From Belfast to Blackthorn
How Irishman Richard McMullan rambled to Detroit and started his band
Published: March 16, 2011
In time, McIlduff left school and started working full time in bands, which McMullan notes would have been a tremendous risk, given the economy at the time, "if it weren't that he was so superb." He would go on to play with several notables, including the Pogues, the Pretenders and Irish demigod Van Morrison. He kept a drum set at his parents' home in Belfast. When he was in town, McIlduff would teach McMullan something new; when he was on the road, McMullan would go over the last lesson.
McMullan got his first full-time drumming job with St. Mary's on the Hill Ceilidh Band. A ceilidh is a kind of party that celebrates Gaelic culture and features traditional Irish music and the highland step dancing styles made famous by Michael Flatley's "Lord of the Dance" concerts of the mid-'90s.
"I started drumming in the ceilidh band when I was maybe 15. It was me and, like, five other guys. ... They were probably 24, and I was wondering what I was doing in a band with these old guys," McMullan says. "The guys never really talked to me. I just went along with my snare drums and someone would tell me whether we were playing a jig (6/8 time) or a reel (4/4 time) and we'd just start right in, no rehearsal, no nothing. And the people, man, they'd dance."
Unknown to McMullan at the time, both his parents made it to his first gig with the ceilidh band at a hall that's quite a hike from their home in Belfast. "I noticed them way in the back of the room, trying their best to both hide behind a pillar," he says. Some 46 years later, he wears pride on his face like it happened yesterday.
McMullan's newfound passion for playing drums came at a time when he needed an escape. In 1966, when he was 16, McMullan's youngest brother was killed in a road accident, which, Richard says, "cast a lengthy pall over family life for quite a while."
Solace was also found in school and the pop music of the day, which he also started to play with cover bands around town.
"There was then, and there still is now, a really good music scene in Belfast," says McMullan, who makes regular trips back to Ireland, including yearly ones with his bandmates and their fans.
"With musicians in Ireland, there's always the traditional folk thing, which is what I've come full-circle to with Blackthorn, but, back then, we really wanted to play rock 'n' roll," McMullan says.
During weeknights, in the college union and at local halls, he'd play traditional Irish folk songs, but on the weekend it was the Top 40 of the day, namely the Rolling Stones and Van Morrison.
"There's this Irish duality, musically, that never goes away," he says. "Clicking around on the Internet, I recently came across this U2 concert at Croke Park, a big stadium in Dublin, and in the middle of the rock concert they stopped and brought up one of the most famous folk singers, Ronnie Drew from the Dubliners, who was certainly very ill. So Bono says, 'We're going to do 'The Old Triangle' for Ronnie Drew.' Now that's a very famous song [one that Blackthorn's recorded and performs at most every show]. U2 starts in on the tune and everyone in the stadium, all 80,000 people, starts singing and they all know all the words. There's that duality."
There were two more dualisms in McMullan's life. The choice of balancing life as a student and musician was one. The rising tensions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — Protestants and Catholics — was the other.
While McMullan was the first in his family to go to college, his de facto older brother and hero Gerry McIlduff didn't, which McMullan says he always admired and, to an extent, envied. McMullan describes himself as a conscientious student who didn't do much besides drum and study.
"I was really excited to have been accepted to college. A lot of my friends did not get to. At the time, it was a privilege," McMullan says, who attended St. Joseph's College of Education in Belfast. "In America, if you have the money, you can find some kind of college to go to somewhere. In my experience, from 1968 to 1972, the only way you could get into college was if you had really good scores. You either got to go to college or you got to apprentice under a plumber. I have to tell you, there've been many times I regretted not going with the plumber or carpenter. At that time in Ireland, if you were a teacher, man, that was something ... you had respect and social status. I quickly found out when I came to America that that's not the case at all here."
Whereas music and school were McMullan's main interests, he tried his best to keep politics far off his radar. For as long as he could, anyway.
"You always had you the debate clubs and the political clubs. But I and the people I chose to hang around, we didn't bother with that," he says. "But even for those of us who weren't politically minded, there came a time in Ireland when you couldn't ignore it. By 1969, there was a deluge. Trouble started back up and there was terrorism on both sides, Protestant and Catholic."
McMullan was 19 years old at the onset of the Troubles, a 30-year period of violence that, from 1969 to 2001, claimed 3,528 lives. Belfast was a hotbed of agitation, turmoil and worse.
It all began with a peaceful protest on Jan. 4, 1969, by mostly Catholic university students from Belfast, marching for equal rights, touting the one-man-one-vote idea, largely inspired in by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who'd been assassinated the year before. The march was to go from Belfast to the town of Derry, but when they arrived at the Burntollet Bridge, the protesters were attacked by a blood-hungry mob of loyalists.
"The protesters were Catholic and Protestant," recalls McMullan, "like when whites and blacks marched for civil rights together in America in the '60s, only in Ireland they were all white and you couldn't tell who was who."
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