The Irish know that being good at accepting death is as much of an art form as being good at playing music, and that’s something the members of legendary Milwaukee Irish folk band Blarney have come to learn over the past two years.
In November 2010 they lost their lead singer Chuck Ward to mucosal melanoma. A well-known and beloved figure in the Milwaukee Irish-American community, Ward worked as the manager of County Stadium and then director of operations for the Milwaukee Brewers; later he was the president of Irish Fest and director of operations at Summerfest.
A member of Blarney since the early 1980s, Ward was an anchor for the group both vocally and spiritually. His strong second tenor voice carried the melody while fellow members Kevin Stapleton and Dennis Murphy rounded out the harmony. More than that, his mirthful stage presence and self-deprecating wit was infectious with the Blarney crowds.
Immediately after Ward’s passing, there were a few commitments that Stapleton and Murphy were obliged to honor. But then they took a break. For a while, the music had to stop.
"We didn’t play for a little bit," said Stapleton. When they returned to Irish Fest in August 2011, they played the Village Pub, a smaller and more intimate setting than their usual headlining gig at the Miller Lite Oasis just inside the Main Gate.
It was an emotional performance. Murphy and Stapleton held back tears while performing sea shanties, drinking songs and rebel tunes without that familiar second tenor.
Now, a year later, Blarney has embraced the reality of being a duo with typical Irish practicality.
"The thing about Chuck was, he would’ve been disappointed if we would’ve just stopped singing," said Stapleton. "The thought was, well, we just have to modify and regroup and think of ‘Who are we going to be?’ Sort of the new personality of Blarney."
But even in going forward, the two refused to attempt to find a stand-in for Ward.
"One of the thoughts was, ‘Well, would we try to replace Chuck?’ And the answer was no," said Stapleton. "It was just one of those things. You don’t replace Chuck. It’s like saying ‘Get a new car.’ We’re not going to get a new Chuck. Dennis and I felt it was time for us to accept the fact that it was just going to be a duo."
After all, Blarney has been a Milwaukee institution for over 35 years. And they are nothing if not adaptable.
The original members in the early 1970s were Ed Ward (Chuck’s brother), Bernie McCartan, John Testin and John Maher. Stapleton joined in 1975.
"They were doing a few things around town; they were doing some Saturday shows at Kip Nash’s," he remembered. "I sang in the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus with Kip’s daughter Nina, we were buddies and she took me down to her dad’s bar one evening. I knew Irish folk songs, they’re deep in my family’s background, and at one point – I don’t remember how it happened – I got up and sang a few songs and that’s kind of how it all started.
"What happened was, every few years we had to morph, to reinvent ourselves. John Testin left the band, Dennis and Chuck joined the band. Most people forget we had a point where Robin Mitchell played violin for a year. Bernie left us and it became what most people remember – Ed, Chuck, Dennis and I, and that went on for several years till Ed decided to move on."
With every change, Blarney had to acclimate.
"Each time we lost something and we had to regroup," said Stapleton. "So this is the next step. There will be some point where we have to walk away from it. But I think Chuck would have been disappointed if his death was also the passing of Blarney."
The band was, after all, instrumental in the initial success of Irish Fest. They played the inaugural festival in 1981 and Stapleton remembers not knowing what to expect.
"All these other ethnic festivals came with a lot of history. The German Fest organization had come out of their Oktoberfest up at the Bavarian grounds, the Italians had already been on the Summerfest grounds but they also were famed for their East Side Italian festival years before that," he said. "So Irish Fest – we didn’t start as a park festival or street festival. We went right to Summerfest and nobody had really done that before without some previous development or infrastructure. Ed (Ward) led that."
Stapleton feared that maybe Irish Fest would be over before it began.
"It wasn’t until that Saturday show (in 1981) that we had a huge response by my standards," he said. "My fear was that the only people that would show up would be my friends from the bars. But by that Saturday show at 8, I knew the festival would be a success. We realized by then we’d had tens of thousands of people and I knew we made it. The crowd was huge and I just knew it would be a big party."
Irish Fest is now the largest festival of Celtic culture outside of Ireland. Over 100,000 people attend annually and the Irish Fest Organization has become a cultural tour de force, granting scholarships, holding classes and maintaining the Ward Music Archives and its 40,000-plus historic sound recordings.
"The Irish community was a kind of small but vocal community out there," said Stapleton. "Before Irish Fest, a lot of households – they only knew when Andy Williams sang an Irish song. Everyone could tell you something about an Irish song if Merv Griffin sang it, but what they didn’t know is in these small conclaves and homes, these communities dotted around Wisconsin, there was a real understanding of Irish music. I think that in a lot of ways the Milwaukee Irish Fest gave us that setting to expose everybody to it. Those early Irish Fests educated our audience to what the Irish culture really was – songs of the people, songs that came out of the countryside and the little villages and the little huts."
And as for Blarney’s future?
"We’ve learned a few more songs," Stapleton said. "When people hear us they’ll be able to tell we figured out a few things that will be our forte, that will be us. We have to reinvent Blarney a little bit with the moving on of a member. We’ll start figuring out our little niche."
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.