From Belfast to Blackthorn

How Irishman Richard McMullan rambled to Detroit and started his band

Mar 16, 2011 at 12:00 am

Blackthorn is a band that almost wasn't.

It's the summer of '84, and the Detroit Tigers are in the midst of the pennant race, on their way to win the World Series, when 34-year-old high school teacher Richard McMullan got the call-up. But it wasn't Sparky Anderson on the other end of the line, rather it was bar owner John Brady, who had just fired his band and found himself in desperate need. For Irish music in 1980s Detroit, and baseball bars in general, the Shillelagh was the Big Leagues. McMullan, an occasional cover band drummer from Belfast, hadn't ever taken an at-bat as a guitar player, let alone bandleader. But then he swung hard and connected on the sweet spot with his hastily thrown-together combo.

More than 25 years into it — with hair that's gray, or on its way there, and a humble discography — the harmony hounds of Blackthorn continue to book between two and six shows a month, often playing back-to-back concerts no further than a half-hour's drive apart, and to audiences of 100 or more. And predictably, around St. Patrick's Day, the band is in heavy pub rotation.

But what if ...

What if the Tigers weren't headed for the World Series that year? What if that other band hadn't been fired? What if McMullan hadn't picked up his guitar and hollered out the songs of his youth for booze-fueled fanatics?

What if McMullan had stayed in Belfast?

Born in Belfast,
in 1950, Richard was the first son of Eileen and Richard McMullan. His mother, until more sons came along, worked as a stitcher in a factory that made overalls and dungarees, while his father did his hard work on oil tankers as a merchant marine. The McMullans were as working-class as working-class gets.

As a young lad, the McMullans lived on Shore Road, near the Belfast Loch. "My address was 152 Donview Bungalows, which might sound kind of fancy, but they were actually prefabricated houses that everyone called the prefabs," McMullan remembers. "But at least it was a mixed neighborhood." "Mixed" as in the community was home to both Catholics and Protestants — mostly Protestants. The Catholic-born McMullan knew his family was different than most who lived in the prefabs, but, at least in those early years, no big deal was made out of it.

Living in Northern Ireland, many if not the majority of McMullan's friends, early on, were Protestants. There was just one episode from his youth when Ireland's socio-religious civil conflict literally hit home. "It was 1958, and Robert Booth was my next door neighbor. His family was Protestant, and his mother was from Ballymena, a Scottish stronghold in the north. But we were friends," McMullan says. "One day, Booth and I got in this fight; we're rolling around on the ground; he's punching me. I remember his mother comes out of the house and she yells, 'Kill that Fenian bastard!'" The derogatory term for Catholics was what we might call an F-bomb today.

McMullan and Booth remained friends after the skirmish, and while Booth's mother would go on to cook dinner for the boys sometimes, her words left bruises deeper than her son's 8-year-old fists ever could.

When Richard was 11, the prefabs were slated for demolition, his family was relocated, and the two boys lost touch.

"We kept some of the remnants of a wall and took them to our new house to make a little garden with them," McMullan recalls. "Later, we'd come to find out that the exterior walls of the prefabs were entirely made of asbestos."

His family built the asbestos garden in the yard of their new home, in what sounded to be an upstart community in a part of Belfast called Turf Lodge.

"The neighborhood became a massive housing estate," McMullan says. "In the States, I think you call them housing projects, or the projects, but in Ireland, they're called housing estates, which again sound sort of nice, but really they're just dumpy."

To get to the McMullan's home, you'd have to come off the Glen Road, which was a fancy address, but then you'd arrive at the Estates. His was among the first 20 or so families to move in. But the government had a plan. Soon they began relocating more families to the projects until, McMullan estimates, there were about 3,000 families living there.

"Of course, all of us in the estates were Catholic," McMullan says. "It was complete gerrymandering: We were all put in one area, and so the voting precincts were such that a Protestant majority was always assured. Catholics just did not have the same opportunities as Protestants. You couldn't be a police officer or get jobs in other kinds of civil servitude, and your vote wouldn't count as much if you didn't own property — of course only Protestants owned property. The inequality was subtle, but it was always there."

