I can’t remember the first time I set foot inside Sir Henrys and I can’t remember the last time either but I remember clearly where the rose was sown.
I was a weedy teenager during the summer of 1982 [and for several other summers thereafter] when my father arranged a part-time job for me, my first. For eight weeks I stacked shelves and packed shopping bags, without any great distinction, in Roches Stores on Patrick Street. On my first day I was assigned to the biscuit aisle ;- on my second, to stack sanitary towels in the female toiletries section. I was asked by one of my co-workers – an older man whose hands were pock-marked with Indian ink – if I’d ever been ‘inside’. I was a teenage boy from Blackpool and, even thirty years ago, it was an obvious question.
Before the end of the summer I’d struck up with another pair of part-timers who made like they knew their music. One was obsessed with a nascent Dublin group called U2 and appeared to have form. He wore a bouffant centre parting in his hair, managed regularly by twin combs, clearly in honour of the band’s drummer. The other seemed to know quite a bit about Ireland’s darker underbelly. Dave Fanning, Hot Press, hash. Such things.
There was loose banter in the store-room one day about Sir Henry’s, with which both of my colleagues were familiar. There was a framed U2 poster to one side of the venue, apparently. Signed by the band. U2 liked Cork and someone’s relation helped them to set up their drums. I’d regularly seen Sir Henry’s from the outside. Hadden’s Bakery on North Main Street was on my family’s regular beat and, in the days long before paid parking, we’d frequently pull the car up outside. The place looked like a right toilet, but I never imagined that it would look even worse on the inside.
Myself and my friends were regulars at Sir Henry’s from around 1987 until 1994, when I left Cork for good. It was somewhere we went to hear live music and see bands, good, bad and often un-naturally ugly. Back then, when we knew nothing and cared less, music meant the world. And Sir Henry’s was one of the foundation blocks.
The place hosted some truly memorable nights and some remarkable live shows and, even at a distance of twenty five years I can clearly recall the most minor moments of some of the better ones.
In terms of Irish bands, it was in Sir Henry’s that Power of Dreams, The Sultans, The Franks, Engine Alley, The Subterraneans and Therapy? flowered in their pomp. It was in Henry’s too that arguably the finest and most perpetually ignored of them all, Into Paradise, played like their necks were on the line to a meagre scattering of, maybe, fifty people at a push. If anything captured their career in a snapshot, it was the continued indifference of Cork audiences. If you couldn’t persuade Henry’s, you didn’t matter where it mattered. Sir Henry’s could be cold and unforgiving and, while many were called, only the few were eventually annointed.
The Blue Angels being a particular case in point. Blue In Heaven were contemporaries and peers of Into Paradise from Churchtown, a suburb in South Dublin. A dirty and easily detonated live act, they found particular favour in Cork, and amongst the Sir Henry’s frontline especially.
Most of Blue In Heaven eventually evolved into a more considered and mildly diverting sub-species, The Blue Angels. But the Sir Henry’s crowd were having none of it and more or less refused to acknowledge they existed. The Blue Angels were famously sent packing for Dublin to the sound of one man clapping. They were a fickle crowd, the Henry’s lot.
But they adored their own too and I can still feel the fuzzy urgency with which my favourite Cork bands went about their thing on the live stage at Sir Henry’s [although plenty of other business was conducted off-stage too]. LMNO Pelican – who I later had the pleasure of producing – were restless, busy and catchy. I remember encountering a nervous and sensibly sober Brendan Butler for the first time, the Pelican’s drummer and heartbeat. ‘Alright player’, he opened, before heading straight to the gut of the matter :- he was chasing a critical view on a new Guadalcanal Diary compilation. We lost Brendan at a desperately young age in February, 2013 and its only right and proper that, in any potted history of Cork music, he is appropriately remembered and acknowledged. Rest easily, champ.
I concede now, as I did very openly then, to a soft-spot for local bands like The Bedroom Convention, Lift, Benny’s Head, Treehouse, Real Mayonnaise and The How And Why Insects, who later became Starchild and Crystal. These were the names that stood out then like they still do so now, a rangey peleton of domestiques in support of the prestige riders, lead by Cypress, Mine !, Burning Embers and The Belsonic Sound.
Of the blow-ins, my strongest recollections include live shows by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pavement, The Wedding Present, Babes In Toyland, The Sisters Of Mercy and That Petrol Emotion. It still rankles that I never saw either Microdisney or The Fatima Mansions live in Sir Henry’s :- in the great traditions of Cork politics, The Fatima Mansions tended to favour De Lacy House while Microdisney [although I first saw them support Depeche Mode in The City Hall in 1982] and me just didn’t have our clocks in sync and they’d fled Ireland years before I’d ventured out of Blackpool.
