Over the course of a legendary 60-year career as a band, the only thing that was able to stop the Irish Rovers was the Covid-19 pandemic. But now they are back, on the road with a new album, and playing sold-out houses everywhere, including Cranbrook on April 3.
George Millar, who was one of the band’s founding members, has seen the length of that career arc, from band’s formation in 1963, through the success the hit song “The Unicorn” brought them in the late ‘60s, through the television specials of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the half-century of touring the world as musicians, entertainers and ambassadors of Canada, Ireland and Celtic music.
The Irish Rovers’ new album — “No End In Sight” — carries on with those Celtic traditions. George Millar wrote a lot of the album at home in Victoria, B.C., while in pandemic lockdown, and as such, the material reflects the state of the world.
“I actually ended up writing quite a few songs,” Millar told the Townsman of his time in the pandemic. “In two years of not touring, when you’re used to touring six weeks at a time, it gave me a lot of free time.
“And at first, me sitting around not doing much of anything, just bemoaning the fact that the world has changed, like everybody did. And then I just started writing more.”
“So as much as I hated what was happening to the world, it certainly helped my juices in writing.
Several of the songs came out of this time. “Hey, Boys, Sing Us A Song,” which is nominated for the Canadian Folk Music Awards Single of the Year, came out of a trip to Ireland to visit family.
“Going through London Heathrow Airport, you could have shot cannons through it. Usually it’s an absolute maze of people — this time there was hardly anybody there. It was like watching ‘The Walking Dead.’ And so it was on the plane to Ireland I started thinking of the lyrics to ‘Hey Boys Sing Us A Song’ — like, can we please get back to a little bit of normalcy?”
Other songs come from a personal place, but with a universal access.
“I wrote a song called ‘The Girl Down The Lane,’ about a man who is lonely, and loneliness. My wife couldn’t see her grandkids, my daughter was across the water in Vancouver, and we weren’t allowed to get together as a family. There was still a loneliness about seeing your friends and family.
“My cousin Joe was feeling quite low with Alzheimer’s, and in fact passed away a few weeks ago. I wrote a song about him called ‘Somebody Loves Me.’
“So some of the songs on this album came out of this depressing period of two years. But then again, I threw in a song like ‘Diabolical Things,’ which is sort of a British mystery.”
With a 2020 tour cut short, The Irish Rovers are definitely making up for that time lost. Their new tour started in Ontario earlier this month, and they are gradually wending their way across the country.
“It’s great to be back,” Millar said. “Everybody seems to be having a great time. They’re laughing at some of the corniest of jokes we’ve been telling for years, and they’re laughing hysterically — and I’m thinking these people are starved. As much as we’ve been starved for the fans, they’ve been starved for us.”
For Millar, the most amazing part of this new journey is amount of young people in the audience.
“It’s like full circle, starting all over again. The little kids that used to watch our leprechauns on TV, they’re now in their 40s, and they’re bringing their kids, and I’m thinking, my goodness, we are just a lucky, blessed band, that we’ve had these fans over the years. I can’t talk enough about the fans, I really can’t, and they’re wonderful to us.”
A 60-year career — the same as the Rolling Stones — is a remarkable lifespan for any band, but again, the Irish Rovers give a lot of credit for their longevity to their fans and supporters.
“You can be the best band in the world, the best singer, the best guitar player — but if the people don’t appreciate what you’re doing and don’t support you, you’re not going to last more than a few months or a year,” Millar said. “In our case, these fans are so phenomenal.”
The founding members of the Irish Rovers emigrated to Canada from Northern Ireland in the early ‘60s, and their evolution to a national institution certainly makes them like old friends to Canadians.
“People living in more of the outposts of Canada, they had no choice,” Millar said. “They had to watch us [on the Irish Rovers TV shows], because there were only two channels. That’s why we had a built-in audience, all across Canada. Especially when you go up into Manitoba — the Thompsons or the Flin Flons.”
That’s as may be, but the engine that powers the Irish Rovers’ enduring popularity is their music. Songs like “The Unicorn,” “Black Velvet Band,” “Drunken Sailor,” Wasn’t That A Party,” et al, are ingrained in our musical consciousness. And the Irish Rovers’ musicianship and enthusiastic shows are what keep the band going.
“The other thing that goes hand and hand with that is that you have to enjoy what you’re doing,” Millar said. “It doesn’t matter what you do, you’ve got to do it properly. If you get bored with your job, no matter what it is, you’re not going to do a good job.
“In our genre of Celtic music, you have to enjoy it. And if not, the audience will soon discover that you’re not having fun on stage, and they’re going to stop coming to see you. So the band, and its members, have to enjoy what they’re doing — and they have to do it well, of course, but they also have to really enjoy it.”
Celtic traditional music and song saw an initial renaissance in the early 1960s — the Clancy Brothers, the Chieftains, the Dubliners and others who brought that traditional music to wider global audiences. The Irish Rovers were very much part of this movement. But as Millar says, Irish trad reached new levels of global popularity with the advent of Riverdance in the ‘90s — a theatrical show featuring traditional Irish music and dance that became enormously popular.
“One of the secrets of the resurgence of Celtic music is, you have to give it to Riverdance,” Millar said. “There were the Clancy Brothers, the Dubliners, and us, and later on the Pogues and Great Big Sea … but Riverdance with all these good-looking young fellows and girls, doing this dance to this great Irish music — that went around the world and got other people tuning in.
“You can go into a pub now in any country in the world, and there will be Celtic music. We got a video sent to us of four young Russian fellows miming to one of our songs, “Bells over Belfast,” a peace song I wrote for Belfast for Christmas. So Celtic music has gone all over the world, and Riverdance had a big part of it.”
Millar also gives credit to the Clancy Brothers, an influential Irish folk music group that developed as a part of the American folk music revival during the 1960s,
“They were the first,” Millar said. “They came to America about 10 years before we even formed, and they started the inroads in America of these boisterous Irish drinking songs — they started the ball rolling back in the mid-50s. They were huge, and all they had was a guitar and a banjo.
“They became very good friends of ours over the years.”
The current Irish Rovers lineup includes George Millar on vocals and guitar, Ian Millar on bass and vocals, Davey Walker on keyboards, Gerry O’Connor on fiddle, Geoffrey Kelly on flute and whistle, Fred Graham on bodhran, Shane Farrell on banjo, Jimmy Keane on accordion, and Kevin Evans on vocals and guitar.
The Irish Rovers play the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook on Monday, April 3.