Going Out Strong

The Irish World

Written by David Hennessy - 08/05/2024

Brian Warfield, Tommy Byrne and Noel Nagle, aka The Wolfe Tones, sat down with David Hennessy at The Faltering Fullback last week ahead of their surprise gig there to chat about their 60+ years on the road, their upcoming Finsbury Park show which will be their biggest ever UK show and going out at the height of their popularity.

Traditional Irish music icons The Wolfe Tones were in London recently to surprise to 200 lucky fans at The Faltering Fullback.

The secret and intimate show came ahead of their historic final London show on 5 July at Finsbury Park.

Amongst the audience were the comedienne, actress and screenwriter Aisling Bea, Fontaines D.C. and Republic of Ireland football star, Jeff Hendrick.

The Irish World were also there and sat down with the band to chat about their 60+ years on the road.

Made up of Brian Warfield, Noel Nagle and Tommy Byrne, The Wolfe Tones are known for tracks such as You’ll Never Beat the Irish, Irish Eyes, My Heart is in Ireland, The Streets of New York, A Nation Once Again, Come Out Ye Black and Tans and the song Celtic Symphony which has been the subject of contention in recent years.

The Wolfe Tones’ last ever London performance, and their biggest UK show to date will take place at Finsbury Park on Friday 5 July 2024, they’ll also be joined by The Undertones, The Sharon Shannon Big Band, The Scratch and Brògeal.

It is hoped it will be the largest Irish party London has ever seen.

Brian Warfield told The Irish World: “We’re really looking forward to that and we’re hoping we’ll have the biggest Irish crowd ever in Finsbury Park.

“We’re only looking for 35,000 out of 6 million Irish in Britain!”

Tommy Byrne added: “It’s no big ask, I’m sure they’ll come from all over: Manchester, Birmingham, Coventry, all the great Irish areas in England , plus all the people around London.

“London is such a vast city that we’ve Irish in every area in London and we’re looking forward to seeing them all in Finsbury Park.”

Noel Nagle added: “We’ve played throughout the UK, right across over the years so hopefully we’re expecting a very big crowd at the Finsbury Park for the festival on 5 July.

“We had great support from all the Irish people here and of course they’re friends too.

“We’re excited about it and we’re really looking forward to it.”

Brian continues: “It’s definitely going to be the biggest crowd that London has ever seen at an Irish festival.

“So you’ve gotta be there or you’re gonna miss out.

“It is our last tour and it will be our last gig in England.

“It’s gonna be something special.”

Does it feel sad that it will be your last gig here?

“I think it’s a bittersweet moment,” Brian says.

“We’ve had some wonderful times across England and Scotland and Wales with the Irish clubs, the Irish scene.

“It’s sad to leave that all behind but at the same time, the Wolfe Tones can’t go on forever.”

Tommy adds: “And we hope to leave a legacy.

“Our first gig in London was 1965 and since then, as Brian said, we’ve played all across the United Kingdom.

“For a couple of summers in the 80s we did the National Theatre in Kilburn which was massive.

“Every Monday night, we played there during the summer and that was tremendous.

“We built up a huge fan base so hopefully, all those people will remember those nights and come and see us at Finsbury Park.”

I bet you didn’t think when you started all that time back that the Wolfe Tones would still be here 60 years later…

“It was never the plan,” Brian says.

“We took it day by day.

“We never planned that, ‘Oh, next year we’re going to be this or that or the other’, and we just took everything as it came.

“We were very lucky in the start of our career that we got a record contract in 1964.

“We were the first kind of ballad group outside The Clancys that got an opportunity to put our songs and what we were doing on record.

“That was a lucky break for the Wolfe Tones because when we went to America the first time, people already knew our music because we were played on radio over there and they could dance to songs like The Hills of Glenswilly or other songs that we had at the time.

“So we were very lucky.”

Tommy adds: “We worked hard also. I mean we went the length and breadth of the country.

“It was very difficult.

“We spent most of the time on the road.

“We’ve all been married for the same length to time, maybe 55, 56 years, to the same girls who are all good friends so we’re very lucky in that respect also.

“But I suppose what you missed at the start was seeing your kids grow up because you were on the road all the time.

“You left the house at three in the afternoon to go to a gig.

“You got home at three in the morning.

“You were in bed when the kids went to school.

“You were gone on your way to next gig when they got home.

