I was slowly, but surely, getting my introduction to traditional Celtic music as I wrapped up the third grade in 1981, and my earliest teachers in this regard were a trio of transplanted Irishmen who took me on a search for pirate treasure while simultaneously launching a lifelong musical journey.
By the time Ryan’s Fancy – specifically, Dermot O’Reilly, Denis Ryan and Fergus O’Byrne – starred in the 1980 made-for-CBC-TV movie Pirate’s Gold, they had spent a decade building up a fiercely loyal audience, inside and outside of their home base of St. John’s, Newfoundland. The stars of two syndicated TV series in the ’70s, on their own and with legendary Irish balladeer Tommy Makem, Ryan’s Fancy had also released a dozen albums by the time I discovered them at the tender age of eight.
Tuning into the CBC rebroadcast of Pirate’s Gold in the spring of 1981, I was charmed by the odd mix of music and mayhem as Ryan, O’Reilly and O’Byrne sang their way through an hour-long attempt to help two adventurous kids find Captain Kidd’s treasure somewhere on the Newfoundland coastline. Whether or not Ryan’s Fancy were awkwardly shoehorned into the production is up for somebody else to decide; all I can tell you is that I was charmed by the sight of these three likable Irish fellows traipsing around the shore and scouring an abandoned schooner to try to help these impressionable young’uns.
That being said, I couldn’t tell you a single one of the Captain Kidd-themed songs they sang, nor do I recall exactly how the legendary pirate’s ghost was depicted in the special. I do, however, recall Denis Ryan repeatedly bellowing “FERGIE!” with his unmistakable Newport brogue when Fergus O’Byrne somehow got separated from the group, and that in itself still makes me smile to this day.
And just like that, Pirate’s Gold won me over. My younger sister and I even staged a puppet re-enactment of the special with three of our stuffed animals. (I’m pretty sure that was the only Ryan’s Fancy tribute band to ever feature Kermit the Frog, Rowlf the Dog or Mickey Mouse.)
But the actual group was also making its way into my noggin. My Uncle Jimmy on my Dad’s side was a fan; one of my lasting memories of just how much he loved me was the fact that he was willing to sacrifice one of his Ryan’s Fancy mix-tapes so I could use his tape deck to record my personal third-grade comedy routines. (I kept that cassette for awhile, and was struck by Ryan’s strong, clear, passionate, decidedly-Irish voice, even in 10-second clips sandwiched between my dusty old variations on chickens crossing roads and a door not being a door because it was “ajar.”)
I hadn’t fully embraced traditional music by the time Ryan’s Fancy on Campus, the group’s last CBC venture before its 1983 disbanding, hit the airwaves. But in the meantime, I had fallen in love with founding member Dermot O’Reilly’s beautiful seasonal song “Children’s Winter.” I first heard it sung by Carol Martell, a young woman from L’Ardoise who regularly provided guitar accompaniment for the Holy Guardian Angels Parish children’s choir. I finally heard O’Reilly’s original version years later, after Lucy MacNeil had recorded it for The Barra MacNeils’ first Christmas album in 1999. Listening to O’Reilly’s wistful “Children’s Winter” vocals, it’s hard to believe that this fellow is also in on another Ryan’s Fancy classic (led with glee by O’Byrne) that I discovered in my late teens, “Chastity Belt,” which I enjoyed singing with my King’s College classmates at the Halifax university’s campus pub, The HMCS Wardroom.
“Chastity Belt” is the last song on a mix-tape made for me by my former vice-principal at St. Peter’s District High School, Billy MacDonald. He would play Ryan’s Fancy records – and other vinyl gems from his vast collection of Celtic folk albums – while having me over for homemade pilsner beer during the summer of 1992. while I was still a teenager. Billy had heard me playing traditional music at local festivals earlier that summer and wanted to have me over to chat about these songs and groups; we shared some wonderful stories, including his tales of how he and his wife Jean hosted Ryan’s Fancy when the trio visited St. Peter’s to play at local pubs in the ’70s and early ’80s.
However, Billy wasn’t the only teacher to give me some much-needed insight into the Ryan’s Fancy catalogue as I tiptoed into adulthood. Joy Thibeau, a music teacher from L’Ardoise, put our family’s vinyl copy of the 1982 compilation album Nova Scotia Old Home Summer (discussed in this blog post) on cassette, but added six tracks from the classic 1979 album A Time With Ryan’s Fancy to finish up the tape. They immediately won me over, for a variety of different reasons, and are still treasured favourites to this day.
