By John O’Brien, Jr
Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones Set to Perform at Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival and Milwaukee Irish Fest
Derek Warfield has spent more than sixty years entertaining audiences with Irish music, releasing 13 best-selling albums, traversing the globe to perform at venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall, and playing for countless dignitaries like Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Enda Kenny. He was featured in the centenary commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising at the General Post Office in O’Connell Street Dublin, at the exact time that Padraig Pearse delivered the Irish proclamation one hundred years prior. He has been honored as the New York Society Dublin Man of The Year and the Ancient Order of Hibernians Spirit of Freedom Award winner, and he has been presented with the keys to the cities of San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles.
And yet, for all of these accomplishments, ask Warfield about his legacy, and he will not mention any of these honors.
“My greatest legacy is carrying on the tradition, paying tribute to the heritage and tradition of Irish music that had been denied our ancestors for so long,” Warfield remarked in a recent interview in advance of his upcoming performances – with his band Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones – at Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival and Milwaukee Irish Fest.
To appreciate the heights that Warfield has scaled and the staying power of his music, one must first go back to the Dublin suburb of Inchicore in the mid-twentieth century. Growing up in humble circumstances, Warfield began working at the age of 14 and was largely educated by his parents and grandparents at home.
He gained fame as a member of the Wolfe Tones – the band that formed in 1963 and drew its name from Irish revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone – playing songs harkening back to revolutionary themes and Irish traditional music. As he toured with the Wolfe Tones throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Warfield noticed that the appreciation for Irish music was not limited to people living in Ireland.
“When I went abroad, I found that it’s an even deeper value for the songs and music in places like America, Canada, and Australia,” said Warfield. “These were families that, although they left Ireland, they brought the music with them, which enriched the communities they lived. That was striking revelation to me. I really didn’t expect such a warm reception.”
In 2001, Warfield left the Wolfe Tones and eventually started Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones, with a mission to “bring the old tradition of Irish balladry into a new age.” The band has released a number of albums, including last year’s “Let the Free Birds Fly,” and gained additional recognition through the aforementioned appearances in Washington, DC for the 2015 Friends of Ireland Speaker John Boehner St Patrick’s Day Luncheon and in Dublin for the 2016 centenary commemorations. They have toured Ireland extensively, including a busy summer tour this year, and continued Warfield’s globetrotting, highlighted by appearances at Irish festivals in North America and sold-out engagements in Australia.
About the Band
In explaining the success of the Young Wolfe Tones, Warfield is quick to praise the talent and dedication of his band members, and he relishes his role of bringing in their talents to create the unique sound of their music. He calls Damaris Woods, who plays banjo, the “best banjo player and artistic banjo player in the world today.” A resident of County Meath, Woods has gained critical acclaim wherever she has played and released a solo album of her own – “With A Banjo On My Knee” – which featured collaborations with Warfield and several other musicians. She also passes on her talents as a music teacher and organizer of the popular Ag Seinm Traditional Arts Camp, held annually in County Cavan.
Andreas Durkin hails from County Cavan and serves as keyboardist and vocalist for the band. He has performed as a soloist and alongside his mother, Irish country singer Kathy Durkin, and as part of his own band Cheap Whiskey. He has recorded two albums and is well known for his hit song “The Cowboy Rides Away.”
Vocalist Cormac McGuinness, from Tallaght in County Dublin, developed a love of music from his grandfather Paddy Doyle, and has toured the world as a solo artist and with the band. Warfield calls him the “festivous” of the band and credits McGuinness’s sense of humor as bringing a sprit of laughter to the group and anyone who meets him.
The youngest member of the band is Eddie Kane from County Kildare, another vocalist who also plays guitar. Kane’s mother played in a traditional Irish music band with her siblings, and he has performed with a number of other Irish singers who he had counted as influences of his musical passions.
Next Stops: Cleveland and Milwaukee
This summer, Warfield is excited to return to the Midwest to perform with the band at the Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival, which is taking place in July after a three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Milwaukee Irish Fest, billed as the world’s largest celebration of Celtic music and culture, in August.
“Travel is the difficult part,” Warfield acknowledged, “but the performance is the fun part. It’s hard work, but it doesn’t feel like work. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do it for a long time, and I’m always excited to perform in front of Irish communities across America and the rest of the world.”
Audiences will recognize many of the classic Irish revolutionary songs on the set lists of these performances, but as Warfield noted, “Many in the crowds do not know the reason why these songs became popular. I try to explain that in the show and communicate directly with the audience.”
This is what makes Warfield such an exceptional artist. His music not only entertains, but commemorates Irish patriotism through song.
“Other nations could express their patriotism through great institutions or memorials” Warfield explained. “We could never do that. Our monuments are in our music, in our songs. That reveals the power of our music. I have a wonderful band and we are able to bring the music and song to their highest perfection.”
Honoring the Past, Teaching the Next Generation
Looking back on his illustrious career, Warfield takes pride that he has been able to carry on the tradition of bringing Irish music to communities around the globe, acknowledging that he has followed in the footsteps of legendary musicians like John McCormack and the Clancy Brothers, among others, who had helped to create the audiences that have welcomed Warfield for so many years.
Through the medium of song, Warfield has merged this commemoration of Irish patriotism and history with the opportunity to share this tradition with younger generations.
Warfield summed up his view of his legacy most clearly by quoting Thomas Davis, the noted Irish writer who penned the song “A Nation Once Again” before his untimely death at the age of 30 in 1845. Davis wrote:
“There’s no part of our heritage that can boast of higher claims or greater influencers than our songs and music.”
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*John is a Founder and the Publisher and Editor of iIrish, an archivist, spokesman, emcee, Spoken Word presenter and author of five books, so far.