In 2004, traditional Irish group Dervish joined a select group that also numbers WB Yeats and Countess Markievicz, when they were honoured with the freedom of their home city of Sligo.
While the six trad musicians have recorded 13 albums and spent much of the past 30 years touring the world to huge acclaim, a sense of belonging and the centrality of home remains strong in the musicians – and accordionist Shane Mitchell becomes emotional when talking about the tragedy that unfolded recently in their native town, when two men, Michael Snee and Aidan Moffitt, were killed in their homes.
“It was very, very sad what happened,” he says. “One of the men who was killed, Michael Snee, was a friend of mine. I did Irish dancing with him years back, in Sligo Town Hall.
"He was quite a good Irish dancer. We were both kids. He was a neighbour of mine in Finisklin. He was a very sensitive character. I hadn’t met him in a few years.
“Sligo hasn’t got over the killings. This is a town still in shock. It doesn’t reflect the type of society we have in Sligo. It doesn’t reflect Sligo. Sligo has a very strong community spirit. Sligo is a very kind town.”
This is clear from the fact that on the night of June 17, Sligo will host Artists Against Homelessness in aid of Focus Ireland at the The Model Arts venue with Dervish, and many others.
“We should stop at nothing to keep people off the streets,” he says.
Born in 1965, Shane comes from a family steeped in tradition. His father Jim, from Glencar, Co Leitrim, was a fiddler. His maternal granny played accordion. His mother, Sheila Finnegan, from Templeboy, west Sligo, was a well-known Irish dancing teacher.
He can trace how it all began for him back in 1968. “Down that road,” he says, pointing, “is where my parents had a bar on Bridge Street. My earliest memory was hearing music while I was being minded by my maternal grandmother when we lived over my parents’ pub.
"I remember she brought me into the bar where there was a big session of traditional music one night. I guess it stuck.”
The following year, the family sold Mitchell’s Bar and moved to Finisklin, just outside the town centre. But the eight-bed house was too big for a small family of just Shane and his younger sister Fionnuala.
“My dad would often take in people who were down on their luck. He gave people who were living rough a roof over their heads. He was a very kind man. I’m very proud of what my parents did. They were exceptional human beings.”
There were some less exceptional happenings in Sligo at that time.
“In the late 1970s, the local council started to use the sea in Finisklin as the town dump,” he says. “The area got destroyed because of the dumping and there were rats everywhere. It was insane.
"There was a solicitor in the town called Tom Mullaney, a very principled man. He and my father took a High Court action against the council for dumping into the sea. Thirteen families were involved. All those houses were eventually bought by the council to settle the case. None of us wanted to move, but that was the outcome.”
In the early 1980s, the Mitchells moved again, to Calry. Their former home in Finisklin was subsequently converted into a hostel for homeless men 18 by Sr Marie Finan, an Ursuline Sister in Sligo.
“It’s great to see the house I grew up in, being used as a shelter,” says Shane. “It makes me proud, given that my dad did something similar all those years ago.”
Shane has achieved great things himself with Dervish, the band he co-founded in the trad bars of Sligo in 1989, with Michael Holmes (bouzouki), Liam Kelly (flute/whistle), Brian McDonagh (mandola/mandolin) and himself on accordion. Two years later, singer Cathy Jordan joined them and they released their first album in 1993, Harmony Hill, followed by Playing with Fire.
By 2001, they were playing the Rock in Rio festival in Brazil – to an audience of 240,000 people. It was not without incident.
“After we flew into Rio, we went straight to do a live radio session. Just as we were about to start the piece, I opened my accordion case – and to my shock and horror I’d brought the wrong accordion with me.”
He rang their then manager and good friend Felip Carbonell in Ireland saying ‘Help!’ – and help he did. Felip broke into Shane’s house in Sligo, got the right accordion, flew to Rio – and arrived at the festival just a few hours before Dervish were due to play their biggest ever show.
The elation of Rio was in grim contrast to what lay ahead in Ireland two years later, when both his parents developed cancer.
“It all happened within a year. I stopped playing because I wanted to care for them. I got great support from the band. At one stage I was wheeling two wheelchairs around Sligo General Hospital. That’s how bad it was.
"I did a couple of gigs, but I didn’t go to America on tour.” (Around that time, he did set up the Sligo Live festival – which still runs to this day and over the years has seen the likes of Elvis Costello and Van Morrison perform.)
His mother died in 2004.
“My dad was in bits. He went downhill very quickly and died 18 months later.”
Can he remember their last conversation?
“I told him I loved him. I was holding his hand.”
The year before Covid was a special time for the group, with the release of their Great Irish Songbook album, featuring such guests as Steve Earle (‘The Galway Shawl’) and Imelda May (‘Molly Malone’). That same year the BBC gave Dervish the Lifetime Achievement Award.
As for the long-awaited part two of The Great Irish Songbook, Shane says it “will come out sometime in the next couple of years. We’re taking our time.“
In the interval, the band are working on the “creative process” with Ry Cooder, the US musician, composer and producer who has worked with the likes of Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones – but is more importantly known for his collaborations with traditional musicians from many cultures; ones which have resulted in such musical landmarks as the Buena Vista Social Club album.
“It’s going to be a special collaboration. We’re always trying to create new structures and arrangements as to how Irish traditional music is being played and presented. But our music will always be connected to the south Sligo tradition – the Sligo style.”
Dervish recently returned from a US tour, their first full tour in the States in almost three years because of the pandemic. Shane says playing cities like Portland and Seattle was an emotional experience.
“It was jaw-dropping to see how completely out of hand the homeless crisis has got there in such a very short space of time, with tented villages practically on the sidewalks.
"This is what Ireland has ahead of itself if we don’t get on top of this crisis now. If we think it’s bad now, it’s likely to get much worse.”
Artists Against Homelessness in aid of Focus Ireland with Moxie, Dervish, Pauline Scanlon, Honas and Seba Safe at The Model, Sligo at 8pm on Friday, June 17. Tickets, €20 from themodel.ie