Derek Warfield told David Hennessy about being on the road for 60+ years, 15 already with his newer outfit The Young Wolfe Tones and saying yes to a Wolfe Tones reunion in 2016 only for the others to say no.
Derek Warfield has been on the road for more than 60 years.
He came to prominence with the well known rebel song and ballad singing The Wolfe Tones.
He was in the band for 37 years before he departed to concentrate on a solo career. He would later establish Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones in 2008 meaning his second outfit has already been going for a decade and a half.
They bring their show to the 229 Club in London soon.
Looking ahead to that gig we asked the 79-year-old how it feels to still be playing after more than 60 years in the business.
Derek told The Irish World: “I’ve been very fortunate, very fortunate to have my health to be able to do the what I’m doing at my age and it’s a wonderful gift.
“People ask me, ‘When are you going to retire?’
“And I always say, ‘Look, as long as I have my health to do what I do and I can do it well, I’ll continue to do it’.
“I remember when I met Pete Seeger in New York.
“People were always asking, ‘When is he going to retire?’
“And his answer was, ‘Retirement is death’.
“And I think he was still playing when he was 92.
“I love what I do.
“For many communities around the world where we play, our live performances there are therapeutic for them. They look forward to it.
“They look forward to our songs and the sentiment they express.
“That in one way is the strength of our heritage. People value it so much and that I still have an audience for those songs that I’m singing sixty years later is a testament to the strength of those songs and ballads and music.”
The Wolfe Tones enjoyed phenomenal success with 13 best-selling albums, 3 number one hits, many television appearances and shows in esteemed venues such as New York’s Carnegie Hall and The Royal Albert Hall in London.
In 2001, after nearly 40 years performing, Derek parted with his bandmates which included his own brother Brian Warfield.
In 2008 Derek put together a band containing some of the finest young musicians and singers in Irish music – The Young Wolfe Tones.
The Young Wolfe Tones’ line up also includes Andreas Durkin, Eddie Kane and Damaris Woods.
“They have a great grá for the music.”
Woods comes from Luton.
“She was brought up in the Irish community in Luton and she was given the gift of music there.”
Is it good to see young people take up the tradition just as you took it from those who went before? “Absolutely. I have a young man with me now.
“He’s only 24 years of age and he reminds me of myself with his enthusiasm for his heritage, and it’s a natural thing with a lot of people.
“We’re born with it, it’s in our genes.
“I often spoke to Tommy Makem about this.
“Tommy was a legendary balladeer and he brought a new value on Irish music across the world because he presented simple songs that I sang by the fireside with my grandmother and he brought them to the greatest concert halls in the world with the Clancy Brothers.
“They had an extraordinary ability to express the music in a very artful way on stage and were really great showmen, wonderful entertainers.
“I always give them credit for raising the standards and appreciation of Irish music, all of it. Because it brought recognition to the heritage that was preserved by generations of Irish people.”
It was in 2016 that Derek and The Young Wolfetones were chosen to perform on 24 April at the 1916 centenary commemorations at the General Post Office in O’Connell Street Dublin at 12 o’clock noon.
Derek says it was an honour to perform songs like The Foggy Dew and The Soldiers Song to a crowd of 30,000 100 years on from that moment in history.
“It was probably the best honour I was given in my lifetime because I actually performed at the very exact time that Padraig Pearse read the Declaration of Independence.
“I thought it was a great honour for me to be able to do that.
“And anyone that was on stage with me thought the same.
“And once again, we go back to our songs and music, they honour the people.”
Derek and the band also got to play for President Obama, Vice President Biden, Taoiseach Enda Kenny & many other distinguished friends of Irish America at the 2015 The Friends Of Ireland Speaker John Beohner’s St Patrick’s Day Luncheon in Capitol Hill.
“My highlights without question are the 2016 performance on O’Connell Street, playing for President Obama in 2015 in Washington.
“And I think another one of the outstanding highlights of my life of entertainment was the first show that we performed in the Apollo in Glasgow in 1982.
“That’s the old band.
“We tried for about 20 years to get into Glasgow, we knew we had a big following there.
“The authorities put all sorts of restrictions in our way and then eventually, we were able to overcome them through a very good friend.
“He went to see the authorities and said, ‘These people have played all over the world: Carnegie Hall and in Australia and Argentina and they should be allowed to play in Glasgow.
“Playing for the President of America: Getting that invitation, it was a recognition and endorsement of what our band does.
“I have a wonderful new band now that really have the same passion that I had back in the 1960s and that’s wonderful to see.”
The Republic of Ireland women’s football team were condemned for singing the controversial Wolfe Tones lyrics ‘Up the Ra’ in their own dressing room in the euphoria of qualifying for their first ever World Cup.
Derek blasted the reaction to the sing song and the penalties that were imposed.
“Absolutely,” he says when asked if it was blown out of all proportion.
“I’ve always said that English authority have had a problem with the way we express our tradition since the 13th century and it’s not going to change.
“You can’t tell a people how they should remember their past.
“All countries remember their past and some countries had the luxury to do that in great monuments of stone.
“We didn’t, we remember our past through songs and music because they couldn’t be destroyed.
“They couldn’t be quenched because they cost nothing except the lips of those who would sing and the ears of those who would listen.
“None of our traditions were taken with any respect in England by those who set artistic standards back in the 19th century.
