Biography of The Black Family

 

Shay, Michael and Martin, along with their sisters, Mary and Frances, have been performers all their lives. Both parents were singers, with dad Kevin being an accomplished piper, fiddler and mandolin player. Kevin came from Rathlin Island, a small remote community off the north coast of Antrim, between Ireland and Scotland. Music was intrinsic in Kevin’s family, and they were in high demand for celebrations and ceilidhs on the island in the thirties and forties. Kevin moved to the Glens of Antrim to work in the building industry when he was a young man and was an active member of dance bands in and around the glens for many years. After playing the “wrong tune” at the wrong time, he said his name was blacklisted and was forced to move to Dublin to find work in the 1940s.

Patty Daly was one of four children, living in the Liberties of Dublin. She was a “factory girl” working for Rowntrees chocolate firm. She had a passion for music and dancing, and would often frequent the music halls and theaters of old Dublin. She was an avid bicyclist, and many weekends would find her cycling to Wicklow where she would perform at numerous sessions in local houses. Rowntrees was an old Victorian factory, where the candies and chocolates were wrapped by hand in the 40s. Patty was a very valuable employee, because she sat at the end of the assembly line and would lead all the rest of the women in song. She often described how almost indecipherable chocolate-covered scraps of paper would be passed up the line to her with song requests.

Patty and Kevin met on a blind date, and married in 1949. They had five children, Shay, Michael, Mary Martin and Frances, none of whom had any formal music training but who all inherited a love of music and song. Patty constantly sang, as did her mother and sister. The children regularly vacationed on Rathlin with their parents where again they were surrounded by music. Back in Dublin, Kevin and Patty had a group of friends and neighbours who would visit with the Black household and sing and play music until the wee hours. The children were encouraged in this warm and heartening music environment, and soon developed their own repertoire of songs and stories.

As they got older, Shay played the piano and guitar, Michael became proficient on banjo, guitar and mandolin, and Martin on fiddle, but also plays guitar and mandolin. When younger they played mainly at family parties and celebrations, but as teenagers, they started Youth Hostelling, taking their instruments with them. Their influences initially were bands such as The Dubliners, The Johnsons, The Emmett Spiceland, and individuals such as the youthful Christy Moore, Andy Irvine, and other luminaries on the Dublin ballad scene. Always on the lookout for new material, they started singing Scottish and Irish songs that they heard on radio broadcasts from the BBC.

In the early 70s, both Michael and Shay lived in England and their exposure to other singers and musicians there further expanded their repertoire. The first paid gig for the brothers was in 1978 at St Mary’s College in Strawberry Hill, London. Sister Mary joined them evening for a raucous night of songs and ballads in the Student Union where Michael was Vice-President. That following summer the four siblings had their first adventure abroad when they spent three months busking on 5 th Avenue and the Staten Island ferry in New York, and moving up and down the east coast of the US. Michael moved to California a few years later and Martin started joining him for the occasional mini-tour of bars and clubs on the west coast. Shay lived in Liverpool at the time and the boys invited him to join them on some of the tours. Thus began the Black Brothers and they have now performed both in America and in Europe. They have recorded their own album as well as three other Black Family albums where they were joined by sisters Mary and Frances.

The Black Brothers continue to tour regularly, mainly in the United States. Their current repertoire is very broad. It includes old Dublin street songs, music hall songs, historical ballads, songs from the Irish, English and Scottish traditions, along with songs by contemporary writers. They have a special fondness for songs that will involve an audience in a chorus, and many of the songs are narratives with stories. They intersperse their performance with stories and humourous anecdotes from their childhood with the occasional joke thrown in for good measure. They play dance tunes and are often accompanied on tour by Irish dancers, which give an added excitement to their performance.