THE IRISH ROVERS
On stage in 2023: GEORGE MILLAR, IAN MILLAR, GEOFFREY KELLY (Flutes and whistle), GERRY O’CONNOR (Fiddle), FRED GRAHAM (Bodhran), DAVEY WALKER (Keyboards), and joining the band for the first time will be SHANE FARRELL (Banjo), JIMMY KEANE (Accordion) and KEVIN EVANS (Singer).
“Throughout the years, these international ambassadors of Irish music have maintained their timeless ability to deliver a rollicking, rousing performance of good cheer – one that will soon have you singing and clapping along. Their songs have become anthems of revelry and joy among generation after generation of fans.” – BELFAST TELEGRAPH
The Irish Rovers formed in Toronto, Canada. They have produced over 45 albums in North America and many more internationally with the band’s 2014 album 50 Years being touted as “The Greatest of their Greatest Hits”. In 2023, The Irish Rovers will celebrate their 60th Anniversary.
Last year began with the legendary Irish Rovers hitting the Spotify’s VIRAL TOP 50 in both the US and the UK/ Ireland, and ended with recording a new album, No End In Sight. They thank young Nathan Evans for carrying on the tradition of the sea shanty, and have included their original 1977 version of “The Wellerman” (with a happier ending) on the new album.
The popular No End In Sight album includes a new anthem for our time, Hey Boys Sing Us A Song, which has been nominated Canadian Folk Music Awards’ 2023 SINGLE OF THE YEAR. The song, written by George Millar was inspired by the last two years of frustrations and includes his welcome refrain, “We all need some happiness back in our lives!”
Canada has been home to the Rovers since its inception in the early 60s. Millar says, “It’s been a bit odd, being from both Ireland and Canada. Some fans have found it confusing as well, asking where we’re from. At times I’ve felt like a man with no country.” This lead to the song Band Without A Country from their 2020 album Saints And Sinners which tells their story from Ireland to Toronto and beyond,
The Rovers’ 2019 release Up Among The Heather, The Scottish Album reflected the Scots influence on their Northern Irish roots.
It’s not every day you get to see music legends, and when you do get the chance, your expectations may be tempered by realities about age and time (See: The Stones, Dylan, etc.), but on a cool Sunday evening in Columbus, there were no such kinks in the armour. Delighting old fans and certainly surprising some new ones with their land speed record-playing on “The Dublin Pub Crawl,” the sheer pop perfection of the shiny happy hit, “The Unicorn,” and its brilliant new follow-up, “Narwhal, The Continuing Story of The Unicorn,” it was one for the books. – Columbus Calling, 2018
2018 was the Gold Anniversary of The Unicorn hitting the top of the charts, which took the Rovers from folk clubs of America to concert halls and television sets worldwide.
The Unicorn song, which was in fact a last minute add to the original album, left us all with a tear or two, plus the unanswered question, ‘Whatever happened to the Unicorns when the ark left them stranded on the shore?’ Since that first big hit, the band returned to the charts 15 more times, nevertheless the magic of The Unicorn remained. To pay appropriate tribute in its 50th year, the Rovers release The Unicorn, The Continuing Story (CD & Special Limited Edition LP) which includes all new recordings, plus the sequel to The Unicorn song, which answers the question of the last fifty years.
In 2016 the Rovers produced their third television special since 2011, The Irish Rovers LIVE on St. Patrick’s Day. The live show was filmed in Nanaimo Canada at the end of their 50th Anniversary Tour, 2015 and broadcast into Diana Krall Plaza. The City of Nanaimo in conjunction with Rovers management produced a St. Patrick’s Day outdoor festival, The Irish Rovers Street Party. The concert was broadcast On Demand across Canada and is now avaiable as a double disc DVD or CD set. One disc is the full live show, the second was filmed in Lismore Ireland and includes special segments from throughout the band’s long career.
In 2015, the Rovers released the second children’s album of their career. “Songs for the Wee Folk” includes some classic favourites and new gems for the wee darlin’s.
