Craobh Rua Branch Out Worldwide

by Geoff Harden

Ten years ago, most of the groups playing traditional or "folk" music around Belfast were cabaret style pub bands, churning out rehashes of songs from Christy Moore, the Fureys or even Clancy Brothers. The notion of trying to play "serious" music was an alien one and the die-hard traditionalists frowned on those who played arranged music. The spirit of the Chieftains, Planxty and the Bothy Band had hardly touched the North.

One reason for this was the lack of suitable venues in which to develop their music and stagecraft. In the Eighties, however, there was a strong circuit of folk clubs and occasional festivals relying heavily on imported performers and this helped to spur the formation of a number of groups. The talent had been there in abundance around the pub sessions but now some of the musicians began to look towards moving out of the pubs and even taking their music overseas.

Sitting in his West Belfast home, Brian Connolly recalls that his chosen instrument, the banjo, was very unfashionable at the time. "In fact it still is. There are a couple of hundred banjo jokes on the Internet. In the States, they are not used to the four string banjos so maybe it is more acceptable. When we did a banjo workshop at the Vermont festival with Pete Seeger and others the banjo jokes were fairly flying - mainly from the musicians themselves."

By the end of 1991 Craobh Rua had become one of the best-known Irish bands among Scottish audiences and were building a good following in the USA

Connolly's main influence was the Dubliners' Barney McKenna while Desy learned much of his piping from the influential Sean McAloon, who made his pipes. They shared a love of Planxty, the Bothy Band and especially the Chieftains.

Before long the pair had expanded the line-up by adding talented young fiddle player Michael Cassidy . "I think they needed a bit more volume," says Michael, "so I got a phone call. We'd seen each other at sessions but I didn't know them. Desy was talking to my father on the phone and they had the whole deal more or less sewn up before I got talking to Desy! My father had heard them on the radio and really liked them, so he more or less decided for me."

By the end of 1991 Craobh Rua had become one of the best-known Irish bands among Scottish audiences and were building a good following in the USA. They were still holding down "day jobs" though and Desy McCabe's work, as an accountant, took him to Dublin. So Mark Donnelly, a product of the Armagh School of Pipers, was introduced to the band and their second album. 'The More That's Said The Less The Better' was recorded for the Scottish Lochshore label.

Since then, the band has gone from strength to strength with several trips to the USA every year and plenty of work on the Continent. "We are just back form Italy," says Michael. "They have these festivals which run for three weeks, with a band every night, and we got on that circuit. Celtic/world music seems to be really taking off there."

"And we play Germany and Austria and so on." adds Brian. "Last year we did a Celtic festival in Poland. We've done a few English festivals and we still go to Scotland We played Bute and Killin festivals there this year."

Since their early days, Craobh Rua have been conspicuous by their absence >from home turf; even Belfast hardly ever gets the chance to hear them. Brian Connolly quickly denies any suggestion that this is because they can earn more abroad or that the audiences are better. "It's a problem, especially when we were part-time, fitting in work at weekends. When you come home from touring you need a bit of a break. But we're looking for more work at home now. We are playing the Harp Club during Belfast Festival at Queen's in November and there are possible gigs coming up in Dublin and Galway. We have to put a bit of a tour together." With the new album beginning to make an impact and another in the pipeline, the time surely is right.

September 1996