Author: the blackpool sentinel (incorporating Voices from The Glen)

The Blackpool Sentinel [incorporating Voices From The Glen] is brought to you from time to time by Martin O’Connor & Colm O’Callaghan, both of whom should really know better. The blog deals mostly with alternative music from the 1980s and 1990s, much of it Irish and much of it long lost. And with good reason. Colm works in television and spent many years writing about music for a variety of different outlets. Several of those pieces will be re-posted here, due to unpopular public demand. He will also contribute some new pieces from time to time, most of which will reference The Trash Can Sinatras, Serengeti Long Walk, E.L.O., The Frank And Walters and Into Paradise. Martin is a librarian based in Cork, from where he pulls all of this together and tries to make some sort of sense of the raw material. He attended the infamous Sultans of Ping F.C. show in his native Limerick and lived to recount the tale. More recently – but no less dangerously – he was one of the trio behind the Sir Henry’s Exhibition in U.C.C..

PUBLIC ENEMY 30 YEARS ON

Thirty years ago this weekend, 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, has written this excellent guest 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, and the 30th anniversary this week is significant. It marks three decades since Public Enemy first played in Ireland. Open to correction, but I believe it was the first major hip-hop gig in Ireland.

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 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.”

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The Go-Betweens – courtesy of the author

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.

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Poster for Showaddywaddy gig courtesy of author

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 nad he must have been tearing his hair out. Terminally shy, 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 subsquent funerals led to an horrific incident where two British Army coroporals 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. Public Enemy clearly didn’t want to know, blasting out a half-hearted ‘Bring the Noise’, before leaving the stage. It was a public appearance, rather than a show.

But they made up for it later that night at the Trinity Ball with a coruscating, fire-cracking show. Playing on the main stage in New Square, it was a strange sight. 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 following night, Public Enemy played another Dublin gig – rocking McGonagle’s to the rafters. I slept it out.

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The Author in 1988 courtesy of the author 2018

 

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THE TRIUMPH OF FÉILE, 1990

 

Almost 60,000 spectators fetched up at Semple Stadium in Thurles on September 2nd, 1984, for that year’s All-Ireland hurling final between Cork and Offaly. It was the first time since 1909 that the decider had been played outside of what has long been the sport’s traditional home, Croke Park in Dublin, marking the centenary of the founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Hayes’s Hotel in the mid-Tipperary town one hundred years previously.

 

But were it not for the decision to locate that game in Thurles – a game won by Cork – it’s debateable whether or not Féile, the fondly-recalled live music festival that launched on the same ground six years later, would ever have seen the light of day.

 

I’ve written previously about the G.A.A.’s role in the growth of live entertainment in Ireland, and particularly it’s hosting of music events of scale. The association – often in the face of strong opposition from within its own membership – has long sub-contracted its considerable facilities, social networks and the good-will of many of its volunteers, to live concert promoters and has benefitted financially in return. For a cultural and sporting organisation founded on volunteerism and boasting, for the most part, an amateur ethos, this has provided a regular existentialist headache.

 

And I saw this for the first time as a ten year-old boy at my father’s elbow at ‘Siamsa Cois Laoí’, a one-day folk and traditional music event that ran at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork from the late 1970s and which was conceived to defray – through rental income from the use of the ground and agreed percentages of any profits – some of the debts incurred during the building of the then recently completed stadium.

 

Across the county bounds in Tipperary, Semple Stadium – a vast, open bowl surrounding a playing surface as wide as its legend – required a considerable refurbishment in order to make it fit enough to host that centenary hurling final in 1984. A local working group led, as tended to be custom at the time, by a high-profile local curate, Fr. Pierce ‘Pierry’ Duggan, over-saw the project and, once the works were completed, had accumulated a debt of well over £1m. Duggan, who later left the priesthood and went on to work in the horse racing industry, clearly left his mark in Thurles. ‘Sure he stepped on the odd toe’, said Liz Howard of the Tipperary County Board in lauding him after the successful staging of the 1984 All-Ireland. ‘But he didn’t go to bed at all the night before The Munster Final’. ‘Fr. Pierry didn’t spare the gelignite’, added another, un-named local G.A.A. associate in a piece on him in The Irish Press in February, 1989.

 

 

In 1984, Michael Lowry was a swarthy, ambitious and connected local politician with serious aspirations. Then a Fine Gael councillor and about to take the reins as the youngest ever chairman of the Tipperary County Board, he was once memorably described to me as ‘like Bobby Kennedy crossed with Bobby Ewing … in every respect’, and his political support base was rooted, to a large extent, on the profile he enjoyed within local G.A.A. circles. Lowry had also replaced Pierce Duggan as Chairman of the Semple Stadium Management Committee by the time he was elected to Dáil Éireann as a T.D. for Tipperary North for the first time at the 1987 general election.

