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f46 What’s In A Name?

Usher’s Island, a veritable supergroup of Irish folk music, are named after the ugliest place in Dublin. Allegedly. Colin Irwin meets the culprits in Galway.

Glackin. Mr Michael McGoldrick. And Mr John Doyle. Anyone with half an interest in Irish music will now be salivating. We are talking, after all, of Irish music royalty. La crème de la crème… outstanding musicians whose combined services have helped cre- ate the thrilling pulse of Irish folk music through Sweeney’s Men, Planxty, the Bothy Band, Moving Hearts, Patrick Street, Lúnasa, Sharon Shannon Band, Afro Celts, Toss The Feathers, Coolfin, Mozaik, Solas and countless others. Put that lot together in one band and it can’t be anything but inestimably wonderful.

S Well, I bring glad tidings because they have and it is.

The band is called Usher’s Island, they have a self-titled debut album newly released (as you’ll know if you paid atten- tion to fRoots 65) and, if they ever stay still long enough to meet in the same place at the same time, they may be coming to a town near you some time between now and the next millennium.

So chance has it I find myself in Galway’s fair city watching mesmerised as – in com- pany with Donal Lunny and Kevin Burke – Paul Brady and Andy Irvine roll back the years to play a sublime set commemorating the 40th anniversary of their landmark duo album Andy Irvine/Paul Brady. You know, the one that gave the world Brady’s momentous arrangement of Arthur McBride, which still stops the show. The redoubtable Sarah Coxson has already waxed lyrical in these pages about this show when it landed in Dublin, so we’ll say no more about it here, except to say the night ends in a hotel bar in nearby Oranmore, where the happy participants are unwind- ing in various starts of euphoria.

We find Dónal Lunny in full flow, shar- ing his interesting conspiracy theories about the universe and everything, while Kevin Burke has already retired to bed, Paul Brady buys the drinks and quietly basks in the all- conquering triumph of a tour that instantly sold out within seconds of being announced. And Andy Irvine… Irvine is exhausted, but as convivial as ever, still laughing in wonder at the madness of it all.

Never tire of the road, eh Andy? “Oh bullshit!” He sinks into his seat, while the

top whatever you’re doing. Well, don’t stop reading this, obvious- ly, but take a moment to savour these names… Mr Andy Irvine. Mr Dónal Lunny. Mr Paddy

ever-youthful Lunny leaps up to find a sharpie pen to write a dedication on one of the CDs being proferred in his direction.

“I’ll be OK after a week off,” says Andy. “I’ll have to be… I’m back on the road. It would be great to take a break, you know? You think ‘Right, I’ve got a month off and then, after five days, you think ‘Oh god, I wish I had a gig…’”

Usher’s Island encompasses a lineage that connects the music – and musicians – from the 1970s onwards. You get blissful instrumental interplay between McGoldrick’s fabled flute, whistle and pipes, Glackin’s outstanding fiddle, Doyle’s empa- thetic guitar and vocals, Lunny’s percussive bouzouki masterclass and Irvine’s intricate mandolin and lithe vocals among beautiful- ly flowing sets of tunes, a melancholy revisit to Wild Rover, a heartfelt version of Molly Bán and some stirring original material by both Doyle and Irvine. One of Andy’s tracks, As Good As It Gets, is also due to appear on the forthcoming new Mozaik album with pretty much the same arrangement. “Don’t tell anybody… hopefully no-one will notice.”

The spectre of Planxty, of course – that most mighty of Irish bands from the 1970s on – looms heavy when you listen to Usher’s Island. Hardly surprising as they rose from the ashes of Planxty’s brief comeback in 2005, a quarter of a century after they’d originally inflamed new passions in Ireland’s folk heritage with enlightened arrange- ments, blazing virtuosity and the looks, atti- tude and vigour more commonly associated with their rock peers. All went on to many other wondrous experiences both solo and in other bands in the intervening years; but the 2005 revival rumbled to a halt when Christy Moore decided he wanted out and Planxty split once more, leaving the other three members – Liam O’Flynn, Dónal Lunny and Andy Irvine somewhat frustrated.

“We did think it was a bit of a shame,” says Irvine. “Liam, Dónal and myself were gung-ho to do more, so we got in Paddy Glackin (ex-Bothy Band fiddler and founder member) and became LAPD (Liam, Andy, Paddy and Dónal, see?)”

They were also brilliant but then Liam O’Flynn, the prince of pipers, decided he wanted out too, leaving Andy, Paddy and Dónal out on a limb once more. So they thought they’d get someone else in, form another band and think of a new name.

“I’d worked with John Doyle and knew how brilliant he was and I’d known Mike

McGoldrick for years, so we asked them if they fancied getting together. Dónal says I thought it would be a good idea to get someone in from America and somebody else from Manchester just to make things harder. Anyway, John and Mike both said yes and we became… what are we called? Oh yes, Usher’s Island.”

“The name was Dónal’s idea by the

way. It’s always hard getting a name and we were all going… erm… and Donal said ‘Usher’s Island’ and we went… erm… dunno… maybe… we couldn’t think of any- thing else so we said OK, we’ll go with it. In the end it doesn’t matter if a name is good, bad or indifferent, it just sticks to you.”

or those fascinated by such things, Usher’s Island is actually a place in Dublin, not a very edify- ing place if you believe a Royal Institute of the Architects of Ire- land report, which decreed it the ugliest place in Dublin. Not sure if this is what Dónal had in mind when he came up with the name – he was talking about the uni- verse being mani pulated by aliens or some- thing at the time.


The driving force of Usher’s Island (the band, not the ugliest place in Dublin) turns out to be – perhaps not surprisingly – the force of nature that is Mike McGoldrick. As well as a stupendously brilliant musician on a number of instruments, the Irishman from Manchester has the energy, imagination and conviction of an army of punks and took it upon himself to get the show on the road.

“Mike is bloody great,” says Andy. “Apart from being a musician he’s… well, we did a BBC thing with Mark Radcliffe and the amount of money the BBC pay it was going to cost us money to go over and do it, but almost overnight Mike organised a gig at Chorlton Irish Club and ran it. He was promoter and probably took the money at the door. He’s very smart altogether.”

Indeed, their debut album was record- ed at McGoldrick’s studio in Tuam, Co Gal- way. Well, I say ‘studio’, it’s actually a cot- tage. The lady who’d sold the place to Mike and his father Brendan was thrilled to dis- cover it was going to a musician – and one furthermore she recognised from the TV – and took great delight in informing them about its past life as a meeting place for musicians in the locality in which incarna- tion it had regularly housed sessions, a fact confirmed by the number of old instruments they came across there.

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