“That was one of the major setbacks in the early days but that’s the way of showbusiness.

“I suppose a lot of people go through that.

“But never did we dream in our wildest days we’d end up where we are now.”

Noel adds: “It’s not something that the three of us sat down and tried to plan.

“We got a good few lucky breaks.

“It’s something you can’t sit down and plan, it just has to happen for you.

“You could have any kind of talent out there and it might never happen for you but it happened for us now, not without hard work as well.

“We were very dedicated to what we were doing and this is the fruits of it.”

Of the group’s success Brian says: “I think the Wolfe Tones have been an amazing asset to the Irish communities across the world because we told the story of Ireland when nobody else was telling it.

“We gave everything from an Irish perspective during the awful troubles that we had.

“Everybody in Ireland was blamed and every community of Irish people were blamed for the troubles and it wasn’t their fault.

“We know that the English occupation of our country caused terrible turmoil over the years and it was difficult for people living here to express that, because they were living in a country that had done awful things to Ireland including the awful time that we had in the 1840s.

“They called it a famine but Ireland was full of food as we well know so all of those things had to be put aside while they swallowed the troubles and being blamed for the troubles.

“We know the awful things that happened to some of the Irish communities like the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, and all those other people, but the Wolfe Tones were always there to support them.

“We wrote songs about all those times and it gave the Irish support, they knew someone was supporting them and not everybody was hating them.”

Tommy adds: “We’ve been very successful over many years but just recently, amazingly so.

“The main basis of our fanbase right now is young people and they’ve never heard us on radio.

“They’ve never seen us on TV- or very seldom on TV.

“They just realise that this music has been withheld from them so now when they see the Wolfe Tones, they realise we’re telling the story that they never heard before.”

Noel continues: “I think through our songs and the content of our songs, we probably raised an awareness of all things Irish among the younger kids coming up today which we get a lot of at our shows.

“The story of Ireland is told through our songs and they’re showing a great interest as well in all the people who gave their lives to give them the life that they have today.

“They suffered and they sacrificed everything.

“I know some kids be asking those questions all the time now about the people who were actually involved, people who gave their lives for their freedom that we enjoy today.”

Brian says: “In America, Australia, New Zealand, all the places across the world where the Wolfe Tones has spread the message and story of Ireland, it was important to them that somebody was telling it.

“We were out there fighting for the Irish people that they could sing their own songs with pride, tell their own story with pride and not be held down by anybody.

“It’s important.

“I think that’s why the Irish people loved The Wolfe Tones: Because we were the only ones at the time.

“Other people were afraid to tell the story.

“They’d get banned on radio.

“We were not afraid of that. We told the story despite the fact that we were blacklisted all over the place.

“If we had it all over again, we’d do it again.

“I don’t think the money is important, the message is important. The story is important.

“The freedom to speak and tell the story is highly important.

“That’s what the Wolfe Tones are about.”

The song Celtic Symphony has been in the headlines in recent years with there being controversy about the Irish women’s football team singing it and Leinster Rugby apologising for playing it at the RDS.

Brian says: “I remember when I was on that (Joe Duffy) show, he almost blamed Celtic symphony and the likes of the songs that we were singing for murdering children.

“We never murdered anybody in our lives.

“We were nearly murdered ourselves.

“We never had any intention of injuring or hurting anybody.

“The story of Ireland has always been a peaceful one.

“The violence was brought to our country.

“The violence was brought to Belfast, it wasn’t brought from Belfast.

“People stood up and fought against that.

“They fought to defend themselves and their communities, just as they’re trying to do now in Gaza.

“That’s why I think Palestine is very important to the Irish people, because we’ve suffered as well.

“We understand the suffering more than anybody else.

“We have great empathy with these communities across the world and it hurts the Irish heart, the Irish feelings when we see something like that.

“It brings us back to our own history and awful things we had to go through.”

Brian says the band were almost killed.

There was a time when Special Branch warned them about going north in the dark days of the Troubles.

He also believes the Wolfe Tones were the intended target of the Miami Showband massacre.

“We were going up to the six counties during the troubles.

“We got harassed many times and we were almost killed at one stage just before the Miami were killed.

“I believe we were the original target.

“We were up in County Down and luckily enough, we had friends who understood that we could be under threat and they brought us over the Mountains of Mourne down to Warrenpoint and we got out safe.

