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© Ciarán Ó Tuama email@example.com
Joe Healy and Ciarán Ó Tuama are important documentarians who have now become regular go-tos for anoraks, buffs and collectors. In dipping into the collection of stills and Super 8 videos they took around the streets of Cork city from the late 1970s onwards, and publishing digitized versions of that work on-line, they’re doing God’s own work for those of us who grew up during the decades when successive governments often forget that we existed. Their photos and film clips, many of which capture the heart or cardo of the city, are increasingly valuable resources to social historians.
Joe Healy’s interest in photography goes back to the late 1970s, when he bought what he referred to in a recent Irish Examiner profile as his ‘first decent camera’. After which he set about randomly capturing a city whose aspect was changing quickly, and nowhere more so than on its main drag, Patrick Street. A snap he took inside the Mandy’s fast-food outlet on Daunt Square, one of Cork’s trendiest 1980s locations, has the hallmarks of a great Renaissance painting, such is its composition and the breadth of detail within its frame. Where, in a random shot in a crowded burger bar, its possible to make out a wide-ranging cohort of Cork society that brings plenty with it to unpack.
What’s striking about both collections, though, is that in an age of visual botoxing, distortion and over-filtration, the snaps present history as it was captured at the time, without added effects. There’s a sobriety and authenticity to the work that’s as out of step stylistically now as the hair-dos and get-ups of many of those characters who feature in the photography. Without tampering or re-visitation, Ciarán and Joe present Cork city and its people as it was and as they found it, naked to the world.
Ciarán is perhaps better known to regular readers here as the lead vocalist and spiritual heartbeat of Cypress, Mine !, the spikey guitar janglers who sprung to prominence during the mid-1980s. But as a keen photographer with a sharp eye, he has long snapped aspects of regular – and often quite irregular – life in and around town. He became the informal, in-house stills-man who shot many of the most iconic images during the Downtown Kampus years at The Arcadia Ballroom on the Lower Road, and several of his photographs can already be found on the site here.
But among numerous other things, the body of work compiled by Ciarán and Joe reminds us that there was a time when Cork city was flush with record shops, all of them selling racks of wax and the associated tat that goes with that territory. During those years when recorded music was far more physically visible than it is now, even the bigger and more general retailers on Patrick Street like Easons and Woolworths had their own music sections, limited as they were. It was upstairs in Easons, for instance, that I bought my copy of The Smiths’ 1983 single, ‘This Charming Man’ and where, on a regular basis, a few of us would pore over the poster racks that featured the imposing likes of Samantha Fox, Farrah Fawcett-Majors and The Woman on The Tennis Court Who Forgot To Put Her Drawers On.
So little wonder I suppose that record shops were often regarded as dens of iniquity, held in the same disregard by our elders as bookies offices, pool halls and Moore’s Hotel. And as the influence of imported popular culture was starting to impact more robustly on Ireland’s social development, you’d hear the most extreme commentary in the most unusual places. Like the time when, during a rambling talk from an old Christian Brother in the early 80s, our class was told that the Rolling Stones’ 1973 album, ‘Goats Head Soup’, was essentially the work of Satan. Of course this only piqued my interest in a group I knew little about beyond the obvious and, naturally enough, I couldn’t wait to wrap my ears around it.
When, years later, I finally located a copy of ‘Goats Head Soup’, I just couldn’t make out what all the fuss was about. I even tried playing it backwards in the hope of maybe hearing a couple of personal messages from Lucifer himself. But no. I just couldn’t believe how incoherent and lumpy it was: if it was Brother Lee’s intention to warn us about the dangers of heroin, he could have simply played us a couple of tracks from ‘Goats Head Soup’. Kids, just say no.
I bought that album second-hand in one of Cork’s more interesting record shops, The Swop Shop on MacCurtain Street, where I loitered for many years, pounding the racks, bargain-hunting and sucking in the sweaty classic rock that, from a record player behind the counter, sound-tracked the place. It dealt mostly in re-cycled old elpees of all flavours and hues, and also sold a range of guitars, mandolins, bouzoukis, bodhráns, tin whistles and Irish song-books, all of which decorated the walls down towards the back of the shop. It was like a cross between the record and tape exchange shops up around Notting Hill in London and a less-fancy Pro Musica on Oliver Plunkett Street.
Despite its name, The Swop Shop didn’t do bartering or swopping: you either bought second-hand vinyl, compact discs and cassettes there for cash or you sold them. And there was no debate or discussion: you took what you were offered for your gear or you took the road. The two mainstays who ran the place didn’t engage in loose talk, niceties or chit-chat and, after you’d nervously approach the counter and offer up your booty, the dance began. They’d remove your vinyl from its sleeve and, with the skilled hands of a pair of experienced surgeons, spin it up carefully on their finger-tips against the light and scan it for scratches and damage. Once they’d completed a full rectal examination on the body of the disc, they’d then promptly school you in the art of buy-and-sell and fleece you.
Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel, High Fidelity, set in and around a small record shop in London, bases itself in similar territory and must have triggered a series of awful flashbacks within the community of obsessives and anoraks from Cork who regularly descended on The Swop Shop. There is, however, one fundamental and important difference between the two shops: both the book and the film that was adapted from it are based on the complicated three-way relationship between a man [Rob], a woman [Laura] and the powerful influence of music. But in all my time spent hunched over the bins in The Swop Shop, I never once encountered a woman there.
So, to this end, I think the place has far more in common with Jeanie Finlay’s excellent, lo-fi, low-budget observational film, Sound It Out, which was broadcast on BBC Four in 2011. Against a backdrop in which independent-minded and singularly-run music shops all over Britain were closing at a rate of knots, Finlay embedded herself with a defiant crew of men – and their loyal client base, also predominantly of men – who ran a small music outlet on Teeside in the North East of England. It’s a sweet, often dark and sometimes devilishly funny film that depicts a cast of characters and scenarios that will be familiar to anyone who regularly fetched up in The Swop Shop.
The Swop Shop was certainly of its time and served a particular purpose. Apart entirely from the enduring possibility that you might find something ultra-rare and special – and, to be fair, this certainly happened, just far less frequently than we probably thought at the time – the stuff there was also affordable. You could fill your boots there with a fiver and we frequently did. But in the worst traditions of second-hand shops, there was a real element of the dumping ground there too: the racks there were stuffed with all manner of material, some of which was just woejus.
So you’d regularly have to wade your way through a mountain of old Irish traditional and country recordings before happening on something a bit more obtuse, like a cut-price elpee by The Redskins. Or ‘Goats Head Soup’. In the singles section just inside the door, I once picked up a copy of ‘Pink Skinned Man’ by Microdisney. And in the spirit of the times, the two lads even had a special section devoted exclusively to second-hand 12” singles, from where I bought a specially-imported [allegedly] New Order disc containing various bleepy re-mixes of ‘Confusion’.
As a northsider, I always felt that MacCurtain Street was one of the more sophisticated parts of Cork city, even during the 1980s. At a time in the city’s history when the local Corporation was actively considering the re-development of The English Market as a multi-storey car-park, it felt like one of the less obvious parts of town. MacCurtain Street always seemed to have plenty going on and my father, who spent his entire working life walking the centre of the city, would constantly remind us of it’s history.
The red-brick façade and turrets of the Metropole Hotel – and the jazz music that often wafted through it – gave it a sophistication that was otherwise in short supply around Cork. Stokes’s Clocks was one of the more unusual, city-based businesses while the booths and the staff inside O’Brien’s café might have been transplanted from a Norman Rockwell painting.
More than all of that, though, MacCurtain Street will forever be synonymous with Rory Gallagher. It was over his grandparents’ bar, The Modern, that he and his brother, Dónal Gallagher, grew up during the 1950s. It was to that same strip that Crowley’s Music Centre, where Gallagher famously purchased his iconic Fender Stratocaster in 1963, moved its business in 1973: the outlet had been based previously on Merchant’s Quay. MacCurtain Street was where The Crypt, one of Cork’s first beat clubs and a regular stop-off for both brothers during their teens, was based from the mid-1960s onwards. And so, it was maybe fitting that it was at The Everyman Theatre – which once housed The Palace cinema – half-way down the street, that Gallagher played his last ever live show in Cork city in November, 1993. Like Gallagher, The Swop Shop was cut from the old-school, no-frills, muso-headed tradition.
Once The Virgin Megastore opened in Dublin in December, 1986, selling vinyl, compact discs, merchandise, concert tickets and even rubber johnnies, the writing was on the wall for many of the country’s lesser smaller outlets. Followed quickly into Ireland by another British franchise, HMV, both chains certainly kept music shops prominent on the main shopping streets all over Ireland and, by trading in scale and volume, more or less captured the domestic market over-night. In doing so, they also rendered many of the smaller and medium-sized shops obsolete: in such company, The Swop Shop never had a hope.
Specialist shops like Comet Records and Freebird, both based in Dublin, staged stubborn rear-guard responses and I would contend that the arrival of a Comet outlet in Cork in 1989 marked an important development for music in the city that extended far beyond just the sale of vinyl, compact discs and tickets. A fine piece here by Jim O’Mahony details some of the colourful history of that shop which, on several levels, was another iteration of The Swop Shop and adhered to similar principles. It quickly became a refuge and an outlet for a certain kind of obsessive as much as it was ever a shop that sold music.
The Swop Shop and Comet Records are both long gone now, even if some of us still recall them vividly in our minds. I’m reminded of The Swop Shop in particular whenever I return from exile and find myself down that side of the city and around what is now Cork’s Victorian Quarter. MacCurtain Street feels as vibey to me now as it did forty years back when The Swop Shop was nestled in there between The Irish Video Club and the old Palace cinema. And those vibes were edgy and those vibes were good.
Joe’s Healy’s work can be found via his Twitter account: @JTPHealy. Ciaran Ó Tuama posts his work regularly on Twitter as @usedtobe_ie
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