 

Had the ball broken differently, Féile might easily have started life as a one-nighter headlined by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. Lowry and the Semple Stadium Management Committee were, at one point, in discussions with the Cork-born promoter, Oliver Barry, and had attempted to snare the American country artists for a high-end, quick- win live show at the ground. But relations with Barry who, as well as managing the careers of The Wolfe Tones and Stockton’s Wing, also promoted ‘Siamsa Cois Laoí’ and, subsequently, live shows by Michael Jackson, Prince and U2 at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, soon ran aground. Between them they just couldn’t make the numbers work :- as Lowry told the Tipperary County Board’s annual convention in 1986, the staging of a live concert was ‘an absolute minefield’ that couldn’t be undertaken ‘without a third-party guaranteeing to underwrite it’.

 

Michael Lowry’s term as chairman of the Tipperary County Board coincided with a long-overdue revival in the fortunes of the county’s senior hurling team. By the time he took the chair in 1985, the self-styled ‘home of hurling’ was fourteen years without an All-Ireland title. Lowry drove a fundamental over-haul of key structures within the Tipperary set-up and, under the management of Michael ‘Babs’ Keating, an emerging team lost the 1988 All-Ireland hurling final to Galway, before eventually claiming the title the following year after a facile victory over Antrim.

 

The official home-coming of that winning team, captained by Bobby Ryan, was attended by a crowd estimated locally at 25,000 and, despite the usual pulling and dragging within local G.A.A. circles, was re-imagined by Lowry, who constructed a live entertainment event around it and charged locals £5 a skull for the privilege of welcoming the county’s best players back to Tipperary. Instead of introducing the team and it’s mentors from the back of a customised trailer in the middle of Thurles as would have traditionally been the case, a full stage was erected at the Killinan End of Semple Stadium instead, from where The Wolfe Tones, a rabble-rousing ballad group in the worst traditions of the genre, fluffed the punters from early with a ninety-minute set. After the team had been presented to the supporters, and Babs Keating had knocked out his party piece, ‘Slievenamon’, another popular cabaret turn, Joe Dolan, headlined the show into the night. And slowly but surely cleared the stadium.

 

 

By successfully planning ahead and charging supporters to attend a team home-coming – sold, on the surface at least, in the interests of health and safety and adequate crowd control – Michael Lowry had broken with two long-running G.A.A. traditions at once, a formidable feat on any level within the association. And in an interview with The Nenagh Guardian the week before the 1989 All-Ireland final, he pre-empted any fall-out by taking issue with those – and they were many – who felt the County Board was exploiting supporters.

 

‘We have often heard the G.A.A. being described as the Grab All Association’, he remarked. ‘But we are not grabbing in this instance. We are providing entertainment, the like of which you would not get anywhere for £5’. And on the night, not only did Lowry and his group succeed in staging a trouble-free, well-run event, they’d also show-cased Semple Stadium’s credentials and turned over good coin. According to end-of-year Board accounts, the home-coming generated a profit of £23,000, of which £11,000 was given to the Tipperary Supporters’ Club and used ultimately to pay for a team holiday for the All-Ireland winners.

 

Less than a year later – on Friday afternoon, August 2nd, 1990 – Pat Scannell loaded four of us into his old beater and faced it for Thurles. Not, as would have been the norm, to see Munster championship hurling but, rather, to sample the opening night fare at the first ever Féile live music weekend in Semple Stadium, promoted by Denis Desmond’s Dublin-based MCD operation. And devised – and successfully piloted in skeletal form the previous September at that Tipperary home-coming – by Michael Lowry.

 

There’s been an awful lot of talk in the years since – and in the last fortnight, especially – about Féile and the place it occupies in recent Irish social history. But it’s probably fair to say that, as we set out on the ninety-minute drive from Cork that evening, none of us quite knew what to expect at the other end.

 

Like many others, we’d travelled out of absolute curiosity and, if anything, to see Big Country, who were then four fine albums into a decent career and who, to their credit, managed to sate at least three distinct music tastes assembled in Pat’s car. That opening night line-up also included the Dublin-based soft rockers, No Sweat, the never- quite-completely-there indie squall of Thee Amazing Colossal Men [with Garrett ‘Jacknife’ Lee, now one of rock music’s foremost and in-demand producers, on guitar] and another old friend of this site, Meat Loaf, as the star turn. The rest of the weekend’s bill was populated by Van Morrison, Deacon Blue, That Petrol Emotion, The Stunning, Hothouse Flowers and an assortment of local add-ons. Weekend tickets cost £29.50 and, over the course of the event, an average of 25,000 punters fetched up on site every day.

