The writer and biographer, Johnny Rogan, died on January 21st, 2021. His death was announced on February 12th.
Seán Aylward remembers his good friend.
The noted music biographer, Johnny Rogan, who died recently in London, was born in 1953 and grew up in England. He was the son of 1940s emigrants from Waterford. He was raised by his widowed mother in a tenement in London’s Pimlico district. Their little flat had gas heating but bizarrely didn’t have electricity. As he told me on one occasion, ‘it was the last house on the road to be demolished’.
Johnny’s father, a bar manager, succumbed as a very young man to a sudden heart attack and a sister of his also died very suddenly of a brain haemorrhage when she was still a young woman. Tragedy dogged the family with the death of a younger brother, who drowned in a canoe accident in Tramore Bay in the early 1960s. Johnny spent all his childhood summers holidaying with an aunt in Tramore who was an OPW tenant in the cottages attached to the former Coastguard Station [and then Garda Station].
Despite the tragic loss of his brother there, Johnny always loved Tramore. He gloried in its endless sand dunes, ever crashing waves, charming swimming coves, it’s famously crowded and sweaty 1960s dance halls, the neon-lit amusements and, of course it’s fairground attractions, ‘The Merries’. For him Tramore was always a second home.
Johnny’s Tramore-based aunt had electricity and the wireless radio in her house. This was where he first listened to 1960s rock bands like The Kinks & The Byrds, who he subsequently wrote so brilliantly about. Popular culture was to become Johnny’s specialist topic. He also wrote a book about football club managers and an opus about band managers called ‘Starmakers & Svengalis’.
Johnny had an insatiable intellectual curiosity and an astonishing power of recall. For instance, he learnt the entirety of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ by heart when studying it for his ‘A’ Levels. He could recount to you, verbatim, mutual conversations had over a pint, many years later. Johnny would have made a very successful career as a Whitehall civil servant but never worked for a salary. He was a freelance biographical writer his entire adult life.
In his teens Johnny became an English Lit BA student at Newcastle, then a graduate student in Acadia University, Nova Scotia and finally in Oxford He published the first of 26 rock biographies whilst still at university. He was rooming at the time at Lady Margaret Hall, which then had the cheapest lodgings for graduate students of any Oxford college. Johnny’s Canadian Alma Mater, Acadia University, has a Latin Motto which reads ‘In Pulvere Vinces’: ‘By effort [literally: in dust] you will conquer’. A fitting description of Rogan’s literary career.
Johnny, whilst still a student, secured a modest council flat in his native Pimlico and ultimately bought it from Westminster Council. He later acquired a modest second home on Tramore’s Train Hill. Tramore was where he ultimately met his partner, and the love of his life, Jackie, also London-Irish by background. Her family had moved back to Tramore permanently when she was still very young. Jackie and Johnny were ‘an item’ from the early 2000’s onwards.
Writing is a solitary profession but Johnny somehow retained the gift of friendship. He had a very wide network of friends and colleagues on the music and publishing beat, from the West Coast of America to Tramore and, of course, his native London’s eclectic, ever changing music scene.
Johnny had a huge mind and an insatiable curiosity. He was also an accomplished networker. I am delighted to say I was one of a number of his many contacts who helped him a little with his book on Van Morrison, ‘No Surrender’, introducing him to Belfast- born journalist [and former club promoter], Sam Smyth, and talking with him about the political culture of Northern Ireland in Van’s youth.
Johnny was prodigiously well read – his graduate thesis was on Edmund Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queene’, a piece of medieval literature with an Irish connection – and he was also obsessive about grammatical matters. He was a demon for facts and footnotes. He had a great affection for the poetry of Sir Walter Raleigh [who also had Irish connections], especially his poem ‘Even Such is Time’, allegedly composed shortly before his execution in the Old Palace Yard in London in 1618. The lines from this sombre poem, which he quoted on unlikely occasions, reflect Johnny’s awareness of how frail life is and how suddenly it can come to an untimely end. The Raleigh poem concludes rather hopefully, however: ‘But from this earth, this grave, this dust / My God shall raise me up, I trust’.
Johnny Rogan was an incredibly painstaking writer, unique in his chosen genre. His forensic attention to detail was especially intriguing when one considers that he devoted his life to chronicling the chaotic lives and musical output of 1960s and 1970s rock stars. His later books were often of prodigious length. Some critics complained, but his many fans felt the length and detail was in reasonable proportion to the importance of their subjects. No-one recognized more fully than Johnny Rogan that popular music was a central part of 20th century culture in the English speaking world.
Johnny’s relationship with his various publishers over the years is worth a treatise in itself. They ranged from tiny outfits in the back streets of Soho to Penguin and Random House. He was no slave to deadlines. The work took as long as it needed. He adamantly refused to let the companies concerned put his work into e-books because he disagreed with the low rates of royalties they generated, and his later work was far too bulky to put into paperback.
Johnny never owned a car or a mobile phone and was a late and very reluctant adopter of the computer. He did great radio interviews and scripted a couple of well received television documentaries for the BBC. He could work anywhere but one of his favourite locales was the public library in Tramore, where he was a daily and affable presence when in town.
In 1988 Public Enemy played Trinity College, Dublin. Kieran Cunningham, Chief Sports Writer with the Irish Daily Star, and someone who once had musical notions of his own, wrote an excellent guest post for usback in 2018 about the gig. Since then, some old photographs [courtesy of Trevor Butterworth] have emerged and Kieran’s memory has been refreshed further. So he has revisited the gig and updated his post for us.
Joe Brolly was lying on his back on the cobblestones. Staring at the stars, wired to the moon.
Tuxedo, white shirt, polished shoes, proper bowtie. A walkie-talkie as big as his big, big head pressed to his ear.
Dungiven’s finest was trying to get in touch with the Starship Enterprise.
“There seems to be no sign of intelligent life anywhere, Captain, but the air…the air is tight and closing in. You’ve got to beam me up!”
Joe, a first year law student, was ‘working’ as security at the Trinity Ball.
This was one of the great cover stories. A gig on security meant a free pass to the show and it was easy to hide. It was a time before mobile phones so walkie-talkies were supplied. Large and unwieldy, they were a mass of crackles and static. Unpredictable and untrustworthy. Unlike Joe, of course.
So the temptation to go AWOL was huge. Joe didn’t resist…
The date was May 20, 1988 – maybe Year Zero for hip-hop in Ireland.
Public Enemy weren’t the first high profile hip-hop visitors to come to this country.
Schooly D and London Posse had earlier come to Dublin in support of Mick Jones’s superb post-Clash outfit, Big Audio Dynamite.
But there was still a very real sense that Public Enemy’s visit was breaking new ground.
