The De Dannan row has being simmering for years and most people close to the Irish trad scene were aware of the tensions between some former members of that band. It went into the public domain over the last few weeks and erupted on the airways Wednesday of this week on RTE’s Liveline. Sad situation really, when one recalls the great music, song and fulfillment De Dannan gave us all since the 1970’s.
On the surface, the row is over the name De Danann. When Alec Finn and Frankie Gavin — the last two original members of the band —went their separate ways in 2004, Mr. Finn ‘registered’ the name, which he says was to stop exploitation by others. Incidently, it was banjo player Charlie Piggott who originally came up with the name for band. Over the years, band members had come and gone, some to greater things. Each new member added an ingredient to the De Dannan sound, but the perception was, that the cooks were Messrs Finn and Gavin.
There was a lot of chatter between jigs and reels about the breakup of the Gavin – Finn marriage. A mendicant singer penned a ballad called Frankie and Alec, based on the old Frankie and Johnny song. The weary and the perceptive knew there would be blood down the line, that it’s a long road that doesn’t have a turn. Plus there were a few casualties on the roadside who had tumbled from the De Dannan bandwagon over the years.
Things came to a head recently when Frankie Gavin and De Dannan were billed for a concert at the 2009 World Fleadh in Castlebar. The World Fleadh is produced by Eric Cunningham who plays percussion with Frankie’s new ‘De Danann’. Advertisements announcing gigs for ‘Frankie Gavin & De Dannan’ appeared in the Hot Press magazine.
Solicitors for Mr. Finn wrote to the magazine pointing out that the name was registered by Finn as a business name pursuant to the Business Names Act 1963. The letter asked that the magazine not exhibit or publish or use the words “De Dannan” in any “advertisement, placard or leaflet” without consultation with Alec Finn. That was followed by an interview by Mr. Finn with Hot Press in which he said: “This is not De Dannan. If you want to go and spend your money on something that is not De Dannan, go. But don’t be taken in that you are actually going to see a reunion of the old members of De Dannan.”
Then a piece appeared in the Irish Times about the resurrected De Dannan in which Mr. Gavin said: “…the fact is, it’s difficult to make a living playing music. If it’s a business and a trade name that I’ve built up over 30 years, I think that I would have every right to use it.
“The name De Dannan commands quite a bit of respect, and all the people that I’ve chosen to play in the band over the years have gone off and had separate, individual careers, with great success, in most cases. So I don’t see what the problem appears to be with me starting up a new De Dannan and getting a new kick-start.”
Other papers fanned the flames and the issue snowballed like a divorced couple arguing over the name of their starter home. Then the fracas hit Live Line, Ireland’s confession box, the afternoon call-in radio show hosted by Joe Duffy.
On air Alec said he ‘owned’ and registered the name and that Mr. Gavin was taking the punters for a ride if said punters expected to see the old De Dannan on stage. He said Mr. Gavin had hand picked a group of young musicians to be the band. “If the Rolling Stones were billed as ‘Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones’ and the other musicians were a bunch of unknowns, would you go and see them?” he asked.
Then Johnny Ringo McDonagh came on the air from a pub in the Aran Islands. He was a founding member and percussionist with the band and agreed with Mr. Finn, that Mr. Gavin had no right to use the name De Danann. Next, singer Dolores Keane was on the radio, saying she was disappointed with Messrs Finn and McDonagh…she was De Danann’s first singer and would be guesting with Mr. Gavin and the new line-up. Ms. Keane intimated that it was her song Rambling Irishman which put De Dannan on the map back in the 1970’s.
Like a stealth bomber coming out of the clouds, accordion player and radio producer Tony McMahon was on air and I could feel the nation bracing itself. He announced that Gavin was the driving force behind the band and Johnny Ringo was “a first-rate accompanist, Alec is a second-rate accompanist. You’re not . . . in the same league.” He followed up by saying McDonagh and Finn were not musicians, they were only accompanists.
My phone was jumping with calls and texts, requests for flack jackets, nuclear bunkers…nobody was safe. Mr. McMahon recalled that when he broadcast De Dannan first back in the 1970’s that the only information his researcher could find about Mr. Finn was that ‘he came from Yorkshire, lived in a castle and kept hawks.’ Buckets of jelly were hitting the fan and the issue of the De Dannan name was lost in the mix. But then again, maybe the name was never the issue, just a symbol of the real issue.
In the heel of the hunt, only Mr. Gavin and Mr. Finn know what the real issue is. They were close — onstage and off — ‘thick as thieves’ as the saying goes. And like a lovers’ quarrel, common sense goes out the window when blood boils. God help us, but Ego and self-righteousness are a terrible curse. There are no winners in this one, apart from the listeners who were rolling on their floors laughing at the on air spat.
Come to think of it, there was a full moon last night…maybe that brought out the crackedness. It was the Lughnasa full moon, and Lugh was the brightest god of the ancient Tuatha de Dannan. Payback time for taking god’s name in vain?
Books by Eddie Stack