Horslips at Limerick’s Milk Market

A night for the loyal fans

This was always going to be a night for the true Horslips fan.

Horslips Limerick Milk Market
© Dermot Lynch


As the band came on stage I found myself positioned beside three immaculate Levis jackets, bought many years ago and worn proudly tonight by Belfast men in their 50s. In this company my own Levis denim shirt felt like it was trying too hard.  One did focus on clothes once especially when there wasn’t much choice. The denim clothes that became campaign uniforms will always represent an age when the Irish rock fan operated on basic signifiers.

Hair, a good jacket, and a scarf with maybe just one badge could see you through a decade.  It was a solid enough look for an Irish lad before Punk encouraged him to make more of an effort. Variations of the denim uniform were occasionally allowed but the faded Levis Jacket held its own for decades.

Those men wore denim tonight as a mark of respect for the band as much as the times they must have seen them in. This  commitment and respect was evident everywhere. Even the two-handed waved scarf made sense. This was a particular community that Horslips had seen through to the present and they were glad to see each other.

Horslips Limerick Milk Market
© Dermot Lynch

Up until the late 90s, emigration was the government’s safety valve in syphoning off the national excess and Horslips featured in the soundtrack for those who remained.  The theme of exile was a real one for all as was the concept of leaving.  It was something that had to be dealt with eventually some day and the thought of that day stayed with you whether you left or not.  Whether you sought to cut ties or you chose to stay for good and finish with any notions of exile.

The thought of that day always remains, its part of how one once processed the notion of being Irish  and a lot of those emotions are in songs by Horslips.  In their career the band kept up a healthy tour schedule. They were known to deliver a challenging spectacle that served to banish the lingering rituals that hung to the dancehall circuit. Unlike the Show bands and pop cover bands who used the same venues Horslips early shows show were bereft of the often ‘unsaid- but- followed – anyway’ traditions of the dancehall, the rules and regulations that insidiously directed social behaviour within church-monitored halls.

Horslips Milk Market
© Dermot Lynch

An impatient young rock audience saw those archaic rituals as redundant clichés.  They were impatient for an alternative but had no power.  They could only tolerate the lack of a representative culture for themselves, but no-one was going to provide viable alternatives if you were 18 and chose to remain at home.

You accepted what was left to you.

Rural youth in particular had no real opportunity to create change. The totems of the halls and their show band priests would remain intact well after Horslips disbanded in 1980 because a Horslips gig in all its loud Celtic glory was a different sort of Irishness that challenged this despondency.  Every dancehall gig by them allowed youth to temporarily occupy the dance floor of their parents and cast off an amount of frustration in the process.  Within this and in an absence of a national platform for the voice of the youth, Horslips stood in solidarity with a generation who experienced a country not of their own making.  A generation that experienced one war in the north while in the south emigration waged another.

Once a year, between 1972 and 1980, in a hall in the likes of a town the size of Castlerea, you would be briefly immersed in the sound of an alternative Ireland when Horslips came.  You had a couple of LPs and knew that the songs they brought were their own, not cover versions representative of the pop charts or any sort of familiar radio fodder.

They mixed old Irish tales with new stories and drew from the remnants of a counterculture that encouraged beatnik-approved mixes of folk and rock and roll.  They respected folk as rebel music but loved rock and roll too much to slavishly replicate it.  In this they were committed to being Irish in a way that few others chose to be.

Jim Lockhart recounts a story about listening to a Dublin musician regaling him with the Americanisms of a song he had written.  Lockhart wondered what on earth any talk of pick- ups and diners had to do with living in seventies Ireland. Surely one should make contemporary Irish music using sounds from abroad without compromise?   Horslips songs soundtracked generations and often spoke of the crux of emigration and leftover rituals at home and abroad.  With jigs and boogie riffs in the same measure they were received as a dance band but had sad songs too with tales about characters who were away too long.   They even left themselves, playing for emigrants aboard and returning with songs culled from the experience for albums called ‘Aliens’ or ‘The Man who Built America.’

In the Milk market Barry Devlin dropped historical notes on the audience from the stage as the band’s set was designed for a  celebration not just on the legacy of music but of place.  Stories referenced early Limerick gigs in the Redemptorist Hall and Johnny Fean paid tribute to all those who had travelled to Limerick and as a gracious host saluted many of them during the night. His brother Ray replaced Eamonn Carr on the drums making it a touch more local as well.

In a nice touch for the occasion, the Cha Haran band played support, featuring two  members of Granny’s intentions, including Cha himself, an ex-roadie for Horslips.

Cha Haran Band Limerick Milk Market

There was never any new album to introduce.  Instead there was a careful set list designed to showcase and celebrate their timeline, as the reaction to the first notes of the King of the Fairies showed.

The early years, the Book of Invasions section and the emigration themed songs were all threaded together before they finished with the anthem ‘Trouble with a capital T’ and reclaimed Dearg Doom from Italia 90.   The songs said it all.  Altogether, the music provided a cachet of memories from 1972 to 1980.

