A pillar of the community and a shining example of the best of today’s youth, it’s always a pleasure to get to know the woman beneath the crown.
By Dillon Collins
If you’re a Newfoundlander and Labradorian worth your salt, you know the name Ryan’s Fancy. You know of the transplanted trio of Fergus O’Byrne, Dermot O’Reilly and Denis Ryan. Beginning in the early 70s, the Irish born trio and former members of the Sons of Erin began a ripple effect in Newfoundland and Labrador that would lead to a full blown music revolution and cement themselves as the heads of a genre that today is the bread and butter of our musical culture and lineage.
“What it was is I think Ryan’s Fancy came along at a time where Newfoundland was ready to explode and expose the world to Newfoundland culture,” O’Byrne said in a sitdown with The Herald.
“Newfoundland had only been part of Canada for 21 years at that time and they were really starting to get a feel of their culture. You’d have people like Jim Payne and Ron Hynes coming up through the ranks, Figgy Duff, The Wonderful Grand Band. They were all just starting to figure out that we had something here that the rest of Canada doesn’t have.
“We came in as imports and not only were we singing Newfoundland material, but we were taking on Newfoundland songs, not because it was a commercial sort of ploy, it was because the songs were great,” he adds. “We figured we could do them as good as anyone else and we could put our own spin on them. It was one of those remarkable things that we were in the right place at the right time and we had a bit of luck.”
bonifide folk heroes
A nationally broadcasted television series would make Ryan’s Fancy a house-hold name and bonifide folk heroes in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“With the television show we became a household name, not just across the island but in the Maritimes and across Canada and various other parts of the world,” O’Byrne said. “Because of the exposure there people just latched onto us. We were a good band don’t get me wrong. We were a band where we all sang, we all played and we could sing really good harmonies and the voices blended well together. Between it all I think it was that we were seen as being the instigators of this whole revolution of music in Newfoundland. People attached our name to that.”
Disbanding in 1983, Ryan’s Fancy tallied 13 albums to their credit. As time passed and the traditional/Irish music scene in Newfoundland and Labrador blossomed and evolved, the demand for Ryan’s Fancy grew. On the 40th anniversary of the creation of the band, O’Byrne decided it was time to dust off some of the old material and give the fans a slice of history.
“I gleamed through the discography and we ended up with a double cd at the time,” he said. “We took them to Spencer Crewe, who works with MMaP (Music Media and Place) at the University to clean up and restore. I brought in the vinyl and he cleaned it up and re-digitized it and produced it and it sold really well. Ever since then people have asked do we have any more stuff? I went at it and took another 22 tracks from that collection and went back to Spencer, and by now he has all this brand-new state of the arc equipment.”
What A Time Volume 2
O’Byrne is releasing a long-awaited followup to the collection this June. Titled Ryan’s Fancy: What A Time Volume 2, the compilation takes tracks from all 13 of the original Ryan’s Fancy records that were not previously remastered in 2011, though O’Byrne was careful to allow the songs to best represent each bandmember.
modeled & emulated
“Basically what I wanted to do was represent each of us equally on the album,” he said.
“It would be like when we’d use to be on stage – I’d sing a song and Dennis would sing a song and then Dermot would sing a song and so on. And that’s the way the album is.”
Asked to his thoughts and opinion as to Ryan’s Fancy being modeled and emulated by numerous artists throughout the decade, O’Byrne admits that the imitation is flattering, though it’s a grander indictment of the evolving nature of the Irish and traditional songs he O’Reilly and Ryan made their own in the 1970s.
“It’s flattering. Everyone is putting their own spin on it,” he said. “You hear recordings from today and people like Great Big Sea, The Irish Descendants and all of those bands who took from some of the recordings we did and just re-jigged them and put them out there. The bottom line is they’re good songs. You hear radio today and hear a song and I sometimes wonder, is someone going to be singing that song 200 years from now? Some of these songs date back 200 years and people are still singing them. I only wished they gave the royalties to the fellow who wrote them way way back
“The thing is it’s a living music,” O’Byrne adds, “it’s a vibrant music. It’s not like something that’s old, it’s always changing. Every time a new group of people come along to play the music they’ll put their own spin on it or may borrow from others who did it before, but they’re always looking to do something different with it and it just works.”
As to how O’Byrne would like to see Ryan’s Fancy remembered?
“As a hard-working band,” he said reflectively. “We worked hard. We toured incessantly. We were on the road six or seven months of the year … and we were well organized, even though we organized ourselves.
“We were gregarious in that we never knew how to say no to people in the community. If we went into a community and someone said that they were having a lobster boil-up and offered us to join it, we’d say of course! It’s a lot of memories.”
Ryan’s Fancy: What A Time Volume 2 will be released June 13th at O’Reilly’s Pub in St. John’s.