But even the ghetto has its upsides here, just as from Belfast to Berlin and Brooklyn, ghettoes around the globe have incubated some of the greatest writers, artists and musicians. Turf Lodge housing estates were home to drummer Gerry McIlduff, the McMullan's new next-door neighbor.

"Gerry was about two or three years older than me and kind of became my big brother," McMullan says. "Anything he did, I did." Richard joined the water polo team when he learned McIlduff was on it; he went out to learn Irish because McIlduff was doing it; and when he found out McIlduff played the drums, Richard discovered his calling.

McMullan was 14 when he got his first gig playing the snare drum in an Irish pipe band. Naturally, McIlduff was also playing snare in the group.

McMullan recalls, "The band started off as called St. Gerard's Pipe band, but whoever was running it must've been pretty clever because when President Kennedy was shot we immediately became the John F. Kennedy Memorial Pipe Band, and automatically the band had new pipes, drums and kilts."

In time, McIlduff left school and started working full time in bands, which McMullan notes would have been a tremendous risk, given the economy at the time, "if it weren't that he was so superb." He would go on to play with several notables, including the Pogues, the Pretenders and Irish demigod Van Morrison. He kept a drum set at his parents' home in Belfast. When he was in town, McIlduff would teach McMullan something new; when he was on the road, McMullan would go over the last lesson.

McMullan got his first full-time drumming job with St. Mary's on the Hill Ceilidh Band. A ceilidh is a kind of party that celebrates Gaelic culture and features traditional Irish music and the highland step dancing styles made famous by Michael Flatley's "Lord of the Dance" concerts of the mid-'90s.

"I started drumming in the ceilidh band when I was maybe 15. It was me and, like, five other guys. ... They were probably 24, and I was wondering what I was doing in a band with these old guys," McMullan says. "The guys never really talked to me. I just went along with my snare drums and someone would tell me whether we were playing a jig (6/8 time) or a reel (4/4 time) and we'd just start right in, no rehearsal, no nothing. And the people, man, they'd dance."

Unknown to McMullan at the time, both his parents made it to his first gig with the ceilidh band at a hall that's quite a hike from their home in Belfast. "I noticed them way in the back of the room, trying their best to both hide behind a pillar," he says. Some 46 years later, he wears pride on his face like it happened yesterday.

newfound passion for playing drums came at a time when he needed an escape. In 1966, when he was 16, McMullan's youngest brother was killed in a road accident, which, Richard says, "cast a lengthy pall over family life for quite a while."

Solace was also found in school and the pop music of the day, which he also started to play with cover bands around town.

"There was then, and there still is now, a really good music scene in Belfast," says McMullan, who makes regular trips back to Ireland, including yearly ones with his bandmates and their fans.

"With musicians in Ireland, there's always the traditional folk thing, which is what I've come full-circle to with Blackthorn, but, back then, we really wanted to play rock 'n' roll," McMullan says.

During weeknights, in the college union and at local halls, he'd play traditional Irish folk songs, but on the weekend it was the Top 40 of the day, namely the Rolling Stones and Van Morrison.

"There's this Irish duality, musically, that never goes away," he says. "Clicking around on the Internet, I recently came across this U2 concert at Croke Park, a big stadium in Dublin, and in the middle of the rock concert they stopped and brought up one of the most famous folk singers, Ronnie Drew from the Dubliners, who was certainly very ill. So Bono says, 'We're going to do 'The Old Triangle' for Ronnie Drew.' Now that's a very famous song [one that Blackthorn's recorded and performs at most every show]. U2 starts in on the tune and everyone in the stadium, all 80,000 people, starts singing and they all know all the words. There's that duality."

There were two more dualisms in McMullan's life. The choice of balancing life as a student and musician was one. The rising tensions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — Protestants and Catholics — was the other.

While McMullan was the first in his family to go to college, his de facto older brother and hero Gerry McIlduff didn't, which McMullan says he always admired and, to an extent, envied. McMullan describes himself as a conscientious student who didn't do much besides drum and study.

