Finbar Furey, well-traveled master of the pipes, keeps on keeping on

When you’ve had as long and productive a musical career as Finbar Furey, picking out a defining moment might seem difficult. But in his case, there are at least two – and in both instances, he walked away from certain success.

The first time was in 1970, when he and brother Eddie were playing in the back-up band for the legendary Clancy Brothers, and decided to strike out on their own – leading, ultimately, to the formation of a band with their other brothers, Paul and George. And the second time was almost 25 years later, when Furey opted to leave the group he’d fronted for so long – and which had released a number of best-selling singles and albums – to pursue a solo career.

Furey didn’t make either decision lightly, nor has he regretted them. And the result has been a decades-long odyssey that has taken him almost literally all over the world, forming cherished friendships and collaborations along the way, and affirming himself as one of the most beloved, and unique, figures in Irish music – a master of the uilleann pipes who can play a guitar and belt out a Johnny Cash song, or pick up a banjo to accompany one of his own compositions, without batting an eye. Oh, and by the way, he has also developed a side venture of sorts in film, having made appearances in Martin Scorcese’s “Gangs of New York” and Michael Mahon’s “Strength and Honour,” among others, and contributed the score to the forthcoming “Occurrence at Wild Goose Lodge,” which revolves around the 19th-century secret society called The Ribbonmen of County Louth.

Recently, Furey’s travels took him to Somerville, where he performed at The Burren “Backroom” series. Sitting outside The Burren on a warm late-summer afternoon, greeted continually by friends, acquaintances, and fans arriving for his show, Furey is reflecting on his long-running journey and the people who have enlivened it, with the contented air of someone who has earned the right to wax philosophically.

“What would I be doing if not for music? I’d probably be an attorney in Washington, having a go against Donald Trump for president,” he quips in a deep, gravely voice, redolent of his Dublin upbringing. “I don’t really know. What I do know is, Monday I fly back home to Ireland, and we’ll see what happens then. God is good – you don’t know where he’ll put his hand next. One thing I’m sure of is that I still love playing the music. That’s why I still do it. I just love the music.”

It would’ve been more surprising if Furey didn’t love the music, since it was practically inscribed in the family DNA: After his fiddle-playing father Ted, from Salthill, went to the famous Puck Fair and heard Nora Connelly, a daughter of a travelling family from Kilfenora, play the banjo, he waited all of four days to ask her to marry him.

Ted set Finbar on the uilleann pipes at a young age; an All-Star cast of visiting pipers, like Willie Clancy, Felix Doran, Seamus Ennis and Leo Rowsome, would lend their expertise and guidance to Finbar. By the time he hit his teens, Furey had won a bushel of honors, including three All-Ireland titles. He had also left school, at his father’s direction, to go and busk out on the road with the family.

“Dad didn’t play the pipes, but he was important to me, musically,” says Furey. “He would just listen to me, and if I needed something, I knew I could ask him.”

Furey came of age in the late 1960s, when Irish music was in a transition period of sorts: The ballad bands, like the Clancys, Dubliners, and Irish Rovers, had made a big impression in Ireland, the US and elsewhere, but people such as Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, Mick Moloney, Johnny Moynihan, and Micheál Ó Dhomhnaill and sister Triona were beginning to create a new sound – mining deeper veins of the Irish tradition and bringing in contemporary styles and attitudes – that would dramatically transform Irish music when the 1970s rolled around. Furey, a young man playing one of Ireland’s most iconic instruments, was a perfect fit for this vanguard.

Yet Furey’s step out onto the big stage came first with the Clancys, when he and brother Eddie were invited to join the group in the wake of Tommy Makem’s departure in 1969. The two Fureys had by then recorded three LPs of traditional and contemporary material – including Finbar’s haunting air “The Lonesome Boatman,” a signature piece – and Finbar an album of piping music with Eddie as accompanist on guitar and bodhran. “It was a huge decision,” recalls Furey, who had only recently married Sheila by then. “We’d just broken into the university circuit, the coffeehouses, and the Clancys just wanted me – but I wouldn’t move without Eddie. So they brought him in as well, and off we went, and didn’t we raise the roof. The Clancys were great, though, such wonderful ambassadors for the music, for Ireland. They taught us a lot about ourselves, about our Irish heritage.”

Finbar and Eddie also learned a lot about show business, playing throughout Europe, America and elsewhere in front of crowds numbering in the thousands instead of the hundreds, performing on TV and appearing on two Clancys recordings. But after about a year, Finbar says, “it just got too big for me.”

And more to the point, “I just felt we weren’t finished with Ireland,” Furey adds, “so I said, ‘Eddie, let’s go back.’” (Furey says he also thinks the clamor and attention he and Eddie had received playing with the Clancys would have likely turned them “into spoiled brats.”) The brothers resumed working as a duo, during which time they recorded a cover of “Her Father Didn’t Like Me Anyway,” given to them by Scottish songwriter Gerry Rafferty (later known for his hit single “Baker Street”) and began to draw wider attention among the music media and public.

Meanwhile, the other Furey brothers were pursuing musical careers that gradually intersected with that of Finbar and Eddie: Paul had begun playing in a band called The Buskers, whose members also included Davey Arthur; George, who had been touring with Ted, eventually joined them. Then in 1976, Finbar, Eddie, and Paul teamed up with Arthur to form Tam Linn, and after adding George, changed the name to The Furey Brothers and Davey Arthur (later shortened to The Fureys and Davey Arthur).

