celtic gods | 

Horslips' Barry Devlin says the band were 'just a bunch of guys from an ad agency’

The bass player speaks about bringing the musical equivalent of the rural electrification scheme

Musician, screenwriter and director Barry Devlin photographed at Smock Alley. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Dónal Lynch

Sitting in the bar of Dublin’s Clarence Hotel, I’m looking at a video of Barry Devlin fronting Horslips on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test from 1974.

Devlin is wearing a black jumpsuit with a neckline that plunges beneath a glittering choker. He gyrates as his bass notes come rumbling in like thunder clouds around the spine-tingling guitar solo on ‘Dearg Doom’, a song that has echoed down the generations (the riff was copied on the 1990 World Cup anthem ‘Put ’Em Under Pressure’).

It’s hard to believe the affable, jokey 75-year-old who returns from the bar with my coffee was once this Celtic rock god. I’ve met second-rate Indie boys with more airs than Devlin.

“A vast boxset” of Horslips’s music will be launched this summer, he tells me, and it’s a reminder of just how special and groundbreaking the band were.

Across nine albums in the 1970s, but most especially their epic The Táin, they were a hallucinogenic mixture of Seán Ó Riada and Spinal Tap. Bono once described them as “the answer to the insecurity that was the ingrown toenail of that era” and Devlin was the midwife at U2’s birth.

In 1978, the year U2 formed, Devlin recalls that “two Cortinas in the driveway and a Shamrock bass guitar was as big as an Irishman could get”. As the owner of a wardrobe of jumpsuits, he himself had surpassed even these lofty benchmarks, but he was keen to spread the wealth.

And so when his friend, manager Paul McGuinness, stopped by Wembley Stadium – where Horslips were playing with Thin Lizzy – with a 17-year-old Adam Clayton in tow, Devlin agreed to produce the new band’s first demo. Or not really produce but, as McGuinness clarified, more “hold their hands and show them where to put stuff”.

Horslips pictured in 1975

“And I said, ‘well, that I can do’,” Devlin recalls. He was sceptical, however. It was “peak punk” – which was threatening to make even Horslips themselves seem like “old farts” – and these young Dublin northside rockers seemed very far from the insolent energy of that music.

You couldn’t imagine the father of Sid Vicious picking him up from the studio, for instance, as Larry Mullen Jr’s did.

“Larry’s dad appeared at one o’clock in the morning and said, ‘I have to bring Larry home now, this kid has exams in the morning’,” Devlin says.

“And I went, ‘but Mr Mullen, I haven’t finished with Larry’s bass drum yet’. And he said, ‘ah, you have’. And took Larry away. I mean, Larry was only 17.”

By the time the demos were finished Devlin had changed his tune about U2’s prospects. He told McGuinness to “mortgage the house” on their success.

“You could see they were going to be one of the biggest bands in the world. The way bands work is they start off believing everything is possible. And gradually they define out of existence some of the most exciting stuff that they can do. And eventually become the thing that they are.

“And then, sadly, they become a parody of the thing that they were. I’m looking at you, Mick Jagger.”

You could never say the same of Devlin, who didn’t hang around long enough to ossify into self parody. His whole life has been defined by restless artistic reinvention, a product, he humbly says, of “not being able to focus on any one thing for more than a few years”.

He was a former ad man, who with Horslips became part of what was called “the rock and roll equivalent of the rural electrification scheme in Ireland”.

When the band went on what he calls “a 20-year fag break” he put out his own solo album, became a movie director and television writer, working on series like The Darling Buds of May and Ballykissangel.

Johnny Fean and Barry Devlin from Horslips performing

He directed memorable videos for U2. “I wasn’t some coruscating genius moving from one thing to another,” he says wryly. “It was just a short attention span.”

Devlin grew up in Ardboe, a “dark foreboding” place in Tyrone, on the edge of Lough Neagh, with six sisters (one of whom, Polly Devlin, ended up writing for Vogue).

His father was a farmer and shop owner, his mother was a tennis-playing Protestant lady from Warrenpoint who had somehow ended up in what must have seemed like a backwater.