The Rovers 2012 album was in response to mammoth attention their Drunken Sailor recording recieved on YouTube. It brought them back to the radio airwaves across North America and attracted a younger generation of fan worldwide. The album is full of tales from the sea, including a tribute to The Titanic marking its 100th anniversary.
The days of the long tours are coming to an end for these lads as they are now completing one last world tour. After that, they will finally be available for special events, festivals and longer stays. International touring will happen only on a very limited scale.
ULSTER- musical icons the Irish Rovers have recorded a song telling the story of the Titanic with its beginnings in Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. Rovers’ founder George Millar, a Ballymena man domiciled for most of his life in Canada, says: “Irish pride was at its highest, and the sinking devastated the Belfast shipyard and its workers. To this day they say with a wry smile – ‘she was all right when she left here’. Belfast Newsletter
Like the famous Bushmills Irish Whiskey, The Irish Rovers continue to improve with age. Gaelic Hour, CHIN 97.9
Irish Rovers celebrate a bonny resurgence…From the recent resurge in popularity of The Irish Rovers, it would seem the lads themselves have returned to their glory days, and are still charging… The Morning Call
The story of The Irish Rovers (aka The Rovers) is one for the big screen; hosting three award-winning television series, topping the music charts again and again, several appearances as musical bank robbers on “The Virginian”, and more than 46 years of international recordings and touring their music around the world. The Irish Rovers themselves, were the inspiration for one of the world’s best-known party anthems. The boys in the band have lived large.
The Irish Rovers, one of the most successful and enduring of all Irish folk bands. – BBC ULSTER, 2010
The band has regularly toured Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. In 2010, they released Gracehill Fair (Rover Records), which received high accolades from Maui to Belfast, and in 2011 released both Home In Ireland, and their first Christmas CD in over a decade, Merry Merry Time of Year. In September 2010, the lads returned to their roots, to film in Northern Ireland for their DVD / television special, Home in Ireland. Life in Ireland, and emigration have long been the focus of the band’s original music. Home In Ireland is a tribute to their homeland and the Irish emigrants who long to return. While revealing the beauty of their homeland The Irish Rovers perform on location at Carnlough Harbour, Dunluce Castle, The Giant’s Causeway, Slemish Mountain, Glenarm, Galgorm Manor near Ballymena, and onstage at Waterfront Hall, Belfast. George Millar says, “It’s basically The Irish Rovers ‘Coming Home’ because this is our home, for all of us. We want to show the world what the northeast Irish coast is like. I’ve traveled the world now for over 40 years and there’s nothing like it.”
As young Irish immigrants themselves, the Rovers became so much a part of the Canadian cutlure that Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau personally asked them to become Canadian citizens so they could officially represent Canada around the world. By 1989 they had hosted three international television series, recorded 25 albums and had represented Canada at five world Expos – Montreal (1967), Osaka, Japan (1970), Okinawa, Japan (1976), Vancouver (1986), and Brisbane, Australia (1988). In recognition for a quarter century of contributions to the International music world, The Irish Rovers won the Performing Rights Organization’s (PROCAN) ‘Harold Moon Award’. At Expo86 in Vancouver, they recorded, “The First Thirty Years” at their Irish Rovers Free House “The Unicorn”. In ‘89, their “Silver Anniversary” Collection Album featured backing by The Chieftains and songs written by Randy Bachman, Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance.
The Irish Rovers formed their own record company in 1993, which finally gave them full control over their music production. Since then, several of their albums have been recorded in both Canada and Ireland. Over the years, the band has survived management changes, record label changes, personnel changes and still over 46 years later, they’re selling out concert halls internationally. Since ’95, they’ve released ten more albums including Come Fill Up Your Glasses, Down by the Lagan Side, Still Rovin, Gracehill Fair and two double album Greatest Hits, Gems and 40 Years A-Rovin. Recently, their recording of Drunken Sailor reached a younger generation with over 5 million hits on various YouTube sites, which in turn lead to the release the Drunken Sailor album.