"I was really excited to have been accepted to college. A lot of my friends did not get to. At the time, it was a privilege," McMullan says, who attended St. Joseph's College of Education in Belfast. "In America, if you have the money, you can find some kind of college to go to somewhere. In my experience, from 1968 to 1972, the only way you could get into college was if you had really good scores. You either got to go to college or you got to apprentice under a plumber. I have to tell you, there've been many times I regretted not going with the plumber or carpenter. At that time in Ireland, if you were a teacher, man, that was something ... you had respect and social status. I quickly found out when I came to America that that's not the case at all here."

Whereas music and school were McMullan's main interests, he tried his best to keep politics far off his radar. For as long as he could, anyway.

"You always had you the debate clubs and the political clubs. But I and the people I chose to hang around, we didn't bother with that," he says. "But even for those of us who weren't politically minded, there came a time in Ireland when you couldn't ignore it. By 1969, there was a deluge. Trouble started back up and there was terrorism on both sides, Protestant and Catholic."

McMullan was 19 years old at the onset of the Troubles, a 30-year period of violence that, from 1969 to 2001, claimed 3,528 lives. Belfast was a hotbed of agitation, turmoil and worse.

It all began with a peaceful protest on Jan. 4, 1969, by mostly Catholic university students from Belfast, marching for equal rights, touting the one-man-one-vote idea, largely inspired in by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who'd been assassinated the year before. The march was to go from Belfast to the town of Derry, but when they arrived at the Burntollet Bridge, the protesters were attacked by a blood-hungry mob of loyalists.

"The protesters were Catholic and Protestant," recalls McMullan, "like when whites and blacks marched for civil rights together in America in the '60s, only in Ireland they were all white and you couldn't tell who was who."

No matter their faith, those marching were helpless.

"As far as police, there was the regular police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), but then there was also an auxiliary force called the B Specials, who were not only all Protestant, but most were also all in the Orange Order," McMullan says. The Orange Order are a loyalist group who still to this day celebrates Protestant William of Orange III's victory over Catholic King James II, way back in July 12, 1690. "So every July 12, the Orangemen go out and beat their drums and the whole bit and it's the one day that they just really shove it in the face of the Catholics," McMullan says. "It'd be like if the Klu Klux Klan marched through Harlem once a year."

Protesters were not only beaten, but some were killed, and it came out that some of the attackers were B Specials wearing street clothes. Peaceful protests ceased, tumult came to a roaring boil, giving way the same vehemence Ireland succumbed to in the 1920s, only with modern weaponry.

"What happened then was that Catholic neighborhoods were repeatedly attacked by the B Specials, who were armed. Catholics in Northern Ireland, which is politically British, appeal to England for soldiers to be sent in to keep the peace," MucMullan says. "Here's where it gets tricky: The British, mostly Protestant soldiers are sent to protect the Irish Catholics from the Irish Protestants. I remember the British soldiers coming into Belfast, standing in formation with their bayonets at the corner of Falls Road and Townsend Street. And I remember the Catholic women coming out of their houses with tea and cookies, being real nice to 'em. And I remember Protestant so-called loyalists, because they were loyal to the Queen, start to stone the Queen's own soldiers. Try to make any sense of that."

The situation quickly deteriorated from bad to worse when the Irish Republican Army resurfaced. The old "eye for an eye" ethos gained ascendancy as the body count ratcheted up.

"The IRA had been an effective and, some say, justified force in the 1920s, when they got 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland free from England and governed from Dublin," McMullan says. "But IRA splinter groups popped up, and they were extremely violent; they started blowing people up. If a guy from their own side was thought to be an informant, he'd get a Black & Decker drill through his kneecap. It went on like that for years. But you know what they say, 'One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist.'"

McMullan says that, today, a peaceful climate seems to have been restored but that "the tension there is like a disease that only goes into remission, goes dormant for decades at a time, but never goes away completely."

