"They Can Get Tired Of Records"
Rory Gallagher and his legendary Belfast shows during the Troubles
Mention the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and you will elicit a wide range of strong emotions. Growing up in Scotland, I can recall being scared and confused by the regular reports on it from a very early age, the horror remaining with me as I came to understand what the Troubles were. As a teenager, we had a short holiday in Ireland, which involved catching the ferry to Belfast. Things were supposed to be more settled at that point, with the Good Friday Agreement being on the cards, but I was unsettled at the sight of armed soldiers walking about when we drove from the ferry terminal. However, that is of course small fry next to living through it.
The Troubles started in 1969. I don’t intend to go into the details of events here. Northern Ireland was considered extremely dangerous – not a place where people went willingly, including the popular bands and solo artists of the day. None of them would play in Belfast. That said, it didn’t stop one man from thinking that despite the deadly strife going on around them, the younger generation still needed musical entertainment to take their minds off it. That man was Rory Gallagher.
Born in 1948 in Ballyshannon, a town in the Republic of Ireland, on the border with Northern Ireland, Rory was already something of a hero as the first Irish person to crack a hole in the international music scene with his incredible abilities as a guitarist and songwriter. From his early teenage days with the showband The Fontana/Impact, followed by his trio Taste and subsequently as a solo artist, Rory tore his way across Europe and America in a seemingly endless tour of legendary, energetic concerts that left the audiences both exhausted, mind blown and desperate for more. By the early 1970s, he was one of the hottest musicians around.
He also felt an affinity to Belfast. Personally, he already had strong ties to Derry, where his father came from, and where Rory had spent part of his childhood before his family moved down to Cork, the hometown of his mother. It was during his time in Derry that Rory developed his love of blues, catching radio broadcasts on the American Forces Network. During the early phase of Taste, Rory had moved to Belfast for a time due to the local blues scene and he quickly became something of a local music treasure. He had a strong soft spot for the city – a city that went from having of the liveliest music scenes on Irish soil to having no live music at all in less than five years.
Roy Hollingworth, a veteran music journalist, and friend of Rory joined the Rory Gallagher Band in Belfast over the New Year period of 1971/2, detailing the trip in an article published in Melody Maker on January 8, 1972. The article is a no holds barred account that highlights the situation of a city filled with youngsters starved of live music due to conflict and the impact Rory’s show at the Ulster Hall on January 1, 1972,
Belfast’s renowned promoter, Jim Aiken said Hollingworth, “Nobody will come now, it’s impossible. There’s only Gallagher here who’ll do it.”
Rory himself says in the same article, “I don't see any reason for not playing Belfast. Kids still live here. They can get tired of records.”
Rory had a point there. During this visit to Belfast, Take One, an underground paper published this:
“Rory Gallagher has once again returned to Belfast, at least he came, and for that we must thank him. Belfast has now become a graveyard for music. Concerts and big groups are a thing of the past…We want action now, for too long the groups in England haven’t given music where it can give the most help. Lennon tells us to give peace a chance, but has he visited us? All we want John, baby, is the truth. Perhaps he is furthering the peace movements somewhere in Hyde Park. Perhaps the groups don’t want to make any sacrifices, maybe they are afraid, maybe they cannot stir themselves to help the people who need it most, who have no power to speak of.”
Putting it mildly, Belfast was indeed a place in need of the healing power of music.
The main show of this particular time for Rory was the Ulster Hall, on a street nicknamed ‘Bomb Alley’. However, the night before, chiming in the New Year, Rory also played the student union and Queen’s University, as a series of bombs went off in the streets around. He kept on playing and the audience continued to party.
The show the next day at the Ulster Hall was nothing short of incredible. Rory and his bandmates, bassist Gerry McAvoy and drummer Wilgar Campbell played a searing set that had the audience in raptures. Hollingworth wrote, “Nobody wanted it to end. There are tears in the eyes of some kids, not just girls flipped on Rory, but guys as well. There's the best audience in the World in Belfast. The whole point of entertaining PEOPLE reaches a very valid level.”
That New Year visit to Belfast in 1971/2 was just one of many dates Rory played at the height of the Troubles. He would play many, many more over the ensuing years, to the great delight of his fans, braving the dangers. Needless to say, he has now hit legendary status as a result and there is to be a statue of him sited outside the Ulster Hall.
Rory’s shows at the Ulster Hall were very different from the norm there, where the Rev Ian Paisley would hold regular sermons. In fact, the dressing room was preserved for him alone and locked to anyone else taking part in anything at the Ulster Hall. In contrast, Rory’s audiences during his Ulster Hall shows came from both sides of the divide that made up the conflict, “Rory was accepted by all sides. I wouldn’t say he was untouchable but there was an element of that. Particularly at Ulster Hall.” Dónal Gallagher, Rory’s brother and manager once said.
However, that doesn’t mean to say Rory wasn’t at risk playing Belfast in those days. If anything, the danger may have just been around the corner. Dónal had been informed that Rory was potentially a kidnap target, kidnappings being extremely common during the Troubles. This was at the forefront of Dónal’s mind one night very early in January 1975 after Rory had wrapped up his usual festive season run of shows when the Gallagher home in Cork received a late-night phone call after Rory had gone to bed. It was unusual to get calls at that time of night unless it was something serious, so when a voice asked at the other end of the line if this was the phone number for Rory Gallagher, Dónal was cautious. It, however, turned out to be Ian Stewart calling to see if Rory would be interested to join the Rolling Stones for a few days in the studio after guitarist Mick Taylor walked out.
Frankly, you can’t write about the dangers facing musicians playing in Northern Ireland at the time without mentioning the horrific event of July 31, 1975, when the Miami Showband was massacred just outside Newry less than an hour after finishing a successful show. The band is thought to have been killed by loyalist forces. Rory knew those who were murdered and offered to play a benefit for the dependents of the murdered musicians.
The fact that Rory, and his bandmates, were willing to run the risks involved in order to keep playing for the Belfast audiences says a lot about the strength of the character of both him and his musicians, as well as contributing something towards a salve upon the conflict.
Jean-Noël Coghe, Rory’s biographer wrote, “The young people who made up Rory’s fan base were part of a generation who today are striving towards peace. They were united at his concerts, brought together by music, the true standard of peace. In 1998, John Hume and David Trimble were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their part in the peace process. Rory was among those who brought about such a revolution, the birth of the peace movement. His role in this movement was significant and should not be ignored.”
Rory Gallagher: A Biography, Jean-Noël Coghe, Mercier Press, 2002
Rory Gallagher: His Life and Times, Marcus Connaughtan, The Collins Press 2012
Cork Rock: From Rory Gallagher to the Sultans of Ping, Mark McAvoy, Mercier Lifestyle, 2009
I, Sideman: The Story of Me, in the 60s and 70s, Jackie MacAuley, Independent, 2017
Does Belfast Remember Rory Gallagher? Shadow Plays Blog, 17 March 2009
Dónal Gallagher Eon Music June 2020
Music For Belfast by Roy Hollingworth Melody Maker Jan 8 1972
Rory Gallagher 25th Anniversary interview with Dónal Gallagher Classic Rock Radio 14 June 2020
The Irish Rock Story: A Tale of Two Cities (2015)
Rory Gallagher – Irish Tour (1974)