welcome to churchtown

I spent many, many hours with the excellent Dublin band, Into Paradise, devising numerous schemes and strategies intended to bring them in from the cold but that only ultimately moved them further out into the margins. Through the madness, I remember fondly the time I spent as the band’s butler, a bit like Scooter from The Muppet Show, during which I tried to help them put order on their affairs, publicised their cause and even turned out for them as an additional member of their live retinue. Like a loyal handful of others I felt their material warranted way more attention and far greater audiences than it ever generated and I’ll go to my grave still stubbornly making that case for them. But whenever Into Paradise turn up, as they regularly do, on those lists that chronicle the great feats of chronic Irish under-achievement, another part of me melts away: is it right or just that these are the only charts in which the band has ever featured prominently ?

Exactly how ‘[Why Don’t You] Move Over’, the band’s most friendly pop song, failed to achieve broader recognition than it did when it was first released as a single in 1993, is as difficult to rationalise as the free-form roundabout in Walkinstown, which goes in many directions and none at the same time. But although Into Paradise has long since splintered in various directions, it must still rankle with one or two of them that they’re best remembered for what they didn’t achieve rather than for what they did.

I’ve never written at any great length about them: what goes on on the road and within small, confined spaces is often best left there. But although much of their story is an achingly familiar one, there’s another level on which it’s just far too complicated, even at this remove. The likes of Dónal Ryan and Emma Donohoe, with their deft hands and keen sense of the claustrophobic and the absurd, might struggle to do it justice.

My long-standing personal connection to them aside – and, like many aspects of their story, this was always intense and forever prone to fracture – they’ll always just be one of my favourite bands. When I dip back into their material now, I can still hear the rare, punctured and sometimes reckless beauty that characterised much of their first two elpees and that was still flickering when they did two mini-albums back on the Setanta label towards the end of their decade-long history. Their back catalogue is like an extension of my body at this stage.

But that’s what happens when you soldier on the frontlines with a group as consistently keen-eyed and forever acute as they were. When, long before the internet or mobile phones, you’d drive for days with them across the continent, using old atlases and road maps to reach those small venues in Zurich or that large warehouse in Alicante or the biker’s hut somewhere in Holland that whiffed of denim, soiled leather and questionable politics.

Every one of those trips began in hope and with a sense that, out there somewhere, new audiences – or indeed any audiences – awaited us. And it was that same hope, and the inevitable disappointment that followed Into Paradise around like a deranged hanger-on, that turned on you in the end. My own heart eventually just gave out when, near the finish, we travelled for an eternity to Castletownbere on the Beara peninsula in West Cork to play a local festival to less than twenty punters in a vast hall. While, in the venue across the road, Zig and Zag were doing ‘Never Mind The Zogabongs’ in its entirety to a full-house whose floor was buckling beneath the heft of feet. Ten years previously, in a parallel world, the fictional American band, Spinal Tap, were also up-staged by a puppet show during an ill-advised booking at Themeland Amusement Park in California. But at least Spinal Tap had the consolation of knowing they’d landed a bigger dressing room than the puppets: Into Paradise enjoyed no such luxury.

Purely by co-incidence, I moved onto the band’s manor twelve or so years ago. The second Into Paradise album, ‘Churchtown’, their only issue on a major label, is named after the south Dublin suburb in which the group grew up, took shape and in which it was based, on and off, for most of its existence. I drive through Churchtown practically every single day now, along those same tree-lined back-roads I once walked for hours to get to band meetings and rehearsals. Through a part of the south Dublin hinterland that, to some of us, is as well-known and historically important for the likes of Blue In Heaven and The Coletranes [later Revelino] as it is for Scoil Éanna and Patrick Pearse and where, for the guts of ten years, the best-known Into Paradise line-up – David Long, Rachel Tighe, Jimmy Eadie and Ronan Clarke – devised new spells and conjured up regular magic tricks, often in spite of themselves.

Many of the landmarks that pepper the band’s story are still standing and some of the others have been modified in the years since the band would regularly go to the well, summon its energies one more time, assemble in the practice room and make another last, often despairing stab at it. And, when I’m stuck in traffic during the early mornings on Lower Churchtown Road or when I’m caught for puff as I shuffle past the back of Milltown Golf Club, its hard not to be reminded of the band’s magnificent body of work when the source of much of it is rooted all around me.

The Bottle Tower, now a gastro-pub with notions serving craft beer on the top end of Churchtown Road Upper and Nutgrove Avenue was, for years, a formidable local bolthole outside of which we’d assemble the troops at dawn before leaving for the ferry at Dún Laoghaire. Close-by, within touching distance of the long defunct Braemor Rooms – the long-time spiritual home of Dublin cabaret – is De La Salle Boys school where David Long, the formidable Into Paradise leader, seems not to be listed alongside the footballer, Damien Duff, the actor, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and the film director, John Carney, on the roll call of honour along it’s far-reaching hallways.