This article was first produced for the 30th anniversary of those shows in 2018, but I’m revisiting it because of wonderful photographs that were taken by Trevor Butterworth that have come to light, and because my memory has been refreshed by a few others who were involved.
I had a small part to play in them coming here, but will come to that anon. First, some context. Colm has written wonderfully well in this space on so many aspects of Irish music in the 1980s and 1990s, but I’ve read little over the years on the impact of the Ents circuit in colleges.
I’m more than a little wary of getting into the nostalgia business, as the danger of dressing up often bleak times in sentimental colours is always there.
Leeches on their arms and legs. Stomach purges, live burials, and ”warm hypnotic emulsions”, whatever on earth they are. These were just some of the cures used for nostalgia in different centuries.
You see, from the 17th to 19th century, it was actually classed as a disease. Things got so bad in Switzerland that the playing of a milking song, Khue-Reyen, was punishable by death. This was due to the supposed fact that Swiss soldiers were overcome with nostalgia and useless for battle if they heard it.
So I’ve always been wary of nostalgia about student days. Truth to tell, I stumbled into college. In the months before, I was giving serious consideration to giving it a miss. At the time, I was singing in a band called The Hour After, with three Gallagher brothers. The original of the species.
They were, like many in west Donegal, Glasgow born and bred before moving across the water with their parents. We bumped into each other through a mutual friend and found a shared obsession with Echo and the Bunnymen.
Only problem was they lived in The Rosses, 45 miles away from me in Glencolmcille, so we could only practise at weekends, and it was hardcore. Seven hours on a Saturday, seven hours on a Sunday.
Nobody had any money in the 1980s so, to cut petrol costs, I’d get a lift on the back of the drummer’s Vespa for one leg of the journey on the Saturday morning, staying in their house, and returning in a battered Hiace van on the Sunday night.
Our set-list was a diet of Bunnymen, Velvets, Iggy Pop and Doors covers, but we had notions. They were keen for me to commit full-time and give up on college, and I thought seriously about doing so. Luckily, I got sense.
Arrived into Trinity to study English and Sociology in September, 1985, wide-eyed and clueless. It was Fresher’s Week, so Front Square was lined with various stalls trying to entice the gullible to join everything from debating societies to sports clubs to the wonderfully named ‘Rock Nostalgia Society’.
By chance, I got talking to a tall Dubliner with a mohican and 12 hole Docs. His name was Barry Henry, and he was involved with Ents. We ended up as close friends, sharing a flat in London in the mid-1990s.
There were free lunchtime gigs in the Junior Common Room (JCR) above Front Gate that week, with A House among those playing. Bands I’d grown fond of from listening to Dave Fanning and now they were playing a couple of feet in front of me. This was mind-blowing.
In that first term, among those to play in Trinity were the kick-ass Green On Red, part of the Paisley Underground movement – if you could call it a movement – in the US.
But the band that blew me away early on were The Triffids. Australian outlaws with a troubled and charismatic singer in David McComb, who tragically died at just 36 in 1999.
Dublin was a pretty grim place, in many aspects, back then. So many miserable cold bedsits. So much frustration and pent-up rage. Gigs were often violent affairs. Then there was the suffocating smog in the winter. Nothing to look forward to but a plane ticket to London or New York in search of work.
Things were so bad we used to drink Furstenberg.
But there were up-sides too. There was a remarkable energy to the place. Temple Bar was a very different place, and it rang to the sounds of dozens of bands rehearsing, the murmur of planning and plotting and scheming.
In places like the Coffee Inn, Well Red Cafe and Marks Brothers, plans for world domination were put in place. Often over steaming mugs of Nicaraguan coffee. It was a time of AIDs benefits and a constant hum of debate about abortion. Some things never change.
It was a time too when Trinity had a serious Gaelic football team, one that would have won a Sigerson Cup in different eras.
They did win the league but, in Sigerson, had the misfortune to come up against a genius called Maurice Fitzgerald in the red and black of UCC.
Joe Brolly was one of the star turns up front, but there were other fine players. Paddy O’Donoghue took the frees and went on to win the man of the match award when Kilmacud Crokes took the All-Ireland club crown in 1995. He was a selector with Pat Gilroy, another Trinity footballer, when Dublin won the 2011 All-Ireland and is now alongside Gilroy with the capital’s hurlers.
Ciaran Murray of Monaghan, Wicklow’s Conan Daye, Sean Kelly of Meath, Cavan’s Cian Murtagh…it was a fine team.
Of that side, I was particularly friendly with Terry Jennings, who I usually see these days at reunion gigs by The Blades. Terry is now heavily involved in coaching with Kilmacud Crokes, having made the sacrilegious leap across the river from his beloved St Vincent’s.
He had a spell with the Dubs under Pat O’Neill, coming up with one one of the great lines to describe life as an inter-county fringe player. “I spent 10 years trying to get on the Dublin panel and six months trying to get off it.”
Terry is one of the most significant figures in the history of Dublin football, though, making a seismic impact when he was just seven years old.
In the 1974 Championship, the Dubs had struggled to an underwhelming victory away to Wexford first time out. Kevin Heffernan headed home in despair and, in the car with him were his wife, Mary, his wife’s friend Lily Jennings and her son, Terry.
Heffo was lamenting his fruitless search for a free-taker which caused young Terry to pipe up: “I’ve never seen Jimmy Keaveney miss one.” That planted a seed in Heffo’s mind. He persuaded Keaveney to come out of retirement, got him fit and his fellow Vincent’s man played a huge role in Dublin’s most glorious era.
Trinity might seem like an unlikely GAA hotspot, and it was Heffo who was the trailblazer. One of his early great days was playing for Trinity in the Duke Cup final in 1955. UCD ran riot in the first half, leading by 14 points at the break.
Trinity needed a strong second half and won a penalty almost from the throw-in. Heffo blasted it wide. The Kerry poet Brendan Kennelly was a Trinity teammate that day and later recalled his reaction.
“Having missed the penalty, the man went mad, and inside 10 minutes, he had the ball three times in the UCD net, and then added a several points,” he said,
“Heffo was a great full-forward because he was an efficient and stylish savage of a player, who was at his best when he was slightly humiliated. If he had scored the penalty, we would have lost. He might have relaxed. He might have lost his demon energy. But he didn’t, and we won, because he was suddenly humiliated into greatness.”
Humiliated into greatness. What a line.
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, I’d inveigled myself on to the Ents crew. This involved many things. Putting up posters, humping PA systems around, the bonus of DJing in The Buttery on a Wednesday night with payment being five free pints.
In the pre-internet, pre-selfie, pre-smartphone world, things were simpler. One night, a band led by Neil McCormick, Shook Up!, were playing in The Buttery. McCormick went on to carve out a very successful career as a music journalist in the UK but one of his claims to fame back then was that he’d gone to Mount Temple with U2.
