Tír na nÓg is a phrase from Gaelic mythology which translates into ‘land of eternal youth’. Tír na nÓg is also the name that Sonny Condell and Leo O’Kelly adopted when their musical paths fortuitously crossed in 1969. The resulting mix was a magical potion of rich and varied sounds and idioms that was unique and completely different to anything else on the music scene at the time.
The ingredients for this mix were sown back in 1949 – the year when both Sonny (1st July) and Leo (27th November) were born. Sonny, grew up on a farm in the Wicklow hills, a remote area of Ireland within which a combination of classical music, The Beatles and his love of nature influenced his emerging musical talents. As early as 1962 he was playing the guitar and writing his own songs. He subsequently went on to join his cousin from Dublin, John Roberts, and formed a duo called Tramcar 88. The music emerging from this duo reflected Sonny’s sensitive nature and it was strong enough for them to cut some records, one or two of which sold extremely well. Across in Carlow, Leo’s teenage years were equally musically inclined but with different influences. He started playing with The Tropical Showband in 1964 and then, three years later and with much longer hair, he joined the local psychedelic band, The Word – playing material by The Doors, Love and The Byrds as well as some of their own songs. Leo was in the audience when Jimi Hendrix played in Belfast in 1967 – it was Leo’s birthday as well as Jimi’s - and the performance made a lasting impression. At age 19 he joined Emmet Spiceland with whom he toured Europe and America and which also gave him his first taste (scroll down) of playing folk music.
In 1969, Leo, as a solo artist, started playing the folk clubs in Dublin. By now he was writing his own material. At the same time, Sonny was treading a similar route in the very same city. Musicians were criss-crossing the city, playing their respective gigs as well as seeing their peers perform. Both Sonny and Leo were beginning to independently harbour desires to move to London as singer-songwriters. It was by chance that they found themselves chatting to each other and realising that they shared that same ambition. Leo was already aware of Sonny’s musicianship and creativity. He had seen Sonny a couple of years previously in Carlow and he now wanted to match his own song-writing skills to those being nurtured by Sonny. This chance discussion led the way to some jamming sessions which in turn led to a realisation that their respective styles and influences were actually complementing each other. This hybrid musical offering became the foundation that was soon to become Tír na nÓg’s trademark.
Prior to travelling to London, Sonny and Leo went into the studio to produce a demo tape consisting of their own compositions as well as some covers (Simon and Garfunkel, Donovan, Dylan and Cohen and others). Their songs displayed a fresh originality that, for the music scene moving towards the birth of the 70s, had an audience waiting in the wings for a sound and image that would merge nicely into the progressive scene. This particular collection of songs did not see the light of day until the end of the century when they appeared on the CD ‘In The Morning’, but the experience of producing such a compilation meant that they were ready to travel.
In May, 1970, Sonny and Leo, as Tír na nÓg, arrived in London with £30 each in their pockets, which they estimated would last them for a month. The next part of the story is the most crucial for, without the next sequence of events in such a concentrated amount of time, there possibly would not have been the legendary Tír na nÓg.
Having arrived in the capital during a Saturday morning, they headed for Petticoat Lane to meet up at The Bell public house with some school friends of Leo’s. Not only were they to talk of old times but it just so happened that the pub offered them a Saturday and Sunday residency. Their guitars and heavy suitcases had obviously caught the attention. Leo and Sonny had been in the right place at the right time.
Time was moving on and it was time to leave. The idea was to drop in on Jenny (a friend of Sonny’s family) and her flatmates, Liz and Christine. This necessitated heaving their suitcases and guitars down to the underground and catching the central line to Ealing. There was a slight problem though – the three girls were not expecting them! The two of them were met by the landlady of the flat who, in Leo’s words, was ‘quite mad’. She was in her nightdress, sitting on the doorstep and shouting at them to go away. Maybe she was ‘quite mad’ or maybe she was just annoyed that two long haired lads with luggage and guitars were hoping to cross the threshold. She then proceeded to yell at them that there were sailors upstairs! The situation was becoming more obscure by the minute but the stalemate was broken when the landlady recognised Leo’s Carlow accent, for it transpired that she had once worked at the same sugar factory in Carlow as had Leo. All was now sweetness (excuse the pun!) and light and they were allowed to pass. Within two hours they were partying across the road with the three girls where they met a recording engineer who asked them what they were doing in London. Hearing that the duo were seeking a recording career, he offered to sneak them in (sometime soon, after hours and for free) into the West End jingle studio where he worked. So, within twenty-four hours, they had secured a weekend residency, free studio recording time and somewhere to sleep (at the Ealing flat – on the floor!)