There aren’t many groups in Canada that can match the legacy of The Irish Rovers. TV stars, huge concerts draws…major memorable hits. Plus, you have the longetivity…their popularity continues. They are on a national tour, have a brand new Christmas CD, and a TV special filmed in Ireland coming up. Bob Mersereau, CBC, 2011
The 60’s – The Beginning
The story of the Irish Rovers starts in 1963 in Canada, where the 16-year old George Millar and 23-year old Jim Ferguson, both new emigrants from Northern Ireland, met in Toronto at an Irish function. They sang together ‘til dawn.
George and Jimmy formed the first Irish Rovers for an amateur variety show in Toronto and won! – The Calgary Herald, 1971.
George’s cousin, Joe Millar, also then immigrated to Canada. Joe, who played button-key accordion, harmonica, and sang traditional ballads, was recruited as he stepped off the plane.
THE FOLK SINGING “BOOM” in the States and Canada has proved profitable for three young Ballymena men who form the nucleus of a popular, Toronto-based group who call themselves “The Irish Rovers.– Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, 1964.
We actually formed the group in Toronto,” Jim (Ferguson) said. “I sang, George played guitar and at that time Joe was playing a little button key accordion… Will was our critic at large – the big time. He had his own TV show and all, and he would offer us long-distance advice, tell us why we sounded good or bad. The Irish Rover is a song about a ship that sunk half way through its career and Will used to kid us by saying (if we called ourselves that) the same thing would probably happen to us! So we said, ‘O.K. – to hell with you, we will.’ and we did. …We were ambitious in those days, we’d played the clubs to death in Toronto and we didn’t know what to do next; what direction to take. So we decided to visit Will in Calgary, ended up staying there, and the Irish Rovers became four. – Canadian Musician Magazine, 1979.
While in Toronto, George and Will Millar’s musician father Bob, became the band’s representative and guided the young lads through several months of playing folk song festivals, Hootenany’s, Irish soccer dances, coffee houses, and Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre. For a short time, George, Joe and Jimmy were joined by bass guitarist, Vic Marcus and banjo player, Doug Henderson. In ’64 George and Jimmy headed west to Calgary, Alberta, to join forces with George’s brother, Will who was solo singing at Phil’s Pancake House, and performing on a childrens’ television show. They called Joe back in Toronto to bring his family out to Calgary and join them. Photo from left, Will Millar, Jimmy Ferguson, George Millar, Wilcil McDowell, Joe Millar.
“Calgary is very special to us because that’s where Will joined the band, and years later it was the spot we chose to build our flagship Unicorn Pub.” George Millar describes the band’s first television performance:
Will, was presenting a children’s TV show in Calgary called Just 4 Fun. We went on the show and sang, Whiskey You’re the Devil,” Millar recalls….
…There were these little five-year-olds sitting on the floor in front of us. Of course the switchboards lit up with people going, ‘Please don’t be putting those songs in our children’s ears.’ That’s how we began. – The Calgary Sun, 2010
Will Millar, who’s first ‘gigs’ were at Phil’s Pancake House and being booked by Fredrick Tschritter at the then Beacon Hotel in Calgary AB, introduced the group to his manager Les Weinstein who became the Irish Rover’s full-time manager, and Will became leader of the band. The Irish Rovers were already regulars at Calgary’s popular Depression Coffee House and Weinstein encouraged them to head south to “Americay”.
American agent, Jan Brainerd was impressed after seeing them perform at a tavern called Dinucci’s. She arranged for an audition at the famous folk club, The Purple Onion, in San Francisco where they headlined for an unprecedented 22 sold-out weeks. Mrs. Brainerd became their longtime booking agent and later engineered their first recording contract with Decca Records in 1966. The lads fresh brand of Irish music was a hit in the US.
