From Belfast to Blackthorn
How Irishman Richard McMullan rambled to Detroit and started his band
Published: March 16, 2011
No matter their faith, those marching were helpless.
"As far as police, there was the regular police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), but then there was also an auxiliary force called the B Specials, who were not only all Protestant, but most were also all in the Orange Order," McMullan says. The Orange Order are a loyalist group who still to this day celebrates Protestant William of Orange III's victory over Catholic King James II, way back in July 12, 1690. "So every July 12, the Orangemen go out and beat their drums and the whole bit and it's the one day that they just really shove it in the face of the Catholics," McMullan says. "It'd be like if the Klu Klux Klan marched through Harlem once a year."
Protesters were not only beaten, but some were killed, and it came out that some of the attackers were B Specials wearing street clothes. Peaceful protests ceased, tumult came to a roaring boil, giving way the same vehemence Ireland succumbed to in the 1920s, only with modern weaponry.
"What happened then was that Catholic neighborhoods were repeatedly attacked by the B Specials, who were armed. Catholics in Northern Ireland, which is politically British, appeal to England for soldiers to be sent in to keep the peace," MucMullan says. "Here's where it gets tricky: The British, mostly Protestant soldiers are sent to protect the Irish Catholics from the Irish Protestants. I remember the British soldiers coming into Belfast, standing in formation with their bayonets at the corner of Falls Road and Townsend Street. And I remember the Catholic women coming out of their houses with tea and cookies, being real nice to 'em. And I remember Protestant so-called loyalists, because they were loyal to the Queen, start to stone the Queen's own soldiers. Try to make any sense of that."
The situation quickly deteriorated from bad to worse when the Irish Republican Army resurfaced. The old "eye for an eye" ethos gained ascendancy as the body count ratcheted up.
"The IRA had been an effective and, some say, justified force in the 1920s, when they got 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland free from England and governed from Dublin," McMullan says. "But IRA splinter groups popped up, and they were extremely violent; they started blowing people up. If a guy from their own side was thought to be an informant, he'd get a Black & Decker drill through his kneecap. It went on like that for years. But you know what they say, 'One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist.'"
McMullan says that, today, a peaceful climate seems to have been restored but that "the tension there is like a disease that only goes into remission, goes dormant for decades at a time, but never goes away completely."
While the tension itself never goes away, McMullan himself started to do just that. Every Easter and every summer, like students then and still today, McMullan would get out of Belfast and head to London.
"In summer, you either went to London or New York to work in a factory or on a building site — that was just the thing to do," he says. "The odd thing was that, never, ever did it cross my mind to come to the United States. I'd go to London for six to eight weeks for work and would travel from there to France or Spain or somewhere else." (No coincidence that McMullan speaks French and Spanish fluently and has spent a career teaching both languages at the high school level. He's currently foreign language department head at Wylie E. Groves High School in Birmingham, Mich.)
But in the summer of 1971, in London, he met a traveling American named Sandra Bunge, a 21-year-old from St. Clair Shores who quickly captured his heart.
The two stayed in touch for the year, and after graduating in 1972, McMullan traveled to Detroit to spend the summer with Sandra. He ended up staying until winter and before heading back to London, where he'd received his first teaching job, the two were engaged.
"When I came over on the QE2, I took the heads off my drums and packed everything in them because I didn't have proper luggage," McMullan says.
Richard and Sandra were married in 1973. None of the other McMullans attended.
"They were really disappointed. Actually, my parents, especially my mom, hated it," McMullan says of his marriage. "When I finally decided that I was moving from London to America, they were disappointed. But there were additional problems because I married a non-Catholic. That's like an Arab marrying a Jew in New York. So, yeah, my parents didn't come to the wedding and they prohibited my brothers from coming too.
"There was me and one guy who'd come over that I was friends with in college who kind of stood in as my best man. There was a minister and a priest, but that didn't wash because we were getting married in a Protestant church."
It was rough, to say the least, but it didn't stay that way.
"The weird thing is some years later, my parents softened and came for a visit. We took them to the church where the wedding had been. It's a Lutheran church, and the service is almost identical to that of a Catholic one. My Catholic mother became very good friends with my Lutheran mother-in-law and they remained good friends until my mother died. Still, she was never pleased that not only had I gone to America, but that I married a Protestant." Thirty-eight years later, they're still married, living in Huntington Woods.
He recalls the surprises of Detroit and America: "It certainly wasn't as foreign as some places I'd been, but the size of the place, the size of the houses, and, gosh, the size of the food portions at a restaurant — never, ever did I finish anything on my plate. America's the second-best country in the world — after Ireland."
What he also discovered, rather quickly, that there are rather stereotypical responses when folks discover you're from Ireland. He's heard every Irish joke and doesn't want to hear your Irish accent, to cite a couple instances. Moreover: "When they find out I'm from Ireland, they say 'You know, so-and-so's Irish, too!' Or someone will say, 'You know, I'm Irish!' And it's like their great-great grandfather ate a plate of mashed potatoes one time, so now they're Irish or something." McMullan goes on to say he finds it more amusing than annoying.