It will never be separated from its time and that it how it should be.  In that evocation it contained the reminder of what the band has bequeathed to modern Irish History.  Horslips created music that said that the Irish Jig was not the property of academics and rock n roll is owned by all no matter where you live.

18 thoughts on “Horslips at Limerick’s Milk Market

  1. What a well written piece.
    I am sorry that I missed it. Bloody slave driving tv directors.
    I got back to Limerick at 12.30.

  2. Early 1970s Jim Lockhart and the group brought out a marvellous celtic rock vinyl LP with a song titled Shadows on our Skins. I owned it for several years but regrettably sold it when moving from Dublin to elsewhere. It sounded like a culture-changing album at the time and I thought Horslips might become a major global rock band. But it didn’t happen and Horslips were overtaken and seemed to go into hibernation. U2 and Bob Geldof and a few others put Irish pop music on the international stage. Why did Horslips not get to a similar international standing? How did Jim Lockhart get on in his musical career? Has anybody discussed Horslips in a book about Irish rock since the 1970s?

  3. The album to which you refer is,I think, The Tain,which had a song on it called Time To Kill and I think it is from there you got the line”kill the shadows on our skin”. I’d say Horslips ran out of ideas and changed direction with the arrival of punk rock without any great success and eventually split due to musical differences within the band. There is a biography of the band called Tall Tales which was published towards the end of 2013 written by a guy called Mark Cunningham.

  4. There is a good summary of the cultural legacy of Horslips in Noel Mc Laughlin and Martin McLoone’s book ‘ Rock and Popular Music in Ireland: before and after U2.’. The authors begin by saying of the band that ‘ This was not merely a rocked up version of a traditional tune, but a reinvention of the medium for a different version of history.”

  5. That may very well be,but Fairport Convention were playing in this manner for a few years before Horslips. And they were much better musicians.

  6. At the risk of sounding pretentious…….What was focused on with these words was the legacy of a band who were excellent musicians, designers and performers within the cultural context of the Ireland that they participated in. Their presence until 1980 is equally as relevant as anything they undertook to fuse musically. To compare them to any of the English folk groups of the time, in that respect, is irrelevant. Horslips didnt study a ‘manner’ of playing they created a singular musicology or craft for their practice because they loved jigs and rock and roll. They define the complexity of what it was to undertake such a craft at that time. Tagging folk points by rating other bands on to this conversation is not interesting.

  7. You are right about the title Patsy. The words ‘shadows on our skin’ was used by the novelist Jennifer Johnson as a title for a 1970s novel about the troubles in Derry, in which a lonely schoolboy befriends a female teacher from another school who is dangerously in love with a British soldier. I’ll try to locate the books you and Paul have cited that discuss the career and music of Horslips.

  8. Well Paul,that’s your opinion and that’s okay. Mine is different and that’s okay too.

  9. I saw Horslips in the Savoy (Limerick) a few times late 70’s. Dearg Doom was the cue for a right old bit of head banging up in the front rows. Seemed to be the boot-boys favorite at the time.

  10. Last time seeing them was in a small church hall sorta thingy in Kilkee circa 79 or 80 with about 50 people at show ( about all that would fit ! )…..would have dearly luved to see ’em again…faves from waaay back ….u were either a Horslips or Lizzy fan or in my case both back then !!!

  11. I really enjoyed the gig on Friday but I thought the sound could have been improved. I’m no expert on these things but from where we were standing, at the back not far from the portaloos, The Fean brothers were all I could hear in some of the songs and I certainly couldn’t understand a word Barry Devlin said all night.

    I’ve always wondered how a guitarist as good as Johnny Fean never got the international recognition he deserved. Bock, did you get him to sign the rescue guitar ?

  12. Popped out at lunch and bought The Tain, I had it on vinyl years ago but it’s long gone now. Interestingly HMV had Horslips in the “Irish” section beside Margot and Philomena Begley rather than in the “Rock & Pop” section.

  13. There are 5 of us now at home – us two & the sic. three kids @ 14 , 18 & 19 years old.

    Severe turbulence with everyone ignoring the seatbelt sign.

    When I was them ( a kid), an early defiance was listening to “Happy to meet, sorry to part” – the beautiful , 50 p shaped early album (before the rock chic of Dearg Doom ) , an album which my parents would never like.

    I thought it weird and initially stayed clear ( the lads were Lizzy fans ) but as I remember now, the record was one of the 1st things my sister and I understood together – together as teens – subversive for the 1st time.

    The artwork, broody ,dark and laced with cut-outs was unashamedly and interestingly Celtic – the 1st every interesting Irish thing for me – we were being battered by Peig Sayers and the Christian brothers at that time.

    I don’t believe that I ever had to courage to admit to the lads that I liked it – you know the way Gallagher and Lizzy snobs can be.

    Good one Paul – lots of firsts .

    PS My kids and I listen to similar music but still think I’m a cunt .

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