The Debut – First of The Irish Rovers & The Unicorn
In 1966, The Irish Rovers released their debut album, appropriately titled, The First Of The Irish Rovers (Decca), recorded live at “The Icehouse” in Pasadena. The liner notes introduced these new, young recording artists: “Irish music is the history and character of the Irish people recorded in song. The special message of this music is conveyed with authority and skill by a refreshing new singing group, The Irish Rovers.” – Judith Tane
The success of this first release lead to a second. This included a sweet little song with words written by Shel Silverstein, that Will sang for the children on “Just 4 Fun” and the lads had been playing in the clubs, called “The Unicorn”. At this point, Joe quit the group in order to get a ‘respectable’ job befitting a young father, while their pal, All-Ireland Champ Wilcil McDowell replaced him in the group. One evening while driving to their next concert on tour, the lads realized, that it was in fact their recording of “The Unicorn” playing on the radio. They leaped out of the van and tossed their clothes as dancing Rovers filled the street. That little song became a multi-milion seller, and beloved by a generation. Some months after the song hit, Joe rejoined The Rovers – the legendary lineup was complete. For five young adventurers from Ireland, life was about to change.
In 1968, The Irish Rovers were named Canada’s, “Folk Group of the Year”, by the predecessor of the Juno’s. The following year, they received a Grammy nomination for “Folk Performance of the Year”.
The Rovers made several appearances on television in the US and Canada including several appearances as musical bank robbers on The Virginian, The Mike Douglas Show, The Smothers Brothers Show, The Beachcombers and even as contestants on The Dating Game. The band used their new found fame to promote Irish Music in general to the North American public.
The 70’s – Irish Music Becomes A Hit On CBC
During the 1970s, the Irish Rovers hosted CBC’s, The Irish Rovers Show which ran for 6 seasons. The show was produced/directed by Ken Gibson who worked closely with Will Millar on choosing the show content. Designed to entertain both children and adults, the award-winning show became the most popular Canadian variety show of its time. Newspapers reported that the show occasionally surpassed even Hockey Night in Canada, and the top US sit-coms for viewers. Between rousing Irish folk songs, they captured the younger Canadian audiences with Will, George and Jimmy leaping about in leprechaun costumes with technical crew using state of the art technology. The band then played host to their friends, like Irish music legends The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem who would return several times throughout the Rovers’ various television incarnations. The lineup of guest stars included many musical heavyweights like Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Vera Lynn and Carl Perkins. In ’72, Attic records produced a live album at CBC television studios in Vancouver, Canada. Brothers Will and George Millar wrote many songs together during these years.
Wilcil McDowell recalls a moment which stood out for him on The Irish Rovers Show:
At one time when we were filming one of our shows, Johnny Cash was on tour, and this was in the early 70’s. We thought it would be very nice to have him on the show because Johnny Cash had come over and toured Ireland, and he was immensely popular over here. So we asked him to come on, and the budget wasn’t all that great, you know for the guest stars in those days, and we just wanted Johnny to come on with his guitar, and the little house band to back him up. But he landed in, not only with his guitar, but with The Tennessee Three, Carl Perkins and the complete Carter Family! Meanwhile, the producer and our manager are going up the walls “We can’t afford this – there’s no way”. So they approached him and said to Johnny, “We told you what our budget is and we just can’t afford this.” Johnny said to our manager and the producers, “Don’t you worry about it. Ireland has been very good to me. Just consider this a part of the favor returned.
Throughout the 70’s, the Rovers often filmed on location throughout Canada for their show and for several CBC Superspecials as in this photo which was taken on the set of Emigrate! Emigrate! – produced by Ken Gibson, directed by Don Eccleston, and based on a musical concept by Will Millar. The band also regularly filmed in Ireland for their television series. In the photo are The Irish Rovers with their families.
The 80’s – Party Like A Rover
In the 80’s, the group hosted several “Superspecials” for CBC and also starred in their second national television series, The Rovers Comedy House, a 7-part CBC series of Irish music and comedy which again had them filming many segments back home in Ireland.