Sure enough, Bono was at the gig with his wife, Ali. With the innocence and bravado of youth – I went up and started chatting. Bono yapped happily away, bought his rounds and then dragged me to Hothouse Flowers, who were playing a late night gig in the Arts Block.
That led to those on the door later asking ‘How do you know Bono? ‘I don’t’. But things were simpler, there wasn’t the same kind of distance then. We’d get to know The Stars of Heaven and Something Happens through Ents gigs and would play football with them in Herbert Park.
Colm has written here before about The Stars, a special band, and it brings to mind the influence of Eamon Carr – the only Irish journalist who should write an autobiography.
Eamon has had an extraordinary life, from a start in advertising to drumming with Horslips, to setting up Hotwire Records. Guru Weirdbrain was Eamon’s alter-ego, and he put together a fine compilation – Weird Weird World of Guru Weirdbrain on Hotwire in 1985. If featured everybody from The Stars of Heaven to The Golden Horde to The Real Wild West to Paranoid Visions and The Baby Snakes.
Modern journalism is in thrall to third-level colleges, with most recruits coming straight from media courses and with little life experience outside of that. It could do with more who have taken the road not taken. Like Eamon. Not many journalists these days have written poems and plays, or completed a PhD in History of Art.
I’ll always remember a press junket to New York a decade ago for a fight between Joe Calzaghe and Roy Jones Jr in Madison Square Garden. It was the week of Barack Obama’s elevation to the US Presidency so Gotham was buzzing.
After the Calzaghe/Jones fight, we headed to the press conference room, waiting for the two boxers to come in. I was sitting beside Eamon and he recognised a chap in the row in front of us. It was Richard Williams, then the chief sports writer of The Guardian. Eamon tapped him on the shoulder and introduced himself. “Remember me? I was on with Horslips when you were presenting The Old Grey Whistle Test.”
Many of Eamon’s buddies on Hotwire were Trinity regulars, and the Ball at the end of my first year was special. Dr and the Medics, who’d just been at number one in the UK with a cover of ‘Spirit in the Sky’. The Pogues, That Petrol Emotion, The Go-Betweens. Remarkably, the latter played one of the free lunchtime gigs in Trinity week, with a stage facing the cricket pitch. Robert Forster recalled that day in his autobiography ‘Grant and I’.
“We played on a makeshift outdoor stage in a corner of Trinity College. It had rained most of the morning, and the crowd were as amazed as the appearance of the sun as they were at the sight and sound of the group. Our final note bringing a downpour, and a rubbed-eye, did-that-really-happen? experience that was pure Go-Betweens.”
A few months back, Jessica Moss uploaded a photo of that lunchtime gig to Twitter. Was taken aback by being able to spot myself to the left of the stage.
My friend, Barry Henry, had been elected Ents officer for my second year and I gave more and more energy to that side of college life. The plan to go for the job myself at some stage was hatching. It had considerable perks. A year out of studies with a modest wage but a free apartment on campus was part of the deal.
Another friend, Paul Gavin, ran for Ents in second year and got the gig. That turned out to be quite a year. I’d spent the summer of 1987 in London and returned to Dublin for the new term, hooking up with Paul to catch up on his plans. He was buzzing over having booked Bad Manners to play the Freshers Ball.
“Remember the big fat bald lad? They’ll be a great laugh.” “You do know they have a huge skinhead following, Paul?” “No…”
At the time, gangs of skinheads caused regular trouble at gigs, so we had the extraordinary experience of arranging a meeting between ourselves, the college authorities and a chap known only as ‘King Skin’. He promised to make sure that peace was kept, but Paul called in a few of the Trinity rugby team as extra security on the night to make sure. We all linked arms around the stage, facing the crowd. Hordes of skins surged forward again and again, storming on to the stage, with Buster Bloodvessel showing surprisingly nifty footwork to get out of the way.
We’d do our best to haul them off, link arms, and go again. It was quite an adrenaline rush. A few months on, Paul had another brainwave. Showaddywaddy – rock ‘n’ roll revivalists who’d been huge a decade earlier – to headline the Valentine’s Ball with The Golden Horde as support. To make them feel at home, Paul had gone to a theatrical costume shop and hired a full Teddy Boy outfit – drape jacket, brocade waistcoat, bolo tie, drainpipe trousers, brothel creeper shoes. The works.
Paul and I went to meet Showaddywaddy beforehand and these middle-aged blokes from Leicester – dressed like middle-aged blokes from Leicester – looked at Paul’s outfit and just shook their heads. They did get in costume by the time the gig came around…
I had taken the plunge and ran for Ents officer in the annual Students Union elections but was the worst candidate in the world. Poor Barry was my campaign manager and he must have been tearing his hair out. Crippled by a shyness that was criminally vulgar, having to stand in front of classes in lecture halls to give a stump speech was torture. I lost out to Edwina Forkin by about a hundred votes, and she became the first woman to hold the office. She did a great job too, memorably bringing The La’s over the following year, shortly after they released one of the great debut albums.
As part of his cunning plan to get me elected, Barry had found a way to get me on to the organising committee for the 1988 Trinity Ball. Around 30 bands play on the night, but the big headache was finding a headliner. There was one sleepy afternoon in the Ents office in Front Square when Paul and I were going through possibles, and we hit paydirt.
Paul was firing names at me. Band of Susans? Nah. The Shop Assistants? Nah. Voice of the Beehive? Meh. Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts? Oh, God. Napalm Death? No, no, no. Public Enemy? No…er, what, did you say Public Enemy? Yeah, they’re down to do a UK tour and might be on for coming over. Go for it, Paul, you have to go for it.
Hip-hop really came on our radar thanks to Chris Heaney, later the drummer with Stephen Ryan’s post-Stars outfit, The Revenants. Chris had spent a year studying in the States and augmented his collection of US hardcore punk with a few choice cuts from Def-Jam Records as well as NWA.
A few months earlier, Public Enemy’s ‘Yo, Bum Rush the Show’ had been voted as NME’s Album of the Year. At the end of 1988, they’d make it a double whammy, topping the NME poll with ‘It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’. They were becoming the hottest act in the world.
Paul talked to the promoters and, unbelievably, their price was within our budget. Chancing my arm, I told Paul to ask them if they’d do one of the free lunchtime gigs as well. Incredibly, they agreed. But then things hit a snag.
Chuck D was Public Enemy’s voice, leader and guiding intelligence. He shared the vocal duties with Flavor Flav, a crown prince with an outsized clock hung around his neck. Professor Griff was the self-styled Minister for Information with Terminator X the DJ who supplied the block-rocking beats.
What was causing trouble was the two dancers, if you could call them that, who went by the name of Security of the First World. They wore paramilitary uniforms and waved fake Uzi submachine guns around.