While the tension
itself never goes away, McMullan himself started to do just that. Every Easter and every summer, like students then and still today, McMullan would get out of Belfast and head to London.

"In summer, you either went to London or New York to work in a factory or on a building site — that was just the thing to do," he says. "The odd thing was that, never, ever did it cross my mind to come to the United States. I'd go to London for six to eight weeks for work and would travel from there to France or Spain or somewhere else." (No coincidence that McMullan speaks French and Spanish fluently and has spent a career teaching both languages at the high school level. He's currently foreign language department head at Wylie E. Groves High School in Birmingham, Mich.)

But in the summer of 1971, in London, he met a traveling American named Sandra Bunge, a 21-year-old from St. Clair Shores who quickly captured his heart.

The two stayed in touch for the year, and after graduating in 1972, McMullan traveled to Detroit to spend the summer with Sandra. He ended up staying until winter and before heading back to London, where he'd received his first teaching job, the two were engaged.

"When I came over on the QE2, I took the heads off my drums and packed everything in them because I didn't have proper luggage," McMullan says.

Richard and Sandra were married in 1973. None of the other McMullans attended.

"They were really disappointed. Actually, my parents, especially my mom, hated it," McMullan says of his marriage. "When I finally decided that I was moving from London to America, they were disappointed. But there were additional problems because I married a non-Catholic. That's like an Arab marrying a Jew in New York. So, yeah, my parents didn't come to the wedding and they prohibited my brothers from coming too.

"There was me and one guy who'd come over that I was friends with in college who kind of stood in as my best man. There was a minister and a priest, but that didn't wash because we were getting married in a Protestant church."

It was rough, to say the least, but it didn't stay that way.

"The weird thing is some years later, my parents softened and came for a visit. We took them to the church where the wedding had been. It's a Lutheran church, and the service is almost identical to that of a Catholic one. My Catholic mother became very good friends with my Lutheran mother-in-law and they remained good friends until my mother died. Still, she was never pleased that not only had I gone to America, but that I married a Protestant." Thirty-eight years later, they're still married, living in Huntington Woods.

He recalls the surprises of Detroit and America: "It certainly wasn't as foreign as some places I'd been, but the size of the place, the size of the houses, and, gosh, the size of the food portions at a restaurant — never, ever did I finish anything on my plate. America's the second-best country in the world — after Ireland."

What he also discovered, rather quickly, that there are rather stereotypical responses when folks discover you're from Ireland. He's heard every Irish joke and doesn't want to hear your Irish accent, to cite a couple instances. Moreover: "When they find out I'm from Ireland, they say 'You know, so-and-so's Irish, too!' Or someone will say, 'You know, I'm Irish!' And it's like their great-great grandfather ate a plate of mashed potatoes one time, so now they're Irish or something." McMullan goes on to say he finds it more amusing than annoying.

"I find it amazing how Americans always want to claim somewhere else, to make it a point that they've been transplanted. It's as amusing to me as terms such as Italian-American or African-American. Even I don't say I'm Irish-American, I say I'm American — I took citizenship! Maybe because I know exactly where I came from, it's not an issue to me."

Early on in Detroit, people felt the need bring McMullan to Irish pubs and restaurants. "It's still the case that most of these places that claim themselves as authentically Irish couldn't be further from the real thing. But, hey, they're green, they serve corned beef, and they do their amateur's day near St. Patrick's Day every year."

Don't be fooled, McMullan takes St. Patrick's Day seriously, deeming it a testament to the people of the Emerald Isle. "There is no other nationality — not Italians, Greeks or English — that is so celebrated worldwide. Just take St. Patrick's Day. It's a worldwide celebration. People from several other countries travel the world, but it seems that the Irish have really made their mark across the globe. I was in New Zealand five years ago, touring with the Irish Rovers, and, from top to bottom, I met Irish people everywhere along the way. It amazes me still."

was teaching foreign languages at De La Salle Collegiate High School, playing drums in Top 40 bands around town and strumming out the Irish songs he knew from his youth on his guitar at home, by himself. On a chance trip to the Detroit River, however, he realized the market for this music when he ran into a trio of buddies from Belfast.

