In the early 1970s, numerous aspiring folk musicians used to gather in Hughes’s Pub in a small village called An Spideal on the shores of Galway Bay and just next to the Gaeltacht – the Irish speaking area of Ireland.
Among those musicians were Alec Finn, Frankie Gavin, Charlie Piggott and Johnny McDonagh.
They were barely out of their teens – Gavin was only 18 – when in 1974, they formed what was to become one of Ireland’s most successful folk groups.
Tuatha de Danann – an ancient Irish tribe
Being steeped in Irish tradition, the band took their name from a mythological Irish tribe, called Tuatha de Danann. It means people of the goddess Danu.
Legend has it they were among the tribes that conquered and settled in Ireland more than a thousand years BC.
The band started out with the correct spelling of De Danann but that somehow changed to De Dannan later in their careers, which is why you may see it spelt differently from time to time.
When the band split in 2003, it led to a dispute between Finn and Gavin as to who owned the name which by then had become famous in folk music circles all over the world.
The start of traditional music’s Galway sound
Such disputes were far from their minds in 1974 when the band first formed.
It featured Alec Finn, on guitar and bouzouki; Frankie Gavin on fiddle, flute, whistle and piano; Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh on bodhran and bones; and Charlie Piggott on accordion and banjo.
Gavin’s dazzling fiddle playing and Finn’s driving rhythmic bouzouki style helped to create what later came to known as the band’s Galway sound.
They started out playing local pubs and drafted Dolores Keane in on vocals by the time they were ready to make their first, called simply De Danann, in 1975.
Taking the Galway sound to the USA
The first album was well received and they followed it up with a trip to America to play at the Bicentennial celebrations in Washington.
They also played several festivals and found they fitted in particularly well with bluegrass audiences who were used to listening to bands like De Dannan that featured banjos, mandolins and fiddles.
They were still only playing minor venues at this time but went down so well they were invited back for a second tour the following year. This they were even more successful, and as Finn recalled several years later, they just suddenly took off.
Changes of line-up and the arrival of Mary Black
Dolores Keane left the band in 1977 when she married musician John Faulkner.
She was replaced at first by Johnny Moynihan and later by Maura O’Connell in 1981. When O’Connell left, she was replaced by up and coming vocalist, Mary Black.
Black stayed with the band for two albums before she went on to become a star in her own right. Dolores Keane then returned for two more albums before leaving once again.
The changing members of De Dannan
Founding members Alec Finn and Frankie Gavin were the only two who stayed the whole course of De Dannan’s career.
However, the band featured numerous musicians who went on to become celebrated solo performers or leading members of other groups.
Among these other members were:
- Dolores Keane
- Mary Black
- Maura O’Connell
- Jackie Daly
- Charlie Piggott
- Johhny Moynihan
- Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh
- Tommy Fleming
- Martin O’Connor
- Colm Murphy
Finn and Gavin were De Dannan’s bedrock until …
Throughout the band’s 25-year, the line-up changed regularly but throughout it all the found members Finn and Gavin remained as the bedrock of the band.
It was their supreme musicianship that helped create its unique sound and it was their enthusiasm and determination that helped drive the band on to success after success.
Unfortunately, their relationship was damaged after the band separated in 2003, giving rise to a dispute over who owned the name De Dannan.