Long before there was Ron Hynes or Fergus O’Byrne or any other contemporary folk musician who earned a cult following in this province, there were the McNultys.
An Irish-American family of three, the McNulty family, consisting of mother Annie McNulty and her children Peter and Eileen, were the first music idols ever to visit this province, says Shanneyganock frontman Chris Andrews.
“When they came here, they were literally like rock stars,” Andrews said. “I’ve heard stories about how people would go to the airport to meet them.”
Annie McNulty had left Ireland for Massachusetts in 1910 and, living there, had married a fellow Irishman in 1914. She was a widow less than 15 years later. In order to make ends meet, Andrews says, McNulty and her two children, Peter and Eileen, moved to New York and began performing a vaudeville-type act, complete with music, singing, dancing and comedy skits. As a trio, they are reported to have recorded more than 150 songs, the first recording made in the mid-1930s, and came to be widely known as the “first family of Irish music.” The McNultys eventually had their own radio program, “The Irish Show Boat,” and were popular right up until the 1960s, when Peter died.
“The thing that amazed me about them is that they were so massive, but they only ever toured four places: New York, Boston, Ireland and Newfoundland,” said Andrews, adding some parents of Shanneyganock members had seen the McNultys in concert in St. John’s. The McNultys even recorded a Newfoundland song, Andrews said: “Pat Murphy’s Meadow,” written by J.M. Devine of King’s Cove in the 1930s.
Andrews said he had first heard of the family band while performing with The Concert Crowd, an evolving group of musicians from the Logy Bay/Middle Cove/Outer Cove area that has been putting off fundraising concerts for charitable events for more than 40 years.
“They always sang McNulty songs,” Andrews said. “I’d heard some of the songs before, but they were the first to open my eyes to the McNulty family.”
Though people today might not know who the McNultys were, they’d definitely know their music, Andrews explained, which included Irish ballads like “A Mother’s Love’s a Blessing” as well as tunes like “The Stone Outside Dan Murphy’s Door,” “McNamara’s Band,” “Mother Malone” and “The Rose of Tralee.”
About five years ago, Andrews got the idea to do an album dedicated to the musical family. Next week, Shanneyganock will salute the McNultys with the launch of their 10th album, “A Musical Tribute to the McNulty Family: the First Family of Irish Music.”
Choosing 14 tracks for the record wasn’t an easy task for the Shanneyganock guys, Andrews said, but when they did, their rehearsal time was short.
“Everybody sort of knew the songs,” he explained. “We’d been playing a lot of the tunes for years, for the older people and so on,” Andrews explained. “You mightn’t know one from start to finish but you certainly knew the chorus or you knew how to play the melody.
“Pat Byrne (musician and folklorist) did the forward on the album and it’s true what he said: you can’t really go to a kitchen party or community concert anywhere in Newfoundland and Labrador without hearing the McNulty influence.”
While the McNultys’ repertoire has stood the test of time, the themes of the songs aren’t quite as relevant nowadays as they may have been during the family’s musical heyday, Andrews reckons, though he admits they’re clean, fun, humourous songs that stir up memories of a time gone by.
“When you think about it, songs today are mostly ridiculous. These are about things like kissing a girl, or remembering when we were young and we used to hang out at this place. It was so innocent. In a strange way, for old romantics like me, it’s almost a look back to when life was simpler and a lot better,” he said.
“I think because of people like ourselves who are constantly trying to rework the songs and change them a bit, make them nostalgic for the older audience and giving a younger audience the opportunity to hear them, the majority of songs on the record, people will say, ‘I remember that.’”
The record, produced by Andrews and bandmate Mark Hiscock and featuring guest appearances by members of the Concert Crowd, will be launched next week as Shanneyganock kicks off a western Canadian tour, starting in Vancouver and seeing the guys perform 17 shows in three weeks. While they’ll be doing some McNulty songs, the tour for that album won’t happen until the spring.
Over the past year, Shanneyganock has released two CDs, two DVDs, earned a MusicNL nomination for Entertainer of the Year — the award for which to be given out during the MusicNL closing gala Sunday night — and toured western Canada twice, yet Andrews insists it’s been a slow year, at least by the band members’ standards.
“It just feels like we didn’t do very much this year,” he says. “It was a good year, but compared to others when we didn’t stop, we didn’t do much at all. To be putting out our 10th album and to be nominated for a MusicNL award again, it says to us that we’re doing a good job, but we’re still out there, trying to get better.”
”A Musical Tribute to the McNulty Family: the First Family of Irish Music” will be available in stores as of Nov. 2. Shanneyganock’s complete tour schedule is available online at www.shanneyganock.ca.