Special Thanks: We'd like to extend a special thank you to all our families, to three particular individuals who helped us on our musical journey, Brookes Diamond. Manny Pittson and Jack Kellum, and to all those others who supported us along the way.
The late 1960's was a vibrant time for young enthusiastic folk musicians. Whether one was in Ireland or Canada, all of us who played an instrument and had a love of folk songs gathered at house parties, pubs and coffee houses to be part of the great folk revolution.
Forty years ago, Toronto was a breeding ground for young, lately arrived, musically inclined Irish emigrants and like every other budding ballad singer, the three of us were caught up in the fervour of making music for the pure love of it. Through a series of twists and turns through a variety of Irish folk groups we eventually met, formed a band in 1970 and decided to try our luck on the East Coast of Canada.
In 1971 Ryan's Fancy moved to St. John's, Newfoundland and during the lifetime of the band we recorded twelve vinyl albums, none of which made it to CD. In 1983 we decided to disband and take separate, yet entwined, paths. Now forty years down the road, having received many requests over that time for digital versions of our body of work we felt it was time to select what we feel is representative of our efforts as the band Ryan's Fancy. ENJOY!
Ryan's Fancy arriving
Ryan's Fancy were the leading lights of a small group of Irish musicians who came to Newfoundland in the 1970s. Dermot O'Reilly, Denis Ryan and Fergus O'Byrne were looking more for steady work and education than artistic inspiration when they first arrived in St. John's in the early 1970s. What they found was an audience eager to bear their own music played back to them in a highly skilled and energetic fashion. Newfoundlanders already knew and loved the band's repertoire of Irish ballads and street songs, a legacy of generations of Irish immigration and strong community music traditions. When the trio started to include local songs in their lively performances, something massive clicked between them and their audience.
With their live shows exploding in popularity, the CBC invited them to host a new show based in Newfoundland. It would involve traveling around the province, meeting older Newfoundlanders, examining the province's history and culture through its folk music. Although the lads were already being featured in a very popular CHCH, Hamilton, Ontario, weekly television show called Tommy Makem and Ryan's Fancy , being syndicated nationally and internationally, they jumped at the opportunity to work at home. While Ryan's Fancy anchored the new national show, local performers were always featured.
Somehow overnight they were able to learn and arrange dozens of Newfoundland songs, some common, but others so obscure they were known only by one family. They presented these songs as if they had been playing them for years, with all the honesty and musical dexterity they were capable of. For the first time Newfoundlanders saw someone taking their culture seriously and playing their own music in an enthusiastic and musically sophisticated manner. While Ryan's Fancy were definitely not rock and rollers, they did have fashionably long hair, big beards, a great self-deprecating sense of humor and an easy manner that endeared them to Newfoundlanders young and old alike.
In later years the TV show's locations expanded to the rest of the Maritimes. Figures like Stan Rogers, Allister MacGillivray and the young Barra McNeils received their first notice on the show. In both Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland traditional music regained a place in mainstream culture that it has never surrendered since. Children who saw those shows in the late 70's, children like the Barras. the Rankin Family, Natalie MacMaster and ourselves in Great Big Sea went on to start new bands and build new musical worlds based on that very solid foundation.
Watch blurry Internet videos of the old Ryan's Fancy shows and you can easily see how special they really were. Dermot, Fergus and Denis had a unique and sincere ability to create an instant rapport with total strangers. Their interest in Atlantic Canadian culture was genuine, and their love of the place and people convinced many here that there was indeed something special about this place, something worth fighting to hold onto.
I don't believe that by recording and singing these Irish and Newfoundland and other folk songs Ryan's Fancy made them any better, or any worthier, then they already were. And Newfoundlanders and Cape Bretoners had not yet forgotten their own music: still, it was in danger of being shut away, stuffed in an old box, put aside, too old-fashioned for our modem age. Like a lot of small nations. Newfoundlanders often need an outsider to point out what should have been obvious all along. Ryan's Fancy grabbed our music from its lonely kitchen shelf, where it lay in danger of being discarded, and by their inspired example made the rest of us realize how good it really was. And for that, I am grateful.
Bob Hallett, Great Big Sea