From Belfast to Blackthorn
How Irishman Richard McMullan rambled to Detroit and started his band
Published: March 16, 2011
Blackthorn is a band that almost wasn't.
It's the summer of '84, and the Detroit Tigers are in the midst of the pennant race, on their way to win the World Series, when 34-year-old high school teacher Richard McMullan got the call-up. But it wasn't Sparky Anderson on the other end of the line, rather it was bar owner John Brady, who had just fired his band and found himself in desperate need. For Irish music in 1980s Detroit, and baseball bars in general, the Shillelagh was the Big Leagues. McMullan, an occasional cover band drummer from Belfast, hadn't ever taken an at-bat as a guitar player, let alone bandleader. But then he swung hard and connected on the sweet spot with his hastily thrown-together combo.
More than 25 years into it — with hair that's gray, or on its way there, and a humble discography — the harmony hounds of Blackthorn continue to book between two and six shows a month, often playing back-to-back concerts no further than a half-hour's drive apart, and to audiences of 100 or more. And predictably, around St. Patrick's Day, the band is in heavy pub rotation.
But what if ...
What if the Tigers weren't headed for the World Series that year? What if that other band hadn't been fired? What if McMullan hadn't picked up his guitar and hollered out the songs of his youth for booze-fueled fanatics?
What if McMullan had stayed in Belfast?
Born in Belfast, in 1950, Richard was the first son of Eileen and Richard McMullan. His mother, until more sons came along, worked as a stitcher in a factory that made overalls and dungarees, while his father did his hard work on oil tankers as a merchant marine. The McMullans were as working-class as working-class gets.
As a young lad, the McMullans lived on Shore Road, near the Belfast Loch. "My address was 152 Donview Bungalows, which might sound kind of fancy, but they were actually prefabricated houses that everyone called the prefabs," McMullan remembers. "But at least it was a mixed neighborhood." "Mixed" as in the community was home to both Catholics and Protestants — mostly Protestants. The Catholic-born McMullan knew his family was different than most who lived in the prefabs, but, at least in those early years, no big deal was made out of it.
Living in Northern Ireland, many if not the majority of McMullan's friends, early on, were Protestants. There was just one episode from his youth when Ireland's socio-religious civil conflict literally hit home. "It was 1958, and Robert Booth was my next door neighbor. His family was Protestant, and his mother was from Ballymena, a Scottish stronghold in the north. But we were friends," McMullan says. "One day, Booth and I got in this fight; we're rolling around on the ground; he's punching me. I remember his mother comes out of the house and she yells, 'Kill that Fenian bastard!'" The derogatory term for Catholics was what we might call an F-bomb today.
McMullan and Booth remained friends after the skirmish, and while Booth's mother would go on to cook dinner for the boys sometimes, her words left bruises deeper than her son's 8-year-old fists ever could.
When Richard was 11, the prefabs were slated for demolition, his family was relocated, and the two boys lost touch.
"We kept some of the remnants of a wall and took them to our new house to make a little garden with them," McMullan recalls. "Later, we'd come to find out that the exterior walls of the prefabs were entirely made of asbestos."
His family built the asbestos garden in the yard of their new home, in what sounded to be an upstart community in a part of Belfast called Turf Lodge.
"The neighborhood became a massive housing estate," McMullan says. "In the States, I think you call them housing projects, or the projects, but in Ireland, they're called housing estates, which again sound sort of nice, but really they're just dumpy."
To get to the McMullan's home, you'd have to come off the Glen Road, which was a fancy address, but then you'd arrive at the Estates. His was among the first 20 or so families to move in. But the government had a plan. Soon they began relocating more families to the projects until, McMullan estimates, there were about 3,000 families living there.
"Of course, all of us in the estates were Catholic," McMullan says. "It was complete gerrymandering: We were all put in one area, and so the voting precincts were such that a Protestant majority was always assured. Catholics just did not have the same opportunities as Protestants. You couldn't be a police officer or get jobs in other kinds of civil servitude, and your vote wouldn't count as much if you didn't own property — of course only Protestants owned property. The inequality was subtle, but it was always there."
But even the ghetto has its upsides here, just as from Belfast to Berlin and Brooklyn, ghettoes around the globe have incubated some of the greatest writers, artists and musicians. Turf Lodge housing estates were home to drummer Gerry McIlduff, the McMullan's new next-door neighbor.
"Gerry was about two or three years older than me and kind of became my big brother," McMullan says. "Anything he did, I did." Richard joined the water polo team when he learned McIlduff was on it; he went out to learn Irish because McIlduff was doing it; and when he found out McIlduff played the drums, Richard discovered his calling.
McMullan was 14 when he got his first gig playing the snare drum in an Irish pipe band. Naturally, McIlduff was also playing snare in the group.
McMullan recalls, "The band started off as called St. Gerard's Pipe band, but whoever was running it must've been pretty clever because when President Kennedy was shot we immediately became the John F. Kennedy Memorial Pipe Band, and automatically the band had new pipes, drums and kilts."
> Email Travis R. Wright