Very soon, Tír na nÓg had a new demo tape in their hands and they ventured to Island Records - but were met with a kindly refusal. Fortunately, they were pointed in the direction of Chrysalis Records, whom they felt might be more receptive to Tír na nÓg’s music and image. Chrysalis immediately offered them a recording contract! Not only had their songs caught the ear of Chrysalis Records but their appearance as two Irishmen with two guitars, good looks and lots of hair had also caught the eye. Only two weeks had elapsed since leaving Ireland – and the next stage of Tír na nÓg’s odyssey was about to unfold……
Tír na nÓg immediately started playing the folk clubs in London where they built up a very strong following with their timeless songs, close harmonies and engaging, between-song, banter whilst Chrysalis organised the bigger concert and college tours around Britain and abroad. By October they were playing The Royal Albert Hall with Jethro Tull as part of a British and European tour. Over the ensuing years, as well as headlining Tír na nÓg gigs (with some interesting support acts including Richard and Linda Thompson, Supertramp, and Jasper Carrott!), the pair found themselves gigging with some of their own heroes – Procul Harum, The Who, Cat Stevens, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Elton John, The Velvet Underground and Hawkwind, to mention a very few. At one point Al Stewart, though quite a star himself, applied to join the band!
Committing their songs to vinyl led to the single ‘I Am Happy To Be On This Mountain’ being released, and it reached the lower strata of the charts. ‘Our Love Will Not Decay’ appeared on the 1971 Island sampler, ‘El Pea’. This double album featured Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, Nick Drake, ELP, Traffic, The Incredible String Band, Jimmy Cliff, Mountain, Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny...and many others.
A few months later Tír na nÓg released their first album – namely ‘Tír na nÓg ’. This was recorded at Livingstone Studios in Barnet and was produced by the legendary folk producer, Bill Leader. Tír na nÓg songs were now available to the masses! The vocals, interweaving with the intricate dovetailing of guitars, conjured rich and varied tapestries of sounds that joyfully surprised the discerning music fans of the early 70s. Rhythmic compositions, sometimes supported with African drums, at one end of the musical spectrum contrasted with the slower ballads at the other end. Leo and Sonny were adept at writing unique songs that many found difficult to categorise but found refreshing to hear. This eclectic collection of songs attracted many moods. ‘Boat Song’ and ‘Piccadilly’ expertly captured the feeling of alienation through being parted from home. ‘Tír na nÓg ’, a lively song of Gaelic folklore and legend, imbued the listener with a powerful sense of mysticism, generating a bond with the duo. Leo’s ‘Daisy Lady’ and ‘Looking Up’ were potent, upbeat songs of love, affection and desire whilst Sonny’s ‘Our Love Will Not Decay’ was a wonderfully solemn composition observing love’s optimism against a backdrop of nature’s unpredictability. The iconic ‘Time Is Like A Promise’ was another song of Sonny’s that expertly assimilated nature, love and the passage of time – this song became synonymous with the band but not representative, for that was the beauty of the diversity of their emerging repertoire. With other songs of sorrows, joys and ideals, the humorous ‘Aberdeen Angus’ sat wittily amongst these and, together with the most beautiful of ballads, ‘Dante’, closing this inaugural album, it encapsulated the talent shown in their live performances. Melody Maker immediately recognised it as an album of great worth and made it ‘Album of the Month’. Many radio sessions with the late, wonderful, John Peel followed, along with Bob Harris and Kid Jensen shows – and even the great Alan Freeman was a self-proclaimed fan.
After a sustained period of gigging, Leo and Sonny were ready to commit a new batch of songs to vinyl. The recording of these songs took place in Willesden at Morgan Studios, where three recording studios occupied two corners of a small street. They arrived in the customary white transit van, driven by Ian, their roadie and, to their amazement, Paul McCartney walked across the road (‘Abbey Road style’ as Leo recollects) directly in front of their parked van! This was a good sign! Paul was in the process of recording with Wings at the very same studios.
