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We’re the boys of Belfast town
Rantin’, roarin’, ramblin’ ’round
We’re Irishmen of high renown
That’s the boys of Belfast

You will find us anywhere, in the church or on the tear
Brave and bold there’s none so rare, as the Boys of Belfast

When we got tickets for the Irish Rovers‘ farewell tour, I didn’t recognize their name. But as soon as they began to play, I knew I’d heard them before. Anyone who listens to folk programs (in our case, Simply Folk out of Madison, WI) will feel a jolt of recognition in the first moments of their show.

They got their start in the sixties on the wave of enthusiasm for pop-folk that also brought fame to the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, and Pete Seeger. Their first big hit was a song about a unicorn missing an appointment with Noah’s Ark.


The Rovers in the early sixties. From left, Will Millar, Jim Ferguson, George Millar, Wilcil McDowell and Joe Millar. Click for source (Irishroversmusic.com)

Their sound isn’t super-authentic like The Chieftains, but they have their own kind of authenticity, gained over fifty years of performing. As a matter of fact, they’re more fun than The Chieftains. They play Irish pub songs that make you want to get up and dance. They get the audience to sing along. Their stage patter (mostly delivered by Ian Millar) is full of old-school jokes. For example, Ian told how when he was a little boy, he lived with his 12 brothers and sisters in Ballymena and was raised by his grandparents:

Wee Ian: Grandda, make a noise like a frog.

Grandda: What?

Wee Ian: Make a noise like a frog.

Grandda: Why the divvil would I want to do that?

Wee Ian: Because Grandma says when you croak, we’re all going to Disneyland.

Most of the jokes have a battle-of-the-sexes element that may or may not be distinctively Irish, but is without a doubt distinctively masculine. I wonder if this form of humor derives from a culture in which marriage was forever, for better or (often) worse?

Wife: When you die, I’m going to dance on your grave.

Husband: Good. I’m gonna be buried at sea, so remember to bring your mother.

The nucleus of the original group was three lads from Ballymena in Northern Ireland (also the hometown of Liam Neeson): George Millar, his cousin Joe Millar, and Jim Ferguson. Another Millar cousin, Ian, later joined. 

The show opened with “The Irish Rover” (natch!) followed by my favorite of their songs, “The Boys of Belfast.” (Belfast and related Northern Irish topics are oft-mentioned in their songs; their recent album Drunken Sailor includes a tribute to the Titanic, constructed in Belfast.)

There were pub song classics like “The Black Velvet Band,” the perennial favorite “Mairi’s Wedding” (penned by a Scotsman) and comic songs like “The Dublin Pub Crawl” as well as the unashamedly sentimental “The Dear Shamrock Shore.”


The Rovers onstage. George and Ian are in the center, with Sean O’Driscoll (banjo) and Wilcil McDowell (accordion) on the left. In the back, Morris Crum (keyboard), Gerry O’Connor (fiddle) and Fred Graham (percussion). On the right, Scotsman Geoffrey Kelly (whistle/flute). Photo by Linnet.

For their world farewell tour, the Rovers were joined by whistle player Geoffrey Kelly, a Scotsman from Dumfries. I was very taken with Kelly, whose playing, alternately sprightly and soulful, added to the Celtic magic of the evening. He danced for joy of the music, and when he wasn’t dancing, he was tapping his right foot or kicking behind and forward. Here’s a short clip of one of his solos.

I do love a man with a good embouchure!

To all the Beautiful Boys from Ballymena (and environs): thank you for the music. Now it’s time to end your roving days and go home to your wives. No doubt they’re preparing a grand croak– oops, I mean craic!