Horslips were founded in Dublin in 1970. They spent three years gigging constantly in Dublin, building a following for their brand of traditional Irish jigs and reels with rock undertones. They worked hard to establish themselves and enjoyed hits with Irish-only singles; Johnny's Wedding and Green Gravel during 1972. In 1973 they formed their own record company, OATS, and produced and released their debut album, Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part. That first album, with its mixture of traditional Irish folk instruments and hard rock outsold the work of many established acts in Ireland, and led to a distribution deal with RCA and tours of England and continental Europe. Housed in a beautiful concertina shaped sleeve, it is generally recognised as a unique and highly innovative debut which entered new territory in the Celtic rock genre. 1973 saw the release of their second album, The Tain, based on the Irish mythological theme about a long war between Connacht and Ulster, caused by the desertion by Conor Mac Nessa, King of Ulster, of his wife Queen Maeve of Connacht.
The release of their third album, Dancehall Sweethearts in 1974, came as Horslips began to find an audience in America and Canada. Their next album, The Unfortunate Cup of Tea, was released in 1975. However, the latter two albums showed the band was moving away from their traditional Irish folk themes to a more commercial modern rock sound. These albums were considered weaker and RCA ceased the distribution deal in 1975 meaning that their next two albums were originally only released on their Oats label in Ireland.
In 1976, Horslips returned to their roots with a Christmas album entitled Drive the Cold Winter Away. This was recorded entirely on acoustic instruments and put them firmly back in the center of the folk-rock boom of the 1970s. In the early years no one member of the band dominated the music. There was ample room for each player to show what he could do and Eamon Carr (drums, vocals), Barry Devlin (bass, vocals), Johnny Fean (lead guitar, vocals), Jim Lockhart (flute, tin whistle, keyboards, vocals) and Charles O'Connor (violin, mandolin, vocals) could hold their own with the best. When it came to a live performance, Dearg Doom had become an anthem and it only took the opening bars to bring the house down.
Although they were never more than a cult phenomenon in the U.S.A., even with Atlantic Records releasing their mid-1970s albums, in England and Ireland, Horslips had built a substantial following and in 1976, they released a double live album. The group's next studio record, The Book of Invasions was released in 1977. Subtitled "A Celtic Symphony," it was inspired by another piece of Irish mythology, the battles of MaghTuiredh where the Tuatha de Danann were triumphant over the Fir Bolg in pre-Christian Ireland. Released on the DJM label (which also picked up their earlier albums in England, as Atlantic had in America), this album marked their only entry on the British charts, at number 39, and also found a dedicated audience in progressive and folk-rock circles in America.
The next two albums, Aliens in 1977 and The Man Who Built America in 1978 used the theme of immigrant Irish. They marked a change in sound for the band, which was now being guided more by the Devlin - Lockhart rock sound than the Carr - Fean folk approach. Itís been said that they lost their original direction at this stage. This may have been due to a belief that the way to a wider audience was by a more mainstream American rock sound than the traditional Irish folk rock which they had built their following on. Whatever the reasons, it was the beginning of the end for the band. Short Stories...Tall Tales released in 1979 was the last of Horslips' original albums, and was followed by one more concert album, the Belfast Gigs, released in 1980 and recorded at gigs in the Whitla Hall in Balfast on April 29th, 30th and May 1st 1980.
It was all over. In ten years Horslips had set the stage for a slew of Irish bands to follow on in their footsteps. They never had the commercial success that the likes of U2 had but that didn't mean they failed in any way. They left behind a catalogue of music which is still finding new fans and memories of concerts in Belfast where for a few magical hours Irish people could forget the troubles and sing and dance the way they were born to.
The following is some interesting information regarding the musical direction Horslips were taking and possible reasons for the eventual split. This comes from a number of different sources and is really a compilation of all the available information. If anyone can add or expand on what is here please let me know.
Any band no matter how close or tightly knit is ultimately a collection of reasonably independent people. In the majority of cases they will all have views and concerns regarding the musical direction the band should be taking. Towards the end of the group's life the band members of Horslips had begun to look at the horizon of their own musical specialisation. Eamon Carr was very influenced by the punk movement that was happening around 76/77. Look at any of the old photos that are available from that period and you can see it in the way he was dressing. Barry Devlin by contrast was still wearing flares in 1982. It seems that Eamon wanted the band to move further away from their folk roots. Towards the end, Charles O' Connor also seemed to be moving away from the more traditional sound. He was now more inclined towards playing the guitar rather than his trademark fiddle/mandolin. Also, Charles was certainly the most artistic of the group. He was the major force behind the sleeve design of the albums and it is believed that the music scene in America was a great influence on him. Barry Devlin and Jim Lockhart wanted to keep it more the way it was while Johnny Fean seemed to just want to play guitar.
On the latter albums, songs by Barry and Jimmy sounded the most like "Horslips" songs. For example on "Short Stories...Tall Tales", 'The life you save', Rescue me' and 'Back in my arms' had more of the old Horslips "flavour". Whereas 'Unapproved Road', 'Summer's most wanted girl' and 'Amazing offer' were all Charles' Songs and showed movement in a different direction. Likewise on "The Man who built America" Charles' song, 'Long weekend' could definitely be said to be not exactly "real" Horslips stuff.
It certainly looked like Barry and Jimmy wanted to keep the band going in the direction which had made their name whereas the others felt that they were maturing as musicians and needed to develop the sound further along the lines of the music at that time. Unfortunately, in the UK little was reported on Horslips' activities in their last year of existence, as they were so far out of step with the prevailing tastes of the music press. Their break-up only warranted a single sentence in the NME. But from the interviews that were reported, certainly Eamon and Charles were very influenced by Punk / New Wave. They were even quoting comments from the likes of Captain Sensible. One sure-fire indication of the split in musical ranks was the formation of Host after the break up. This was a short lived grouping of Charles, Eamon and Johnny, which produced an album (Tryal) considered to sound like a continuation of Short Stories...Tall Tales.
I'm sure there will be those who argue that the above is stretching things a bit as basically Horslips never made two albums that sounded the same anyway. In a way that was their brilliance but maybe it is what also led to their downfall as well. It could certainly be argued that if they had stuck to what many people described as the "Horslips" sound, they may have lasted a lot longer and been an even bigger influence on the music scene of the seventies. No one really knows for sure what were the causes for the band to split. I guess the only people who can really say what happened are the guys themselves. Maybe one day they will let us know.