Formed in Galway in 1966 by Joe Dolan from Galway (not the cabaret singer), better known as Galway Joe Dolan, Andy Irvine from London and Johnny Moynihan from Dublin. Irvine and Moynihan were traditional music enthusiasts who knew each other from the folk scene in Dublin and travels to Fleadh Ceoil around the country during 1963-65. Dolan had played guitar with second division showband the Swingtime Aces. In January 1965 Irvine and Dolan formed the short-lived ballad group The Liffeysiders with Dolan's friend Kevin O'Carroll. Moynihan wasn't impressed and they soon split anyway. This left it open for Irvine, Dolan and Moynihan to form Sweeney's Men. Des Kelly became their manager and got them a deal with Pye. Kelly also managed the Capitol Showband which is how various Sweeneys guested on three Capitol singles released during 1966.
Sweeney's Men recorded two singles for Pye which were chart hits in Ireland, riding the tail of the ballad boom. "Old Maid In A Garret" peaked at #6 in May 1967 and the band appeared on TV screens across the country. Paul Brady (then with The Johnstons) stood in for a few gigs for Joe Dolan when the latter left for Israel and the 6 Day War (5 June 1967). Brady turned down an offer to join permanently. Dolan's permanent replacement was Terry Woods, who'd been playing in a duo with his girlfriend Gay Corcoran since circa 1963. Terry joined in June 1967. This second lineup recorded the second Pye single "Waxie's Dargle" in November 1967.
In early 1968 Transatlantic Records signed both The Johnstons and Sweeney's Men, who'd both scored major hits for Pye in Ireland. The Sweeneys already had enough material for their debut LP. This they recorded at Livingstone Studios in Barnet in just 36 hours, in May 1968. The band also recorded it's first session for the BBC radio in the same month, for the show My Kind Of Folk. Presumably these recordings have not survived.
The self-titled debut was issued on Transatlantic in August 1968. It contained just one band original, Terry Woods "My Dearest Dear". The rest of the album was familiar folk material, some old ballads, some of more recent vintage, but done like it had never been done before. It was impressively arranged, capturing what has been described as the "dustbowl celtic hillbilly magic" of the groups mixture of Irish and American folk influences. It would prove to be very influential in Ireland but actually sold quite poorly. Original mono copies in good condition are very difficult to locate but are well worth tracking down.
Andy Irvine left in May 1968 to travel to Eastern Europe and was replaced by Henry McCullough, who'd just left Eire Apparent, creating what was arguably Ireland's first electric folk rock band. The McCullough-Moynihan-Woods lineup made it's debut on 17 May 1968. McCullough's tenure with the Sweeneys was brief, a mere three months, but his influence was lasting, not least in the sartorial dept where the dresscode became 'hippy'. This is the lineup that caused such consternation at the Cambridge Folk Festival in July 1968. They recorded another BBC Radio Session (Country Meets Folk) and appeared on television in RTE's Twenty Minutes With.. series. Alas, both of these shows were erased, and to my knowledge no recording of the McCullough lineup has survived.
McCullough left to join Joe Cocker's Grease Band. He was replaced briefly by
ballad singer Al O'Donnell. By this time the debut LP had been released (August/September 1968),
and a single extracted from it ("Sullivan's John").
By the UK tour of November 1968, the Sweeneys were reduced to
a duo of Moynihan and Woods, who were now playing more 'progressive' venues.
Never the most compatible of personalities, Moynihan and Woods needed
a third person in the group to act as a gobetween, and without such a
person this lineup was doomed.
Sessions for the second LP ranged over a 6 month period leading up to the summer of 1969. With the work on the album completed, Moynihan and Woods then separated for the summer. Woods went to Dublin where he played with Orphanage and Dr.Strangely Strange. They reconvened in October 1969 for live performances in the UK. On 22 November 1969, 2 weeks before the release of their 2nd LP, Sweeney's Men finally split.
"The Tracks of Sweeney" is a much different LP than the debut. Though McCullough doesn't appear on it, his influence is clear. It includes two of his compositions, one of which "A Mistake No Doubt" has a very McCullough-like vocal (but it's not him singing, right?) and would surface on the first Grease Band LP. While "Tracks" is certainly not acid folk and it steers clear of the whimsy of the ISB or Dr.Strangely Strange, it dabbles in psychedelia and is a classic of its type. It's not to everyone's tastes however, and folkies tend to prefer the debut.
By this time the Sweeneys split, Andy Irvine had returned from the Balkans and all three Sweeneys were invited by Ashley Hutchings, who'd left Fairport Convention and who was a big Sweeney's Men fan, to join him in a new venture which was to become Steeleye Span. Ultimately only Terry Woods and his wife Gay would become fully involved.
Andy Irvine was later in Planxty, De Danann, Patrick Street and recorded solo material; much of this material is folk or Irish traditional music but there are some folk rock recordings too. Johnny Moynihan was later in Planxty, De Danann, the Fleadh Cowboys and recorded with his onetime girlfriend Anne Briggs. He is an under-recorded individual, perhaps, but has a history of leaving projects early on, suggesting he's more suited to a solo career or loose live arrangements. Terry Woods formed Steeleye Span as noted and later recorded with his wife Gay as the Woods Band and Gay & Terry Woods. In the 1980s he was invited to join The Pogues. I'm unfamiliar with Galway Joe Dolan's post-Sweeneys career. He died in 2008.
Irvine, Moynihan & Woods reformed as Sweeney's Men for a couple of festivals in Ireland in 1982. The warmup gigs were reputedly fantastic but the festival appearance was a disaster, by all accounts. In 1986, B.P.Fallon coaxed McCullough, Moynihan and Woods into a studio for a chaotic live session on his RTE radio show The BP Fallon Orchestra. If anyone has a tape of this, I'd love to hear it. There are no (official) recordings of any of these reunions.
The LP credits are as follows. Andy Irvine - vocals, mandolin, harmonica, guitar; Johnny Moynihan - vocals, bouzouki, tin whistle; Terry Woods - vocals, 6-string and 12-string guitars, 5-string banjo, concertina.
"The music ranges from Irish traditional tunes and American country music to ballads. They have obtained a distinctive sound on a number of tracks by the use of the acoustic bouzouki combined with guitar, mandolin, harmonica and whistle… Altogether an entertaining album by three singers and musicians who are obviously not afraid to move outside their native traditions to find material"–-Melody Maker, 7 Sept 1968.
The LP credits are as follows. Johnny Moynihan - vocals, bouzouki, tin whistle; Terry Woods - vocals, 6-string and 12-string guitars, 5-string banjo, concertina.
Original sleeve notes:
Original sleeve notes: "The Tracks of Sweeney can be seen clearly emerging from Flann O'Brien land and making for O'Donoghue's Bar in Dublin. Sometimes there are three sets of tracks, sometimes two. From O'Donoghue's the tracks move briskly to the top of the Irish charts and then across to the Transatlantic offices in London.
The Tracks of Sweeney lead to the door of those who, applauding the breakdown of musical pigeon holes, appreciate the subtle blendings of styles ... The distinctive tracks made by Johnny Moynihan and Terry Woods can make their way in at your ear and on to your mind.
Sweeney's Men are Terry Woods & Johnny Moynihan."
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