“I could tell there was a light that shone in the place she had been that was never quite present in Ardboe. I think she struggled at times to make sense of her life,” he says.

He was 11 when his sister Marie brought home a boyfriend by the name of Seamus Heaney. “I tried to chase him off the property,” Devlin says, smiling ruefully. “I didn’t realise at the time, but I had a sense of ownership, I think. And it was one boy and six girls, and I said, ‘those are mine’. Seamus drove his dad’s big Humber Hawk. Marie was in the passenger seat. If they looked in the rear view mirror, they’d just see their baby brother pedalling furiously. But in my mind I was seeing him off the premises.”

As his sister’s relationship with Heaney progressed, Devlin realised what a special man he was. “He had a ‘consideredness’ about how he spoke. For a bletherer like me, and for bletherers like the Devlins, he was practically taciturn. He understood the significance of certain moments. And Gabriel Byrne has something of the same persona, a capacity for picking up on a moment. And both of them are remarkable storytellers, because they don’t put in every detail, but they pick on the three or four that really count.”

Marie and the Nobel prizewinning poet were married for nearly 50 years. In 2013 Devlin was among those who carried the coffin at Heaney’s funeral. Recalling that day, there is a tear in his eye. “It’s hard to comprehend, it really is. And he died young.”

The Devlins were a Catholic family and said the rosary every night and, for Devlin, faith was either “the most important thing in the world or a complete lie”.

For a while he felt sure it was the former and decided that he would become a missionary. “I knew that if I went to [the seminary in] Maynooth, I would be setting up bingo games for people of a certain age quite soon, and I couldn’t bear that.

“I had a notion of a muscular kind of Christianity. And so I joined the Maynooth Mission to China, which famously wasn’t in Maynooth and didn’t go to China. It was in Navan and it went to the Philippines and to South America.”

He loved the academic aspect of the training and was “a natural celibate”, he says. He studied at Dalgan Park in Navan, Co Meath, and was one of six students selected to study at UCD. That setting, among other students, made him more aware of the youth he was missing out on. He had a “crisis of faith” and dropped out.

Horslips in their heyday

“I think the whole thing was basically out of an attempt to be a good person, if I could. And once I gave up on that notion, everything went swimmingly. I stopped believing in God, really. And I’ve been a happy atheist ever since.”

He finished his master of arts degree at Queens University in Belfast and while he was there, in 1969, the Troubles began in earnest.

“I remember the librarian wandered in and said, ‘listen, the buses are going off tonight, you’d better get home early’. And that was the first night of the big riots. And you could sort of feel the place cracking under your feet. I thought it would be over by Christmas, but I’m not good at predictions.”

After finishing college he got a job with an advertising agency in Dublin, where he became friends with Eamon Carr and Charles O’Connor. They were persuaded to play in a rock band for a Harp Lager ad, where they were joined by keyboard player Jim Lockhart. They decided to make a go of it, along with guitarist Declan Sinnott. Sinnott later left and Johnny Fean came on board.

“We were a bunch of guys in an advertising agency. It should have been completely ersatz,” Devlin recalls.

The name of the band was a play on The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and their first gig was to be at the CYMS hall in Navan. A local priest objected to the sexy promotional poster – featuring a cigarette dangling from a woman’s lips – and the gig was aborted. This turned out to be fortuitous as it generated a certain hype and gave the woefully under-rehearsed band time to, quite literally, get their act together.

In late 1970 they got a gig as a house band on an Irish language RTÉ television show called Fonn, and so by the time they began playing gigs, they had already built up a certain following.

“So we had a kind of a profile, but the question was where we would play shows,” Devlin recalls. “Our manager, Michael Deeny, went, ‘there are ballrooms.’ And we went, ‘We’re not going to play the ballrooms.’”

But they did, attracting a “younger, scruffier, wilder audience” than usually attended those more staid dances.

“Word travelled that if you put the Horslips into your ballroom, people would come. And so we became a ballroom phenomenon very, very fast.”

