In the Family


An article about The Hooligans written for Saffron Walden Hub magazine

By Liam Halligan

I blame Debbie Bashford. It was Debbie who booked our first gig. There was I in the Kings Arms, back in February 2014. Enjoying a pint at the bar, I fell into discussion with other locals, as it’s so easy to do.

On this occasion, the subject was how to make sure your kids do their music practice – often a painful process. My disclosure that, as an antidote to grade three scales and arpeggios, my family sometimes mucked about with traditional Irish music, was overheard by the sharp-eared landlady.

“It’s St Patrick’s Day next month, so you can play here,” said Debbie, expertly pulling a pint. “We can order green bunting and some of those foam Guinness hats – it will be a laugh”.

As so we were booked. I went home and told my daughters – and, from that point on, music practice has (nearly always!) been fun.

One of my earliest memories is of my Irish grandfather, Martin Halligan, expertly playing a fiddle, silencing a packed working-mans’ pub in London’s Willesden Green, close to where I grew up. My daughter, Maeve, now plays that very same fiddle (albeit with new strings) having picked up the musical gene. Her eldest sister, Ailis, also has great rhythm and a sweet alto voice.

Since they were tiny, the three of us – Ailis on piano, Maeve on fiddle, me on guitar – have experimented with Irish tunes that we’ve found in books, picked-up from Youtube, or that were lodged at the back of my head.

Saffron Walden is a small town but, as my family has discovered since moving here in 2007, Walden and the surrounding villages are packed with musical talent and the urge to perform. From pub bands to our very own symphony orchestra, local people play and play well – for themselves, for their friends but, above all, for fun. Then, of course, there’s the wonderful Lights Festival, the newly-established Fete de La Musique and the jaw-droppingly brilliant 8-Day Weekend.

Walden is part of a vibrant local music scene that spreads up to Cambridge, over to Bury St Edmunds and across Eastern England. Since our first gig 18 months ago, our little family band – The Hooligans – has lot learnt a lot about performing in Walden and beyond.

Turning up at the Kings Arms in mid-March 2014, Maeve was 11 years’ old and Ailis was 13. Setting up our mike stands and amplifiers, there were some skeptical looks. But once our jigs and reels started, and especially when the girls sang, the reception was overwhelming. Several grown-men cried. My daughters, classically-trained and formally taught, had discovered the power, the emotional punch, of live unscripted folk.

Since then, in between schoolwork, hockey matches and normal family life, The Hooligans have thrived – not least due to the generosity of local people. Busking in the Market Square, we’ve been embraced by stallholders and shoppers. Local musicians Tim Atkinson, John Starr and Adrian Inwood volunteered their expertise to record us in the small studio at Fairycroft House youth centre – resulting in a CD of the same name. Bob Linwood and the Ethan Rees Memorial Fund have given us numerous opportunities to perform.

In July, from a field of 80, The Hooligans were voted the second-most popular act at the Cambridge Busking Festival – with numerous Waldenites no doubt backing us. Somehow, we ended up in front of a 5,000-strong crowd as part of the Cambridge Big Weekend, supporting Slade and Heather Small (readers under 30, ask your parents). That led to a head-spinning half-hour set at the Cambridge Folk Festival.

My daughters will no doubt soon tire of being on stage with their Dad, if they haven’t already. Having experienced the buzz of playing in a band, though, with no sheet music and only the groove to guide you, I’m sure they’ll form groups of their own.

Playing as The Hooligans has taught the three of us about our Irish heritage, about each other and – above all – helped us find like-minded souls in Walden and beyond. The enthusiasm with which local people have responded to our “foot-tappin’, smile-making” music is a source of enormous pride. We’re grateful to Walden and, above all, to the numerous local musicians who’ve extended us such warmth and encouragement.

This article was first published in The Hub magazine, distributed in and around Saffron Walden, North Essex, UK