This was only a couple of months after one of the most volatile periods in Northern Ireland history. In the space of a fortnight in March, 1988, things got particularly toxic. The killing by the SAS of three IRA members in Gibraltar had led to a gun and grenade attack on their funeral in Belfast by loyalist Michael Stone, killing three. In turn, the subsequent funerals led to an horrific incident where two British Army corporals drove into the cortege, and were then abducted and killed.
Somehow, in a time before Google, the college authorities got wind of Public Enemy’s paramilitary trappings. Mindful of the optics of such a show so soon after events in the north, a crisis meeting with the Senior Dean. Contracts had been signed so it was decided to push ahead, but the Trinity authorities weren’t happy.
As things turned out, the lunchtime gig was a damp squib. It was a public appearance, rather than a show.
They’d come straight from the airport after dates in the UK and looked a bit out of sorts.
Maybe it was the fact that they were facing one of the whitest crowds of their careers, many of whom were there to see the Golden Horde.
On stage, the late Gerry Ryan and the self-styled Master of the Universe, Aidan Walsh, were hopping off various members of the Horde.
Close body contact was the order of the day right in front of them too – the only real point of a Horde gig was the mosh-pit.
Trevor’s photographs of that day pick out a lot of familiar faces in the crowd.
The pics made me think of June 4, 1976, when the Sex Pistols played a gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall that has been much mythologised since.
That wasn’t down to how Johnny Rotten and Co performed. They were fine in patches, apparently, but the story was the audience.
Only 35 people turned up, but among that number were Morrissey, Mick Hucknall, Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, and Peter Hook.
Hook was so energised by what he saw that he persuaded some pals to form a band that same week. That band, Warsaw, later became Joy Division.
Morrissey? Ended up in a popular beat combo called The Smiths.
Shelley and Devoto formed The Buzzcocks, and Hucknall binned his punk leanings for white boy soul with Simply Red.
In Trevor’s snaps can be spotted then or future members of bands like Something Happens, The Stars of Heaven, The Lawnmowers, The Revenants, Guernica, Mexican Pets and I’m sure there were others…
With respect to Simon Carmody, Des O’Byrne and Co, Dublin’s musos weren’t there in force to see the Horde – or not just the Horde. Public Enemy were the attraction.
Once they took the stage, they made for an incongruous sight – posing and preening in front of Horde drummer Peter O’Kennedy’s kit.
Chuck D called on the crowd to wave peace signs. On a sleepy early summer Friday afternoon, not many bothered.
They played just one song – ‘Bring the Noise’ is one of the most incendiary tracks of that decade, but this was a lacklustre version with the sound buried in the mix.
The punks that had been stage-diving manically throughout the Horde’s set muttered in derision, and many of them walked off.
Still, Public Enemy seemed to be energised by their brief performance, mixing with fans afterwards, signing autographs and shooting the breeze.
Their schedule that day couldn’t have been more manic.
That lunchtime appearance, soundchecks for both McGonagle’s and the Trinity Ball, then the gigs at both venues.
But it was the Trinity soundcheck on the main stage at New Square that really opened to our eyes of the true live PE experience.
There weren’t many around to witness it but what we heard wasn’t the sound of a band, it was the sound of a movement.
But, with some students living on campus and having already changed into their finery, it quickly became clear to the band and their entourage that they would be playing that night to a bunch of white people in tuxedos and ball gowns.
This didn’t really sit well with their self-image, and there were some tense negotiations.
Public Enemy’s tour manager gloried in the nickname of ‘Tonto’ and he did a lot of the talking. Eventually, a compromise was hammered out.
The band would play, but there were to be no photographs. Student security workers actually had to go through the crowd and collect cameras.
Somehow, Trevor got an exemption.
BBC Northern Ireland were doing a piece on the Ball but Tonto stopped them from filming behind the stage. He didn’t want the tuxes etc in the same shot as Public Enemy.
There was also a last minute hitch to sort out with Terminator X’s decks. With Flavor Flav, in particular, fond of jumping around, the turntables weren’t secure and it was very difficult to scratch and mix.
Standalone scaffolding was put up at breakneck speed to support the decks.
What Public Enemy produced that night in front of an unlikely audience was a coruscating, fire-cracking show.
It was a strange sight, one that made you rub your eyes in disbelief. The sons and daughters of the Dublin middle classes in tuxedos and ball gowns, roaring ‘Fight the Power!’ with clenched fists aloft.
And Chuck D didn’t endear himself to the powers-that-be with a speech from the stage about the north and British imperialism. Joe might have even got up off the cobblestones to check it out.
The year of Covid has left many of us looking backwards or inwards, rather than forward – and Trevor’s pics are a reminder of a very different time.
We lost Barry Henry suddenly at 53 in 2019 and there are others from that period immortalised in those old photographs that are no longer around. They’re remembered.
Forty years ago, next month, a fire that broke out during a Valentine’s weekend disco at The Stardust nightclub in Artane, on the northside of Dublin, resulted in the deaths of 48 young women and men. As Kathy Sheridan reminded Irish Times readers in a 2006 feature piece, ‘of the 48 who died, half were aged 18 or under. All but a few were from the closely-knit, working-class, north Dublin areas of Donnycarney, Artane, Bonnybrook and Coolock’. Over 200 others in the crowd of 841 patrons that night were injured.
The dancehall and concert venue on Kilmore Road was part of a large entertainment complex that also included a public house and a restaurant, owned and operated by the Butterly family, who opened it on the site of what was formerly a jam factory, in 1978. The Stardust had quickly become a stop-off on the national cabaret circuit and hosted live shows by Gary Glitter, Joe Dolan and The Drifters, among numerous others.
In January, 1981, it staged an infamous double-bill featuring two prominent British bands of the period, The Specials and The Beat, who were in Ireland on a tour during which they also performed at The Arcadia Ballroom in Cork. The Stardust show was marred by fighting and disorder and was ended prematurely when The Specials – having pleaded several times for calm – finally had enough and walked off. More detail on the background to that concert, a fund-raiser for a children’s charity promoted by MCD Concerts, can be found on Brian McMahon’s excellent blog here.
The death in July, 2020, of Christine Keegan, who lost two daughters in the Stardust fire and who, for decades, was a prominent and eloquent campaigner on behalf of the relatives of the victims, was yet another reminder of how, for many, events in Artane forty years ago are still unresolved. A tribunal of enquiry, chaired by Mister Justice Ronan Keane, got under way in March, 1981 and an exhaustive report published later that year concluded that the ‘fire was probably caused by arson’. Although it incorporated the evidence of over 350 witnesses, some of the tribunal’s findings have long been disputed by those who survived the tragedy and by the families of those who perished in it.
