By Adam Prudhomme
Given a large portion of Lennox and Addington County’s population can trace their roots back to Ireland, and the fact that Canada is celebrating its 150th birthday, it only seemed fitting the party be headlined by The Irish Descendants.
The St. John’s, NFLD-based band is famous worldwide for putting a Canadian take on Irish classics, propelling them to a 27-year (and counting) career. That storied history and broad music catalogue will be on display Saturday as they help Celebrate Canada 150 in L&A County.
“We’ll be playing a little bit of a mixture of old and new,” said Irish Descendants frontman Con O’Brien. “There’s a long list of old fan favourites, we’ll try to get as many of them in as we possibly can.”
Just like the traditional kitchen parties of Newfoundland, they will have toes tapping and feet moving.
“What the audience of the band have known over the years is a nice blend of great Newfoundland and Irish Celtic music,” said O’Brien. “All of that presented in a fun form. The band loves to have energy from the audience.”
With over 1,000 spectators expected to fill the field behind the County Museum and Archives, there should be no shortage of energy in the air that night.
“I’ve always described us as being a band that’s like Hasbro age, which is nine to 90,” said O’Brien, referring to the toy company. “We can play to little kids, we can play to seniors and there’s something for them all to cherish and strike a note with them. We can get little kids to dance and sing and have fun or we can sing an old familiar song to someone who is 90 years old who will remember and have sung that song all their lives.”
Founded in 1990, the band hit it big with their 1993 album Look To The Sea, which was their major record label debut. They followed that up in 1995 with Gypsies and Lovers, which earned them the Roots and Traditional Album of the Year at the Junos, as well as Entertainer of the Year at the East Coast Music Awards. In that time they toured heavily and even had the distinction for playing for Queen Elizabeth II.
To date the band has released 12 full-length albums and are credited with helping to revive traditional Newfoundland music both in Canada and around the world — so much so that several artists of the same genre continue to list The Irish Descendants as their influence.
“I hear it all the time and it makes me feel old,” says O’Brien. “I’m only just turned 50 and still in my mind I’m 19 just going down the road with this band like I’ve always gone down the road with this band. Now I got young guys coming up to me telling me they really love that album where you played ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ and the way you arranged it. That’s one of the things that we’ve always been known for, to put a little bit of extra work into the arrangement of the songs and turn some of the old songs that people already know into your own.”
While he could do without the constant reminding of his age, he says introducing the music and culture into the next generation is part of what keeps him touring after all these years.
“When you get people coming up to you and saying ‘your version of ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ is the best they’ve ever heard’, that’s rewarding,” he said. “That’s really cool.”
Growing up in Newfoundland, he says he dreamed of being the next Jimi Hendrix or lead singer for Iron Maiden. All that changed the first time he heard The Pogues, who were taking the world by storm by putting a modern twist on songs he had sung with his family in the kitchen his whole life. Soon he was performing in pubs and had gathered a bit of a following.
“I gave us three years in the beginning,” recalls O’Brien. “I was in university, cod fishing was going sideways in Newfoundland and my family was in the fishing business. Into our lives walks a guy by the name of Sam the Record Man and we just went from there to meeting everybody in the music business and then signed by Warner and the rest is history.”
Though the music business has undergone drastic changes over that time, O’Brien credits a loyal fanbase and the fact that Irish people can be found in all corners of the earth for helping to support the band.
O’Brien, who plays guitar and does vocals, is joined by Ronnie Power (bouzouki, vocals) as the only original remaining members. Patrick Moran (fiddle, vocals) and Justin Hockey (bass, vocals) will round out the lineup that takes the stage on Aug. 19.
“The band is 27 years old now and I feel like it just started,” said O’Brien. “There’s still lots to do.”