 

Just as importantly, though, was the extent of the spend around Thurles and the revenue re-directed back towards the stadium debt. The ground was rented out for the weekend at a cost to the promoters of £40,000 and a pro-rata percentage of any profits.

 

To those of us long used to Thurles, it can be easy to forget a] just how small a town it is and b] just how irrelevant it is to many. The Munster hurling championship has long given the place a standing and a lustre well in excess of its actual status and, in 1990, it had a population of only 7,500. Following the closure of the local sugar factory the previous year – for decades the area’s primary employer – local unemployment figures stood at well over 30%.

 

As has become customary around the hard sell of high-profile live events – sport, conferences, concerts – economic benefits can often be as wildly over-exaggerated as they are difficult to accurately gauge. What we can say with certainty, though, is that Féile – which endured in Thurles for four subsequent years – gave the town a short, sharp financial bounce. From the auld wans in local council estates charging for the use of their showers and toilets to hawkers and gawkers flogging cider and rolls – the breakfast of Féile champions – on the long walk from the town square to the stadium, to opportunistic young bucks selling rubber johnnies at a quid a go, The Trip To Tipp was, for the course of its short existence, a pop-up money magnet.

 

It also cemented Michael Lowry’s reputation as a local shaker who wasn’t afraid to tamper with tradition and his role in the re-modelling of Tipperary hurling and the economic success of Féile certainly contributed to his prolonged electoral prowess. He was a regular poll-topper in North Tipperary for the following fifteen years.

 

I’ve written previously about that glorious summer of 1990 when, over the course of fourteen improbable weeks just after I’d turned 22 years old, the moons and tides aligned like they’ve never completely done since. Too young, cocky and thick to fully appreciate the magic going off around me, I met The Frank And Walters for the first time, saw Prince perform live at Páirc Ui Chaoimh, witnessed a historic double for the Cork senior hurlers and footballers and, like every other man, woman and scaldy dog in the country, was drunk on the delirium that followed the national football team at The World Cup in Italy. It goes without saying that I’ve never put down another such intensive, disbelieving and giddy summer like it in the thirty odd years since.

 

Against that backdrop, it’s easy to lose the flight of Féile, whose second-coming, back on the holy ground next September, has already generated an amount of nostalgia-fuelled reminiscences. But the dew-soaked lens of time shouldn’t unduly distort the impact of what was, in its own way, one of the most significant Irish cultural events in recent history.

 

Féile quickly outgrew it’s body and, ergo, lost much of it’s initial charm:- in popular music, as in life, this just happens. The infusion of bigger, bolder and better international headliners saw The Trip To Tipp briefly hold court alongside similar events in Britain, like the long-running festivals at Reading and Glastonbury. But to my own mind, its success was cut and carved in the bespoke wonder of the local ;- in it’s pomp, Féile was validation on a wide scale of the strength of the domestic live music market. And I sincerely believe that, like many Cork hurling teams over the decades, several home-spun acts reserved their best performances for Thurles where, for four years, they were untouchable on the sacred baize. Where the surroundings and the spirit of the crowds just made them bomb-proof and carried them home.

 

I can recall, in detail, powerful Féile performances from many of my own pet Irish bands – The Fatima Mansions, Whipping Boy, Into Paradise, Toasted Heretic, That Petrol Emotion – who fleetingly sounded as unassailable as they looked, in front of stadium-sized crowds, as out of water. But regardless of how and where one critically places the likes of The Stunning, An Emotional Fish and The Sawdoctors, it was they who, to my mind, defined everything that was so impactful, urgent and unique about Féile’s Semple years. Because when they looked out on those vast, energised crowds from a stage in the middle of Ireland, they saw the force, promise and mindless optimism of the country’s young as one, it’s considerable voice bounced back stagewards from the vast spread, sucking them all together – performers and punters – into an enchanted space, if only fleetingly .

 

 

And when those vast audiences, dragged into Thurles from similar such towns all over the country on a fleet of trains, buses and rattling cars found that single voice during ‘Brewing Up A Storm’, ‘Celebrate’ and ‘N17’, Féile was at it’s most unique and untouchable.

 

More generally, though, The Trip To Tipp quickly became a mammoth yearly platform for many of those busy local acts working what was then an attractive domestic live seam. Féile was an aspiration, an end-of-season, strictly once-off treat and fleeting respite for those jobbing lags who, otherwise, would have been on another endless van journey around the unreliable back-roads of provincial Ireland, unsure of what they might encounter as they headed for Leap, Ferbane, Letterkenny and Newmarket. And wondering, indeed, if they’d even recoup their petrol money ?