He met his wife, Caroline Erskine, after one of these gigs. “She instantly fell for the flute player. And then much later began to like the guitar player, then the bass guitar player [Devlin himself].” Was that awkward? “Well, it took a little while.”

Caroline Erskine and Barry Devlin. Photo: El Keegan

Erskine went on to become a journalist. “She was much better known than me. She was a political journalist for RTÉ when there was only one station,” Devlin recalls. “And she was getting terrible letters from old fellas down in the country, very explicit correspondence. They were a curious mixture of salaciousness and politeness.”

Horslips were signed to Atlantic Records, who already had Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, and they recorded their first album, Happy to Meet – Sorry to Part, at Longfield House in Tipperary using the Stones’ mobile recording studio.

The sleeve was an elaborate concertina design. The story goes that Mick Jagger resented the label’s refusal to pay for a zip on the sleeve of Sticky Fingers. “He came in [to the offices] flourishing Happy to Meet – Sorry to Part and said, “If a cockamamie Irish band can have an album sleeve like this, we can have a freaking zip on ours.”

Horslips had but one album which made the top 40 in the UK, The Táin, but both there and in the US they became a cult band with a committed student following.

“Any town that we pulled into, there’d be a bunch of kids who wanted us to come and wanted to show us their town,” Devlin recalls of their time in America. “And so they’d bring us to ridiculously good clubs.”

He remembers nights in the famous Studio 54 and “a certain amount” of recreational drugs but “with deep regret” he says that his own female fans were few and far between.

“There would be girls in front of Charles O’Connor [concertina, mandolin, fiddle] weeping inside, but in front of me there were only lads. We were a bit of a lads’ band.”

There was a mysterious and sexy secretary, ‘Samantha’ – in reality Devlin and Carr – who answered fan mail.

They “laughed and joked” their way across five continents for nine of the 10 years they were together but, in the last year, Devlin says they began to pull in different directions.

Horslips in the early days. Photo: Eamonn Carr

“Punk was big and we had to come to terms with the fact that we were a prog-rock band.”

Their break-up in 1980 came from “a combination of running out of raw material to do the thing we did, and trying to cope with our own sense that we were terrifically old and boring, and that nobody wanted to hear us any more.”

As he witnessed the rise of U2 in the 1980s, he felt what he wryly if bluntly describes as “deep jealousy”, but he continued his long association with them, and was involved in the production of a number of their videos including ‘All I Want Is You’.

It was meant to be a homage to film director Federico Fellini, and the crew brought a menagerie of circus animals to a beach in Ostia, Italy, in a nod to Fellini’s classic film, La Strada.

“And bizarrely, in the blazing Italian sun, we found another menagerie of even thirstier, even mangier, even crosser, lions and zebras parked on the side of the road. And I went, ‘what?’ And it turned out that Fellini was in the process of shooting a remake of La Strada.”

They thought of trying to persuade the great Italian auteur to be in the video but decided against it. “We thought he may know the Italian phrase for ‘punitive royalties’.”

Through the 1990s he became a writer for radio and television – he also wrote the screenplay for A Man Of No Importance, starring the late Albert Finney, which got a critical mauling on its release but has since become “a gay classic”, Devlin acknowledges.

Musician, screenwriter and director Barry Devlin photographed at Smock Alley. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Over the last decade Devlin has continued to be a creative polymath. Horslips reformed in 2009, with shows at the 3Arena in Dublin and the Odyssey in Belfast, and have continued to play shows across Ireland since.

In 2016 he created the BBC series My Mother and Other Strangers, a wartime romantic drama set in Northern Ireland, and last year he worked on the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning movie CODA, which starred Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Looking back at this incredible life, he says modestly that he regards himself as “lucky in the main not to have been found out. I would say I really managed to tap into the talents I have and to do a bunch of stuff that I really liked to do. I’m still doing it. And I’m profoundly grateful for that.”

‘Horslips: More Than You Can Chew’ 50th anniversary boxset is released on Madfish on July 29. Pre-orders at Horslips.lnk.to/MoreThanYouCanChew

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