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Irish Legends the Wolfe Tones Played a Secret Gig in North London - and Q Was There: Watch the Video Here

‘We always sang Irish songs. When the Troubles started they were called rebel songs. They’re Irish songs.’

wolfe tones
Source: Victor Frankowski

The secret gig was only announced that morning but attracted hundreds of young Irish fans.

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The legendary and often controversial traditional Irish band the Wolfe Tones played a surprise show in north London on Sunday April 28. In front of just 200 fans, the trio, first formed in 1963 and known for their fiercely patriotic “rebel songs,” delivered a set steeped in Irish culture and boisterous pride to a crowd of mostly-20-something revelers in the cramped confines of The Faltering Fullback pub in Finsbury Park. Among the audience were Dublin punks Fontaines D.C.

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wolfe tones finsbury park
Source: Victor Frankowski

The Wolfe Tones are celebrating their 60th anniversary with a huge gig in London this summer.

The show was kept a closely-guarded secret, only appearing on the pub’s website Sunday morning, as well as on a blackboard outside. But as word spread across London’s Irish community, hundreds queued outside through the afternoon, many dressed in Ireland football and rugby jerseys, or with Wolfe Tones headbands. By the time they took the stage at a little after 8pm, the atmosphere was uproarious, fueled in part by a steady supply of Guinness.

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wolfe tones crowd
Source: Victor Frankowski

The Faltering Fullback pub was heaving with fans singing along to the band's traditional ballads.

Speaking to Q before the show, Noel Nagle, Brian Warfield and Tommy Byrne explained how, despite playing through six decades of changing music taste, their traditional ballads have never lost popularity.

“We came out of the tradition of singers telling the story of happenings around the country,” says singer and banjoist Brian Warfield, “and so we continued that tradition. That meant singing about things that were happening in our country and we felt that we should support the people of the six counties in their struggle for equality and civil rights and everything that they fought for.”

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wolfe tones stage
Source: Victor Frankowski

'We came out of the tradition of singers telling the story of happenings around the country.'

That stance attracted some controversy soon after the group found popularity, when the Troubles began in the late 1960s. The Wolfe Tones’ second LP, released in 1966, was titled Up the Rebels, and their fourth, in 1970, Rifles of the I.R.A. As the Troubles worsened over the following three decades until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the band not only refused to compromise their stance, but doubled down on their beliefs.

“Our music became, in a way, protest music,” says guitarist/vocalist Tommy Byrne. “Although we’re singing about everything else, about every other aspect of Ireland, people focused in on things like when we took up the cause of the Birmingham Six or the Guildford Four, when we took up the cause of the hunger strike with the ‘Ballad of Joe McDonnell’ [an Irish Republican volunteer who died in prison after refusing food for 61 days in 1981].

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wolfe tones ireland
Source: Victor Frankowski

The Wolfe Tones have become a symbol of national pride for young Irish people.

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“These things caused us to be banned on radio in Ireland," he continues. "So that's when we were looked upon as outsiders, as rebels. So at that stage I think the Wolfe Tones became very important to the Irish people.

“There was no opening for Irish people to express themselves. Every newspaper that came out in Ireland, going back to the rising of 1798, was banned. Their presses were confiscated, their typing machines confiscated and closed down. No other expression was allowed other than that of the view of Dublin Castle, which is a view coming from Westminster. We always, before the Troubles began, we sang Irish songs. When the Troubles started and on through the Troubles, we still sang Irish songs, but now they were called rebel songs. They're Irish songs.”

wolfe tones live
Source: Victor Frankowski

Irish culture is experiencing a dramatic rise in popularity.

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The surprise gig was a warm-up for the Wolfe Tones’ huge upcoming show at Finsbury Park on July 5, where they will be headlining a bill that includes the Undertones, The Sharon Shannon Big Band, Scratch and Brògeal. After 60 years gigging, that concert will be their last on British soil, as the band, now all pushing 80 years old, are set to retire this summer.

The headlining slot comes at a time when Irish music and culture is experiencing a dramatic rise in popularity, with acts like Fontaines D.C., Lankum, New Dad, CMAT, Sprints and the Mary Wallopers, as well as more traditional singers like Lisa O’Neill, increasingly defining the cultural landscape. It was a point underlined on Sunday night, as the crowd, despite in many cases being too young to even remember the Troubles, sang along enthusiastically to songs like “Come Out Ye Black & Tans” and “You’ll Never Beat the Irish”.

wolfe tones faltering fullback
Source: Victor Frankowski

'They know every word of every song. It's amazing.'

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“For years young Irish people couldn’t hear Irish music on the radio,” says Warfield. “And I think they were probably pretty fed up with that. And now all of a sudden they can, and they’re embracing it, they’re proud of it. I don't know how it happened with us, but our popularity in the last few years has just surged.

“And we can see the young people coming to our shows more and more and getting more involved with Irish music, because it's their story. Why shouldn't the Irish people be allowed to sing their own songs? I think that's what has rallied a lot of young Irish people around the Wolfe Tones.

“They know every word of every song and they sing along. You can see them mouthing the words, listening to the messages of our songs about Irish history and culture. It's amazing. That's what keeps you going.”

Tickets to the Wolfe Tones show at Finsbury Park on July 5 can be bought here.


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