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