“Today that’s very different but they all had to fight for acceptance.
“I was a bit spoiled because I could go to America and see the level of value that was placed on Irish traditions, our heritage and song and the music in America.
“There was a very different cultural attitude towards it than there was in England where everything was a secret.”
Was it difficult to come to Britain during the times of the Troubles? “I knew what I was singing about and our lore and tradition was of sound value.
“There’s nothing in it that was directed at the people of England.
“All of our songs are directed at the administrations and authorities, so I never had any problems with going to England.
“I knew also that most Irish people knew that.
“There wasn’t any racial hatred in Irish people toward England, so I was very happy to go there.”
What about going to Northern Ireland in such a fractious time?
“Well, we got all sorts of threats.
“This is a bigger thing than just myself, Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones.
“There’s many people that don’t want the Irish people to sing any songs, they would like Irish people to forget about the past and they would like just the past to be remembered by themselves.
“A lot of things in England’s administration of Ireland were not nice. And there was a lot of wrongdoing.
“And down the centuries they have been able to cover up.
“The facts are England’s record of dealing with Ireland is pretty poor.
“And there’s a lack of respect, I’ve always felt.
“There’s a big lack of respect for our sovereignty.
“I don’t think England has come to recognise that we are a separate country.
“I don’t think that English authority really have the respect for any of our representatives.
“There’s always been a threat there to our representatives and the threat was that they would break the law if we didn’t do it their way.
“There’s always been a very powerful body of opinion in England that had no respect for Ireland, or our traditions or language and that comes out from time to time in some of the politicians, what they write about our country.
“It’s sometimes sad to see that after so many years, that hasn’t changed.
“I think recently the Brexit has brought that to light and it’s clear to be seen in the actions of the former prime ministers and their disrespect for Ireland and authorities and laws and agreements: Just throwing them in the bin as if they were nothing.
“That’s sad. It’s very sad.”
The latest outrage is of course the legacy bill that seeks to draw a line under it all.
It has been widely condemned on all sides.
“Cover ups in the wrongdoing in Ireland, that didn’t start in our generation.
“That’s been going on in 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th centuries, every generation had to deal with the cover ups and denials and propaganda for atrocities committed by English forces.
“That’s gone on since the time of Cromwell and Henry the Eighth, all of those generations had to deal with the same thing.
“The authorities can’t get away with the massacres that they did years ago but the culture that’s behind it is still there.
“And I think that was evident with the wanting to draw a line because most people know, the dogs in the street know that the government and politicians in England directed the killing of a lot of innocent people in Ireland.
“For a government that poses around the world to be the champion of freedom, that’s not good.
“If you’re going to have reconciliation in the country- and that was a big part of bringing about the peace that we have over the last years and that took a lot of work- You’re going to have to be honest about your dealings.
“Most people that have any sense of understanding of the conflicts between Ireland and England know that if you’re going to have a new set of respect for both countries, you’re going to have to be honest about what you did in the past.
“You can continue to try to cover it up but eventually (it will come out) just like the Bloody Sunday inquiry.
“I remember being in New York when Lord Widgery came out with his findings exonerating the monarchy’s regiment from any wrongdoing and everybody was aghast how they could deny that.
“It took 50 years for those people to get justice and that’s not good.
“And there’s lots of things that are not good.
“There’s many others.
“To see it through my life time and to watch politicians saying, ‘We want to draw a line under it’.
“You can draw a line under it when you have inquired who was responsible for those deaths.
“I do believe that it’s just an absolute disgrace that they would even consider doing that, because knowing how difficult it was back in the 90s to bring about the peace and to get the people to sign up to it…
“And I worked really hard to convince people that it was a road that could bring a peaceful Ireland and recognition of people’s rights and their place in society.
“I recognised back in the 60s and 70s there were people in the six counties that had a right to be British.
“I have no problem with people that want to be British or English or Scottish in Ireland, it’s equality you need.
“You need to treat those people the same as you treat the Irish people in England and Irish people in England can reflect and be proud of their heritage, but it doesn’t need an army to protect them.
“I think a lot of people in Ireland, particularly in the North, have to recognise they’re living in Ireland, not Sussex and they live in a country that was never divided until 1920.
“We are probably the most clearly defined nation in Europe.”
Derek has mentioned the ‘old band’ a few times.
It is 60 years this year since the Wolfe Tones were established.
Do not hold your breath for any reunion gigs that include Derek.
He told The Irish World that he has agreed to do something with them in the last decade only to not be taken up on it.
“Oliver Barry, our former manager, asked me would I do a reunion back in 2016.
“And I told him, ‘No problem’.
“He went to Tommy (Byrne) and asked him and they said no.
“Oliver was our manager for almost thirty years and a great guy.
“I still keep in very close contact with him.
“So Oliver tried.
“He was a very good manager because he was able to exercise a lot of authority with the differences that we had.
“He was a very positive force.
“If he had stayed as our manager, I don’t think we would have had the problems that we had.”
It does not sound like things have improved between the brothers Derek and Brian Warfield who are believed to have rarely spoken to each other since the break up of the band.
“I got on with my life when the band broke up,” Derek says.
“I got on with my life and founded the Young Wolfe Tones with Damaris Woods.
“I thank God that I’ve had my health to create a second Wolfe Tones.”
Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones play the 229 Club, 229 Great Portland Street, London, W1W 5PN on Friday 2 June.
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