The tiny room is filled with rollicking Irish music as frontman Ralph O’Brien and company take the stage on a beautiful fall night in October 2012, the last weekend of performances at the legendary Erin’s Pub on Water Street in the heart of downtown St. John’s. Glasses laden with Guinness or other libations of choice clink, and voices of audience members join in familiar choruses of songs old and new. Stories are shared, hearty laughs are heard and countless well wishes are extended to Ralph upon his retirement from the pub business, after more than 25 years at the helm of the most famous Irish bar in the province - a spot where many of today’s most popular local musicians got their start. And while Ralph might have retired from being a publican house proprietor in 2012, he in no way stopped making music. And this month, his band, Sons of Erin, celebrates its 50th anniversary of making music and memories in Newfoundland and Labrador and beyond.
I recently caught up with Ralph at his home in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s. At 77, he is still spry and full of enthusiasm for new projects, including the Sons of Erin 50th Anniversary Concert happening at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre on September 20. As we sift through countless posters, newspaper clippings, press photos, album sleeves, ticket stubs and other memorabilia from Ralph’s extensive personal collection, he says with a smile, “It’s hard to know where to begin. There are so many great memories and stories over 50 years, and so many wonderful people we performed with in so many places. “ He adds, “The fans were great wherever we toured...”
Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Ralph came to Canada in 1967, eventually ending up in Newfoundland where his lifelong love of music - combined with a people who appreciated it - soon saw him shift gears. The following year, Sons of Erin (“Erin” meaning Ireland) was born. The band’s original members - Ralph plus Fergus O’Byrne, Gary Kavanagh and the late, great Dermot O’Reilly - were all natives of Dublin.
“Newfoundland is my home now, and I love it here. The people are amazing and basically adopted us, and they really know and appreciate the music. They are tremendous fans and we always got our energy for the live shows from the audiences wherever we went,” says Ralph - and they went all over.
In the ensuing decades the band toured Canada, the United States and back to their roots in Ireland. After years of touring, by 1986 the Sons of Erin had found a place to call home. That year Ralph bought Erin’s Pub, which became the band’s home stage and a place for burgeoning musicians to grow and flourish.
Sons of Erin soon became a household name in Newfoundland and Labrador, especially when they starred for a time in their own musical variety show. Broadcast on NTV in the 1980s, “The Sons of Erin” featured their own performances, plus appearances by countless special guests - everyone from acclaimed accordionist Harry Hibbs to former premier Joey Smallwood.
Music & Memories
While the iconic band has stayed true to its musical roots over the last half-century, it’s evolved, too. When asked exactly how many members have been in the band over the years, Ralph breaks into a broad grin. “I wouldn’t even be able to hazard a guess,” he says. “We have been really fortunate to have so many excellent musicians play with us over the years, and we enjoyed them all and made great friendships that lasted a lifetime. Of course, over all that time people come and go on to new locations or careers or form bands of their own, but that is a normal part of it all.”
Alumni of Sons of Erin have gone on to perform in bands such as Ryan’s Fancy, Sullivan’s Gypsies and The Irish Descendants, each prolific in their own right.
Musician D’Arcy Broderick well recalls how his journey with Sons of Erin began. “Back in 1982, I got up on the stage at a show in Old Perlican and did a set on the fiddle with the Sons, and Ralph offered me a position. Being an 18-year-old musician at the time and a huge fan of the Sons of Erin, they were like The Beatles to me,” remembers D’Arcy. Before long, he was touring with his idols from coast to coast of the United States.
“It was too surreal. I remember Ralph had amazing connections. We would go into Burbank at Paramount Pictures and places like that, and we’d have dinner and outings with the current TV and film stars at the time - like folks from ‘Happy Days’ and ‘Hill Street Blues’ and ‘Murphy Brown’ and ‘Laverne and Shirley’ and you name it, Ralph knew them somehow. When I came home I wouldn’t talk about it because I was afraid people would say, ‘You made it up.’ The memories were amazing,” says D’Arcy, adding he has a deep respect for Ralph. “I owe him a lot over my own 36 years in the music industry. The Sons opened a lot of doors.”
Following his stint with the Sons, D’Arcy went on to perform with iconic Irish-Newfoundland bands The Irish Descendants and The Fables.
Chris Andrews, frontman for Shanneyganock, also has high praise for Ralph and his influence on the local music scene.
“Ralph is like Dad No. 2 to me and, like so many people coming up through the music industry, I have tremendous respect for him and the Sons of Erin. The doors they opened up for other people like me to follow over their 50 years are amazing,” he says. Years ago, while working as a doorman at Erin’s Pub, Ralph often got Chris up on stage singing. For Chris, it was a safe place to perform while building his skills - opportunities, he says, that made all the difference to his burgeoning career.
Another opportunity given Chris on that same stage turned out to be a very fortunate fluke.
“Myself and my musical partner of the last 25 years, Mark Hiscock, were double booked to play solo acts at Erin’s Pub. We didn’t even know each other, and instead of sending one of us home, Ralph put the two of us together on stage at the same time. We have been together ever since as Shanneyganock, so it worked out pretty well.”
Chris’s early experiences at Erin’s Pub have come full circle. Shortly after Ralph retired as owner of the pub, Chris (along with Bob Hallett of Great Big Sea fame) reopened the band’s iconic venue. “Erin’s Pub always was a landmark institution that was totally music-driven, which I really loved,” says Chris, adding that he aims to maintain the rich musical culture Ralph honed in the legendary space.
Sons of Today
Alongside Ralph, the current Sons of Erin lineup includes Joe Tompkins, John Barela, Steve Best and Jason Simms. One of the youngest in a long line of Sons, Jason can’t recall exactly what he said when he was invited to join the band back in 1994.
“What I can recall is feeling the weight of the band’s history and tradition, and how I would be a part of it. Self-reflection told me…you’re not ready…it’s too soon, but supportive family and friends said, ‘You can do it. Make your own mark on this band,’” he says. Reflecting on the band’s influence, he compares it to “a tree which grew to lay seed to legendary bands like Ryan’s Fancy and The Irish Descendants. What if those lads
hadn’t found time to get together? I shudder [at] the thought…Ralph has been the captain, no question, but like all great captains he has been a steady hand on the wheel, always on the lookout for new talent, understanding when members were ready to move on there would be others ready to join.”
As their 50th anniversary year unfolds, a documentary-style short film about the band is in the works, produced by CBC. And preparations for the concert are underway. During the show, Sons of Erin, plus special guests (including former band members) will perform.
“They were great people to travel with, to play with...I was so happy to get the chance and it served me so well in my own career,” says D’Arcy. “Fifty years in traditional music is incredible, and the love that Ralph has for the music, even today, is unbelievable.”
Chris echoes those sentiments. “Ralph is a special person...We are very lucky to have had him so long, and he continues to make great music today.”
And, as it should, the last word goes to Ralph himself, who says: “You know, it has all been the greatest of joy. I loved Newfoundland, the people, all those we played with and met wherever we travelled, and the music most of all. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
-by Dennis Flynn