The first of these recordings, a lively arrangement of the traditional English song “Life of the Country Boy” (also known as “New Mown Hay”), was a favourite party piece of mine for over a quarter-century and landed in many of my own live performance during the same time period. The second features one of the definitive Ryan’s Fancy recordings, the trio’s lovingly-rendered cover of “The Mist Covered Mountains Of Home.” Written by Highlander John Cameron in Scotland as a Gaelic piece in 1856, and covered in the modern era by everybody from John Allan Cameron to The Rankin Family, the song is never more powerful or moving than when it comes out of Denis Ryan’s mouth, gently enhanced by the backup vocals of O’Byrne and O’Reilly and driven home by a soaring bagpipe solo. (It is worth noting that Ryan re-recorded the song as a duet with Raylene Rankin on his excellent 1991 solo album Mist Covered Mountains; I’m fond of this arrangement as well but, for my money, nothing beats the original.)
I’m also fond of Ryan’s moving rendition of “Cliffs of Baccalieu,” written in 1934 by Newfoundland native Jack Withers and still a beloved classic inside and outside the province, as well as a lively arrangement of “The Bluenose” (with O’Reilly on lead vocals) and a delightful O’Byrne-led cover of Cape Breton songsmith Allister MacGillivray’s “Coal Town Road” that comes perilously close to toppling my all-time favourite version of that particular song by The Barra MacNeils.
But I wasn’t prepared for the emotional reaction that greeted my teenage self’s first exposure to “Mist Upon A Morning,” with O’Reilly begging an abandoned lover – presumably in a rural community – to take him back after he foolishly squandered their money on fair-weather friends and fleeting pleasures in the big city. The remorse in O’Reilly’s voice still moves me today and caught me completely off guard in my late teens. I frequently played that Ryan’s Fancy/Old Home Summer mix tape as background music for a 1992 summer job at the tourist bureau located next to Jigg’s Take-Out in St. Peter’s; if “Mist Upon A Morning” happened to be playing just before a visitor came in the door, I’d have to quickly compose myself before I could offer them road maps or bed-and-breakfast brochures.
Not surprisingly, the legacy of Ryan’s Fancy and its various members carried on well into the new millennium. In a delightful bit of timing, I’m writing this blog post just days after Ryan’s Fancy’s second greatest-hits album, What A Time! Volume 2, hit the public. The photo pictured above is a screen-grab from the 2004 East Coast Music Awards broadcast in St. John’s, where Ryan’s Fancy began their acceptance speech for the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award by belting out the chorus to “Tiree Love Song” and completely bowling over the crowd at Mile One Stadium. (That clip is available here. Prepare for chills.)
That iconic ECMA appearance would be one of Dermot O’Reilly’s last hurrahs with the group, as he sadly passed away three years later at the age of 64. Fergus O’Byrne is still touring with his longtime musical partner, Newfoundland native Jim Payne; I got the pleasure of bringing them onstage at the parish hall in my native L’Ardoise as the MC for a Celtic Colours International Festival show that they headlined in 2015. (The concert was named “Wave Over Wave,” after a song co-written by Payne that has come to symbolize the duo’s work; here’s a live performance.) After the show, Fergus and I had a good chuckle about Pirate’s Gold, although he seemed disappointed that the special hasn’t seen the light of day since its early-’80s broadcasts.
As for Denis Ryan, who settled into the life of a financial investor and stockbroker in his later years, the music world has proven to be much like the last line of The Eagles’ hit “Hotel California”: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. In the mid-’90s, he hosted the CBC Halifax series Up On The Roof, interviewing and performing with several of the Maritimes’ rising stars, including Natalie MacMaster, Laura Smith and Tracey Dares. The spring of 1995 saw Ryan MC the Remembering Stan Rogers: An East Coast Tribute concert at Halifax’s Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, which spawned two iconic albums featuring a who’s who of East Coast players, many of whom were no doubt influenced by the legacy and music of Ryan’s Fancy.
A mentor and friend to fiddler and Rankin Family co-founder John Morris Rankin, Ryan conducted several interviews in the days following Rankin’s untimely death in early 2000; I was attending Rankin’s funeral at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Mabou as a journalist and got to hear Ryan deliver a moving rendition of “Dark Island,” a longtime Ryan’s Fancy staple and one of Rankin’s favourite pieces.
Years later, at the age of 74, Ryan is still straddling the line between music and business (and the seemingly-contradictory phrase “music business”) on both sides of the Atlantic. With the Irish economy in a tailspin in 2011, this – ahem – “salty” interview clip with Ryan went viral, chalking up over 142,000 views over the following six years. Chatting with veteran Maclean’s Magazine writer John DeMont for The Chronicle Herald later that same year, Ryan spoke enthusiastically of his forthcoming donation of the audio and video music collection he had amassed during the Ryan’s Fancy days to the University of Limerick in his native Ireland. (He had already made a similar donation to Cape Breton University’s Beaton Institute.)
Described by DeMont as “buoyantly hopeful,” the man behind so much of my childhood and young-adult Celtic music education said at the time: “I feel blessed. I enjoy every day.”
Which makes perfect sense, as I feel blessed and enjoy every day I have the chance to listen to a Ryan’s Fancy song.