Fergus O'Byrne of
A Crowd of Bold Sharemen:
On the Newfoundland fringe

An interview by Tom Knapp,
October 2002

Years ago, the word "Celtic" conjured thoughts of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. As awareness of the diverse cultures grew, the Celtic influences in places like Brittany, Asturia, Galacia and Nova Scotia were added to the mix. But what about Newfoundland?

The solitary island nation, which was absorbed into Canada within the living memory of its inhabitants, also has a thriving Celtic culture that's only now making itself known to the world. A Crowd of Bold Sharemen, a five-man band of Newfoundland traditionalists, is doing its part to spread the word.

But the Celtic experience in Newfoundland was different from the experience in other parts of the world.

"The Irish and the English people who came to Newfoundland were pre-Famine people," explained Sharemen singer/bodhranist Fergus O'Byrne, himself an Irish immigrant who has called Newfoundland home for more than a quarter-century. Many came in the early and mid-1700s to take advantage of the prime fishing in the region.

The Anglo-Irish settlers were cut off and remote from outside influences in their new home, O'Byrne said. "Newfoundland is out there on its own," he said. "So all the music stayed indigenous in various pockets, where dancing was a big part of the social atmosphere."

Back home in Ireland, and even locales such as Cape Breton, the music thrived because musicians often gathered to play together in groups. In Newfoundland, however, "a lot of the communities had only one or two players, so you didn't have a session atmosphere."

Instead, O'Byrne said, Newfoundland developed a tradition of "kitchen parties." People would clear out their kitchens, sometimes even disassembling the stoves, to make room for set dancers while one or two musicians performed in the corner.

Scottish and French settlers also added to the island's influences, O'Byrne noted. "You mix that all together and what you get today is that mixture coming out of Newfoundland," he said. "It's a unique type of music; it's not like any place else."

In some cases, that's because other places have lost their traditions, he said. "There are a lot of songs in Newfoundland that used to be in the English and Irish traditions but got lost." There are variations, of course. "A lot of tunes the Irish players will recognize, but the words to the songs sometimes were changed."

A Crowd of Bold Sharemen plays only Newfoundland material in its shows, O'Byrne said. But, he stressed, that doesn't necessarily mean only old traditional pieces. Jim Payne, who sings and plays guitar, mandolin and accordion with the band, also writes much of their material.

"He writes the sort of song that it almost sounds traditional," O'Byrne said.

The island has a growing tradition of original songs, he noted. Besides Payne, contemporary songwriters such as Ron Hynes, Pamela Morgan and the boys from Great Big Sea are helping to bring new Newfoundland music to the world.

O'Byrne was born in Dublin but moved to Canada in 1967. He was a founding member of Ryan's Fancy, a prolific Irish folk band that moved from Toronto to St. John's in 1971. In addition to his solo career, he was a long-time member of Tickle Harbour. He also has a degree in education and works in and out of the classroom to promote folk music to children. He has served as a director of the St. John's Folk Arts Council and has helped organize the Newfoundland & Labrador Folk Festival in St. John's.

"I've been making a living out of this since 1971," O'Byrne said. "Especially within the last six or seven years, there seems to be a new renaissance of music coming up through the ranks."

He bridles at the label, however.

"You can call it Celtic, but it's not really Celtic," he proclaimed. "It's Newfoundland music. It's been there so long, it's Newfoundland music."

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 2 November 2002