“But it was the Glenanne Gang which killed the Miami.

“We looked in from the kitchen, we weren’t allowed into the bar at the time.

“I looked in from the kitchen.

“We could see RUC guys, we could see UDR type guys all in uniforms, and they were all there ha ha-ing and getting drunk and everything else.

“That setup was there for us and they probably would have put a bomb in our van and blamed us for carrying bombs for the IRA or something like that.

“We were lucky that we got away with that and we came home, and it wasn’t the only lucky one we had.

“We had a few narrow ones as we went through the troubles but it never stopped us supporting the people.”

It must have been scary…

Brian says: “We were young and you’re kind of Invincible when you’re young.

“Another time people said never stop for a dodgy checkpoint.

“And I said, ‘What’s a dodgy checkpoint?’

“’Well’, he said, ‘They won’t have a big setup. There’ll be two or three fellas with a lamp or something like that’.

“So we’re coming out of Omagh one day and I’m driving.

“Tommy was beside me and Noel was in the back and I seen this little checkpoint with a fella with a torch.

“I said, ‘This doesn’t look right’.

“And I put the foot down and they jumped out of the way.

“I must have travelled through at about 100 miles an hour.

“Tommy woke up and he goes, ‘What’s going on?’

“I said, ‘I just broke a checkpoint’.

“He said, ‘Well, don’t fucking stop now’.

“But that’s the dodgy times you had.

“It was tough.

“You can laugh at them now but they weren’t laughable matters.”

Tommy adds: “I remember being picked up in Emyvale and being put in the back of a van and hay being put on top of me and my guitar.

“We were all being brought up the north separately.

“It was clandestine.

“As Brian said, we were young. We didn’t feel vulnerable and of course we were.”

Noel adds: “I don’t think we realised the danger we were in at the time.

“We were doing what we wanted to do, supporting the people of Northern Ireland and we never shirked on that.”

It was just in the days before their surprise London appearance that it was confirmed that the Wolfe Tones will play the main stage at this year’s Electric Picnic.

This comes after last year’s show there showed the crowds squashing to get into the tent for their set.

Brian says: “We were very humbled by the fact that so many people came out at the Electric Picnic last year.

“We had 15,000 in the tent and 35,000 outside it.

“I think people were caught by the fact that we had so many people turning up for this show, but we weren’t because we knew there was a surge amongst young people in the popularity of the Wolfe Tones.

“We knew that had been there for 10 years or so before that.

“But most people were because the Wolfe Tones were ignored in both radio and press and every other way.

“So when it came to light, ‘Ah, the Wolfe Tones had a huge crowd at Electric Picnic’, everybody was amazed.

“We weren’t.”

Is this really the end is it never say never?

Brian says: “Well, I have an open mind and I think everybody has an open mind but we have to call it a day sometime.”

Tommy adds: “It’s a great time to stop.

“This is gonna be a fantastic year for us.

“This is an unbelievable year for the Wolfe Tones and what a great way to finish.”

Is it possible you could come back for one more?

Brian says: “I said to Tommy, ‘Would you come back for one next year?’

“He said, ‘I’d come back if we do Croke Park’.

“I don’t know whether we’ll ever do Croke Park or not but it means that the door’s never closed.

“We have everything to look forward to this year.

“We’re humbled by the crowds and it’s a great way to end your career if we are ending our career.

“I’d say it’s the way to go out, the strongest way you could ever finish off something.

“It’s our pride to have been supported by the Irish people all over the world.

“Throughout the sixty years we’ve been together, they never gave up on the Wolfe Tones.

“Radios might have and RTE might have.

“There’s one sure thing, the people of Ireland never gave up on the Wolfe Tones.”

Tommy adds: “You’ll never beat the Irish.

“We’re going out on a high, you can’t really do any better than that.

“We’re going out on the biggest stage probably in Ireland.

“We’re finishing up in October in the 3 Arena: A couple of nights there and they’re all sold out.

“They were sold out within hours so it’s a great way to go out.

“And as I say, if the opportunity arises, we may come back to do one more.

“You never know.”

In closing Brian says: “Thank you for all the wonderful support that we have out there around England, around the London area.

“We look forward to seeing you all at the biggest crowd ever.”

The Wolfe Tones play Finsbury Park on 5 July, tickets are available from here.

For more information, click here.

The Irish World