March 14, 2004
shillelaghs - or "cudgels" - are made from the wood of
20 years ago, the process was reversed, and an Irish band
called Blackthorn was created in a downtown Detroit pub called
The Old Shillelagh.
"The owner there fired his house band without having a
replacement," says Richard McMullan, Blackthorn's lead singer,
guitarist and mandolin player, who's a Belfast native and the
band's only remaining original member. "I was playing as a
single here and there, and somehow he got hold of my
McMullan partnered up with two other musicians, but they
were primarily interested in playing folk music.
"We threw a show together and played it, but it was pretty
grim," he recalls. "And even though we were packing the place
after a while, and the owner wanted us to stay, we knew it
wasn't going to work."
Nonetheless, Fred Klein joined the group and played
keyboards, tin whistle, flute and accordion. Though not of
Irish descent, Klein loved Celtic music and tried to nudge the
band in that direction.
"Richard and I were always pushing to play more Irish
songs, so the others became unhappy and quit after a while,"
Klein says. "But we eventually picked up better guys who were
more dedicated to gigging and rehearsing anyway."
Those "better guys" were bassists Dennis Green and Gary
McMullen on banjo and guitar, and with these last members in
place, Blackthorn became the house band for Cowley's Pub in
There, over the course of more than a decade, the band
developed an intensely loyal, albeit eclectic, following.
"College kids bring their parents to see us, or the other
way around," Klein says, "and some people raise their kids on
our music. When they're old enough, they start coming to see
And while the group takes its music seriously - achieving a
traditional, authentic Irish sound laced with gorgeous
four-part harmonies - the four also have a lot of fun, poking
fun at each other and the audience during shows.
They almost never have a set list of songs, preferring
instead to take requests and let each night's performance
"We always see a lot of people in the audience singing the
songs," McMullan says, "and the only way they could know them
is if they've seen us before."
Jenn Beams, 26, a high school teacher from Royal Oak, is a
recent Blackthorn convert. After hearing about the group last
August, she and her husband came to a show, and have returned
many times since.
"We listen to their CDs in the car all the time," she says.
"(Their appeal) has to do with the mood they put you in when
you see them. They're so fun."
Blackthorn's broad repertoire balances laments with
up-tempo reels. The group has released five CDs, but is always
on the lookout for new material.
"It's the hardest thing we do," McMullen explains.
"Sometimes we'll labor over a song, practice it and practice
it, and it just won't work. But other times, we'll do a song
once or twice and it will just feel like it's made for
A wholly different challenge, though, arose for the group
last year. Cowley's Pub closed down for several months for
extensive renovation, and shortly after it reopened as a
restaurant and bar, the group decided to part ways with the
venue, albeit on amiable terms.
"We still intend to play there, but we want to play our
music in some other venues," McMullen says.
"Our performance is so dependent on people listening and
getting involved - singing along and clapping," Klein adds.
"We do well only when the crowd is interacting with us."
Recently, Blackthorn adopted O'Mara's in Berkley as its new
base of operations.
"They're great people there, but they've also never had a
group like us before," McMullan says. "The difficulty for them
is changing from a restaurant to a pub between 9 and 12, but
they're working hard to accommodate us and our regulars."
In its new home, Blackthorn seems to have hit its
"This configuration is the best any of us has ever
experienced in terms of talent, professionalism, dependability
and compatibility," McMullan says. "Speaking as an Irish
native, I'd take this band anywhere in the world and put them
on any stage."
If you go
Blackthorn plays the first and third Friday and Saturday
each month at O'Mara's, 2555 W. 12 Mile Road, Berkley. Call