 

But Féile 90 set the tone, showed what was possible and was a real success on many levels. Over the course of that first weekend, Thurles proved that it could adequately handle the size and scale of a large event of this nature and the money spent on-site and off validated Michael Lowry’s instincts. In a piece by Tara Buckley in The Irish Press the following week, in which she described Lowry as ‘the man responsible for putting the jizz into the GAA and dragging them into the 20th century’, the Fine Gael T.D. himself delivered one of his familiar refrains, repeating the line that ‘sentiment doesn’t pay the bills’.

 

Wishing, perhaps, to take the organisation back into the 19th century, was the then Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, Dr. Dermot Clifford, who also held an honorary position as patron of the G.A.A.. He was one of Féile’s most consistent and outspoken critics and repeatedly distanced himself from the goings-on up the road in Semple Stadium. ‘I speak in the public interest of safety, morality and health’, he told Tipperary G.A.A.’s annual convention in February, 1992. ‘In the name of all that is good and holy’, he warned, ‘be careful with rock concerts. By staging them, you are going off the main road and down a rocky road from which you may not be able to come back’. And Archbishop Clifford would have been very familiar with the rocky roads :- he had previously served as secretary to Bishop Eamonn Casey of Galway, who resigned from office after it was revealed that he’d fathered a son with an American woman.

 

Michael Lowry continues to attract headlines to this day and is easily one of the most controversial figures in recent Irish political history. He resigned his cabinet position from the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ government in 1996 – and the following year left the Fine Gael party – after The McCracken Tribunal found that building work done on his family home in Holycross, outside of Thurles, had been paid for by the businessman, Ben Dunne. Lowry was also summoned to appear at the subsequent Moriarty Tribunal, a statutory commission of investigation launched in 1997 to investigate illicit payments to politicians. He had served as Minister for Communications – and Fine Gael party secretary – during the period when Ireland’s first mobile phone licence was awarded to Esat Digifone, a consortium chaired by a Cork-born entrepreneur, Denis O’Brien.

 

Oliver Barry is no stranger to this sort of carry-on either. He was compelled to appear at that other mammoth tribunal of inquiry, the Flood Tribunal, which was also set up in 1997 to investigate irregularities in high-profile planning procedures in Dublin during the 1980s and 1990s and which led, ultimately, to the jailing of the former Fianna Fáil Communications Minister, Ray Burke, for six months.

 

Back in Tipperary, meanwhile, Semple Stadium and the town of Thurles both benefitted very positively from Féile, which ran for a further three years before moving onwards to Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork, where the arse just fell out of it. By the time that Féile had been re-located indoors at The Point Depot in Dublin in 1996, it’s heart had been sundered, its lustre had waned and it was withered on the vine :- in the great traditions of popular culture, its moment had been and its moment had passed.

 

Easily the single biggest beneficiary of the success of Feile, to my mind, was the promoter, Denis Desmond, for whom The Trip To Tipp marked a serious upping of the ante. Desmond was already one of the country’s most formidable operators and, partnered at the time by the Belfast- based Eamon McCann, his MCD operation had its tentacles into many aspects of the Irish music industry. But Féile, taking it’s structural and organisational cues from similar but more high-profile European live events, proved that in terms of site management, commercial exploitation, stakeholder relationships, media partnerships and branding, Desmond’s machine was as capable, agile and connected as any of his international peers.

 

And in this respect, Féile was a genuine game-changer helped, I believe, by its location :- road-tested off-Broadway and out of the glare, the festival was allowed to make its mistakes and find its feet in its own time. It also had Michael Lowry’s boots on the ground and it would be naïve to think that having an elected national representative with both feet stuck in the heart of Semple Stadium as a local point-man did anything but positively aid Desmond’s case in Thurles.

 

Cork-born Desmond would have been keenly aware of the possibilities – and difficulties – afforded by any working partnerships with the Gaelic Athletic Association. But now the chairman of Live Nation U.K. and one of the biggest concert promoters in the world, he has routinely operated on gut instinct, knows when to kill his darlings and has consistently brokered lateral and inventive partnership opportunities. Like the great G.A.A. careerists, it’s fair to assume that Desmond too has that gift so uncommon in Irish society :- the ability to properly and efficiently chair a meeting.

