Profile: Sweeney's Men

by Jeff Rice, Nov 1995

Sweeney's Men were the first of the modern folk-traditional Irish groups, and had a huge impact on almost everything that followed. In the late sixties, the folk revival in Ireland was chiefly in the hands of the Dubliners and Clancy Brothers, very much into vigorous ballad singing, and Sweeney's Men injected some fresh instrumentals into the scene. The original line up was Andy Irvine, Johnny Moynihan and Joe Dolan, in 1966. After having recorded some singles and played several gigs, Dolan left and was replaced by Terry Woods in 1967, which became the most famous lineup of this group. Their instrumentation included bouzouki, guitar, banjo, mandolin, tin whistle, harmonica, and concertina.

Certainly the most famous contribution of Sweeney's Men (besides some fine music!) was the introduction of the bouzouki in 1967 by Moynihan. This original bouzouki was a 6-string version, which has since been replaced in most groups by the 8-string variant that is now so common. (This variant was probably introduced by John Bailey, who made a flat-backed version with the 8-pegs.)

Their repertoire ranged from Irish songs like Willy O'Winsbury, to the Scots Rattlin' Roarin' Willie, to American folk like Tom Dooley. Among this mix are original selections so masterful that they entered the traditional scene so quickly that they are seldom recognized now as recent compositions. (I speak mainly here of Moynihan's Standing On the Shore, which to my sorrow he doesn't perform anymore.) Regardless of the country of origin, their music is exciting and spontaneous.

In 1968, Andy Irvine left the group to wander Eastern Europe, and was replaced by Henry McCullough. This group lacked the chemistry of the Moynihan/Irvine combination, however, and the group disbanded in 1969. Some talk of an Irvine/Moynihan/Woods/Ashley Hutchings combination came up in 1970 or 1971, but the dynamics that caused the breakup after Irvine left remained to a certain extent, and this never got off the ground.

Irvine went on to play with Planxty,Patrick Street and have a successful solo career. Moynihan played with Anne Briggs, Planxty, De Dannan, but recently is much more low-key, although he played at the San Francisco Celtic Festival in 1994 with Andy McNamara, and does some solo gigs as well. Terry Woods played with both Steeleye Span and the Pogues.

Besides the introduction of the bouzouki, the group is often credited with the revival of the traditional scene. Their first album "Sweeney's Men" (Transatlantic) is a classic. They had one more progressive album, "The Tracks of Sweeney", in 1969, after Irvine left. Demon records have issued a compilation CD, called either "The Magic of Sweeney's Men" or "Sweeney's Men: Time was Never Here 1968-69" which has both complete albums. "Sweeney's Men 1968" is also available as part of a 4CD set from Castle Records called something like "Irish Folk Favourites".

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Copyright (c) 1995 Ceolas & Jeff Rice.

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