The Stardust disaster has been the subject of much coverage, comment and analysis in the years since, often around key commemorative dates. A drama series that aired on RTÉ television in 2006 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the tragedy was based on Neil Fetherstonhaugh and Tony McCullagh’s fine book, ‘They Never Came Home: The Stardust Story’. While as recently as last year, The Journal, a Dublin-based on-line news service, published an excellent six-part podcast series on the events before, during and after that Valentine’s weekend, 1981. Christine Keegan, her husband, John, who died in 1986, and another of her daughters, Antoinette, who survived the 1981 fire, campaigned tirelessly and at huge personal cost on behalf of those who died at The Stardust. They, and several others, are prominent in much of the library of coverage of the tragedy, of which an RTÉ Prime Time report by Rita O’Reilly from February, 2006, produced by Michael Hughes, is still one of the most affecting and revealing pieces on the subject. What’s clear from the breadth of that archive is that Christine and John Keegan, and relatives of several of the other victims, have gone to their own graves without complete closure.
Fetherstonhaugh and McCullagh’s book, ‘They Never Came Home: The Stardust Story’, takes its title from a Christy Moore song of the same name, one of hundreds he’s performed and recorded during what is now approaching a sixty-year career in music. Moore’s own story has been very well documented, and we’re not going into the minutiae again here. Suffice to say that by the mid-1980s, the former bank official had, after what was already a diverse and colourful career, established himself as a formidable solo performer and a serious commercial draw. His 1994 elpee, ‘Christy Moore: Live at The Point’, is a fourteen song long-player assembled from recordings made during twelve one-man shows he performed at Ireland’s biggest indoor venue. One of which was memorably summed-up by the writer, Jim Carroll who, in a review in New Music Express, described the concert series as ‘one man, one guitar, one storm’. Alongside U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’, David Gray’s ‘White Ladder’ and a record commemorating Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979, ‘Christy Moore; Live at The Point’ is one of the biggest-selling albums ever in the history of the state.
Moore has constantly presented as he is: a regular, unpretentious and engaging everyman with as keen an ear for a tune as for an impromptu yarn from a passer-by. But his extraordinary career runs absolutely counter to the innate ordinariness he has always projected: in the great traditions of Thalia and Melpomene, he’s as complex, vulnerable and fractured as any of those in the canon of great Irish entertainers. So that whether it’s in the delivery of his own material or his interpretation of the songs of others – and most of Moore’s best-known songs have been written by others – he’s always been a visceral live draw. For many years, a familiar image had him doused in sweat, eyes closed, head craned back, alone on stage and lost in song. ‘I’m an ordinary man, nothing special, nothing grand’, he sings on one of his best-known numbers, Peter Hames’s ‘An Ordinary Man’, in what must be one of the most self-deprecating lines in the history of popular culture here.
Like many of his primary folk influences – Guthrie, MacColl, Dylan and Seeger – Moore has also long rattled the bodhrán of social justice and, as well as the wry one-liners and colloquial couplets that pickle many of his best-known songs, just as much of his material again is determined by a sharp campaigner’s bent. ‘I don’t think anybody could talk about protest songs in Ireland without looking at Christy Moore’, Dr. Aileen Dillane, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Limerick told The Irish Examiner’s Marjorie Brennan for a feature piece in December, 2018. ‘For all his apparent localisms, he really has international reach. He connects with that Anglo-American tradition in a way that few do’. Although I’d question the extent of his ‘international reach’, Dr. Dillane’s point is certainly illustrated on Christy Moore’s 1985 single, ‘Delirium Tremens’ – a cleverly disguised iron fist of a song, one of a number of his that deal with the effects of booze – and its b-side, ‘They Never Came Home’.
‘They Never Came Home’, a Moore original about the Stardust tragedy, was originally included as the second last cut on his ‘An Ordinary Man’ album, released in July, 1985. ‘I wrote it because I try to write songs about things that affect me’, he claimed in his 2000 autobiography, ‘One Voice’. ‘I wanted to write about the Stardust because, I suppose, I felt there was a class thing involved as well’. And like much of Christy’s material, it’s a simple enough song: a mid-paced, linear ballad whose real impact is in its lyrical gut where it references ‘the mothers and fathers forever to mourn, the 48 children who never came home’.
Its two other lines elsewhere on ‘They Never Came Home’, however, that landed Moore, his record company and producer in front of The High Court in July, 1985, necessitating the recall of thousands of copies of ‘An Ordinary Man’.
Moore’s lyrics state that ‘how the fire started, sure no one can tell’. Later he sings that ‘hundreds of children are injured and maimed and all just because the fire exits were chained’. Two years previously, though, a claim for malicious damages was taken against Dublin Corporation by Scott’s Foods Limited, owners of the Stardust. After Mister Justice Seán O’Hanrahan concluded at the Dublin Circuit Court in June, 1983, that he was indeed satisfied that the Stardust fire was started maliciously, a compensation figure of £581,496 was eventually awarded to the Butterlys, owners of the Artane complex.
At the time of the release of both ‘An Ordinary Man’ and the ‘Delirium Tremens’ single, almost 240 compensation claims resulting from the Stardust fire were awaiting adjudication through the courts. With those claims still active, and following the 1983 Circuit Court decision, solicitors for the Butterly family, Scott’s Foods Ltd and Silver Swan Ltd, who had leased the entertainment complex, claimed that the two lyrical references in ‘They Never Came Home’ cited above were in contempt of court. With the first of the compensation cases imminent, it was claimed that the sentiments expressed in the song could prejudice the fairness of those hearings. An action for criminal contempt was taken by Eamonn Butterly, Silver Swan Ltd and Scott’s Foods Ltd. against Moore, his record company, WEA Records [Ireland] Ltd – through its managing director, Clive Hudson – Aigle Studios, where the record was produced, through its owner, Nicky Ryan, and the album’s producer, Donal Lunny.
That claim was up-held by Mister Justice Frank Murphy when the action was heard in The High Court in Dublin on August 9th, 1985. But he also concluded that the song wasn’t written with the intention of obstructing or interfering with the process of justice and that it wasn’t a case in which it was necessary to impose punishment or sanction. As an aside, Christy Moore was defended in court by Sean MacBride, S.C., a son of Maud Gonne and the founder of Clann na Poblachta, a former government minister, Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army and, latterly a Nobel Prize Winner.
At the time of the hearing, ‘An Ordinary Man’ was the best-selling album in the country and ‘Delirium Tremens’ was a Top Ten single: an estimated 12,000 copies of the album had been distributed to various outlets around Ireland. Following Judge Murphy’s ruling, the song could no longer be promoted, sold or dispensed in Irish record shops. Nor could the song be played on radio. ‘They Never Came Home’ had, to all intents, been banned.