"One of the best Irish bands to ever play in the Detroit area was a band called Pat's People — and they were all from Belfast. They were a couple years older than me, but I'd gone to college with a couple of their younger siblings. It turned out they'd all married women from Detroit, moved here and became somewhat of a local fixture. I'd seen them dozens and dozens of times in Belfast. There used to be an ethnic festival on the riverfront — Mexican Week, Greek Week, Polish Week — I made it down for Irish Week. So I go down to check it out and who happens to be there on stage but these three guys? I was blown away. So we got to talking and they said they had a gig in a few days playing at the Old Shillelagh, which at the time was all Irish music, single acts and duos downstairs throughout the week and bands upstairs on the weekends."

This was a revelation. These were his people, playing his music "not that corny, stage Irish stuff."

It was 1984, the Detroit Tigers were in the playoffs headed to the World Series, which they'd go on to win, and the Old Shillelagh was, as it is now, a center for fandom pandemonium.

Says McMullan, "I got a call from John Brady, the owner, who'd just fired the previous band [not Pat's People] for whatever reason and he says to me 'Hey, I hear you play Irish music?' I say, 'Yeah.' He says, 'Well, how many of you are there?' And I tell him that it's just me, so he responds 'Well, you got to get two or three other guys with you, because it gets pretty rowdy in here."

Brady gave him a time and place to show up, but first McMullan needed to put a band together. "Before the band in its current formation got together, it was me, a guy I taught with at De La Salle, and a buddy or cousin of his," he says. "I'd never played guitar in a band or led a band, I hadn't even met the bass player till a week before the first gig, and we hadn't rehearsed. It was baptism by fire." As the older boys would do when McMullan was playing a snare in the ceilidh band in Belfast, he would just shout out the key the song was in and off they'd go.

McMullan named the band Blackthorn, after the thistle of his native land. A natural-born storyteller (there's an Irish cliché for you), and John Slattery handsome, McMullan's a charismatic frontman who bookends most every song with an origin story on one side and a joke, usually at the expense of his bandmates, on the other.

Soon, Fred Klein, a multi-instrumentalist living in Ann Arbor would join his band, lending piano, synth, flute and accordion to the sound. He's been with Blackthorn 22 years. Two years later, Gary McMullen, a Scotsman, guitarist and banjo player came on board. Finally, the new kid, bassist Dennis Green, who's been with the band 18 years, rounded out the sound. Each of the three lend serious chops and a knack for harmonizing with McMullan's rich croon.

"I'd take this band anywhere in the world, to the Sydney Opera House, and would be quite confident and proud that we'd deliver a world-class show," McMullan says of his band, which he raves about with ease and affection.

"I wouldn't still be doing this if it weren't for the other three guys," he says, stone-faced. "We're known, I think, for our vocals, and that's all them. I sing melody — don't ask me to sing a harmony. It's their musical ability that makes this band successful."

And the band, after 25 years, continues to find success.

They've played to increasingly larger audiences at the Milwaukee Irish Fest, the largest in the United States, for the past few years and, with a new record on the merch table, are already booked to go back this August.

Coming off a three-night stint at the Farmington Barn Theater in Farmington Hills, where they played to 700 people, followed by a special engagement performing to 400 at the Ark in Ann Arbor, McMullan refuses to gauge the band's success in dollars earned, seats filled, tours booked. Like any rock star worth his weight in whiskey, McMullan measures the band's clover by tangible connections made between the musician, the song and the audience.

"We did a show just the other night in Lansing and a bunch of teenagers came up to us after the show just raving about the band, the show, and the musicianship of Blackthorn," McMullan says "You know, I just turned 61 years old, I'm a school teacher, and these teenagers want to know where they can find our music, where we're playing next, when we'll be back. We had a real conversation about music. You just don't get that when you're playing drums in a rock band."

Blackthorn plays Thursday-Friday, March 17-18, at O'Mara's, 2555 12 Mile Rd., Berkley; info at