The old Mount Carmel hospital at the inter-section of Orwell Road and Braemor Park, is now largely un-occupied and infinitely less busy than it used to be at the height of the Celtic Tiger and its assorted insanities. But from outside on the roadway, I can make out ‘the grey, dirty white steps of the hospital greenhouse’ that begin ‘The Pleasure Is Over’, one of the many stellar cuts on the first Into Paradise album, ‘Under The Water’, released on the Setanta label in 1990. Further along the same road, towards the village end, the walls of the band’s old rehearsal rooms on the tip of Braemor Park and Braemor Road are still super-injuncted forever from talking, which is maybe for the best.

And then there’s The Glenside, an enormous, thatched boozer located half-way down Landscape Road, the setting for many a lively Into Paradise band meeting and whose pulling power often caused the early abandonment of a scheduled rehearsal. The Glenside has long been a fixture on Dublin’s formidable suburban entertainment circuit and, for years, The Evening Herald newspaper carried regular listings for the wide breath of exotica it hosted. Also on that circuit were the likes of The Addison Lodge in Glasnevin, The Patriots Inn in Kilmainham, The Old Mill in Tallaght, The Graduate in Killiney and The Towers in Ballymun, where I saw Aslan do a couple of blinding acoustic shows during their fallow years in the early 1990s while they were at a loose and uncertain point in their career, scrambling for life. That hinterland track gave them the space to re-group and re-calibrate, strictly out of the spotlight, and also put a few bob into their pockets for good measure.

All of these are sizeable premises that serve decent pints, good food and regular entertainment, the bulk of which is almost always booked from the cabaret network. It was in this territory that Brendan O’Carroll, for instance, first developed a reputation for what one might charitably refer to as a particular brand of comedy. And where, to this day, the likes of Roly Daniels and Who’s Eddie continue to defy the laws of science, taste and decency.

Every now and then an out-of-the-ordinary or quirky booking might pull a different sort of crowd out into the suburbs and away from the city- centre axis around which Dublin’s live music scene has long been rooted. It was up in what was once The Rathmines Inn in Dublin 6, for instance, that Bjorn Again – still easily the best of all of the Abba tribute bands – made their first tentative live appearances in Ireland while, during the early 1990s, The Dundrum House hosted a series of magnificent live shows by The Coletranes, a local guitar-doused outfit whose classy record collections and adroit command of music history shaped a terrific residency that took place on their own doorstep.

The Glenside still serves up regular live music in one of its well- appointed rooms upstairs and, from one week to the next, you’re never quite sure what or who you’ll find there. Earlier this year, while The Republic of Ireland were sleep-walking their way through a soporific friendly fixture against Iceland over at The Aviva Stadium, I was back in the place after for the first time in ages, lured by a friend promising a night of decent cover versions, old-school riffing and quality porter. And in that wood-lined room, up over the sprawling main bar that, on one side, is festooned with decades worth of vintage Dublin Gaelic football memorabilia and, on the other, the rolling screens that only always seem to carry Sky Sports, The Donal Kirk Band enlivened a slow night with a wide-ranging stock of standards, each one delivered with the careful precision of a surgeon’s nerveless hand.

The breath of their fare is unremarkable enough; ‘Norwegian Wood’, ‘You Do Something To Me’, ‘Wish You Were Here’ and David Gray’s ‘Babylon’ all sitting in a set that also features the odd Vince Gill cover and early ZZ Top. What distinguishes them, though, – and at the risk of sounding like the esteemed Jazz Club host, Louis Balfour – is the quality of the performance, every one of the five men consistently winning their own ball. And what starts as high end pub rock, neat and tidy throughout, develops into something that eventually becomes far more than the sum of its parts as they kick for home after an hour or so.

Donal Kirk’s name will be familiar to those who frequented Slatterys on Capel Street or JJ Smyth’s on Aungier Street during the 1980s, when both venues resounded regularly to the strains of quality r and b and dirty rock and roll. A fine vocalist with a soft, easy delivery, he was part of a crew that also included Don Baker and the guitarist, Pat Farrell, serious men well-drilled in the deep, often difficult traditions of authentic blues. He’s backed these days by a vacuum-packed rhythm section that supports a series of elaborate solo runs on lead guitar and, to their credit, they’ve pulled sixty odd punters in – no cover charge – riffing out to a handful of friends and musos who’ve gathered by the side of the performance area and who intently devour every lick, turn, spank and run.