 

THE ROLLING STONES VERSUS IRELAND’S SHOWBANDS, 1965

 

The Rolling Stones bring their ‘No Filter’ tour to Croke Park on May 17th next for what might well be the band’s final ever bumper pay day in Ireland. The group has been visiting this country in various iterations and to various effect for over fifty years and one can confidently claim that the nation has grown and developed socially in tandem with the band’s popularity. But there was a time when the notion that Jagger, Richards and Watts might one day set foot on the consecrated sod up in Dublin 3, with their feisty antics, swagger and unconventional hair-dos, was just inconceivable.

 

The Gaelic Athletic Association is, by a distance, Ireland’s most unique and progressive sports body. But while it’s made huge advances on the field and off since the centenary of its foundation in 1984, the entertainment bookings in Croke Park – popular cabaret for the most part – are a throw-back to those years, from 1958 until 1968, when Ireland’s showbands, another of the country’s more consistently mis-represented cultural curiousities, were in their pomp.

 

The Gaelic Games themselves and the structures that under-pin and enable them are unrecognisable now than they were when the Cork County Board first worked with the Banteer-born promoter, Oliver Barry, to bring ‘Siamsa Cois Laoi’ – an afternoon festival of live international folk and domestic traditional music that ran yearly for a decade – to what was then the new Páirc Ui Chaoimh stadium in 1976. But even during its current  period of profound existential uncertainty, it’s re-assuring to know that, when it comes to putting live music onto its playing fields, the Gaelic Athletic Association takes a similar approach to it’s scheduling of club fixtures. Rack them, pack them, stack them and send everybody home sweating.

 

For the last decade or so, Croke Park has hosted big-ticket, high-volume contemporary cabaret with the sort of instinctive majesty one usually associates with Austin Gleeson or Joe Canning, out wide, beneath the stands, over-the-shoulder, through the black-spot without looking. From Neil Diamond and One Direction to the U2’s ‘Joshua Tree’ anniversary reprise there last year and upcoming shows by the Persil-treated likes of Ed Sheeran and Michael Buble, the best equipped stadium in the country continues the association’s long connection to the be-suited, be-quiffed culture of the ballrooms.

 

Ireland’s showband history has generated a considerable industry for itself and about itself – a slew of largely myopic written histories, numerous television and radio documentaries, DVD compilations, cassette tapes and live concert tours – since the advent of discotheques and disc jockeys put a serious hole in it’s boat during the early 1970s. In the half century since, the showband story has been faithfully re-cycled through a diffused lens that has corrupted its focus, notwithstanding the odd rogue contribution from the likes of Derek Dean of The Freshmen and the late Northern Irish broadcaster, Gerry Anderson, formerly of The Chessmen [and once of the legendary American blues outfit, Ronnie Hawkins And The Hawks]. Anderson’s 2008 book ‘Heads : A Day in The Life’, is among the most insightful, interesting and funny chronicles of that period because it ignores much of the popular showband narrative and presents the era instead with a candid, clinical eye and not merely as a softly-lit, badly-written romantic romp.

 

Ireland’s leading showbands were at their peak – playing long sets on an almost nightly basis to packed ballrooms all over the country – during those years when the Second Vatican Council was in session between 1962 and 1965 and while the imposing figure of the long-serving Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, was casting a considerable shadow over many aspects of Irish society, the showband scene itself prominent among them. And so its understandable that much of it’s history is still presented with a quasi-religious fervour, almost as a national parable where the meek always inherited the family farm and no one ever coveted their neighbour’s wife.

 

What we know for sure is that many of the musicians who hacked out decent careers on the showband circuit were gifted players, earning good coin knocking out note-perfect, multi-layered arrangements of the big hits of the day, in a range of styles, to order. And like every other movement of note, it was dominated by a colourful cast of performers and a support crew of promoters, impresarios and would-be supremos, many of them larger-than-life, many more of them tragic figures in their own right.

 

But the personal testimonies of Dean and Anderson, and indeed the complicated life stories of stalwarts like Eileen Reid of The Cadets and Dickie Rock of The Miami – both of which have been drastically revised over the last twenty years – suggest that Ireland’s showband circuit was far edgier and much darker than one has traditionally been led to believe. In this respect it should be noted that two of Ireland’s most complex, successful and influential international rock musicians, Van Morrison from Belfast and the Derry-born Corkman, Rory Gallagher, began their professional careers on the showband circuit, on which they became quickly disaffected.

 

But back in January, 1965, the showbands still dominated the domestic music market and in Cork, the largest and busiest venues in the county were arguably The Arcadia Ballroom on The Lower Road and The Majorca, in Crosshaven. These were – on paper at least – booze-free zones that took off as the pubs were closing but, while the venues were dry for the most part, many of those on stage were routinely flutered. The level of alcohol abuse within the showband movement is just one of a number of aspects of it’s history that’s routinely air-brushed.

