When two of Roy Orbison’s sons perished in a house fire in 1968, Johnny Cash feared his good friend would never perform again.
Having lost his first wife Claudette in a motorcycle accident two years previously, the gut-wrenching double blow of having two-thirds of his offspring taken from him so soon after would have emotionally crippled even the sturdiest of living souls.
Cash need not have worried, though, for Orbison reacted by jumping balls-deep into his work, relentlessly releasing music—three albums over the following 18 months—and hitting the road, extensively touring Europe in particular.
Indeed, Orbison had become reliant on Europe as it was also a difficult period for him commercially, with his sales in the US having been in decline since the mid-1960s. Even though music tastes were changing in the late ’60s and early ’70s, he was still loved in Germany, Britain and Ireland in particular.
So loved, in fact, that he was often able to sell out the same venue for a week solid. The Batley Variety Club in West Yorkshire was jam-packed every night for a week during his 1970 tour of Britain, while Manchester’s Golden Garter hosted him two weeks on the trot soon after.
He took things a step further at Blackpool ABC on the same tour, remarkably playing two shows a day for three consecutive nights (May 23-25, 1970). Back then, it was common for gigs to rumble on until 2am and Orbison, still only in his mid-30s, was well fit for the challenge.
Yet six shows in three days in Blackpool is arguably not even the most notable feat of Orbison’s 1970 European tour – he actually played two shows in two different countries in the same day during the last leg of his trip. In fact, he did this twice in the space of a week.
On June 26, 1970, Orbison arrived in the tiny seaside town of Bundoran, County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland for the first show of a 10-day tour on the Emerald Isle. Given the population of Bundoran was just 1,337 in 1970, according to the closest census, and doesn’t fare a great deal higher today, you could be forgiven for never having heard of the place.
Bundoran is actually steeped in tradition when it comes to live music, with famous acts such as Meatloaf and Paul Weller also having played there over the years, but the arrival of Roy Orbison to play La Rou Ballroom was the town’s first major coup and something to behold for locals.
From there, Orbison made the very scenic venture across the border, in to Northern Ireland, passing along the perimeter of Lough Erne towards Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. In what was billed on the posters as an ‘All Night Jamboree’, Orbison headlined the Fermanagh Festival at the St. Angelo Airfield. It was Ireland’s biggest open-air festival of 1970.
With just 32 miles separating Bundoran and Enniskillen, Orbison’s journey likely would have taken something in the region of 45 minutes. That’s assuming there were no issues at the border, which would have had manned observation posts, bearing in mind the British government had deployed their armed forces into Northern Ireland the previous year.
These were tense times in Northern Ireland, but Roy Orbison came in peace. The Bangor Folk Four and Irish showband The Pattersons warmed up the crowd before Orbison eventually arrived in Enniskillen to no doubt steal the show.
As if that cross-border adventure wasn’t enough, he actually repeated the same feat the following Friday, appearing at Granemore Carnival in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, before crossing the border into Dundalk, County Louth, where he played the Adelphi.
Unfortunately, The Troubles began to consume Northern Ireland and the border towns of the Republic of Ireland soon after, prompting international artists to boycott such areas during the worst years of the violence. A silver lining, however, came in the form of Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy, who both thrived in the absence of bigger stars and went on to gain international recognition of their own.
As for Orbison, he had his own troubles to contend with. He returned to Tennessee on completion of the Irish leg of his tour and his second wife Barbara gave birth to their first son Roy Kelton Jr later in the year – another small step in Roy Orbison’s recovery from the tragedies which threatened to derail his career.