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'We've worked with many famous people, but the best moment was singing with children from the Shankill Road and Ardoyne'

Tony Blair loves their music and they've performed for Mary McAleese, Michael D Higgins and Pope John Paul II. Now, as The Fureys prepare for 40th anniversary concerts, brothers Eddie and George sit down for a chat with Helen Carson

Surprise performance: Eddie and George Furey busking in Belfast
Surprise performance: Eddie and George Furey busking in Belfast

The Fureys have dominated the Irish folk music scene for 40 years and their touching ballads even secured them a spot on Top of the Pops in the Eighties.

But long before Madonna and Co broke into the charts, music was something the members of the group grew up with.

"Everyone in our family is a singer," says George Furey, who with brothers Eddie, Finbar and Paul, and Donegal-born singer Davey Arthur, formed the original line-up of the Dublin band.

During preparations for special 40th anniversary concerts across Northern Ireland, Eddie and George Furey took time to sit down in Belfast and talk about their illustrious career - and they also put on an impromptu busking performance outside CastleCourt Shopping Centre, much to the delight of passers-by.

The brothers' parents, Ted and Nora, played a multitude of instruments, including the button accordion, pipes and bodhran, with Paul touring across Ireland with his father in the Sixties.

Tragically, Paul died in 2002 after suffering complications following an operation for cancer of the bladder, leaving behind his wife, Catherine, and their three children, Michael (27), Eddie (26) and Vincent (22).

When piper Finbar (72) quit the band in the early Nineties to pursue solo work, The Fureys became the present-day duo of Eddie (74) and George (67).

With gigs at the Millennium Forum in Londonderry later this month, and at Belfast's Waterfront Hall in January, fans can expect to hear a mix of timeless classics, including I Will Love You, When You Were Sweet 16, The Green Fields Of France, The Old Man, Red Rose Café, From Clare To Here, Her Father Didn't Like Me Anyway and Leaving Nancy, and a number of new songs.

Both remaining members of the The Fureys are now grandfathers, with "lots" of grandchildren between them.

They have been through a lot over the past few decades, with some incidents leaving a lasting mark.

The brothers with Michael D Higgins
The brothers with Michael D Higgins

Asked about the departure of Finbar, whose piping helped define the band's sound, the brothers have mixed feelings.

"He wanted to write his book," says George. "We wanted to keep to the music that the people who put us on top liked.

"Now he is doing his thing and we are doing ours - The Fureys continue on. (When) people ask me when I saw him last, I tell them it was at the last funeral we were at."

Eddie, however, stresses there is no lingering resentment and they all meet up "now and again".

The brothers are happy to share stories of their long and storied career, which has seen them play for regular punters and heads of state.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is said to be a fan of their music, and they have also performed for ex-Australian Prime Minister John Howard, former Irish President Mary McAleese, serving President Michael D Higgins and Pope John Paul II.

But even music legends can make a mistake, such as when George was in Kelly's Cellars in Belfast and met a musician who loved what the band was doing.

"I asked him if he was any good, then I found out later he was Sean Maguire, an all-Ireland champion fiddle player," he says.

Nowadays, though, their gigging schedule has been pared back, with long-haul flights to their old stomping grounds in Australia and the US a thing of the past.

The brothers with Sir Alex Ferguson
The brothers with Sir Alex Ferguson

"We do 52 gigs a year, beginning in England and Wales, then back to Ireland and finishing in Scotland," explains George.

"We like to be near home and be able to get home fairly quickly. Long-haul travel is too tiring."

Eddie adds: "We have had great times, but I always like getting home. I know I'm home when I see Dublin Airport - it's the best feeling."

The brothers with long-time friends Billy Connolly and Ralph McTell
The brothers with long-time friends Billy Connolly and Ralph McTell

"When I look back, we have had both good times and bad times, but the good outweighs the bad," George pipes in.

Some of the best times included trips to Holland and Germany, which became popular destinations for many Irish musicians in the Seventies.

"We were in Holland with a gig to follow in Berlin," says George. "It was in the Cold War days and Berlin was a divided city.

"We had to charter a plane because it was the only way to get there, but there was a problem and we ended up stuck in Schiphol Airport with The Dubliners - so we all had a singalong."

All the musicians ended up on a plane to Berlin, but by the time they arrived, the gig had been cancelled.

"We just had a great night on the town in Berlin with The Dubliners," George recalls.

George and Eddie together
George and Eddie together

During a tour in America, an early-morning drinking session left them disoriented, and making things worse, their Aer Lingus flight home was delayed for six hours.

"The boys fell asleep and thought they were home when they woke up. They were devastated when they heard the plane hadn't taken off," George says.

The worst occasion for the brothers was when their mother died while they were on tour in Australia in 2013.

