By Mark Bergin
Recipe for success: twenty-one years, ten albums, hundreds of thousands of fans, too many miles to count, and an intense work ethic.
That’s how Finny McConnell, frontman for Irish punk band The Mahones, got where he is today.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, McConnell’s family moved to Kingston when he was a young child. He grew up here and attended Victoria Public School and Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute.
“It seems like a lifetime ago,” said McConnell during an interview with him from his current home in Montreal.
After high school, McConnell left Kingston to study music—on the streets of London, England.
“That’s where my favorite bands came from,” he said. “The Clash, The Who and the Pogues.”
Ironically, Irish punk music was born on the streets of London, from the discontent of the Irish diaspora. Like McConnell, Shane MacGowan, the poet/vocalist of The Pogues, was born in Ireland, but emigrated at a young age. MacGowan’s family went to London. On those streets, MacGowan brought Irish storytelling and music into the punk scene. MacGowan changed the Irish music landscape.
In 1982, the Pogues hit the musical scene. In 1985, Finny McConnell left Kingston for London, and landed smack in the middle of the music he loved and a whole new developing genre, Irish punk.
In 1990, after returning to Kingston, and while sitting at the end of the bar in the Toucan, McConnell formed a one-off band for a single St. Patrick’s Day show. The band went on to become the Mahones and has since played thousands of gigs. They’ve toured across Canada many times. They’ve been cheered by thousands across the USA, Australia and Europe, including Scandinavia. They’ve shared the stage with the likes of Shane MacGowan, Van Morrison, and Sinéad O’Connor.
Nowadays, websites like Metromix and DIGG include the Mahones in lists of the top ten Irish punk bands, alongside the Pogues. In fact, Terry Woods and Phil Chevron of the Pogues have played in the Mahones during a past tour. Twenty bands around the world recently recorded a tribute album of Mahones songs.
The Mahones song “Paint the Town Red” was featured prominently and announced in the climactic final scene of last year’s Academy Award winning movie The Fighter.
For their latest album, Black Irish, Finny said, “I wanted to make a classic Irish Punk record that fused traditional Irish folk much with classic punk rock, to the extreme.”
The Mahones succeeded.
It hasn’t been sunshine the whole way. In 1999, Mahones bassist Joe Chithalen died of anaphylactic shock in Amsterdam shortly after a concert. The Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Library, Joe’s M.I.L.L., was established in Kingston by Wally High and others soon after.
“It was sad,” said McConnell. “Joe was one of my best friends and when he died I was there. Now that Wally High has passed away, I think it’s my turn to get involved and step up a bit. I don’t live in Kingston anymore, so I can’t organize Joe Shows. But I can try to do my bit every year, do a couple of Mahones benefit shows a year for M.I.L.L.”
He hopes to do a benefit show in December. He’s got a gift for the library.
“I’ve bought a new guitar like the one I play,” said McConnell. “I’ve tried it and it plays perfectly. I want to give it to the lending library.”
McConnell said he’d encourage other successful musicians to do their bit for the library. McConnell hopes to do a benefit show in Kingston in December.
There’ve been a fair share of bright spots along McConnell’s musical trek, including marital bliss. His wife, Katie McConnell, now plays accordion for the band.
The Mahones lost their previous accordionist about five years ago.
“Katie is a great pianist,” said Finny. “I asked, ‘why don’t you play accordion on tour with us?’”
Within a short time, Katie McConnell mastered all the band’s songs.
“Roland Italy saw Katie and she got an endorsement from them,” said Finny. “Now she plays these $3000 digital accordions they give her for free. They’re amazing instruments. They make all kinds of sounds, accordion, strings, flute. Katie was one of the first to play this kind of instrument.”
Along with Finny on guitar and lead vocals and Katie McConnell on accordion and vocals, The Mahones lineup includes Sean Winter (mandolin, banjo, vocals), Dominic Whelan (drums, vocals), Nick Oliver (bass, vocals), and Mike O’Grady (tin whistle).
Many Irish punk bands have an undeserved reputation for hitting the bottle.
“My music is at a better place than ever,” said McConnell. “I’m playing and writing better songs than I ever have in my life. We don’t drink when we’re performing on tour. “
McConnell said for tours and live performances he concentrates on playing and singing the best he can.
“When a band starts out, there’s free beer and whiskey,” he said. “It happens to all of us, and you have to realize you’re not playing as well as you could. Nobody likes that. Look at Shane (MacGowan). He’s a genius when he’s on his game. It’s like Joe Strummer (of the Clash) said, ‘Give it all you got or forget about it.’ If someone is on drugs or alcohol on stage, it screws it up for everyone. You sell records by being f##ing great. You get great by practising forever, and doing great shows.”
Then he laughed and added, “The party is after the show. But first we put on a great show for the crowd, give 150 percent. Then people will come back to see you again.”
Finny’s right. The people have been coming back to see them for two decades. When I first saw them 20 years ago, I thought they had the potential for greatness. It’s nice to see that this local lad had the skills and wisdom to reach that potential.
For more information: http://www.themahones.ca