Tír na nÓg is a phrase from Gaelic mythology which translates into ‘land of eternal youth’. Tír na nÓg is also the name that Sonny Condell and Leo O’Kelly adopted when their musical paths fortuitously crossed in 1969. The resulting mix was a magical potion of rich and varied sounds and idioms that was unique and completely different to anything else on the music scene at the time.
In May, 1970, Sonny and Leo, as Tír na nÓg, arrived in London with £30 each in their pockets, which they estimated would last them for a month. The next part of the story is the most crucial for, without the next sequence of events in such a concentrated amount of time, there possibly would not have been the legendary Tír na nÓg.
Having arrived in the capital during a Saturday morning, they headed for Petticoat Lane to meet up at The Bell public house with some school friends of Leo’s. Not only were they to talk of old times but it just so happened that the pub offered them a Saturday and Sunday residency. Their guitars and heavy suitcases had obviously caught the attention. Leo and Sonny had been in the right place at the right time.
Tír na nÓg immediately started playing the folk clubs in London where they built up a very strong following with their timeless songs, close harmonies and engaging, between-song, banter whilst Chrysalis organised the bigger concert and college tours around Britain and abroad. By October they were playing The Royal Albert Hall with Jethro Tull as part of a British and European tour. Over the ensuing years, as well as headlining Tír na nÓg gigs (with some interesting support acts including Richard and Linda Thompson, Supertramp, and Jasper Carrott!), the pair found themselves gigging with some of their own heroes – Procul Harum, The Who, Cat Stevens, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Elton John, The Velvet Underground and Hawkwind, to mention a very few. At one point Al Stewart, though quite a star himself, applied to join the band!
Committing their songs to vinyl led to the single ‘I Am Happy To Be On This Mountain’ being released, and it reached the lower strata of the charts. ‘Our Love Will Not Decay’ appeared on the 1971 Island sampler, ‘El Pea’. This double album featured Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, Nick Drake, ELP, Traffic, The Incredible String Band, Jimmy Cliff, Mountain, Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny...and many others.
A few months later Tír na nÓg released their first album – namely ‘Tír na nÓg ’. This was recorded at Livingstone Studios in Barnet and was produced by the legendary folk producer, Bill Leader. Tír na nÓg songs were now available to the masses! The vocals, interweaving with the intricate dovetailing of guitars, conjured rich and varied tapestries of sounds that joyfully surprised the discerning music fans of the early 70s. Rhythmic compositions, sometimes supported with African drums, at one end of the musical spectrum contrasted with the slower ballads at the other end. Leo and Sonny were adept at writing unique songs that many found difficult to categorise but found refreshing to hear.
After a sustained period of gigging, Leo and Sonny were ready to commit a new batch of songs to vinyl. The recording of these songs took place in Willesden at Morgan Studios, where three recording studios occupied two corners of a small street. They arrived in the customary white transit van, driven by Ian, their roadie and, to their amazement, Paul McCartney walked across the road (‘Abbey Road style’ as Leo recollects) directly in front of their parked van! This was a good sign! Paul was in the process of recording with Wings at the very same studios.
Morgan Studios had its very own small, but plush, café where the artistes ate lunch at the same time each day – the area of Willesden, in those days, had very little to offer, food-wise, and anyway it was more convenient and opportune to share the confines of the café space with the likes of Paul and Linda McCartney, Denny Laine, Rod Stewart and Cat Stevens. Cat was recording ‘Catch Bull at Four’ and Leo and Sonny, having recently toured with him, used their lunchtimes to chat and compare notes. During the recording of this second album Billy J. Kramer arrived, unannounced, in the control room and was introduced to them. Leo, being a big fan, was absolutely thrilled.
Eventually, the songs were all completed, with help from Larry Steele and Barry de Souza on additional instruments, and ‘A Tear and a Smile’ was released in 1972. This collection of ten songs enhanced their growing reputation and, as with the first album, they were individually written by Leo and Sonny but delivered in unison as Tír na nÓg.
Their third album, ‘Strong in the Sun’, was released in late 1973. Over half of the tracks incorporated a range of musicians on bass and drums with Matthew Fisher (producing the album) providing keyboards. This, in many places, produced a different sounding album to the previous two. Fisher gave a bit of a more clearly-defined shape and a greater depth to their sound, neatly framing the duo’s contrasting vocal styles. Their cover of Nick Drake’s ‘Free Ride’, a more upbeat version than the original, opened the album with great tempo. This mood was replicated by ‘Whitestone Bridge’, ‘Cinema’, the title track ‘Strong in the Sun’, ‘Love Lost’ and ‘Magical’. In particular ‘Cinema’ used samples from a Henry Fonda movie – one of the earliest examples of sampling. The other four songs, ‘Teesside’, ‘The Wind was High’, ‘In the Morning’ and ‘Love Lost’ retained the melodic balladry and the overall production displayed their evolving musicianship.
After a punishing schedule of live appearances, together with an indifference shown by their record company, Chrysalis, the duo returned to Ireland and went their separate ways …..
….. for a few years,
Although Tír na nÓg were no more, Leo and Sonny were invited by the BBC to compose a set of songs for a documentary series. The year was 1974 and the programme, ‘The Camera and the Song’, produced by John Bird and Tony Broughton, was aired. It portrayed Irish life and culture through images and song and a compilation LP, based on the series, was released the following year.
Leo then worked as a house producer for EMI Ireland and Polydor Records as well as producing albums for other Irish artists. He also continued to perform, but now as a solo artist or with his long time friend, bassist Garvan Gallagher. During the latter part of that decade, and into the next, he lived and worked abroad, basing himself in Amsterdam and London. During the first decade of the new millennium Leo released three solo albums – ‘Glare’, ‘Proto’ and ‘Will’ and continues, to this day, to gig with Garvan.
During the same period, Sonny started his solo career, as well as forming a four-piece band, Scullion, with his friend Philip King. Solo albums ('Camouflage’, ‘Someone to Dance With’, ‘French Windows’ and ‘Backwater Awhile’) and Scullion albums followed over the ensuing years all the way to the present time. Scullion are, at present, a three-piece band (Condell, King and Robbie Overson). Sonny also continues with his solo projects.
Amidst these three and a half decades of Leo’s and Sonny’s separate ventures, Tír na nÓg did in fact reform!
The lure was too great, and a phone call from Martyn Hasbeen (of Dr Hasbeen and also organiser of festivals) resulted in an appearance in 2010 at the Sonic Rock Solstice in Builth Wells, Wales. Two other gigs, in Coventry and London, were arranged and Leo and Sonny were back!
Since then they've returned many times throughout 2011, 2012 and 2103 with more appearances to come in 2014. Festivals, as well as gigs, are now fully on the agenda across England, Wales and Ireland (and hopefully Scotland, one day!). Tír na nÓg fans are enthusiastically welcoming the resurgence. Many people are revelling in the opportunities to see the duo perform all the favourite songs from the early days, together with the later songs that make up the ever-changing random set list.
The three albums, ‘ Tír na nÓg’, ‘A Tear and a Smile’ and ‘Strong in the Sun’ were remastered and released in October 2012 by Cherry Red Records. These three reissues contain all the singles as bonus tracks.
Forty years on, Tír na nÓg are as much in the spotlight as before. Their songs do not age – they are timeless. Tír na nÓg truly reflect the ‘land of eternal youth’.
In 2014 a limited edition vinyl EP, 'I have Known Love', was produced. In 2015, 'The Dark Dance', their first studio album since 1973 was released and 'Live at the Half Moon' followed in 2016.