Morgan Studios had its very own small, but plush, café where the artistes ate lunch at the same time each day – the area of Willesden, in those days, had very little to offer, food-wise, and anyway it was more convenient and opportune to share the confines of the café space with the likes of Paul and Linda McCartney, Denny Laine, Rod Stewart and Cat Stevens. Cat was recording ‘Catch Bull at Four’ and Leo and Sonny, having recently toured with him, used their lunchtimes to chat and compare notes. During the recording of this second album Billy J. Kramer arrived, unannounced, in the control room and was introduced to them. Leo, being a big fan, was absolutely thrilled.
Eventually, the songs were all completed, with help from Larry Steele and Barry de Souza on additional instruments, and ‘A Tear and a Smile’ was released in 1972. This collection of ten songs enhanced their growing reputation and, as with the first album, they were individually written by Leo and Sonny but delivered in unison as Tír na nÓg.
Two of Sonny’s songs provided the bookends to the album. The lively and inviting ‘Come And See The Show’ opened the proceedings and the slower, pastoral ‘Two White Horses’ (a lasting Tír na nÓg classic) completed this second collection. His three other compositions, the quirky ‘Bluebottle Stew’, the ethereal, soaring ‘Down Day’ and the haunting ballad ‘Hemisphere’ interspersed wonderfully with Leo’s own distinctive songs of elusive love and ‘what might have been’. The energetic, mystical qualities of ‘When I Came Down’, the yearning lyrics of ‘Lady Ocean’ and ‘So Freely’, together with the resigned acceptance within ‘The Same Thing Happening’ and the poignant ‘Goodbye My Love’ (with musical glimpses of the Incredible String Band) all interweaved perfectly - each individual song able to induce a tear or a smile or both.
Again, it was the amalgamation of their individual writing styles and the collective delivery that provided yet another catalyst for the continuing advancement of the two troubadours.
Their third album, ‘Strong in the Sun’, was released in late 1973. Over half of the tracks incorporated a range of musicians on bass and drums with Matthew Fisher (producing the album) providing keyboards. This, in many places, produced a different sounding album to the previous two. Fisher gave a bit of a more clearly-defined shape and a greater depth to their sound, neatly framing the duo’s contrasting vocal styles. Their cover of Nick Drake’s ‘Free Ride’, a more upbeat version than the original, opened the album with great tempo. This mood was replicated by ‘Whitestone Bridge’, ‘Cinema’, the title track ‘Strong in the Sun’, ‘Love Lost’ and ‘Magical’. In particular ‘Cinema’ used samples from a Henry Fonda movie – one of the earliest examples of sampling. The other four songs, ‘Teesside’, ‘The Wind was High’, ‘In the Morning’ and ‘Love Lost’ retained the melodic balladry and the overall production displayed their evolving musicianship.
Their headline live shows continued in the folk clubs and the colleges as well as supporting even more groups - The Who and Emerson, Lake & Palmer adding to their list. At the same time, John Peel continued to champion their cause with several sessions, with Leo and Sonny now showcasing songs from their third album. In 1972, before the ‘Strong in the Sun’ era, Bob Harris presented an ‘In Concert’ programme with Tir na nOg supporting Roxy Music at the Paris Theatre, Regent Street, London. Six songs were performed that evening – ‘Piccadilly’ from the debut album, ‘Come and See the Show’ and ‘The Same Thing Happening’ from the second album, an early version of ‘Teesside’ prior to its release, a Bob Dylan cover, ’It Takes a Lot to Laugh, it takes a Train to Cry’ and their second single, ‘The Lady I Love’. The audience did not want them to leave the stage and the applause went on and on – but, with it being a live broadcast and Roxy Music waiting in the wings, an encore was out of the question. This recording is featured on the 2001 CD, ‘Spotlight’ with songs from later Peel Sessions. ‘Los Angeles’, ‘Backwaterawhile’ and ‘Spotlight’, songs not recorded in a studio by Tír na nÓg, were part of this repertoire.
The song, ‘Spotlight’ was due to be the next Tír na nÓg single following their third album. Leo and Sonny wanted Paul McCartney to produce the single, but it never happened. They had indirectly heard that he really liked the ‘Strong in the Sun’ album. There was also a studio recording of ‘Spotlight’ with Mike Giles, formerly of King Crimson, on drums, but it was never released.