Christy Moore, by his own admission, was ‘scared’ about the High Court action but his primary concern, unsurprisingly, was for the families of the victims of the Stardust fire and for the many survivors, none of whom he wanted to re-traumatise. He needn’t have worried: the court-room was packed on the day of the hearing, with many of the families fetching up in support of the singer. Subsequent to Judge Murphy’s ruling, thousands of copies of ‘An Ordinary Man’ and ‘Delirium Tremens’ were recalled and destroyed by WEA. ‘They Never Came Home’ was eventually replaced on the album by a fresh cut, ‘Another Song is Born’, written by Moore and recorded by Nicky Ryan in his home studio in Artane, of all places. Fetherstonhaugh and McCullagh claim in their book that ‘the whole episode cost Christy Moore, his manager, Mattie Fox, and the record company in the region of £100,000’.
Four Dublin record shops, including Golden Discs, were back in front of Justice Murphy the following month when it was claimed that, despite assurances given by WEA, original copies of ‘An Ordinary Man’, featuring ‘They Never Came Home’, were still available on the racks. The shops were ordered to remove them. Unsurprisingly, ‘They Never Came Home’ quickly became a cause celebre and, for a while, the original version of ‘An Ordinary Man’ was a rarity of sorts: its freely available now, at standard cost, on the usual on-line sites. Christy Moore was among the huge crowd that gathered at the Church of Saint Joseph the Worker in Bonnybrook, during Christmas week, 1986, for John Keegan’s funeral mass. He performed an older song, ‘John of Dream’, during the service, a number that first appeared on a 1980 compilation album from Tara Records and that was added subsequently to a re-issue of his ‘The Iron Behind the Velvet’ elpee. He performed ‘They Never Came Home’ at the official opening of the Stardust Memorial Park in Coolock in 1993, and a live version was included on a box set of Christy Moore material, issued in 2004 to celebrate what was then the 40th anniversary of his career in music. He also chose to perform the song during two Late Late Show appearances over the last decade.
Meanwhile, the Stardust story refuses to go away. In September, 2019, the then Attorney General, Seamus Woulfe, ordered a fresh inquest into the 48 deaths in Artane on Valentine’s weekend, 1981. It’s hoped that the initial phase of this process will be concluded before the end of 2021.
One of the few positive aspects to the last six months has been the melding of the creative arts and music with science, technology and opportunity. I’m not equipped to capture this in a mathematical formula but, were it not for the spaces and gaps opened by the lockdown, and the ready availability of personal devices, might the forthcoming Power of Dreams album, for instance, completed remotely at several locations across Europe, have ever been made? Might numerous performers of all hues, out of either necessity or a desperation to be heard, not have taken to their kitchens, basements and, in one especially memorable instance, the prison at Kilmainham, to deliver the forceful live performances that have provided soul food, re-assurance and succour in equal part since last March?
Might Denise Chaila, by a distance the country’s breakout performer of the year, not have so spectacularly bulleted herself to national sainthood so quickly? Might broadcasters not have turned so repeatedly to music programmes to plug the many holes that opened up across the radio and television schedules as the nation closed down?
This sort of stop-gapping and improvisation is far from ideal. It’s a familiar refrain for those of us invested in such matters but has there ever been a more critical period for the creative arts in this country? Yes, a central ‘stimulus package’ announced by the government last week as an emergency measure to aid the sector looks like a positive first step but, ultimately, it’s just that: a first step.
Irrespective of what supports are put into place to scaffold the creative space over the shorter or longer term, it consistently faces one fundamental difficulty: bean counters’ logic. Outside entirely of the obvious commercial and economic benefit that derives from live and recorded music, it’s impossible to measure the emotional and social value of art, and especially song. How does one, for example, put a figure on healing or comfort? On what line on a ledger might we find the cost of, God forbid, sheer joy?
Cork band, Emperor of Icecream, fit into this matrix somewhere. The medium-paced, four-piece indie outfit was together for barely five years during the early 1990s and, like many of their peers, were failed ultimately by factors outside their control. Mugged by bad timing, industry politics and the vagaries of popular culture, they found themselves caught between trapezes and ran out of rope. But in some of their more introspective moments over the last two decades, they’ve obviously done what all bands and musicians do: dipped into their own body of work, re-evaluated it and, with the benefit of time and space, seen different values in it. Something that’s reflected, perhaps, in the title of the band’s debut album, ‘No Sound Ever Dies’, released last month and compiled from recordings first put to bed back when we still used reel-to-reel machines in recording studios.
The ten-cut elpee has had a remarkable gestation and, I’m glad to report, a safe and healthy landing. Like an over-complex practice drill from a cone-addicted football coach, The Emperors have had to scramble all the way back to close a circle in order to move forward.
What passes for an Irish music industry had a far different pallor back in 1995. Emperor of Icecream were signed by a full-time scout, working for the local arm of a major international label and, for a while were watered and fed while they diligently went to work on a well-worm pathway. The band issued three fine EPs for a Sony-backed indie, Blow Records, located briefly to Perivale in London and worked initially with Adam Kviman, who’d produced the terrific debut album, ‘Lacquer’, by a mighty but largely under-regarded Stockholm band, Popsicle. They later recorded several cuts at Motorhead’s studio, over-seen by the late guitarist, Fast Eddie Clarke, three of which appear on ‘No Sound ..’ and lived to tell the tale. On a clear day, you could see where The Emperors, with their dreamy pop songs and serrated guitar toppings were possibly headed.
They emerged in the slipstream of both The Frank and Walters and The Sultans of Ping FC, and on the not unreasonable expectation that there was more gold to be panned on The Lee Valley after the twin explosions of ‘After All’ and ‘Where’s Me Jumper ?’. Their story made a fine plot point on a developing narrative even if, in reality, The Emperors had nothing at all in common with either of their predecessors except, perhaps, a postal code. Pulling them into what was a Cork scene that briefly boxed above its weight abroad was as lazy as it was inevitable.
Both The Franks and The Sultans – as we’ve long concluded here – combined classic rock and pop tropes with what were often crudely-drawn colloquialisms and local references. If The Franks, initially at least, were The Wedding Present performing ‘The Best of The Dixies’, The Sultans were The Cramps in Danny La Rue’s roll-on: thinking global, acting local.
The Emperors, by comparison, could have come from anywhere, and in the band’s body of work there is no concession at all to their hometown or how, if at all, their various backgrounds had any influence whatsoever on them. They were, instead, an unashamed guitar pop band who proudly took their cues from wherever they found them which, for the most part, was at a popular curio of the period called ‘the indie disco’.