 

Located not too far from The Arcadia, but far less visible, were Cork’s first alternative music venues. It’s maybe pushing it to describe either the Crypt, by the old Thompson’s bakery on MacCurtain Street, and The Cavern Club, around the back of The Ashley Hotel on Leitrim Street, as venues or clubs – they were what we’d describe now as pop-up coffee shops, at best – but they did serve as genuine antidotes to the larger, more traditional facilities elsewhere.

 

Catering for those with more lateral, left-field tastes, both spaces were sound-tracked by the more interesting British and American sounds of the time and, in the case of The Crypt, also provided rehearsal space to some of those young locals who’d started to dabble with electric instruments. The Cavern Club expanded its horizons quickly enough and, as tends to still be the case today in venues that attract small but enthusiastic, like-minded audiences, eventually hosted its own live shows, among them early appearances by the likes of Taste and Gary Moore, as well as a landmark visit by the renowned English blues player, John Mayall.

 

The Cavern – which was later re-named The 006 Club – has long been regarded as Cork’s first alternative music venue and features routinely in the well-worn reminiscences of some of it’s best known graduates, Donal Gallagher – Rory’s brother, long-time manager and the erstwhile guardian of his reputation and estate – among them.

 

In Mark McAvoy’s 2009 book, ‘Cork Rock : From Rory Gallagher to The Sultans of Ping’ [Collins Press], Donal Gallagher, one of the first DJs at The Cavern, recalls how : ‘I was trying to fashion myself as the Cork John Peel and play music like that. The scene developed and the club, particularly at the weekends, would have bands like The Misfits from Belfast’. [For the sake of accuracy, it’s worth noting that John Peel, the influential British broadcaster, spent much of the 1960s living and working in the United States and didn’t present any radio in England until at least 1967. Among the primary outside influences on the Gallagher brothers – Donal and Rory – would have been American Forces Network radio, some BBC output and Radio Luxembourg’s English language service, Fab 208].

 

You’d imagine that many of the Cavern Club regulars also fetched up at at The Savoy Cinema on Patrick Street on January 5th, 1965, when The Rolling Stones played their first – and last – live show in Cork. That day has long featured prominently in the city’s popular cultural history and is redolent in its own way of the night, a year earlier, when The Beatles first played in Ireland, at Dublin’s Adelphi Theatre. The story has been well worn over time even if, as often happens, some of the personal testimonies of those who attended are conflicted.

 

What we know for certain is that The Rolling Stones, then a dynamic, blues-fused rock band, had just enjoyed their second British Number One single with ‘Little Red Rooster’ and, four months before the release of ‘[I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction’ were – alongside The Beatles, The Animals and The Yardbirds – leading a considerable U.K. assault on the American market.

 

But while the first Irish singles chart of 1965 was topped by The Beatles’ ‘I Feel Fine’, formidable showband royalty like Dickie Rock, Brendan Bowyer, Butch Moore, Tommy Drennan and Larry Cunningham all featured immediately behind it in the top ten. Indeed ‘I Feel Fine’ was about to be toppled by one of Ireland’s biggest selling records of the year, Brendan Bowyer’s ‘The Hucklebuck’.

 

During the first week of January, Ireland was gripped by a prolonged snap of cold weather and heavy snowfall that forced the closure of some of the country’s roads, especially in the south and the south-east. While politically, and all the more interesting in light of current political discourse, the then Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, was busy appeasing one of the country’s most powerful economic groups.

 

Explaining to Ireland’s agricultural representative associations his thinking on the recently formed European Economic Community, Lemass told the National Farming Association Congress during a keynote address on January 6th, 1965 that : ‘We do not regard it as vacillating to decide not to rush headlong into a fog. We are having discussions with the British Government on future trade arrangements between the two countries. In any intelligent order of priorities these discussions must take place before we consider the alternative courses which may be possible for us’.

 

The Rolling Stones played three dates in Ireland between January 6th and January 8th, 1965, – in Belfast, Dublin and Cork respectively – and during which they performed two eight-song sets at every venue, at 6.30 PM and 9PM, travelling by train and car from city to city during their stay here. The classic, five-piece line-up – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones and Bill Wyman – was headlining a clustered tour, promoted by John Smith, that also included Checkmates, an American rhythm and blues outfit, The Gonks, a South African blues-flavoured band and Twinkle, a young London-born pop singer.

