Looking back at the mixed history of Sir Henry’s, Cork’s best known live music venue, only re-enforced that which I’d long thought: the scruffy old hall was, in reality, nothing more than that. And while folk of course remember the venue fondly – and the many, many bands who took the stage there – it’s lustre has long been dimmed by the looking glass of history. A long piece I wrote for the Sir Henry’s exhibition back in 2014 elaborates on this point and that piece is available to read here.
Sir Henry’s was, of course, a fine, fine venue and bands of every hue liked to play there. It was typically appointed, attracted a smart and often unforgiving crowd and, more often than not, gave a decent live sound. But the place could kill you stone dead too and, over the years I spent there as a regular, I routinely saw bands decimated as much by the venue’s reputation as by their own shortcomings. Into Paradise – a band with whom I had a long personal connection – struggled to ever really convince the Cork crowd, for instance, and although they played at least one cracking Sir Henry’s show to a handful of walk-ups, they were far better suited, ultimately, to some of Cork’s other, smaller venues. Of which, during the decade between 1988 and 1998, there were many: some short-lived and pop-up, others purely opportunist and shameless and practically all of them long forgotten.
Shane Fitzsimons was one of those who attended that Into Paradise show in Sir Henry’s. From Churchtown in South Dublin, he was, among other things, a fine writer who contributed a weekly music column to The Evening Echo in which he’d deliver, in essence, a sermon of sorts from the top of Dillon’s Cross. Read in sequence now, those columns chronicle the evolution of the live music scene in the city from 1988 onwards in sparkling detail and, as such, have become far more over time than was ever intended. Shane and Into Paradise went way back as far as Dublin 14 – they were from a suburb that also birthed Blue In Heaven and The Coletranes – and he was one of the band’s loudest and keenest champions, as he was of many excellent alternative artists.
Putting money he didn’t have where his mouth was, he also spent years promoting numerous live shows, most notably in The Shelter on Tuckey Street and An Sráidbhaile, a frankly bizarre back-room in The Grand Parade Hotel that doubled as a post-Famine rural Irish village, with appropriate props and a full period finish.
The Cork Jazz Festival began in 1978 and, from its hesitant origins in The Metropole Hotel had become, by it’s tenth birthday, a serious draw and a hardy fixture on the city’s events calendar. Over the years it’s hosted many a stellar turn and I remember seeing Herbie Hancock play an almighty set late one night at The Cork Opera House in what was an inspired festival booking. Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie and Kyle Eastwood are among the numerous others to have rattled the festival’s boards – and boreds – over the years but, for many of us, that weekend in October was almost always out of bounds. Rightly or wrongly, it seemed to me that the jazz – and, in many cases, that term was very loosely defined, even in the festival’s heyday – just attracted every toff and merchant prince into the middle of town for a weekend on the lash. When Cork city, for three days, became a suburb of Kinsale.
Back in the early 1990s, The Shelter – an off-Broadway late bar with a shiny dance-floor located, aptly, opposite the Cork Family Planning Centre on Tuckey Street – hosted a series of memorable and highly-charged Wednesday night shows by local and visiting acts, notably The Cranberries but also The Hitchers, The Frank And Walters, In Motion, The Sultans Of Ping FC, They Do It With Mirrors and, of course, Into Paradise. I’m certain that Shane Fitzsimons never once turned a coin in promoting these nights: he was a principled and straight operator who did it a] because he could and b] because no one else seemed too keen to raise the bar on a scene that was distinctly flat.
I claimed as much in a Cork Examiner review of a double-headed live show at The Shelter by two emerging and hopeful Cork bands, The Bedroom Convention and The Mahogany Men, towards the end of the summer in 1991. As an opening gambit, I made a strong case for the venue: ‘With the Irish pop emphasis on a gradual little swing out of Dublin and into the virgin regions, bands like Cork’s Frank And Walters, Limerick’s Cranberries and They Do It With Mirrors and Waterford’s Bewildered Teapots are this province’s most beautiful hope’. ‘They do’, I went on, ‘need to play live. They need little-scale venues and they need that sense, however clichéd, of ‘scene’. The Shelter gives them both’. And having got that much off of my chest, I laid into the bands I was reviewing and gave them both a right shoe-ing.