If their lead singer, John ‘Haggis’ Hegarty, with his hands clasped behind his back, stalking, was The Emperors’ most marketable asset, it was the band’s guitarist, Graham Finn, who made the whole thing happen and gave them a dynamic edge. While they cut their teeth on a cluster of familiar indie staples – Ride’s ‘Leave Them All Behind’, ‘Soon’ by My Bloody Valentine, Lush’s ‘Superblast’, ‘Freak Scene’ by Dinosaur Jr. and so on – Graham was always one or two steps ahead of the curve. He was as restless with his music as he was in person and it was him – and the man who signed Emperor of Icecream to Sony Music, Olan McGowan – who opened my ears to a glut of quality dance and soul music.
Proving the point, Graham fetched up almost immediately post-Emperors as part of an excellent trip-hop and electronica collective, Bass Odyssey, and has spent the last fifteen years in New York where he now performs alongside Dubliner Ken Griffin in August Wells. In the spirit of bringing it all back home, Griffin’s first bands, Shake and Rollerskate Skinny, were also students of the guitar noise school, albeit at a far more intense level than The Emperors, whose influences sat on a far sunnier side of the teacher’s desk.
‘Here we go now’, Haggis optimistically sings on ‘William’, one of The Emperors’ earliest singles and the opening cut on ‘No Sound Ever Dies’. Looking back from a distance, his optimism was easy to understand: his band certainly had both the wind behind them and enough in their locker to make a decent racket. But after three EPs for Sony, their multi-national patrons went cold and plans for an album were shelved: the market had moved on, the band returned to Cork and, shortly afterwards, fell apart.
Decades later and timing is still an issue for The Emperors. The most potent Irish bands of the moment – Fontaines DC, Lankum and A Lazarus Soul – have little in common outwardly but, in the spirit of national commemoration and remembrance, all borrow from the impoverished Dublin working classes of O’Casey and Behan as they do from the punk rock spirit that coursed through London’s squatlands during the early 1980s. Their output is often defined by local accents so exaggerated that they skirt the inter-section between raw power and parody, where The Boomtown Rats meet Rats from Paths to Freedom. Against which The Emperors, with their lips curled and their soft London inflexions, couldn’t be further removed.
From early Oasis, Shed Seven, The Mock Turtles, The Charlatans and back via a slew of fine Irish bands like Sack, Power of Dreams and The Brilliant Trees, their influences are many and obvious. But it’s a warm, soft and fuzzy sound they make: nothing outrageous or overly radical, just a mild-tempered record on which the standouts, in time honoured tradition are the singles. ‘Lambent Eyes’ nods to The Bluetones’ ‘Are You Blue Or Are You Blind’, which itself thieved from Secret Affair’s terrific 1980 mod manifesto, ‘My World’, and ‘Everyone Looks So Fine’, which, on a silky guitar line and with a prominent bass thud bubbling away under, is the essence of the band’s career in four minutes.
And lest anyone forget how nimble they were with their instruments, both ‘It’s Alright to Show Yourself’ and ‘Grow As You Are’, the closer, remind us of how effective they could be once they hit their stride. Graham, as usual, shows off a frame of reference as wide as the Christy Ring Bridge but snuggled in there too, busy as you like behind the traps, an acquaintance with whom I go back many decades, the band’s drummer, Colum Young.
I spent many nights on the road with Colum, back when he served his time as Mick Finnegan’s unofficial apprentice on Cork’s live sound circuit and I was cadging lifts to shows all over the county in their van. I’d attempt to contribute to the work by lugging outboard gear and speakers into scaldy venues all over the deep South, but without as much as a miniature flash-light or an over-sized set of keys to hang from my belt loops, my career as a roadie was doomed before it started. Mick and Colum knew I couldn’t wrap a cable or multi-core to save my life but they indulged me politely and would discreetly un-do my amateur tangling without a word once my back was turned.
I’d first come across Colum while he was rattling the tins with BFG, the outfit that morphed eventually into Ruby Horse, and I wasn’t in the least bit surprised to read that he now bides his time playing jazz somewhere out there. He was living it and obsessing it as a gangly teenager, as hooked on his craft as those kids who sleep with their hurleys and are ear-marked to play for Cork from the minute they’re able to stand unaided. He was as passionate an advocate for new and emerging music as any and, when I heard that The Emperors were finally coming in to land with an album, I instinctively thought of him. I haven’t seen or spoken to Colum – or Mick, indeed – in a quarter of a century but I’m just delighted to know that he’s out there, still making the big noise.
Colum and the other Emperors – Haggis, Graham and the band’s lively bass player, Eddie Butt – won’t have appreciated the bigger picture back when life as a jobbing rock band with ambitions started to unravel for them. How could they have done? Even by the mid-90s they knew nothing and had only their dreams for company. In the broader story of popular music in Ireland, they’ll know now that they’re just another in a long line of footnotes but, more importantly, they’ll also know why that is. In finally assembling such a fine body of work and getting it out there – if only to themselves, their families, friends and supporters – they’ll have drawn to a close a significant chapter in their own story and, perhaps, have unwittingly started work on a sequel?
But they’ll know too that being comfortable in each other’s company, bonded by a common purpose, all those years later, is their greatest achievement. And perhaps all that really matters.
Ah, revisionism and nostalgia: you’d want to be careful when that pair collide. Last Monday, the Irish Times newspaper carried a fine, first person memoir by Conor Pope to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the release of The Sawdoctors’ second single, ‘I Useta Lover’, one of the more distinctive Irish pop songs of the 1990s and one of the country’s biggest-selling singles ever. As such, it’s an anniversary worth noting: there was a time when there was no escaping The Sawdoctors who, in the great traditions of popular music, captured a moment and legged it until they ran out of puff and were lapped by fresher legs.
‘I Useta Lover’ used a series of lyrical flourishes and tropes that would quickly come to characterise the band and that were more in keeping with the thematic heart of the first wave of Irish showbands than the 1980s indie set. And punters of all hues lapped them up with gusto.
Conor Pope tells us of his own loose connection to The Sawdoctors and self-deprecatingly plays down his stint in a rival Galway-based rock outfit, describing the pain he felt – and many others of us, I can assure him – as The Sawdoctors defied the odds and took flight. Thirty years older, the writer has now changed his tune: ‘Never would I have guessed back then that the song would be as timeless as it has turned out … or that I would still be able to sing it [‘I Useta Lover’] without missing a word or a beat’.
I never gave The Sawdoctors the time of day back then and don’t intend to revise my views on them now. I’m wary of the seductive pull of nostalgia, and all the more so on a blog like this that seldom, if ever, looks forward. But in accurately assessing the group’s legacy, an additional pass may be no harm.
The Sawdoctors gave a voice, as the Irish Times piece rightfully claims, to ‘what it was like to live in the west of Ireland in the 1980s and early 1990s’. On a most basic level, several of the band’s more powerful songs are located there, and as many again are scattered with local slang, situations and parochial soap operas. But The Sawdoctors didn’t have exclusive editorial ownership on the vagaries of life for those then living outside of Dublin, especially in small towns. Plenty of other groups were also at it but just chose to reflect those lives in different ways.