But while Sir Henry’s could destroy even the most vaunted of visitors, the inverse could be true too. Transvision Vamp played there once and, to my mind, blew the place limb from limb. ‘I wanna be your dog’ roared a leery drunk from the front row at the lead singer. ‘Woof woof’, responded Wendy James, as she sank a prozzie’s heel into his snout.
To my mind, Sir Henry’s rightful reputation as the country’s best live music venue bar-none was franked and sealed over three consecutive nights during the Summer of 1991. Facilitated through the offices of Ian Wilson and his team at Radio 2FM, Cork Rock was an annual shindig that assembled fifteen of the country’s best, aspiring and unsigned bands and flashed them in short-set form to sussed audiences speckled with talent spotters flown in – on generous expenses – from Britain and elsewhere.
The line-up in 1991 tells its own story and, among those bucks who faced the starter’s gun were The Frank And Walters, The Sultans Of Ping F.C., The Cranberries, Therapy?, The Brilliant Trees and Toasted Heretic.
It was, without question, the single most exhilirating weekend I can recall in my short, personal relationship with Sir Henry’s. And I still meet friends and acquaintances, now well into their forties and beyond, who legitimately lay claim to having been there before the finest generation of young Irish bands ever took flight with The Man.
Work subsequently took me to many more live venues all over Britain and Europe throughout the 1990s. And with a fresh perspective it was clear to me that, whatever we thought back then, Sir Henry’s was in many ways less artifice and more franchise. Every city that assumes a love of new music and a fostering of new acts has venues that sound, look and smell like Henry’s used to do at its peak. London, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Paris, New York.
In hindsight, Sir Henry’s was where the more intense kids went after they’d outgrown the secondary school disco and re-calibrated their ambitions. To me, one of the venue’s primary attractions was that it was on our doorstep [and not in Dublin] and, to those of us who, by 1986 and 1987 had grown into angry young men and women, this was of no little import.
My fellow traveller at this time was a friend I’d met in school, Philip Kennedy. During the summers from 1982 onwards, we’d started another, far more attractive form of rote learning and, in so doing, developed a love of Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Prefab Sprout, REM and, memorably, the frenetic political jangle of McCarthy [Morty McCarthy [no relation], was the key dealer here].
We spent our evenings swapping albums, battered cassettes, taped radio programmes, bootlegs and even demos. It was through Philip [and his regular dealer, Morty] that I first heard the famous first Frank And Walters demo, a tape that genuinely blew me away and which kick-started a long-standing connection that endures to this day.
It was Philip who, while I was away in America in 1988, harrassed Ciaran O’Tuama, then manning Comet Records with Jim O’Mahony, on a regular basis about a likely release date for the second Cypress, Mine ! album. That record, which is magnificent, has still to see the light of day, although I remain hopelessly optimistic, as I always did for that band.
Phil and myself hung out into the long summer nights on the railings outside his house on Saint Mary’s Road, by Neptune Stadium, talking the big music. Or just talking big about music. In our heads we cut an artsy dash along Redemption Road as we ferried our albums, always under-arm, for everyone to see. In reality, our parents may have hoped this was all just a fad, a passing thing. Sir Henrys became a natural extension of those nights, but it wasn’t the only one. My own favourite Cork venue was Mojos. Or De Lacy House. Or The Shelter. Or, briefly, The Underground, down a side alley around the back of Roches Stores. It was there that I once saw Sindikat, one of my favourite ever Cork bands, comprised mostly of past pupils of our old school. I may even have seen The Stars of Heaven there, a band who, had their store of stellar notices converted to sales, could have retired to stud after the release of their first album, ‘Speak Slowly’. Philip passed away on April 28th, 2006. He hadn’t yet turned 40 years of age and I never hear a cracking new album or see a storming new live band without thinking of how he’d so forensically de-construct them. And he was sharp and funny with it too.
One night we encountered Margaret Dorgan on Parnell Bridge ;- she was off to see a local band, The Pretty Persuasions, in The Phoenix. Margaret shared her concerns for the band’s well-being, worried that there might be were too many ‘posers’ in the audience.
‘The only posers there’, Philip told her, ‘will be on the stage’.
He was there at my elbow for years, through the good times and the even better times. He saw Sir Henry’s claim its many trophies and also bury a hell of a lot of bands who simply couldn’t cut muster. From wherever he is now, he knows where the bodies lie and, more importantly, why Sir Henry’s took shovels to their crowns.