The Táin I Loved So Well 
© Paul Bowen 2000 


The maestro's hands move like demons over the fretboard of his red Gibson guitar. Johnny Fean, Horslips soul survivor, plays with a blistering fury unheard since Rory; his searing vibrato like a rocket fuelled Uilleann pipe weaving molten melodies of pure gold, underpinned by the Motownfluidity of Ireland's greatest bass player, Stephen Travers. The Ready Micks, Celtic Jazz Techno for Y2K, very Holloway Boulevard indeed.

But there used to be a time when Irish music meant shaggy jumpers and unruly facial hair. Musically, Young Ireland didn't exist. In October 1970, Horslips changed all that. Mandolins with attitude and eye make-up, the courageous vision of Eamon Carr, Barry Devlin, Jim Lockhart, Johnny Fean and Charles O'Connor became the wave, now three decades a-rollin’, that embraces everything from the Corrs to Riverdance, from Sinead O’Connor to the Afro-Celts. Drawing inspiration from Irish mythology and Jimi Hendrix in equal measure, Horslips were fiery and passionate, wildly imaginative. Yet with twelve albums under their belt, a huge worldwide following and an album that sold a quarter of a million copies, Horslips, in true Rock'n'Roll fashion, split up. Ten years to the day after they formed. Nothing if not theatrical. How did it all go so wrong? I talked to Johnny and looked back in wonder.

'We came out of leftfield.' he says. 'Before us, there was no-one doing anything remotely like us. We started a completely original thing; Irish melodies set in contemporary songs. We got lots of stick; people were very protective about Irish music and like any change, social or musical, some people found it hard to accept. But those who just loved music, said Yeah! This is it! This is the New! Before us, people had just been dabbling, but with Horslips everything came together in sharp focus. To me, Horslips was about the influences and elements that each member brought to the music.'

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What were some of those elements?

'Jim Lockhart had studied classical music at Trinity or UCD, but he was heavily influenced by Sean O'Riada, that notion of orchestration and ensemble playing in Irish music. My background was Blues music; Hendrix, early Eric Clapton, Peter Green. But I also had a Trad background playing tenor banjo and mandolin at seisúns in Co. Clare where I grew up. So I just incorporated those two traditions into my guitar playing and developed my own personal style which became Celtic Rock guitar.'

You invented the Celtic Rock genre, didn't you?

'Oh, I don't like to blow my own trumpet…'

Then I'll do it for you mate. Johnny Fean, inventor of Celtic Rock. The country should declare you a National Treasure and put up a statue in O'Connell Street.

'When you think of the term 'Celtic Rock' you think of the guitar…'

Like the killer riff on 'Dearg  Doom' from Horslips' second album, 'The Táin'?

'Exactly. It was the final piece of the Horslips jigsaw and was carried on through all twelve albums.'

'The Táin' was a huge undertaking. Based on the Celtic myth of the ancient war between Ulster and Connaught, the dense weave of song and story sounds so natural, like it happened either by accident or with an incredible amount of planning.

'It was a bit of both,' says Johnny. 'Although it was a huge jump from our first album 'Happy To Meet, Sorry To Part' and things had become more structured, it sort of fell into place. We had to be disciplined with 'The Táin', but we also liked the idea of being loose and organic. But as a concept album, it wasn't hugely accessible, so on 'Dancehall Sweethearts' the songwriting became more pop orientated. That got us radio play in America.'

Not enough to satisfy their record company RCA, who dropped the band after their next album, 'The Unfortunate Cup Of Tea'. Ever resourceful, Horslips' self-financed the following two albums, 'Drive The Cold Winter Away' and 'Horslips Live'. It almost bankrupted them, but help was at hand in the form of Elton John's label DJM. They needed it; their meisterwerk was about to be unveiled. For two years they'd  been toiling like monks to write 'The Book Of Invasions', an epic tale of the very origins of the Irish race. 'Book' far eclipses 'The Táin' in breadth and vision. How did the band feel when it was finally released?

'We were very satisfied; critical acclaim was ecstatic and looking back, I'd rate it as our best in terms of artistic peak.'

But trouble with a capital P lay ahead. Johnny explains.

'Punk was happening in the UK and even though we had a pretty strong following, we definitely suffered as a result of the big changes in music and fashion.'

Those outside influences started to pull the band in the different directions, reflected in the songwriting on the follow-up album, 'Aliens'.

'It got a lot of US radio play, but people were unhappy. Horslips core identity, the Trad instruments, were being dropped in favour of the big American Rock sound. We felt we'd lost something of ourselves in the process. There was a lot of arguing.'

'The Man Who Built America' sold a quarter of a million copies, but the band were imploding.

'When you're in the middle of it, you can't see the bigger picture. You can't see that if you stick together you might just crack America. We were extremely popular; the band was never in a better position, but we just couldn't continue. We said, if we're going to end it, let's do it now, while we're on top.'

Horslips came to the end of the road with a tremendous live album recorded in Belfast.

'We were the Irish peoples band, always going into this little town or that little town. We never forgot where our roots were.'

And that's why people will never forget Horslips. They rewrote the book of Irish music, gave it a whole new audience and formed the blueprint for all contemporary Irish music to follow. Some achievement.