Celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2018, Sons of Erin’s Ralph O’Brien reflects on the history of a band who redefined music culture in Newfoundland and Labrador
Much has changed in Newfoundland and Labrador over the course of half a century. Cod stocks have soared and fallen, political parties have shaped and splintered. We’ve become more metropolitan, more touristy, more industrial, while ever serving as the adopters and welcomers of come from aways. All of this and more we have done in 50 years, and all the while, one presence in our musical culture, our heartbeat, has remained true.
Godfather’s of NL Music
A micro diaspora of Ireland formed right here in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1968, the Sons of Erin are the unquestioned and unrivaled godfathers of the Irish/celtic style of Newfoundland trad that in generations to follow has become the very identity of which we patriots refer to as ‘Newfoundland music’.
Originally made up of Ralph O’Brien, Fergus O’Byrne, Gary Kavanagh and the late, great Dermot O’Reilly, Sons of Erin capitalized on a void in Newfoundland’s music culture, sparking a thriving scene where once there were smatterings of local musicians haunting pubs and late night comedowns confined to kitchens and parlors. “I don’t mean to promote ourselves, but we were kind of at the forefront of it. We took it from the kitchen and put it on stage,” says the iconic frontman Ralph O’Brien.
“We kind of brought the value of new music, different stuff. It was a different kind of Celtic music. We toured every piece and part of Newfoundland. We brought that around, so consequently you’d see other bands copying different variations of the same stuff, which was a great compliment to us.”
While Beatlemania would sweep North America and the UK in the 1960s, Erin-Mania would run wild here at home in the 70s and beyond, with the group selling out packed venues across the island. Fans were ready, willing and eager to buy what the Sons were selling.
“We could play on Saturday night and on Sunday night fill the Arts and Culture Centre,” O’Brien recalls. “It was amazing.”
While O’Brien is the only founding member of Sons of Erin remaining in the group today – backed by the likes of Joe Tompkins, John Barela, Steve Best and Jason Simms – the imprint of the Sons of Erin has been felt through the decades, with alumni featured in local staples Irish Descendants, Ryan’s Fancy, Sullivan’s Gypsies and The Fables, to name a few.
50 years of memories
Reflecting on 50 years of memories , milestones and moments – memories that include a popular NTV series, becoming anchor tenants for O’Brien’s famed Erin’s Pub (which he credits largely to the longevity of the group) and touring to capacity crowds in the United States – the sage-like frontman is almost at a loss for words.
“It’s quite a knockout,” O’Brien admits. “Sometimes I don’t believe it. I say where did all the years go? It has been a wonderful time. I’d do it all again.”
Asked as to what has most changed about the music landscape in Newfoundland and Labrador, and O’Brien is quick to point out that musicians of the day were highly respected, commanding near pin-drop quiet during a performance.
“When we played, honest to God, you could hear the clicks of the beer bottles, because it was so quiet and people would listen. There was a great respect for the musicians back then,” O’Brien shares.
“I find now, especially in the bigger bars, they don’t respect the musicians. To me, the band is up on stage and they’re doing their damnedest to be heard. They want you to listen and they want to play new songs, but unfortunately that is the part that I don’t like.”
Through it all, the Sons of Erin have been respected, loved and revered. They’re cultural institutions of our island, come from aways turned family and familiar friends, as much apart of our island as fish and brews, screech and sacred summers in the cabin.
O’Brien’s final word is a heartfelt thank you to five decades of fans and friends, the lifeblood of what has kept Sons of Erin going.
“It’s our 50th year. I’d love everyone to remember that we are enslaved to you. It’s not the same without you.”