It wasn’t until the end of a peppy set that paid off with a frenetic blues work-out that the callow figure of the group’s lead guitarist finally emerged from out of the shadows: Jimmy Smyth, formerly of The Bogey Boys, and one of the most formidable and nimble musicians I’ve ever seen on any stage. Wearing a long grey pony-tail and standard rock and roll duds, Smyth is a diminutive character and an explosive player whose work I first encountered through someone who shares several of his primary traits, Ray O’Callaghan of Poles Apart, the Police-tinged Blackpool-based three-piece who shone briefly in the early 1980s and who, with their Fender straps and amps, briefly lit up the night skies around Mount Farran, close to the old Glen Hall.

It was after Ray’s prompting that I first sought out The Bogey Boys, fish out of water, resolutely old style rockers competing for space with what was then the second of the new waves. And they were all the better for that. Jimmy Smyth took many of his cues from Wilko Johnson of Doctor Feelgood and, especially in a live setting, the three-piece were a proud and powerful counterpoint to much of what was going on around them. To this end, their spiky debut album, ‘Friday Night’, released in 1979, is among the most arresting local issues of its time, capturing a youthful Smyth in full flight, wearing the swagger of youth lightly and defiantly on what is a fine opening card. Years later and he’s still doing it on a cold Tuesday night in Churchtown.

There’s something warmly re-assuring about how these old soldiers still have the energy for battle: all the more so when those battles take place on their own terms. The last time I saw Donal Kirk’s outfit was on the Friday night before the recent All-Ireland football semi-final replay between Mayo and Kerry when I travelled out to Stillorgan and when much of the talk among our number beforehand was on tactical formations and positional switches.

Donal Kirk had clearly done his own video analysis in the lead-up: Jimmy Smyth had been stood down for the night, replaced by Anto Drennan, another local who’s featured regularly on international stages when he’s fetched up over the years as a jobbing guitarist with the likes of The Corrs, Chris Rea and Genesis. Born in Luton – like another of my favourite musicians, Microdisney’s Seán O’Hagan – but raised around the corner in Kilmacud, Drennan is another whose name has decorated many, many records over a long and varied career. And yet he too is still drawn to the flame that often surrounds the local hustings:  towards the end of the set, he steps up during a cover of ‘Purple Rain’ and takes a solo that’s as potent as anything seen in Croke Park the following afternoon. During which, as tends to be customary in these situations, Donal Kirk and his pards gently stalk the small stage behind him, heads bowed as they go, drinking it all in. Up at the side of the venue, meanwhile, I spot a couple of faces I’d seen months earlier, upstairs at The Glenside, their stares fixed stage-wards, eyes closed, close enough to touch the hands of God.

I last saw half of Into Paradise at a live show in The Tivoli Theatre in the mid 1990s. I’m still in touch, infrequently over e-mail, with David Long, who now resides down south but who still releases records and writes music, both as a member of The Whens and under his own name. Much of which is as urgent and captivating as anything he did with Into Paradise between 1986 and 1993. His tender, barely-pulsing ambient album, ‘Cities’, is a far cry from the brooding Bunnymen/The Sound rattle that characterises much of Into Paradise’s catalogue and a sign that, on one level, at least one of the pair of us has moved on.

Rachel Tighe fetched up for a while in another well-regarded Dublin art-pop band, Luggage, while Jimmy Eadie, a magnificent musician in his own right, runs a small studio from which he composes soundtracks for theatre and installations while producing some of the country’s most interesting writers and performers, We Cut Corners, Jape and Cian Nugent among them. I haven’t seen or heard of the band’s drummer, Ronan Clarke, for almost twenty-five years.

And yet every single time I pass The Glenside, I think of Into Paradise and the many battles they fought – and invariably lost – on sites all over this country and far beyond. Proving once more, in a small way, that greatness isn’t always forged in victory.


Add yours

  1. Can’t believe you got through a whole article without recourse to the mandatory Into Paradise and the Cat pic! Must have been their only promo shot. And it was brutal*

    I remember their great string of gigs in The White Horse around 93 or so.

    Still my favourite Irish band. Massive amount of memories. Must try and find a cassette player so I can play the tape from the mixing desk from last gig they played in the Rock Garden. Was a great night.

    * I think it is still hanging on the wall in my old room in the Mammy’s house!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s the Donal Kirk element of your piece that resonates with me and specifically the Jimmy Smyth focus me having been a life long admirer . Living in Limerick I have only caught their set once in last years again on a Tuesday in a pub in Clondalkin and I was for that 60 mins or so one of the group of men of a certain age standing in awe as he worked his magic . A few years earlier Jimmy brought a full band set up to Dolans / Limerick to launch a CD of a lady whose name just escapes me now , that he had produced . the turn out was paltry , comparable to your West Cork visit . He/ they played their hearts out . As he demobbed his amp and guitar / effects pedals I approached with my vinyl collection . he was delighted to say hello , listened to my recounting the gigs I had attended back in the day and signed my collection . They say one should never meet one s heros ….. not so

    Thanks for magnificent post including your obvious fandom for a certain comedian – I thought I was the only disenter

    Liked by 1 person

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