"We were 10,000 miles away when our mother passed away," says Eddie. "We were playing a gig at the Opera House in Adelaide when we got the news. I remember the five of us going on stage, because we had two gigs to finish, then we got on a plane to go home and buried our mother.

"A day or so later we had to get a flight back to Australia - that is a hard thing to do, to go through that."

Among their career highlights is playing to packed houses in New York's Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall in London, but their appearance on Top of the Pops in 1981 was a defining moment for the band.

"We were in America touring when Gay Byrne called us up," George says. "He told us our song, I Will Love You, was doing well in the UK charts, and Top of the Pops wanted us on the show. He wanted to be our wingman for it. He really wanted to go."

Both brothers were over the moon when they got on the set of the BBC show.

"We met Midge Ure that day and Kool & The Gang," George remembers.

"We had a bit of a session afterwards in our dressing room with Kool & The Gang - and we had a few beers to celebrate."

While the band was used to playing its music at gigs around the world, Top of the Pops bosses insisted that their backing tape be replaced with one recorded by in-house musicians.

However, The Fureys were adamant that their music would be played on the show - and they did their utmost to ensure that happened.

"When they weren't looking, I replaced their tape with ours," admits George. "No one knew I had switched them."

The brothers are also particularly proud of their UK chart success, because it took Irish traditional music to a completely new audience.

"Ireland has always had a long history of traditional music," says George.

"Bluegrass and Appalachian music in America has its roots in Irish and Ulster-Scots music. We love to see kids playing it now in schools."

The Fureys have always been regulars at festivals in Northern Ireland, which are particular favourites for George.

"Traditional musicians here are some of the best, he says. "It's a different sound - the strings sound like minuettes, almost classical."

The brothers are no strangers to Belfast either, having played here many times down the years.

"Belfast is a great city, so lively," says Eddie, after enjoying the support of Christmas shoppers during their surprise performance on the street outside CastleCourt Shopping Centre.

Not that the experience was anything new for the pair, who would be happy to set up on any street corner and start belting out their hits.

"We busked out here the last time we were in Belfast," says Eddie, pointing to Waterfront Hall overlooking the Lagan.

"There was a guy in a boat there and he loved it. But, boy, was it a windy day."

You may expect The Fureys' career highlight to be taking on the Beatles in the Sixties, or the time Gerry Rafferty wrote a song especially for Eddie, or when George was making Irish stew for his friends in David Bowie's old house while nursing a hangover, but you'd be wrong. Their favourite moment is playing the Waterfront with a cross-community choir.

"Yes we have worked with many famous people all over the world, and it's been great, but the single best moment for me was singing with those kids from the Shankill Road and Ardoyne," George says.

"The roar that went up from the audience when the kids came on stage was unbelievable."

"That for me was unforgettable," adds Eddie, who lives in Dublin with his wife, Bibi, and who loves spending time watching Disney movies with his grandson.

"We watched the latest version of Beauty and the Beast, and the music was great," he says.

Eddie's grown-up children, Michelle, Paulie, Jamie, Sarah and Conner, have all moved on in life, working and becoming parents.

At home, his wife is "the boss". "When I get home from touring, as soon as I get through the door, the first thing she does is point out the bills for gas and electricity," Eddie says. "I always tell her, 'Will you let me land first?' She raised our kids on her own. She's a very strong woman."

George married Mary when he was 20. While they are now separated, they have six grown-up children together called Mary-Ann, Tara, Aoife, Georgie, Anthony and Finn.

He agrees the women in he and his brothers' lives run the families while they tour.

"They just get on with it and do what they have to do," he says.

When pressed for details on his grandkids, George can't help out. "I couldn't tell you how many there are, never mind the names and ages."

George's son, Anthony has followed in his father's footsteps, forming his own band, The Young Folk, who have been dubbed challengers to Mumford & Sons.

Not surprisingly, it's Anthony on guitar and vocals, and there is a nod to Irish trad with throughout much of their music.

While the bothers are undoubtedly proud of their kids, George says they should only play music if they enjoy it.

"I would never force them into it," he admits. "It's a hard life on tour. No matter how talented you are, succeeding in the music business is down to a certain amount of luck and being in the right place at the right time."

However, the brothers are pleased to have influenced upcoming artists - and have some sage advice for anyone considering a career in the industry.

"Many young musicians have told us we influenced them after hearing a record from their grandparents' collection," Eddie explains (a young Dave Stewart from The Eurythmics was one as he used to be a roadie for the band).

"My advice to them would be, you've picked up a guitar now, so keep going, keep doing it," says Eddie.

George agrees. "I wish live bands all the best and the luck in the world, because they are the ones who will need it."

The Fureys will be at the Millennium Forum in Londonderry on Thursday, December 27. For details, visit www.millenniumforum.co.uk or tel: 7126 4455. They play at Belfast's Waterfront Hall on Saturday, January 12. For details visit www.waterfront.co.uk or tel: 9033 4455

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