One of the finest and most influential of all Irish folk groups and arguably where progressive Irish folk music begins, this wonderful pairing of albums, with bonus cuts to boot, is an indispensable re-issue, all the more so because even the re-issued vinyl by Demon in the 1980’s now fetches exorbitant sums. Sweeney’s Men were at the core a trio of individuals (though supplemented by other musicians as and when required) comprising Johnny Moynihan (lead vocalist and the other half of Anne Briggs), Andy Irvine (later of super group Planxty) and Terry Woods (later of Horslips, another groundbreaking group that fused prog rock and Irish folk). Collectively they were influenced by and performed music in the style of: (a) US country-folk, with bluegrass not forsaken; (b) the English folk revival; (c) the Irish folk tradition. Sometimes under recognised in England, groups such as Sweeney’s Men and later Planxty were inextricably linked to the sounds and innovations of Shirley Collins, Bert Jansch, Davy Graham and Anne Briggs and were very much their equal. Moreover, the connection deepens further when one learns that their first two and only albums here were produced by folk legend Bill Leader, and in his own words, Sweeney’s Men represented what he believed was, ‘(…) A timeline between the Clancy Brothers and the Pogues’.
The very name of the group seems to have been taken from a literary inspiration, namely a character from a Flann O’Brien novel. The sublime songs on the first album could hardly be better and include the gorgeous plaintive song that is, ‘Willy of Wisbury’, with their trusted combination of flute, guitar and vocals, with Andy irvine invariably doubling up on mandolin and terry Woods on six and twelve string guitars. Another gem of a tune is the fast-paced, ‘Rattlin’ Roarin’ Willy’, with Moynihan this time on bouzouki and vocals, while Andy Irvine operates on both mandolin and harmonica, and Woods on guitar. If anything, the second album with passage of time now comes across as a prototype of the singer-songwriter folk-rock tradition, and quite possibly, the trio were taking in the influences of Simon and Garfunkel. That impression is most certainly conveyed on a song such as, ‘When you don’t care for me’, which has hints of the Tim Buckley sound of the era, or, ‘Hiram Hubbard’, that has a strong songwriting narrative.
The reality is that Sweeney’s Men were inspired by disparate influences and it was their ability to bring these together into a cohesive group sound that resulted in them creating a new voice in folk music and one that departed from the past while still remaining rooted to the folk tradition. Of the four bonus cuts, ‘Old woman in cotton’, and,’Old maid in a garret’, impress. Arguably, Sweeney’s Men are at the very heart of the roots of modern Irish folk music, and anyone who has yet to sample their music is in for a wonderful treat.