It was June 21st 1979 in the Astoria Ballroom, Bundoran, Donegal that a rock gig changed my life. It was the first time I saw Horslips live. Actually, it was the first time I had heard Horslips, at least that I can remember. They had been on my radar for a few years. They were mentioned by the boys who were into heavier bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Genesis. Somehow I dismissed them as too heavy or prog for me. How my mate Rab and I missed them I do not know but friends of friends in Omagh had taken us over and I was utterly mesmerised from the very first riff. It was intoxicating, life affirming, joyous, thought provoking. I was caught up in it and at moments I stood back and asked myself just what was going on. I was into Omagh the next day to buy The Book Of Invasions and The Man Who Built America. I was smitten.
Horslips ticked every box. The music was unique and immediate. No other band before or since has fused the traditional and the rock formats in quite the same blend. This was rock but there were fiddles and concertinas and mandolins. Then it hit the feet. This was early in my gig going life BUT no one ever bounced a crowd like Horslips. There was something going on though that was more than a rock gig. It was that fusion thing again. We were at a rock gig but we were involved communally in some ceilidh like happening. It was like a set dance set up without the intricate steps. It was sweaty, as sweaty as has ever been. Finally after converting ears and feet came the head. Horslips were not about the every day 3 minute pop songs. These songs took you back hundreds of years and covered the history of a nation. Holding the record sleeves in my hand the following day led me into a journey through the past.
It was maybe that journey through the history of Ireland that changed me the most. Last week as I spoke to the Causeway Coast Peace Group about my journey into peacemaking with my friend Fr. Martin Magill I came to realise for the first time that I was converted to Jesus and the music of Horslips all within the same two months. The impact of Jesus is seen in that today I am Presbyterian minister. Horslips of course made a less seismic mark on my life as they have no divine or redemptive qualities! Yet, don’t underestimate the effect.
Horslips records were immersed in an ancient Irish mythology and history. Their second record was The Tain a tale from the early Irish literature when Queen Medb of Connaught takes on Cu Chulainn Ulster’s teenage hero. A few years later they had their very finest moment with The Book Of Invasions; A Celtic Symphony. This one is about how the island came to be born with a series of invasions. After this record the band moved into two more recent historical stories, Aliens being about the Famine and emigration and The Man Who Built America being about what the Irish Americans did and were still doing
All of this made an impression on a seventeen year old boy seeking some sense of identity. If Jesus was helping me make sense of my place in the universe and indeed in history and eternity, Horslips led me to ask questions about my Irishness. I was caught in a bit of a cultural void in my not being allowed to be Irish but not really feeling any sense of Britishness. Horslips opened my Irish side and birthed a love to all things on the island that I live on. These tunes carried me into a love of Irish music and art and cultural things. I came to believe that they were as much the property of a Presbyterian from Ballymena as anyone else. I can settle nicely in the venn diagram that is Northern Ireland. Horslips words like fusion and blend became descriptions of who I am in national identity.
It took another thirty years but when I started to become involved on the fringes of active peacemaking in Belfast I think it could only have happened because I decided to give my soul to someone who said Blessed are the Peacemakers and commanded me to love my enemies and also because Jim Lockhart’s flute on Trouble With A Capital T opened a door in that soul that allowed me to cross some cultural boundaries.
This week I have read Horslips; Tall Tales by Mark Cunningham and it took me right back to that day in 1979; in fact it gave me the date. I realised that I came into the Horslips story late in the day. They broke up eighteen months after my first gig. Cunningham uses the first hand interviews with the band and those closely associated to give a detailed account of their albums and performances. It was a joy of discovery as I read about The Tain while listening to The Tain and each album in turn. What I also loved was its Hollywood ending! Thirty years after the break up the band come together at the instigation of fans and have been playing live in various ways for five years now.
The Horslips story is a great story for anyone interested in the musical blend of folk and rock. Irish trad fans will be fascinated with how they incorporated Irish trad melodies into their work. It is a great story for anyone interested in Irish art and culture and the rock scene during the 70s when there was not much of a live scene in the Republic Of Ireland and the Troubles were going on in Northern Ireland. As I read their story afresh I was delighted that they were a little part of my story, back in my teens and even still as I sail through my early fifties.