Almost 40 years ago, three Irishmen came to St. John’s and, with their guitar, banjo, tin whistle and voices, changed this province’s musical landscape forever.
The members of Ryan’s Fancy — Fergus O’Byrne, Denis Ryan and Dermot O’Reilly — performed across the province and beyond, starred in their own television series, and released 13 albums, preserving and reinventing Newfoundland-Irish traditional music.
Later this month, O’Byrne and Ryan, the two surviving members of the band, will quietly launch a double CD collection of Ryan’s Fancy’s music, called “What a Time: A Forty Year Celebration.”
O’Byrne, from the north side of Dublin, O’Reilly, from the south side, and Ryan, from Tipperary, first met in Toronto, having moved to Canada in the 1960s. Folk music was big at the time, and bands were forming, performing and disbanding; it was through this confusion that the three Irishmen ended up in a group called Sullivan’s Gypsies. They toured Newfoundland at one point, liked the place and later decided to move here.
“We really felt that Newfoundland was where the type of music we were doing and were interested in was really understood,” O’Byrne said. “When we decided to leave Sullivan’s Gypsies, we decided to form a band and head to Newfoundland and go to university. We were going to pay our way through, playing music.”
Once they were here, O’Byrne said, “the whole Ryan’s Fancy thing happened.”
Ryan’s Fancy was instantly popular, becoming the top band on the Atlantic Canada university circuit. They toured the country and some venues in the States, and the CBC came calling.
Through the “Ryan’s Fancy” CBC-TV series with Tommy Makem — which hit the airwaves in 1972 and was syndicated across Canada and into the United States, England, Ireland and Australia — the band did more touring, across North America and Europe, and brought local traditional musicians such as Rufus Guinchard, Emile Benoit and Minnie White larger popularity, thanks to guest appearances on the show.
Ryan’s Fancy split up in the early 1980s. Ryan left the province and became an investment banker; O’Byrne and O’Reilly stayed in St. John’s and remained in the music business, playing solo and with other groups. O’Reilly also opened a local recording studio and got involved in video production with his own business, Piperstock Productions Ltd.
The trio received the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of their contribution to traditional Newfoundland music at 2004’s East Coast Music Awards ceremony in St. John’s.
O’Reilly, who had emergency open-heart surgery early in 2005, died suddenly of a heart attack in February 2007, at age 65.
O’Byrne, Ryan and O’Reilly had thought about producing a CD collection of Ryan’s Fancy’s music, but, each busy with individual projects, never got around to it. O’Byrne started assembling the collection about 18 months ago.
“It was due to continuous demand from the public, really,” O’Byrne said. “People were always sending emails, wondering where they could get this or that. Finally, myself and Denis said, ‘It’s coming up to 40 years since the band got together in 1971. If we’re going to put out something, let’s put it out now.’”
Ryan’s Fancy recordings weren’t easy to come by, even for the band members.
Many of the tapes had been destroyed and never put on CD, and it had never been the band’s priority to collect them. O’Byrne gathered up the best vinyls he could find among friends, and brought them to Spencer Crewe, a sound engineer and an expert at cleaning up old recordings for remastering.
The result is a 42-song collection, chosen by O’Byrne and Ryan.
“I made up my choice of songs I wanted on it and Denis did the same, and we just went back and forth a little bit. It was surprising, actually— we pretty well had similar ideas in terms of what was going to go on it. It came out no problem.
“I know people are going to listen and say, ‘Well, how come they didn’t put this one on or that one on,’ but the bottom line is we had to choose 42 songs and that was it. Obviously, if the demand is large enough, there’s a lot more material to revisit.”
The track list includes the most popular Ryan’s Fancy tunes, such as “Rocky Road to Dublin,” “Sweet Forget Me Not,” and “Nancy Whiskey,” along with some of the band’s lesser-known songs.
The three members’ different musical tastes are represented, too: O’Byrne’s sea shanties, Ryan’s waltzes and ballads, and O’Reilly’s country-folk songs, such as “Mist Upon a Morning” and “Streets of London.”
“One particular track actually made it on there at the last moment,” O’Byrne explained. “Denis said, ‘I really like this one,’ so we added it. The song is ‘Far Away in Australia,’ and it’s a live version of it. One of the albums we did was a live album. How we did it was we brought about a hundred people in the studio, sort of in a concert situation, and performed for them. You can hear a lot of crowd noise and people singing along and little comments and stuff like that. I can visualize in my mind that actual scene.”
The CD collection is dedicated to O’Reilly, “a great bandmate and friend,” who would have been excited to see it come to fruition, O’Byrne said.
“What a Time” will be officially launched with a private gathering in St. John’s Feb. 21. Although O’Byrne and Ryan will likely play a few tunes at the celebration, they’ve no plans for any public performances.
“Obviously, it wouldn’t be the same without the trio,” he explained.
The double CD set will be available in music stores the same day.