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The Irish Rovers

The Irish Rovers were one of the more popular folk-based singing groups to come out of Ireland in the mid-'60s, although they had to do it by way of Canada. As teenagers, founders George Millar (guitar, vocals, banjo) and Jimmy Ferguson (vocals) were former residents of Northern Ireland, living in Toronto, when they started singing together in 1963, originally for cigarette and beer money. It was Millar's mother who suggested, on hearing the duo rehearse, that they use the name the Irish Rovers, from the song "The Irish Rover." The duo of Millar and Ferguson became a trio with the addition of new immigrant Joe Millar (vocals, accordion), George's cousin, in 1964, and a quartet when the trio headed to Calgary, Alberta to add Will Millar (guitar, banjo, vocals) -- George's older brother, who was hosting a children's television show at the time -- to the lineup. Their original inspiration came from Tommy Makem & the Clancy Brothers, mixing shared vocals and somewhat heavier instrumental prowess.

After a successful engagement at a coffeehouse in Calgary where they honed their act for weeks, the group headed south to the United States, where they managed to get booked into the Purple Onion in San Francisco -- where the Kingston Trio and other renowned acts had been fixtures for years -- and then to the Ice House in Pasadena. At that time, they were a straight folk act with lots of good-time songs and between-song humor about drinking and other pleasures of the flesh. And they were popular enough at both venues to end up making a circuit of the still-vibrant folk club scene across the United States, then back to Canada, and finally a return visit to the Ice House in 1966. There, they were heard by Charles "Bud" Dant, an executive with the U.S. label Decca Records, who was so impressed with the group and their presentation that he not only got them signed to the label, but made the decision not to tamper with a good thing, and allow their debut album to be a live recording from the Ice House.

Their debut, The First of the Irish Rovers, was successful enough to justify a follow-up, and it was at that point that they began to run short of fully worthwhile repertory. It was Will Millar, who had hosted a children's show in Calgary, who provided them with an extra number, a children's song that had gone over well on his program. Written by Shel Silverstein, the renowned humorist, author, and singer, "The Unicorn" was popular on Millar's show and the group cut it as an album track and a single. The latter reached number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968, an extraordinary achievement at the time -- the mass popularity of folk music had begun receding as far back as 1965, as most of the top younger performers switched to electric instruments, and the folk-rock and psychedelic booms had done little to make the marketplace more hospitable. Yet here were the Irish Rovers, with one of the Top Ten singles in the country, and an album of the same name also selling well.

The record did bring about several changes for the group, however. Around this time, accordionist Wilcil McDowell, a friend of the bandmembers who also hailed from the Emerald Isle, joined the group to broaden the Rovers' sound. And meanwhile, although it wasn't really a children's song in the purest sense of the word, a lot of the appeal of "The Unicorn" was centered on younger listeners and their parents, and as their audiences grew, and large numbers of children started attending their shows, they had to cut back on the number of songs about drinking and other "ribald" subjects that would have been part of their usual set in previous years. That growth in their audience, and the abandonment of some of the repertory (and humor) that had made up their set forced the group to start seriously researching Irish folk music for new material. They were also hemmed in by the fact that they weren't a topical performing group -- they wanted to entertain rather than send messages, even in the middle of the Vietnam War and other sources of strife, especially the worsening violence over Northern Ireland (where all of the members originally hailed from). The closest they got to a "message" song was the distinctly humorous "The Orange and the Green" (which was adapted from the traditional tune "The Rising of the Moon").

The Rovers' lineup was surprisingly stable through the years, as they rode the success of "The Unicorn" across the '70s and beyond. By that time, more serious and scholarly Irish folk groups such as the Chieftains had emerged internationally to steal some of the spotlight, but the Irish Rovers still had a loyal and devoted following. In 1980, they were signed to Columbia Records' Epic & Affiliated Labels division, as it was called, releasing their music on the Cleveland International label -- this came with an initial name change to the Rovers, under which they had a minor country music hit with "Wasn't That a Party," which rose to number 45. But protests from longtime fans of Gaelic descent forced a restoration of their original name. Since then, Will Millar retired in 1995 and cousin Joe left the group ten years later; sadly, Jimmy Ferguson passed away suddenly in 1997. Still, the group -- including both George Millar and Wilcil McDowell -- has endured, and in more recent years has recorded for its own label, Rover Records. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography

Comments

I wish they had the unicorn album . There are songs that are not on other albums.
littletink98 0
All for me grog
F**k yeah
Just got back from Ireland and listening to The Irish Rovers makes me like I'm back there.
jarmerding
They had a pub at Expo'84 in Vancouver, BC. It was so much fun. (I was neither old enough nor inclined to drink, but many many folks hung out there to listen and sing)
Hhahaha love this song
Amen broder
Speaks to the primal instenc of me soul
very good
Really wish I was more Irish then Italian
Love The Irish rovers- I admit they calms my heart / stills my soul
There's irish in everyone
amrhanianaga e i l g e
Victoria---- - - - - y o u are going to the wrong pubs, love.
LONG LIVE IRELAND
My favorite is the orange and the green
Dont read this because it actually works. You will be kissed on on the nearest possible Friday by the love of your life. Tomorrow will be the best day of your life. However if you dont post this you will die in 2 days. Now youve started reading so dont stop. This is so scary put this on at least 5 songs in 143 minutes. When done press f6 and your lover's name will come on the screen in big letters. This is so scary because it works.

I prefer the clancy
These guys have such tight harmonies, it is incredible. Love their music.
LONG LIVE IRELAND!!!!! ! ! ! ! !
love this Irish sound
Does anyone out there know what happened to my old friend, Irish singer, Brendan Maguire? Used to live in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Knew him from a pub in Washington D.C. (Mat Kane's) in the 1980s, where he played occasionally . Would love to find out about him, how he's doing.
Thanks, Laurie Behr
tdonelso
Its not just for the older generations, I'm 25 and listen on the regular
Great band, I've been really getting into the irish folk recently.
My father introduced me to this song in the '80's. He loved it. I'll have to pass it to my grandsons.
rbolger1
what a great oldie...
I love this song
Cant' beat pandora that's for sure Jim
I don't know where the rest of my note went, but to add; And speaking of, PANDORA RADIO, WHAT A GOD SEND !!! And to be able to just go down memory lane at any time,AND FOR FREE !?!?? "WHAT IS THIS?" I LOVE IT !! THANK-YOU! THANK-YOU!! PANDORA RADIO !! Sincerally, Seimus O'Sirideain @/ cloverboy11@ h o t m a i l . c o m
I have'nt heard that song in ages ( The unicorn ).Hook me up, Chris ?! You must be a proud man, and to have had a Father such as yours to have touched so many hearts, God bless y"awl!!! Am really trying to hook up with some Connie Francis, Ruthie Morrison, the really good old songs. And can't find any old time accordin music.Every time I type it in, NOTHING SHOWS, I must be doing something wrong... This was what I was brought up with. Please asist me in finding on Pandora Radio. And speaking of
My father wrote "The Unicorn" and recorded the Irish Rovers on Decca Records, for which he received a gold record, which I still have. WIll Millar and his group still records all over the world--and are good friends of ours.
jcbrownusc
its a wonderful song to sing along with. Just love it.
Actually, The Unicorn was written by Shel Silverstein
Thanks Fred2030
willynjim, he wrote the unicorn song.
As a child with a transistor radio under my pillow, I would listen until the DJ played this song before I would allow myself to go to sleep! This version is the original that was played on the radio late 1950's and 60's.
ackerbex3
I don't care what the critics say... I like this song! I used to sing it to my daughter as a lullaby. The Rovers Album this song is on ("The Orange & The Green", I think) is well worth a listen. I always liked their version of 'The Black Velvet Band'
The Irish Rovers are considered an 'opinionated ' Irish group. I've found pubs that will NOT play ANY song associated with this group.
oh, I see. "The Unicorn" is the only song they have of the irish rovers, and they just happen to have the version that was on shel silverstein' s CD.
how is shel silverstein related to Irish rovers?
At least the song "The Unicorn" is very much like the artists listed here.
This group plays Irish/Celtic music and has nothing in common with the groups you have them listed with.

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