‘Jazz Me Bollix’ was a more considered offshoot of those mid-week shows at The Shelter and, at one point, became an alternative to the more vulgar aspects of local society on parade during The Cork Jazz Festival. To a small and passionate number, it was as if we were re-claiming the city and it’s real virtues from the oysters and stout brigade and dousing it in cider and white noise instead. Ultimately, the crowds were just as drunk in The Shelter – God knows what kind of hooch they were dispensing at the pre-gig drinks up in The Liberty Bar – but the music was far more memorable than that dispensed on the jazz trail.
I’m still not sure how Shane managed to pull the whole thing off: for one, he didn’t actually have a telephone and yet he still managed to snag The Palace Brothers to headline the first ‘Jazz Me Bollix’ weekend. But he had regular help on hand and several others – Jim O’Mahony, Morty McCarthy and Jim Morrish among them – always lent their heft to the scrum and helped push the thing blindly over the line.
I’m absolutely certain that many of the best and most memorable live shows in Cork during the 1990s took place in some of the lesser celebrated venues all over the city, The Shelter and The Village/An Sráidbhaile especially. And while I’m mindful too of the impact and the purpose of the more obtuse venues outside of Cork city, I’m deliberately steering clear of them here. The contributions of the likes of De Barras in Clonakilty, Connolly’s of Leap and other, off-track venues in Kindle, Crosshaven and Myrtleville won’t be forgotten by either social historians or alicadoos but those histories are deserving of more than the cursory over-view here.
I’ve also, for the most part, stayed away from detailing the influence of some of the city’s schools, especially those on the Southside, several of which gave vent – and use of their premises – to young, fledgling rock bands and never shied away from supporting the more curious, off-curricular interests of some of their pupils. An honourable mention, for now, to Coláiste An Spioraid Naoimh in Bishopstown, to which we’ll return to at length in a later post that re-traces the history of Ruby Horse, who formed in that school in the late 1980s as BFG and who played at least one memorable lunchtime show at the school as callow teenagers.
I’ve written previously too about De Lacy House on Oliver Plunkett Street which, largely because of it’s erratic booking policy, possibly doesn’t get the credit it deserves for much of the fare it served up during the ten years between 1987 and 1997. That piece is available to read here. But I was reminded of the range and breath of some of the city’s more off-beat and less obvious live music venues, most of which are located within the loft of a bowl from De Lacys, by Trevor and Noel Welch’s book, ‘The Jolly Roger’. Based on a number of first-hand interviews with many of the prominent players, the book traces the evolution of pirate radio in Cork and joins the dots between the illicit operations all over the city and the dives and flesh-pots that dominated post-pub society around town from the late 1970s onwards. And although the names of those clubs and discos tended to change with the seasons, their basic purpose – to attract thirsty punters – never once wavered and practically all of them, at one point or another, dabbled in live music to some extent. I remember seeing a couple of really ace Flex And The Fastweather shows in what was then Zoes nightclub, for instance, while over on Washington Street, Spiders, run by Kenny Lee, briefly flirted with live music too: both Blue In Heaven and The Stars of Heaven played absolute rattlers there and fleetingly brought class and good taste to what was essentially, just a shithole. Redz, around the back of The Jury Room, was also converted briefly to the potential and possibilities afforded by live music – paying punters in search of porter and, for a time, the odd band fetched up within it’s walls and onto it’s grubby floors.
A five-minute walk away – but a million miles apart in every other respect – The Triskel Arts Centre would also host the odd show. The venue’s bespoke theatre was never the most comfortable fit for live music and the sound there could be very erratic: it’s best shows were, indeed, the odd ones. And none more so than the two ‘multi- media’ shows I saw there by Anthony McCarthy And De Confidence who, with their tapes, projectors, slides and loops, were – for a spell – easily one of the most original and stimulating live acts in the country. It was at The Triskel too where, with Ray O’Callaghan from Poles Apart and Mick Daly of Sleepy Hollow, we staged a full-on Serengeti Long Walk live show – replete with female backing vocalists – that Ray recorded onto 4-track from Mick’s mixing desk. Serengeti, and their peers out in Turner’s Cross, Censored Vision and The How And Why Insects, also lowered the tone at some of the city’s more idyllic and historic venues, like The Cricket Club up in The Mardyke and Shandon Boat Club, on the banks of the River Lee, down on The Marina.