 

 

Twinkle’s name will be familiar to fans of The Smiths, who themselves played a brace of fabled live shows in The Savoy, in Cork city, in 1984. She came to popular attention in 1964 with her first hit single, ‘Terry’, released while she was still a teenager :- one of the kookier and more intriguing footnotes in the broader history of 60s British girl-pop, she was already retired from the music industry before she turned twenty-one. A later Twinkle release, ‘Golden Lights’, was covered by The Smiths and features as an additional track on their 1986 single, ‘Ask’.

 

The first Rolling Stones’ set at The Savoy half-filled the house but the later show sold out its allocation of 1,100 tickets at a venue better known then as one of the city’s busiest cinemas and the focal point of the yearly Cork Film Festival. The headliners took to the stage at 10.35 to begin the second of their short performances and a front-page story on the following morning’s Cork Examiner reported that Gardaí had been called to the show after ‘frenzied teenagers dashed from their seats and swarmed to the organ pit screaming and waving’. Later, a young man ‘climbed on the cinema organ but moved when Savoy manager, Jimmy Campbell, ordered him back’.

 

Describing the group as ‘long-haired and untidy and the bane of mums and dads of Britain because of this’, The Examiner’s account of events differs from that carried in a short review, on the same day, in The Irish Press. ‘There were no screams, no hysteria and no unmanageable crowds in The Savoy, Cork last night’, the Dublin-based newspaper claimed in a short uncredited piece, most likely filed by a full-time local stringer. ‘A large force of Gardaí was on duty in and around the cinema but an officer on duty said : ‘We were hardly needed’’.

 

The Cork leg seems to have been tame by comparison with the shows in Dublin and particularly in Belfast, where the front of the stage at the ABC Theatre was lined by R.U.C. men in an attempt to keep punters at an arm’s length from the band. The Rolling Stones’ first live appearance in Belfast the previous year had been abandoned after only twelve minutes and three songs when a full-scale riot broke out in the audience :- the show had been hugely over-subscribed and terrific film footage shot on the night captures some of the chaos that quickly developed inside The Ulster Hall.

 

Once bitten, The Irish Independent reported how, during the band’s return set at The ABC Theatre six months later, ‘dozens of girls fainted’ and that ‘outside the theatre, an ambulance waited to take the more hysterical ones to hospital’. And there was plenty of overtime for the local constabulary up north too ;- ‘dozens of extra police under a district inspector and two head constables patrolled inside and outside the theatre’, according to The Indo.

 

The Dublin daily papers – especially The Evening Herald – afforded the Stones short tour of Ireland a measured, mildly bemused degree of coverage and were present on the platform at the Amiens Street train station when the band arrived into the capital from Belfast as ‘a large force of Gardaí and C.I.E. public relations personnel guarded the barriers’. The Herald was there too on the morning after the show as the band departed for Cork in a fleet of cars from the Intercontinental Hotel in Ballsbridge [later known as Jury’s Hotel] where they’d been entertained after returning from The Adelphi Theatre, with a cocktail party hosted by the hotel manager.

 

‘As the cars pulled away, one young girl, a 14 year-old from Rathmines, waving to Bill Wyman, bass guitarist, cried out : ‘Write to me, Bill. Won’t you please ?’, according to the paper’s reporter on the hotel forecourt. ‘Then she and her companion, also from Rathmines, embraced each other and cried. They told me that they had given Bill stamped addressed envelopes and that he had promised to write to them’.

 

The Irish Independent’s uncredited review of the band’s Dublin shows referred, of course, to the group’s appearance and, like The Cork Examiner, described The Stones as a ‘long-haired, unconventionally attired quintet’. Clearly more concerned by the general fanfare outside of the venue than inside it, a front-page report head-lined ‘Screams and hysteria muffle the ‘beat’’, remarked how ‘The Adelphi staff, specially augmented by plainclothes Gardaí, did a wonderful job controlling the excited mob’. Adding that ‘even compere Billy Livingstone could not get two seconds piece to introduce them [the band]’.

 

And, concluding the piece, which just about mentioned the band, one of the more curious closing lines I’ve read in any piece on a live show ever :- ‘Normally Abbey Street is lined with cars on both sides at night. Last night, there were two parked cars, one on each side’.

 

In the great tradition of such events, the detail is once again provided by those who chose to attend the show as fans and who weren’t merely assigned there by their news editors. And at least one correspondent, from Dublin 6 and credited, perhaps slightly incorrectly as ‘Stone Fan’, took to the letters page in The Evening Herald to correct some of the factual inaccuracies that had pock-marked much of it’s coverage of the Adelphi shows. ‘The Rolling Stones played eight songs, not five’, the missive begins. ‘They were [in order] : ‘Not Fade Away’, ‘Off The Hook’, ‘If You Need Me’, ‘Around And Around’, ‘Little Red Rooster’, ‘It’s All Over Now’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’. They were on stage for 31 minutes and 15 seconds’.

