Bagatelle: 'We've been on the road for 38 years, it's time to stop'
Rockers Bagatelle have been playing to packed out shows here for 35 years. with the band set to play their farewell gig on Sunday at the Europa Hotel, founder member Ken Doyle tells Ivan Little how the Troubles nearly stopped them performing in Northern Ireland
Veteran Irish rock band Bagatelle, who are assured of an emotional send-off from their fans at their farewell Ulster gig next month, weren't always so keen to cross the border in their early days in the wake of the Miami showband massacre. And once they did overcome their fears about the Troubles - they ended up driving into the scene of a UDA ambush on Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in Belfast.
"It was a scary time but thankfully all the violence is gone now. And we have more memories of good times than bad times," says Ken Doyle, a Bagatelle founder member, who had very personal reasons for wanting to keep his distance from the north after the Miami tragedy.
For the bass guitarist lived just around the corner in Bray from Fran O'Toole, one of the showband musicians murdered by the UVF in a bomb and gun attack on their van outside Newry in July 1975 as they returned to the Republic from a dance in Banbridge.
Fran, who was the showband's lead singer and a pin-up for thousands of girls across Ireland, was one of Ken's heroes. "We all looked up to him," he says. "We would pass him on the street and we were like little urchins while he had the X-factor. He was amazing with his rock star looks and the best of clothes. He had Levi jeans before anybody else had them and if we wanted to aspire to being anybody it was Fran O'Toole.
"I can remember my brother coming into my bedroom to tell me that he'd heard on the news that Fran and his colleagues had been murdered. We were just starting out as musicians in bars and I felt a real sense of anger over the killings which were totally senseless. I couldn't believe that anyone would want to murder a band of entertainers."
The Miami killings and the constant bombings and shootings scared dozens of musicians from the Republic and from Britain from coming to Northern Ireland.
And Bagatelle at first resisted overtures to persuade them to change their minds. "Our manager kept trying to tell us everything would be fine but we would look at the TV news at night and see more killings and more mayhem so we steered clear," Ken recalls.
It wasn't until 1981 that Bagatelle finally decided to play in the north, in the old Knock-na-moe Castle Hotel in Tyrone.
"I have to admit that we were terrified going up the first time to Omagh, but the response we got there and everywhere else we went was absolutely fantastic," Ken says.
Aside from all the violence, Bagatelle had also heard all the tales of woe about groups and showbands getting into trouble in the north for playing or not playing the 'right' anthem in loyalist or nationalist areas at the end of gigs.
"But we always told people that we were a rock band and didn't do anthems," adds Ken, who laughs as he recalls the possibly apocryphal story he was told about tenor Count John McCormack striking up the wrong anthem in Newry and sparking a riot.
The Troubles didn't pass Bagatelle by completely, though, and they found themselves in the midst of that gun attack 32 years ago when Gerry Adams was shot and wounded by loyalists in the centre of Belfast.
"We were driving through the city on our way to a gig in Portrush when we saw a car coming towards us with the smoke coming out of the tyres. I thought it was a joyrider but the next thing we noticed were soldiers and policemen all over the place with their guns," Ken says.
"I crouched down as low as I could get in the car as it all kicked off. However, not everyone was panicking like us. I can still see children coming out of a nearby school and despite all the commotion around them, they looked as if nothing had happened.
"So we went on our way again and it was only when we got to Portrush that we found out that we had been in the very place where there'd been an attempt on Gerry Adams' life."
That drama, though, didn't stop Bagatelle from returning time and time again to play in the north where they garnered a huge and loyal fan base.
"We've had some of our most incredible gigs in the north," says Ken. "I don't know what's in the water up there but the audiences really know how to enjoy themselves and that always transmits to the band."
But Bagatelle has also done some globe-trotting, playing concerts to Irish people all over the world, making them one of the most widely travelled bands ever to come out of the island.
And their influence was also felt nearer home, too. U2's Bono has acknowledged that Bagatelle were a major influence on him and his colleagues, and helped pave the way for rock bands in the Seventies by playing their own songs, breaking the mould of covers favoured by the showbands.