Both The Phoenix Bar on Union Quay and The Underground, down a side lane by Roche’s Stores off of Patrick Street, should also feature in any serious histories of alternative music in Cork during the late 1980s. One of my neighbours, Paul Daly, recorded, over a number of years, many of Cork’s most compelling live shows using a basic Walkman and, among some of his more exotic booty were two Five Go Down To The Sea shows put to tape in The Phoenix that featured ‘Carrots From Clonmel’, ‘Kelly From Killeens’ and ‘What Happened Your Leg’, among the usual mayhem. Paul also captured a couple of excellent Sindikat shows in The Underground, at least one of which featured an epileptic cover of Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’.
But hidden away on the cusp of the city’s main drag, another filthy old back-room consistently hosted a varied range of excellent live acts and contributed as much to the well-being of the local circuit for the guts of twenty years as anyone or anywhere else. Before it changed it’s name, Mojos was The Buckingham, located on the inter-section of The South Terrace and George’s Quay and facing directly into the old labour exchange. During the 1980s, Cork was a city riven by neglect and unemployment and, on dole days, The Buckingham would offer the warmth of a couple of Super Sers, decent pints, strong, home-made soup and a selection of imported hard-core pornographic films for those whiling away a couple of hours and a few pound from their scratch. But in the evenings, The Buckingham often rocked to a different rumble and for years – and especially after it became Mojos – boasted a catholic booking policy that was as wide as it was long. The owner, Mick, played in his own band, The Drawbacks but, despite his personal fondness for quality r ‘n’ b, Mojos was always far more than either a blues or a biker’s spot.
Because the pub was physically unwelcoming, partly dilapidated and anything but obvious, it tended to attract punters who shared the same characteristics. Like Dublin’s Underground, you had to often walk across the stage to access the jacks and, on those many nights when the small venue was rammed to it’s 100-person capacity, many simply didn’t bother to complete the trip and, instead, disappeared briefly onto the concourse outside and lashed away into the side of the Cork Multi-Channel offices. The location of the bar at the front of the narrow venue meant that it was usually impossible to avoid people: possibly the small venue’s only deficiency and compounded by the considerable gom ratio in Cork at the time. In it’s own way, and exactly like Sir Henry’s or The Phoenix, Mojos offered a release of sorts to like-minds, social outcasts, music lovers and the bewildered. Or, if you like, those who just weren’t welcome in Sidetrax or Chandras.
The smell of piss in The Buckingham was matched only by the smell of leather and sweat: black denims, good loafers and a decent leather jacket were, for years, the order of the day there and, as you’d expect, far more important than personal hygiene. I absolutely loved the place and, over the years, myself and my late friend, Philip Kennedy, were regulars there. We saw The Fat Lady Sings play The Buckingham: quite how they got the Fender Rhodes piano into the venue was the first, but not only miracle we saw that night. Afterwards, we helped the band lug their kit back into their van and, I guess, committed ourselves to them for life. From humble origins on a random Saturday night on George’s Quay, we saw them blossom to become one of the finest pop groups in the country.
We saw The How And Why Insects, Cypress, Mine ! and a heap of other local outfits there too. Like Censored Vision who, in their Bowie-pants and mullets, rammed the place with locals who rolled down to the quays from Evergreen Road. And at a loose-end and on my own one Saturday night, I wandered into an almighty set there from Scotus, of all people: a feisty four-piece from Blackrock, they were, in their desert boots, wool crios belts, grandfather-necked shirts and waistcoats, a testy folk-rock act. They fairly laid into ‘The Leaving Of Liverpool’ and ‘The Shores Of Botany Bay’ as their parting shots and put a decent up-lift on a dank night in the city. And this was a recurring theme in Mojos.
