Belfast Boys leave 'troubles' behind

From Staff Reports
Black Mountain News | USA TODAY NETWORK
The Belfast Boys - Alan Mearns and Adrian Rice - met in a bookstore in Hickory after recognizing each other’s Irish accents.

Ulster, in the far north of Ireland, has strong historical ties to the Appalachians. It supplied many thousands of Scots-Irish immigrants who settled these mountains. Their music, folkways, speech and fierce independence still shape Appalachian culture.

That connection continues in the Belfast Boys. Northern Ireland-born Adrian Rice, an acclaimed poet and teacher, and virtuoso guitarist Alan Mearns now call Hickory home, and together they reboot Irish traditional music with arrangements that feel both timelessly Irish and wholly contemporary. The White Horse Black Mountain favorites return at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 9 for an evening of traditional and original songs, witty repartee and poetry. Tickets are $12 advance/$15 door.

For Americans of a certain age, the mention of Northern Ireland conjures up an era of violent conflict known euphemistically as “The Troubles.” But the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, or Belfast Agreement, ushered in a new age of cooperation, and the North is now recognized internationally more as a land of stunning scenery, a vibrant culture and friendly people.  

 Mearns and Rice grew up in the gritty capital of a bitterly divided Northern Ireland. The Belfast Boys had their start when Mearns (guitar, whistle and vocals) and Rice (mandolin, bodhran and vocals) recognized each others’ distinctive Belfast accents in a Hickory book shop. They also discovered a shared affection for traditional Irish tunes and songs. 

Rice, who was working as a writer-in-residence at Lenoir-Rhyne University, had married a Tarheel and settled in Hickory. He’s a raconteur in the grand Irish tradition, and because it’s a short step from poetry to lyrics, it wasn’t long before the two Belfastmen were performing together. Mearns, a classically trained guitarist who came to North Carolina for college and stayed, creates guitar accompaniments that are orchestral in scope, intertwining with Rice’s mandolin to lend surprising twists even to familiar material. 

Alongside their Belfast Boys endeavors, Rice and Mearns have distinguished themselves in other projects. Riceis the author of several published poetry collections, including "The Clock Flower," "The Mason’s Tongue" and his newest volume, "Hickory Station." Mearn's singer-songwriter alter ego is Yes the Raven, a vehicle for his distinctive original songs.