he’d just left the Derry Journal where he worked in the days of hot metal. He wanted to do an interview with us so he came up and then he had a couple of lost weekends with us. He would have got the Melody Maker job anyway without our encouragement but we urged him to go for it. He became a serious man in Melody Maker when it was a serious music magazine,” says Devlin.
“It’s hugely regretful that he died so young. I met him four months ago in Dublin and he looked gaunt but he was chipper. He knew then he was dying but there was no sense of self-pity, he was uncomplaining and funny. I salute a man who was a great supporter of the band. I realize now that he had come to say goodbye.”
I have no doubt that if Harry Doherty were still alive, he would join us to watch Horslips rock Dunluce Castle on June 21.