Indeed, as The Sawdoctors were first coming to national prominence, so too was a cohort of other ambitious young bands from cities and towns all over Ireland. Conor refers to one of them, another Galway group, Toasted Heretic, in his piece, but there were many more in the same boat too. Therapy?, The Frank and Walters, The Sultans of Ping, The Cranberries, The Would-Bes, Engine Alley, The Divine Comedy and Cuckoo are among the best known: it would be wrong to think they weren’t dipping into their own experiences in Larne, Cork, Limerick, Kingscourt, Kilkenny, Enniskillen and Derry to inform their material.
What set The Sawdoctors apart was how they presented. They were horny young bucks sniggering in the pews at mass while, in Therapy?’s orbit, James Joyce was fucking someone’s sister. Like The Frank and Walters, they enjoyed pranks and practical jokes but, while the Cork band captured the spirit of The Monkees, The Sawdoctors looked to the home-made, cardboard comedy of ‘Tops of The Towns’ instead, nudging-and-winking away while others were having it off goodo and happy to tell the world as much. ‘The sun goes down on Galway Bay’, sang Toasted Heretic’s Julian Gough. ‘The daughter goes down on me’.
The Sawdoctors divided opinion with an intensity I hadn’t seen before on the domestic beat. In hindsight, this was rooted far less in the music – more perspiration than inspiration, in my view – and way more in a broader cultural conversation. In their donkey jackets and everyman duds, and with their call-and-response choruses and colloquial language, The Sawdoctors were at the heart of a debate about identity.
‘Designer bogmen’, was how the late Dublin-born music journalist, George Byrne, once described The Sawdoctors and, his provocative choice of language notwithstanding, he had a point. I always thought that the ordinariness that was fundamental to their appeal was as carefully studied in it’s own right as any of U2’s various guises, before them or after them. In Ollie Jennings, their manager, they had as formidable an operator in the cockpit as Paul McGuinness himself in his pomp. A founder of the Galway Arts Festival, which took place for the first time in 1978, Jennings was an experienced and wily hand who could read the mood in a room better than most. And he was fiercely protective of his charges, too: The Sawdoctors took plenty of flack but were well able to defend their territory. Like those doughty corner backs they immortalised in song, they knew how to pull hard and late.
They boasted no outward pretensions and only struck poses and shapes when they were sending themselves up, which was often. The cover of the band’s debut album, ‘If This is Rock ‘N’ Roll I Want My Old Job Back’, features the fathers of the various band members, legs akimbo, replete in leather jackets and with guitars cocked: it was the closest the band got to cool. Instead, like the comedian Pat Shortt, they reported for duty as they were: decent, everyday shams dealing with everyday situations in simple, uncomplicated language. And so when many of those who found comfort in the band’s live shows – particularly in the Irish enclaves in London, Glasgow, New York and Boston – looked stage wards, they often saw themselves, and their values, reflected back at them.
There they were, perennial underdogs from the sticks, battling the music industry, the media and the pomp and ceremony of the big city. Ultimately, channelling the influential Catholic sociologists, Father Harry Bohan and Father Micheál Mac Gréil, The Sawdoctors were fighting to protect the soul of rural Ireland in words, deeds and big choruses.
To be fair, someone had to. During the late 1980s and early 90s, a lot of the conversation about identity, particularly from the Dublin-based commentariat, was woefully one-dimensional. The Sawdoctors, to their credit, saw a gap in the hedge, provided an alternative frame of reference and set out their stall. In this respect, they followed a road also travelled by the Reid brothers from Leith, in Scotland who, as The Proclaimers, proudly told similar tales in thick accents. On that road, where Hot Press magazine saw ‘stick-fighters’ and ‘bog-ballers’, The Sawdoctors instead saw legends, heroes and feats of valour. So much so that, like The Smiths, with whom they have far more in common than one might imagine, they brought swathes of the voiceless in with them from the margins.
It’s a pity, then, that the music itself was so spectacularly lumpy and devoid of imagination. Dress it up all you like, but there isn’t really a lot of distance between ‘Clare Island’ and, say, Liam Reilly’s emigration dirge, ‘The Flight of Earls’. And although ‘To Win Just Once’ might indeed sound visionary and prescient after a feed of porter on the night of an unexpected Intermediate championship victory, it sounds much more mundane in the cold light of morning.
In the wake of Conor’s piece, I saw a reference on-line to the ‘unique genius’ of The Sawdoctors. Early morning over-enthusiasm aside, the reality is that The Sawdoctors weren’t half as unique as we think. And genius ? Hardly. What is indisputable, though, is that, for many years, they were very, very popular and, perhaps, inside the warm wrap of nostalgia and revisionism, it’s just too easy to get carried away ?
To my mind, the band had a far greater impact off the stage than on it or on record. Like the great Irish showbands, The Royal before them and Westlife after them, their popularity facilitated the mass congregation of young men and women and, in the best traditions of popular entertainment, made them feel, if not always better, then certainly as if they were a part of something special, however fleetingly. Their songs – who among you can name five or more ? – just sound-tracked that communion.
They were at the peak of their powers, I think, during the first three Féile festivals that took place in Semple Stadium, Thurles, between 1990 and 1992, and over the course of which they made their way from the bottom of the bill to the top. Those Féile events are as much the story of The Sawdoctors as anyone else and, in Thurles, they found a perfect platform. A small town in the middle of Ireland, the closure of the sugar factory in Thurles in the late eighties deprived it of a primary source of local employment. On Liberty Square, the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded at a meeting in Hayes’ Hotel, in November, 1884, and Semple Stadium itself has long witnessed acts of spectacular skill and heroism performed by the best hurlers and footballers in the history of the national games. Féile was where The Sawdoctors walked into one of their own songs.
Alongside ‘Celebrate’ by An Emotional Fish, ‘Parachute’ by Something Happens, The Stunning’s ‘Brewing Up A Storm’ and The Sultans of Ping FC’s ‘Where’s Me Jumper ?’, ‘I Useta Lover’ was one of a number of alternative national anthems played during The Trip to Tipp. To which hordes of giddy youngsters shot to attention, paid their respects and then afterwards ate the faces off of one another.
And maybe there’s a genius in there somewhere ? Or maybe, like Brendan Bowyer before them and Hozier long after, The Sawdoctors were just a popular turn who, deliberately or otherwise, found a moment when they were in synch with the mood of the nation. In the Pantheon of Irish popular music, however, The Sawdoctors – and ‘I Useta Lover’ – are queuing on the outside, well down the stand-by list.