“It was socially important for the kids to have some music in the north of Ireland and not be annexed off completely.” – Rory Gallagher’s brother Dónal on the famous Irish Tour of ’74
It was 40 years ago in December that Rory Gallagher embarked on his iconic Irish Tour, a week-long venture taking in both sides of the border at a time when the majority of international acts ignored the island completely.
The tour was beset by problems from the very beginning – the Troubles at their height meant they had barely a week to plan the Belfast dates – and they were forced to improvise when Ronnie Lane’s mobile recording unit was held up in the UK as they couldn’t find an insurer willing to take on the risk.
With him throughout that tour – and indeed the majority of his career before his untimely death in 1995 – was his younger brother Dónal, who first served as a roadie for Rory’s band before stepping up to become his manager both on the road and off it.
With the eight-disc CD and DVD set recently re-mastered and re-released to coincide with the milestone, Dónal speaks to Something for the Weekend about his still-vivid recollections from one of blues and rock’s iconic records.
“Frankly, the last thing I wanted to hear from Rory was that there was a film crew coming on tour with us,” he says.
“In those days you didn’t carry such a big lighting rig, but that all had to be supplemented for film lighting.
“You couldn’t actually get confirmation for the dates in the north of Ireland. You’d have to wait until a ceasefire was agreed or some sort of truce over Christmas, and that was usually at the last minute, and it was usually around the 19th of December you’d find out a truce had been agreed until such a date.
“Jim Aiken [the promoter] would then go and book the hall, so you were never quite clear when you’d do the dates and everything had to be done at short notice.
“If you’d had the aid of text and mobiles and emails, it wouldn’t be so bad, but in those days it was hand-written letter or Telex machines. It was probably all the better for it in some ways, as it generated its own adrenaline.”
By the mid-Seventies, the once-thriving Belfast rock n’ roll and blues scene had fizzled out to virtually nothing – Rory had made his name in the northern city as the face of Cork trio Taste, but it was an utterly changed place to which he deigned to return as Christmas approached in 1974.
Rory was one of the hottest properties this side of the Atlantic by this time. He’d recorded with Muddy Waters and Jerry Lewis, and in early ’75 the Rolling Stones were interested in bringing him in to replace Mick Taylor, who had recently walked away from the band.
This meant he could afford to be choosy about whom he worked with, and he had the luxury of rejecting the advances of two film crews who sought to make a documentary emphasising the Troubles – which was precisely the opposite of what Rory was trying to achieve.
Dónal says: “Rory didn’t want the thing portrayed as a political statement. It was about the music and it was about that generation of fun-loving, music-loving people. You had internment and all sorts, and in the media kids in Ireland had been portrayed in a terrible light, and the other side was showing kids coming to a concert and enjoying it.
“It was also laying down the gauntlet to other bands to come back and tour in Ireland because that had all stopped. There was no visiting musicians touring. It was socially important for the kids to have some music in the north of Ireland and not be annexed off completely.
“It was fundamentally important that it wasn’t portrayed that way – there had been two other approaches that had been refused on the basis that they had wanted to make the whole thing political.”
While the aim of the tour was partly to challenge bands to once again tour north of the border, the reality was that it was an undertaking fraught with difficult for everybody from bands and performers to promoters and the fans themselves.
Dónal says: “You had the scenario where promoters couldn’t put gigs on because they couldn’t get insurance, and second of all you had the responsibility that if you do put gigs on and you invite kids into a city centre, you’re putting 2000 kids into the Ulster Hall and god forbid something untoward would happen.
“Nobody wanted to have that kind of responsibility. And coming into town and going home, there were so many incidents in the evenings that you had a curfew imposed by the British Army.
“I remember going up there for different purposes and you had to be back in your hotel by eight in the evening. And as well as that, if you were a visiting band you didn’t know whether your hotel would be in the car park in the morning.”
In spite of the difficulties created by the political situation, the tour was a success across the board, as attested to by sold-out shows in Belfast, Dublin and Cork. Hectic though the schedule was, the brothers found plenty of opportunities to enjoy themselves outside of the gigs.
“There were some incredible moments, and sadly not filmed. A high point for me would have been the night after the Carlton Cinema in Dublin, we went back to the Gresham Hotel across the road and some of the Dubliners turned up because they’d heard about the band.
“Rory had played on a show with the Dubliners in the Sixties. It was Luke Kelly, John Sheahan and Barney McKenna. We went out and got some acoustic instruments and next thing there was a session in the foyer between Rory and the Dubliners with Luke Kelly signing all night.
“The film cameras were put on it but Rory didn’t want any lighting because it would have destroyed the atmosphere so the film never came out, but somewhere there’s an audio of that moment.”
“The following morning, I was on my way down to the Liffey with Barney McKenna – he used to go fishing in the Liffey and he had a boat moored up by the bridge – and somebody said to me ‘do you realise you’ve got to be in Cork tonight?”
The eight-disc Irish Tour ’74 box set is out now.