The Humours of Planxty
Hodder Headline Ireland; hardback; 344 pages; 2006
‘Humours’ often appears in the titles of Irish traditional tunes, always suggesting the delights of a place as in the jig The Humours of Glendart. As such, it’s a term ideally suited to a book describing the exploits and raucous adventures of one of Ireland’s most formative bands, Planxty. The original line-up of Andy Irvine, Dónal Lunny, Christy Moore and Liam O’Flynn was formed in the early 1970s on the back of Moore’s solo Prosperous album and quickly achieved phenomenal success on its home turf and in Europe before first Lunny and then Moore jumped ship, being replaced by Johnny Moynihan and Paul Brady.
After three hugely successful albums spanning 1972-1974 the band split, only to reform in 1979 with the original line-up plus Matt Molloy (subsequently of The Chieftains) on flute. Other musicians were later added, but the band seemingly gave up the ghost in 1983.
Some twenty years later Planxty reformed again, an act partly inspired by an RTÉ documentary made by O’Toole, and undertook a series of barnstorming gigs throughout 2004 and early 2005. However, shortly afterwards Planxty split once more, this time (according to rumours) in somewhat acrimonious circumstances.
The Humours of Planxty makes no reference to that probably final dissolution but begins and ends with accounts of its last reincarnation, made more gripping by Leagues’ presence as a witness. The interim chapters sadly fail by comparison since such an influential band’s career requires somebody far less jejune and reverent than Leagues as its author and preferably someone with an intimate hold on Ireland’s musical heritage and social history.
Indeed there is so little contextual background that the book’s subjects seem to be operating in a vacuum and one, thanks to O’Toole’s retelling, which is dissipated by inadequate research and editing apparently undertaken by a monkey made redundant by a Shakespearian typing experiment. Clichés abound – musicians are ‘renowned’, ‘legendary’ or even ‘the late and great’ – and no one seems to have undertaken the simple experiment of checking whether musicians’ names have been spelt correctly. Furthermore, information is rampantly reiterated, as if the author or editor usually works only with amnesiacs.
Despite this the characters of the book’s four main subjects do shine through, not least through the narration of various on-the-road anecdotes and reproductions of a number of Andy Irvine’s letters posted while on tour. However, graphics are a grainy monochrome, a factor which unfortunately reflects the depth of O’Toole’s narrative skills. All told, a worthy subject has fallen foul of its author’s inexperience and his editor’s failings.
This review by Geoff Wallis was originally written for Songlines – www.songlines.co.uk.