The Rovers enjoyed life to such an extent, that their notorious partying inspired their next hit in ‘81. They soared to the top of the pop and country charts with Wasn’t That A Party which their friend, Tom Paxton wrote after he attending one of the band’s famous post-show parties. The Rovers also put their spin on an unknown dittie written by Randy Brooks, which took it to the top of the charts with their first national release of “Grandma Got Run-Over By A Reindeer”, the single from their album “It Was A Night Like This”. It remains a favorite holiday anthem today. During the 80’s the band had several chart topping and award-winning albums, including “The Rovers” (1980) and “No More Bread And Butter” (1981).
From 1984 to ’86, The Rovers starred in their third television series, Party With The Rovers. The show was set in a traditional pub setting with celebrity guests performing each week. This time, the roster again included friends, Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy, as well as Lonnie Donegan, Andy Gibb, Rita Coolidge, Ronnie Prophet, Boxcar Willie and many more. “The Rovers taped visits to Northern and Southern Ireland, Scotland, England, New Zealand, P.E.I., Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Banff and even Alert-at the tip of Ellesmere Island-the farthest, northerly inhabited base in the world.” – TV Guide, 1978. The series was a co-production between Canada’s Global TV and Ulster Television in Ireland, and was syndicated around the world.
The Irish Rovers hosted several Superspecials for CBC famous Unicorn Pub At Expo86 in Vancouver was where they recorded, “The First Thirty Years”. It was at this time John Reynolds began playing with the band. Their “Silver Anniversary” album (Rover Records, 1989) featured songs written by Randy Bachman, Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. Most of the songs up to and including the 80’s can be found on their Greatest Hits double album, The Irish Rovers’ Gems.
Traditional Irish Music For The Modern World
“The crowd was in the palm of their hands as The Irish Rovers delivered flawless music that spanned two sets and featured songs recognizable to the die-hard fan (yet also the perfect introduction to the new-comers), trademark Rovers hits and songs you can find on their latest album. From the memorable Rambling Boys of Pleasure and Whistling Gypsy Rover to their newest singles The Titanic and the iTunes censored, Whores and Hounds the evening had it all.” TARON COCHRANE.
“As The Irish Rovers came onstage, the crowd proffered a fantastic surge of cheers and applause that morphed into clapping and stomping as the band opened with their namesake song, “The Irish Rover”…whoops and cheers from the crowd echoed those onstage from Rover founder, guitarist and singer, George Millar. In his wonderful lolling Irish accent, he encouraged the crowd to sing along to traditional songs like “Drunken Sailor,” “A-Rovin’,” and their most famous, signature song, “Unicorn,” which swept a wave of nostalgia through the audience. A number of people could even be seen joining in with the hand motions they learned as children.” – THE PIONEER TIMES
“Irish Rovers charm with their effortless musicality, uproarious wit and winsome ways… elicited claps, hoots and cheers throughout both sets…” – MEDICINE HAT NEWS
“Irish, high-energy tunes with lyrics that quicken the blood and make you feel life’s really worth living…” – TELEGRAPH JOURNAL
Imperial Theatre had quite a few Christmas themed shows this year but none had the response that THE IRISH ROVERS CHRISTMAS got -the boys thrilled the audience with Holiday merrimemt and old fashioned entertainment … great addition to our Mainstage lineup and a pleasure to present. – IMPERIAL THEATRE INC
The Irish Rovers continue to tour the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Will Millar left the group in 1994, Jimmy Ferguson passed away while on tour in 1997, and in 2005 Joe Millar retired to the golf course, while his son, Ian took up the family ranks. Classic lineup members, George Millar and Wilcil McDowell still perform the majority of songwriting and music production for the band.
The days of the long tours are coming to an end for these lads as they are now completing one last world tour. After that, they will rove again only for special events, festivals and longer stays. International touring will happen only on a very limited scale.
Note: Have mercy. Trying to compile the history of The Irish Rovers on one page is absurd. Here we’ve tried to hit some high points. JJFahrni