After a punishing schedule of live appearances, together with an indifference shown by their record company, Chrysalis, the duo returned to Ireland and went their separate ways …..
….. for a few years,
Although Tír na nÓg were no more, Leo and Sonny were invited by the BBC to compose a set of songs for a documentary series. The year was 1974 and the programme, ‘The Camera and the Song’, produced by John Bird and Tony Broughton, was aired. It portrayed Irish life and culture through images and song and a compilation LP, based on the series, was released the following year.
Leo then worked as a house producer for EMI Ireland and Polydor Records as well as producing albums for other Irish artists. He also continued to perform, but now as a solo artist or with his long time friend, bassist Garvan Gallagher. During the latter part of that decade, and into the next, he lived and worked abroad, basing himself in Amsterdam and London. During the first decade of the new millennium Leo released three solo albums – ‘Glare’, ‘Proto’ and ‘Will’ and continues, to this day, to gig with Garvan.
During the same period, Sonny started his solo career, as well as forming a four-piece band, Scullion, with his friend Philip King. Solo albums ('Camouflage’, ‘Someone to Dance With’, ‘French Windows’ and ‘Backwater Awhile’) and Scullion albums followed over the ensuing years all the way to the present time. Scullion are, at present, a three-piece band (Condell, King and Robbie Overson). Sonny also continues with his solo projects.
Amidst these three and a half decades of Leo’s and Sonny’s separate ventures, Tír na nÓg did in fact reform!
In 1985 Leo returned to Dublin and it coincided with Sonny’s Scullion band being on hold. Tír na nÓg reformed for an Irish tour, and a single, ‘Love is Like a Violin’, was released – a very vibrant and upbeat song, bringing an added dimension to the duo’s repertoire. Occasional tours and gigs continued in Ireland together with rare journeys back across the Irish Sea. An appearance in 1995 at The Hibernian, Birmingham, resulted in the live recording, ‘Hibernian’, (released in 2000). In fact, this was to be the last visit to the UK for quite a while. Their next live album was ‘Live at Sirius’, released in 2010. This was recorded at the Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh, Ireland – a superb production of sixteen songs; eleven from the three studio albums together with ‘The Lady I Love’ and three from Leo’s and Sonny’s respective catalogues, namely ‘Venezuela’, ‘Eyelids Into Snow’ and ‘Driving’. The remaining song to make up the sixteen was a Jagger/Richards cover of ‘Play with Fire’. These latter two songs featured Leo on violin; an instrument he was using to great effect and which brilliantly complemented Sonny’s guitar.
Leo became active on the internet and was making full use of MySpace for Tír na nÓg. It was through this medium that fans were updated on the current activities and were able to converse with Leo. It was interesting to note that Leo had previously been labelled as the ‘recluse of Irish music’ but now he was very accessible..... and fans were requesting a return to the UK – it had been fifteen years!
The lure was too great, and a phone call from Martyn Hasbeen (of Dr Hasbeen and also organiser of festivals) resulted in an appearance in 2010 at the Sonic Rock Solstice in Builth Wells, Wales. Two other gigs, in Coventry and London, were arranged and Leo and Sonny were back! Since then they've returned many times throughout 2011, 2012 and 2103 with more appearances to come in 2014. Festivals, as well as gigs, are now fully on the agenda across England, Wales and Ireland (and hopefully Scotland, one day!). Tír na nÓg fans are enthusiastically welcoming the resurgence. Many people are revelling in the opportunities to see the duo perform all the favourite songs from the early days, together with the later songs that make up the ever-changing random set list.
The three albums, ‘ Tír na nÓg’, ‘A Tear and a Smile’ and ‘Strong in the Sun’ were remastered and released in October 2012 by Cherry Red Records. These three reissues contain all the singles as bonus tracks.
Forty years on, Tír na nÓg are as much in the spotlight as before. Their songs do not age – they are timeless. Tír na nÓg truly reflect the ‘land of eternal youth’.
In 2014 a limited edition vinyl EP, 'I have Known Love', was produced. In 2015, 'The Dark Dance', their first studio album since 1973 was released and 'Live at the Half Moon' followed in 2016.