The Pogues set the precedent in the 1980s: Irish trad can go gritty. Since then, a number of bands have followed in their footsteps, breaking through the boundaries of what Irish music looks and sounds like. The latest to try their arm at a Pogues-like musical shake-up is Na Fianna, a four-man Irish folk-rock group with big sounds and bold ambition. With a recent debut album launch and the Rose of Tralee performance under their belt, Na Fianna is now coming stateside to rock with Irish America.
I met Na Fianna at Dublin’s Opium Rooms for the launch of their debut album, “Unearthed.” The rooms were packed and the buzz was infectious. It was clear by the sheer attendance alone that Na Fianna had been making a name for themselves at home. When I met band members Ciaran Finn, Hugh Finn, James O’Connor, and Peter McMahon, they seemed unfazed by the crowds outside. For a band that got together just a little over a year ago, this was pretty impressive.
Na Fianna officially formed at the Willie Clancy Festival in Clare, but they had already known each other from various festivals throughout the years, and from family ties as well. Two of the four, Ciaran and Hugh, are brothers, and James and Peter are cousins. The four musicians really came into their own in the Dublin Mountains, where they practiced together and began to, as Ciaran cleverly termed the metaphor, “unearth” their album and sound. That sound has been positively received so far. The release of the band’s first single, “Toora Loora Lay,” a young, fresh, more hardcore version of the original folk song, earned them 30,000 hits in three weeks. Their other singles continue to climb in number of views on YouTube. They’ve earned fans in person and online as well, with a number of Twitter and Facebook fan bases abroad and at home.
The lads project a quintessential rock machismo. When I asked them about their musical backgrounds, for instance, James interrupted me before I finished the question: “I wouldn’t define us as trad.” Message received. Na Fianna doesn’t want a typical folk band identity. Their aim is for a more edgy, challenging, and rock-grunge persona. Ciaran then elaborated on the band’s versatile interests for me, listing inspirations from Nirvana to Bob Dylan, from sea shanties and folk and blues, even to Green Day. He portrayed the band as equal parts hard rock and folk. Their album contains that same duality, as his brother Hugh explained: “Unearthed” covers three or four traditional folk songs, such as “Star of the County Down,” “Step It Out Mary,” and “Rocket to the Moon,” while the rest are originals, co-written between the four bandmates with singer-songwriter Don Mescall. As Ciaran recalled, the album wasn’t planned and preconceived 15 months ago at the band’s conception. Rather, as time passed and as the four musicians built their sound, as they let it move, the album naturally arrived in the process. And when it did, as Ciaran poetically said, “[Na Fianna] was there below the earth.”
While I can’t say I was thrilled by a couple moments of projected rock machismo, I was happily surprised by Na Fianna’s performance. The four men and their support team know how to entertain. The show included the dramatics of backing musicians and vivid stage effects to get the crowds excited and involved. In the four men’s stage presence, I witnessed the identity they had previously laid out for me. They were two bands, two genres, two kinds of energy, at once: hard rock band and Irish folk band. I appreciated their zealous, fiery takes on the classics, but my ears were really listening for their original songs, and I wasn’t disappointed. “Green Umbrella,” for instance, shows promise for even greater original compositions to come from this band. In the end, the launch in Dublin demonstrated that live performance is how Na Fianna really shines.
Na Fianna have played in Germany and Norway several times, as well as all over Ireland, but this next month in the States marks their first official American tour as a recording band. It’s a move they’re thrilled about. Na Fianna could already anticipate the excited responses from American audiences. “Americans really, really appreciate Irish music,” said one and they all agreed. In turn, they are thrilled to start their tour in the States and bring “Unearthed” abroad after the auspicious launch in Dublin.
Na Fianna are a bold hybrid of indie rock and refurbished trad. If you love the old songs but want to hear them in a youthful, new, intensified way, this is the band and tour for you. Let’s see where the future takes Na Fianna. No doubt they can continue to revamp Irish and rock music both. The energy they have in spades is bound to catapult into more albums and more original songs down the line.
Check them out at nafiannamusic.com and catch Na Fianna at their best—live. They perform at Arlene’s Grocery on Sept. 10.