The next two decades saw the band flourish, their mix of instrumental pieces – led by Finbar’s pipes and whistle and Paul’s accordion – with traditional and contemporary songs, spanning the emotional and tonal spectrum, from unabashedly sentimental to stridently topical to full-throttle up-tempo.

They helped popularize such relatively unknown compositions as Ralph McTell’s “Clare to Here,” Bill Caddick’s “John of Dreams,” and a soft-spoken but stirring anti-war song by Eric Bogle originally titled “No Man’s Land” but – as covered by the Fureys and Arthur – better known as “The Green Fields of France,” which spent more than half a year in the Irish charts, reaching number one (it’s reputed to be Tony Blair’s favorite peace song). In 1981, the band had arguably their biggest hit with the 19th-century vaudeville standard “When You Were Sweet Sixteen,” which hit number one in Ireland and the top 15 in Australia and the UK; “Golden Days,” the album on which the single appeared, was in the UK’s top 20.

The band traveled far and wide, including to distant places like Australia and New Zealand (“the pinnacle,” says Furey), and kept turning out generally well-received albums; Finbar also managed to put out a solo effort, “Love Letters,” with his renditions of contemporary/popular love songs by the likes of Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Phil Lynott, Jim Croce, and Elvis Presley, as well as one written by his son Martin. As the 1990s unfolded, though, Arthur left the band and Furey began to take stock. He’d been writing songs for years, and thought that perhaps the time had come to devote more attention to that part of his craft, and to work with different musicians.

So in 1994, Finbar played his last gig – in New Haven, Conn. – with the band. “I wanted to go home,” he explains. “I just felt I’d come about as far as I could. So I went home and went fishing, took a year off to get my head together.”

There was no animosity between him and his brothers about his decision to leave, Furey says: “I was more worried about whether they’d be OK without me, but I knew they’d do fine, really, and they have. We meet up now and then, and there’s always laughter between us, and then we have to hold back the tears. The boys are very happy where they are, and I’m glad for them.
“I’m the most unpredictable human being you will ever meet – I’m terrible. The boys would always say, ‘Don’t predict where Finbar’s going to go, because he just doesn’t go there. You don’t know. Just wait.’ But I enjoy it; I haven’t missed yet. You reach for space, you know? Sometimes you get there, and sometimes you don’t, but when you do, oh, it’s fantastic.”

A lot of it has been fantastic, certainly. He has continued to record, whether on his own or as a guest – he joined Mary Black for her cover of his own “Walking with My Love” on her “Stories from the Steeple” album – and even got a number one hit, with Gerry Fleming’s “The Last Great Love Song,” through his participation in an Irish reality TV series. His travels have taken him to, among other places, South Africa, where he sang with a Soweto choir. His foray into films and TV has clearly been satisfying and rejuvenating. He’s also watched his children make their own way into music, especially Martin, now a member of The High Kings – his daughter Aine teamed with Martin in the band Bohinta and put out her own album, but ultimately decided to go into a different profession.

There have been tough times, too. Brother Paul died in 2002, and in the aftermath of that loss and others close to his heart, Furey went through a period when his creativity was at low ebb. He also endured some physical problems that curtailed the amount of time he could perform on the pipes – and new restrictions on traveling with instruments containing ivory have led him to decide against taking his pipes to the US from now on.

But on this day, certainly, Furey is not one to wallow. There is far more to be optimistic about, especially the outlook for Irish music – he’s particularly enthused about the young County Clare trio Socks in the Frying Pan, and the Donegal-based pop/Celtic rockers The Screaming Orphans (“What a great name!”), both of whom he recently appeared with during his US tour. “Entirely too much fun for an old fella,” he says. “But it’s great to see the music like that. Makes me wish I was 20, 22 years old again.”

Whether it’s meeting the younger musicians, like Socks in the Frying Pan or The Screaming Orphans, or those of his age or older, Furey says he’s constantly reminded that – whatever his accomplishments – he’s a link in an incredibly long chain.

“Every night I go on stage, I think ‘This music is bigger than me.’ I don’t think of myself as an Irish traditional musician, even though people might call me that. I mean, you have to be dead 50 years before you’re a traditional musician. You think of great musicians, like a Willie Clancy, and how they learned what they did, and others learned from them. It’s like a big well we’re all dipping into, you know what I mean? And it’ll never dry up as long as there are brilliant young musicians around. I think some of us, we’re like old warriors sitting around the fire, sending out the young braves.

“All great heritage music – from Ireland, or from Native Americans, or from the Maori or from the aborigines in Australia – has that wheel, like a hub. We all got it around 50,000 years ago, and no one knows where it came from. I remember talking with a friend of mine one night on a bridge in Melbourne about heritage, and he asks me, ‘Where did you get this?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know,’ and he says, ‘There’s 12,000 miles between us and we still have the same groove, the same heart.’”

At that night’s concert, the packed-to-the-rafter Backroom is in the same groove, the same heart with Furey, as he and his accompanist, string bassist Paul O’Driscoll, take a leisurely stroll through his repertoire, beginning with “The Lonesome Boatman.” At one point, he starts up “Walking with My Love”:

And her laughter fills the evening air
I smile at her just strolling there
No need to hurry no not a care
Arriving at the chorus, he lets the crowd take over, while he continues softly strumming his guitar and smiling as much to himself as anyone else:
When I’m walking with me darlin’
When I’m walking with me love
With my love
The song ends, the crowd applauds with gusto, and Furey looks like he could do this all night. Again and again.