Elsewhere, both The College Bar in U.C.C. and The Atrium in what was once the Cork Regional Technical College, fashioned the odd diamond from time to time, including one very early and very chaotic Frank And Walters show. We’ll return to the role of the colleges in a longer, future post but, for now, it’s appropriate and proper to note the formidable and hirsute presence of Jim Walsh, a lecturer out in the RTC and, for many years, one of Cork’s most adroit bookers. Jim was one of the primary shakers behind The Cork Folk Festival – at which Billy Bragg once played a super headline show at Connolly Hall – and which, on a given festival weekend, could throw up any amount of silver and gold. Connolly Hall also hosted a pretty dire New Order show in January,1986, but was also where I saw one of the most captivating concerts I can recall, when Peter Skellern played an amazing, long-delayed solo show in the middle of a power cut and with no electricity to power the venue.
Skellern, a gifted songwriter, player and a fine storyteller, had filled one of the ballrooms in The Metropole Hotel the previous year and now, back in a far bigger and more imposing venue, speckled with candles and battery-operated flash-lights, was projecting his voice and his grand piano around a huge, wood-panelled hall, without amplification. For at least a full hour, he careered through a comprehensive set that stretched from Debussy’s ‘The Girl With The Flaxen Hair’ to his own ‘Our Jackie’s Getting Married’ and through many stations en route. Years later, in May, 1999, I saw Elvis Costello kill the live mics at Dublin’s National Concert Hall to conclude a stirring stripped-back show with Steve Nieve, but that was out of choice and inside a custom-built venue designed for such events. That Skellern show remains one of the finest and most magnetic I’ve seen: a long, long evening of torch songs.
In a similar vein, the late promoter, Des Blair, will also be remembered: the man who convinced B.B. King to play on a basketball court off of Gerald Griffin Street deserves a plaque in his honour. As does the tireless Denis Desmond [‘thanks Bet’] who, among other things, more or less single-handedly ran the first Coca Cola School Band competition during the late 1980s. I was one of the resident jurors on this event – the winners of which, after the final staged in Connolly Hall, were The Hitchers – and possibly the most memorable heat I judged was in Ballincollig Community School where, after much to-doing outside, a local gang, some of whom were possibly mainlining cider, laid siege to the school and then proceeded to battle it out with the local Gardaí. It was the first and indeed still only time I’ve been driven home from a live show in the back of a Garda car.
Henry Africa’s, facing The City Hall, later became The Lobby and, under the direction of Pat Conway was, for many years, one of the finest live music venues in the country. It was in Henry Africa’s that I first saw The Cargo Cult who, apart from anything else, convinced me that there was a real underbelly at play around Cork city during the mid-1980s. But it was in The Lobby that I saw a nascent Nomos – an electrifying, reckless contemporary trad five-piece led by Niall Vallely and Frank Torpey – take root and flower-up and where I saw a teenage Sinéad Lohan take her first tentative steps – alongside Hilary Coughlan – after leaving Chris Ahern’s nest out in Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa. And I will never forget the live alchemy performed in front of the master window on the first floor by the likes of Buddy Mondlock, Paul Tiernan and [especially], a stripped-back Frames, among the many, many shows I attended there over the years. The history of this gorgeous venue, and the many magical nights it hosted, is captured definitively in Monica McNamara’s excellent book, ‘The Lobby Bar : Music Through The Windows Of Union Quay’, which is as keenly written and informed and it is essential to any serious cultural review of the city during the twenty years from 1988 onwards.
Another friend of mine, Michael Moynihan – a man who soldiered with me on many a venture into the live unknowns around town over the years – remarked some time ago in a fine feature piece in The Irish Examiner that Cork shared many traits with the Catalan city of Barcelona. In so doing, he pointed out that although not bound by a formal civic partnership, are twin cities in all but name. Both are located port-side, have a staunchly independent cut about them, are sports and politics obsessed, speak using local variants on national dialect and share similar economic histories.
So why am I so surprised to find that, on those increasingly rare occasions when I get home to Cork and wander it’s magnificent, tree-lined rambla and it’s evocative side-streets, most of the live venues of my youth are now trendy tapas bars ?