"I find it amazing how Americans always want to claim somewhere else, to make it a point that they've been transplanted. It's as amusing to me as terms such as Italian-American or African-American. Even I don't say I'm Irish-American, I say I'm American — I took citizenship! Maybe because I know exactly where I came from, it's not an issue to me."
Early on in Detroit, people felt the need bring McMullan to Irish pubs and restaurants. "It's still the case that most of these places that claim themselves as authentically Irish couldn't be further from the real thing. But, hey, they're green, they serve corned beef, and they do their amateur's day near St. Patrick's Day every year."
Don't be fooled, McMullan takes St. Patrick's Day seriously, deeming it a testament to the people of the Emerald Isle. "There is no other nationality — not Italians, Greeks or English — that is so celebrated worldwide. Just take St. Patrick's Day. It's a worldwide celebration. People from several other countries travel the world, but it seems that the Irish have really made their mark across the globe. I was in New Zealand five years ago, touring with the Irish Rovers, and, from top to bottom, I met Irish people everywhere along the way. It amazes me still."
McMullan was teaching foreign languages at De La Salle Collegiate High School, playing drums in Top 40 bands around town and strumming out the Irish songs he knew from his youth on his guitar at home, by himself. On a chance trip to the Detroit River, however, he realized the market for this music when he ran into a trio of buddies from Belfast.
"One of the best Irish bands to ever play in the Detroit area was a band called Pat's People — and they were all from Belfast. They were a couple years older than me, but I'd gone to college with a couple of their younger siblings. It turned out they'd all married women from Detroit, moved here and became somewhat of a local fixture. I'd seen them dozens and dozens of times in Belfast. There used to be an ethnic festival on the riverfront — Mexican Week, Greek Week, Polish Week — I made it down for Irish Week. So I go down to check it out and who happens to be there on stage but these three guys? I was blown away. So we got to talking and they said they had a gig in a few days playing at the Old Shillelagh, which at the time was all Irish music, single acts and duos downstairs throughout the week and bands upstairs on the weekends."
This was a revelation. These were his people, playing his music "not that corny, stage Irish stuff."
It was 1984, the Detroit Tigers were in the playoffs headed to the World Series, which they'd go on to win, and the Old Shillelagh was, as it is now, a center for fandom pandemonium.
Says McMullan, "I got a call from John Brady, the owner, who'd just fired the previous band [not Pat's People] for whatever reason and he says to me 'Hey, I hear you play Irish music?' I say, 'Yeah.' He says, 'Well, how many of you are there?' And I tell him that it's just me, so he responds 'Well, you got to get two or three other guys with you, because it gets pretty rowdy in here."
Brady gave him a time and place to show up, but first McMullan needed to put a band together. "Before the band in its current formation got together, it was me, a guy I taught with at De La Salle, and a buddy or cousin of his," he says. "I'd never played guitar in a band or led a band, I hadn't even met the bass player till a week before the first gig, and we hadn't rehearsed. It was baptism by fire." As the older boys would do when McMullan was playing a snare in the ceilidh band in Belfast, he would just shout out the key the song was in and off they'd go.
McMullan named the band Blackthorn, after the thistle of his native land. A natural-born storyteller (there's an Irish cliché for you), and John Slattery handsome, McMullan's a charismatic frontman who bookends most every song with an origin story on one side and a joke, usually at the expense of his bandmates, on the other.
Soon, Fred Klein, a multi-instrumentalist living in Ann Arbor would join his band, lending piano, synth, flute and accordion to the sound. He's been with Blackthorn 22 years. Two years later, Gary McMullen, a Scotsman, guitarist and banjo player came on board. Finally, the new kid, bassist Dennis Green, who's been with the band 18 years, rounded out the sound. Each of the three lend serious chops and a knack for harmonizing with McMullan's rich croon.
"I'd take this band anywhere in the world, to the Sydney Opera House, and would be quite confident and proud that we'd deliver a world-class show," McMullan says of his band, which he raves about with ease and affection.
"I wouldn't still be doing this if it weren't for the other three guys," he says, stone-faced. "We're known, I think, for our vocals, and that's all them. I sing melody — don't ask me to sing a harmony. It's their musical ability that makes this band successful."
And the band, after 25 years, continues to find success.
They've played to increasingly larger audiences at the Milwaukee Irish Fest, the largest in the United States, for the past few years and, with a new record on the merch table, are already booked to go back this August.
Coming off a three-night stint at the Farmington Barn Theater in Farmington Hills, where they played to 700 people, followed by a special engagement performing to 400 at the Ark in Ann Arbor, McMullan refuses to gauge the band's success in dollars earned, seats filled, tours booked. Like any rock star worth his weight in whiskey, McMullan measures the band's clover by tangible connections made between the musician, the song and the audience.
"We did a show just the other night in Lansing and a bunch of teenagers came up to us after the show just raving about the band, the show, and the musicianship of Blackthorn," McMullan says "You know, I just turned 61 years old, I'm a school teacher, and these teenagers want to know where they can find our music, where we're playing next, when we'll be back. We had a real conversation about music. You just don't get that when you're playing drums in a rock band."
Blackthorn plays Thursday-Friday, March 17-18, at O'Mara's, 2555 12 Mile Rd., Berkley; info at blackthorn1.com.
> Email Travis R. Wright