Drummer Larry Mullen also famously dubbed the band Baga-money and told a promoter that he hoped U2 might one day be as big as Bagatelle.
But like every other group in Ireland, Bagatelle had to work long and hard to establish themselves and earn the right to play on the same stages as the likes of Van Morrison, Glen Campbell, Bob Marley and Jose Feliciano.
They formed in August 1978 with a girl singer but when she left to live in America they decided to press ahead as a four-piece with Louth man Liam Reilly as the vocalist.
Their first gig with the new line-up in Fermoy, Co Cork, though, almost proved disastrous.
"It was a venue called the Twilight Zone of all things and we nearly didn't make it," Ken recalls. "Our van broke down and the promoter went mad. We thought about going home after getting the mechanical problems sorted out but eventually we headed on to Fermoy.
"And I'm glad we did. After about 20 minutes the crowd went mad - in a good way - and the promoter, who had threatened not to pay our full fee because we were late, shook our hands and stumped up all the cash - but said he wouldn't be able to afford to book us again because he had a feeling we were going places."
The promoter's prediction came true. Spectacularly.
Bagatelle went on to become one of the most popular bands in Ireland with massive hits like Second Violin, Leeson Street Lady and their best known song Summer in Dublin which has become a tear-jerker for homesick Irish expats at gigs all around the world.
"Summer in Dublin is like an alternative anthem," Ken says. "Whenever we play abroad, even in Saudi Arabia, there's always a huge emotional outpouring for that song which has found a place in the hearts of all Irish people.
"We sang it for the first time in Dungarvan around about 1980 and the response nowadays is still the same as it was that night and audiences bring the song to life every time.
"I never tire of playing the classics. They're great songs and I regularly thank Liam Reilly from the stage for writing them. I can't understand why some artists refuse to sing the songs that the fans want to hear, the songs they have made into massive hits. I fell asleep once listening to Bob Dylan in London, he was that boring and didn't do any of the stuff that we all knew."
Ken says no-one in Bagatelle ever dreamt that they would still be going strong nearly four decades after their first gig in the Twilight Zone.
"Never in a hundred thousand million years did we imagine that we would still be playing our music in 2016 and a lot of young people come to hear us because they were introduced to our music by their parents or even their grandparents who say our songs have been the soundtrack of their lives.
"But we never had a plan. In many ways we are the biggest happy accident of a band that you will ever come across."
Thirty-eight years on, however, Bagatelle has reached the end of the road. "We made the decision a year ago," says Ken. "We are basically burnt out from all the travelling, up to 1,000 miles some weeks. Even the younger musicians we have with us now in the band find it tough.
"And even though us older ones have been the old dogs for the hard road, our bodies are saying to us that it's time to call a halt, despite the fact that the roads in Ireland are so much better than they were.
"If we had a 'beam me up Scotty' facility to get us from point A to point B, I think we might keep going."
But even before they've gone, Ken Doyle isn't ruling out a comeback especially as it's only a couple of years until Bagatelle's 40th anniversary.
"There could be a one-off gig, who knows? A friend of mine was telling me the other day that he'd been at Status Quo's final gig in the RDS in Dublin - over 35 years ago."
The band have taken breaks before. "One of them lasted five years, but eventually we realised we wanted to return and play all the old songs again. We didn't know if anyone would be interested but it was as if we'd never been away," says Ken who is already writing songs which he hopes might be picked up by international stars.
The Bagatelle founder member, who presents a weekly programme on his local radio station, won't be packing away his guitar for good. "My brother has a band and every now and then I play with him. I hope that will continue because it's fun and it usually means that I am home by 1am," he says.
No such early night is anticipated in Belfast on Sunday as Bagatelle play their last ever northern gig which ironically for a band who were initially put off from playing in the north by the Troubles is in the Europa Hotel, once dubbed the most bombed hotel in the world.
Bagatelle will play the Europa Hotel on Sunday at 7pm. Tickets cost £20 from http://www.songkick.com/concerts/25718384-bagatelle-at-europa-hotel