 

The band performed a slightly modified version of that set when they hit Cork the following night. And in a long feature by John Daly in The Daily Mail on October 13th, 2015, one of those who attended those Cork shows, Paddy Ryan, recalled to the writer the manner in which the show ended. ‘They played their hit, ‘This Could Be The Last Time’, as the curtain slowly descended in front of them on the stage. Then it raised up a second time and they played the final verse of the song, before coming down for the last time. And then the PA system announced, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, The Rolling Stones have left the building’.

 

 

Never to return to Cork again, as it happens. Although The Stones did re-visit Ireland later that year, playing dates in Belfast and Dublin on September 2nd and 3rd, on a short lay-over on which they were accompanied by a film crew, working with the director, Mick Gochanour. An observational documentary – ‘Charlie is My Darling’, the first such film about the band – captures them at work and at play during that brief tour but didn’t officially see the light of day until 2012.

 

Overall, the reporting of the emergence of The Rolling Stones, and of the growing influence of British pop music in general, was even more condescending – and clearly politically-charged – in some of Ireland’s regional newspapers. Many of which were hard-wired to the showband scene and who regarded the emergence of the likes of The Beatles and The Animals as a genuine threat, not just to aspects of Irish cultural life and a comfortable older order but, judging from the tone of much of the editorial output, a real threat to the security of the Irish state itself.

 

‘The Rolling Stones came to Ireland last week’, stated one of the closing paragraphs of a weekly entertainment column in The Western People on January 16th, 1965. ‘Yes, these are the stones who gather a lot of mossy cash on their continuous travels. One of the group does not think very much of our showbands. In fact he says they are dreadful’.

 

THE THRILLS

 

To my mind, far too much contemporary music writing – and indeed arts coverage in general – has become identity politics by another name. Show me your Amazon, Spotify and Twitter history and I’ll tell you who you are, what you’re thinking and who I think you should be, basically.

Maybe it’s always been thus and the growth of the internet has just made it easier to join the dots and to compartmentalise ? Either way, the politics of identity – and the politics of class, arguably the last taboo for journalism – are central to any faithful telling of the story of The Thrills, the South Dublin pop band who, for five years, cut a considerable dash and made a real indent into the mainstream. But if their rise was meteoric – and notwithstanding their earlier incarnations and a rudderless spell spent hacking around the local circuit, I still contend that it was – then their implosion was just as spectacular.

 

 

The Thrills have a terrific yarn to tell and, who knows ?, they may opt to tell it someday. In the meantime, we’re left with three albums on a major label, decent commercial headway and a series of paper-thin stereotypes and crudely formed generalisations for our troubles.

The short history of the band can be read, on one level, as the parable of the Irish state between 2002 and 2008. The band embodied, especially on their carefree debut album, ‘So Much For The City’, much of the mood of the country during it’s Celtic Tiger period, those years of sustained, unprecedented growth and, for many, mindless and reckless optimism and abandon. And during which Ireland, a state then not yet one hundred years old, encountered widespread economic prosperity for the first time in its short life. Much of which, as we sadly know now, was constructed, with little oversight or self-regulation, by a compliant banking system – on sand and with pyrite-contaminated concrete. The consequences of that national giddiness are still being severely felt all over Ireland, ten years after the inevitable crash that provided the sting in the tiger’s tail.

The Thrills – good-looking, aspirational, young, ambitious and naïve – epitomised much of the pimped-up confidence of the Tiger years. And, for the years they were active on a major label, provided a welcome antidote to many of the more monochrome Dublin outfits who’d gone before them.

The Blades, for instance, had rooted many of their songs in the long-running social soap opera of Dublin’s south inner-city during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In their slipstream, A House, from West Dublin, were determined by a cynicism rarely seen previously in Irish popular music and hardly seen again since. While across on the Northside, The Brilliant Trees, Damien Dempsey and Aslan were minding their manors and giving authentic voices to the many they encountered who were without.

And all of these outfits shared sharp, finely-tuned pop sensibilities, as well as a decent command of the short form. With which they brought varying degrees of insight and pain from a markedly different world located a matter of post-codes away from the capital’s main drags. So much for the city, indeed.

The Thrills, on the other hand, did what their name suggested ;- they were the urgent, hormone-fused sound of young graduates on a prolonged frat party a long way from home. For better and for worse – and there are many who scored them way down for it – there isn’t a hint of malice in anything they’ve ever committed to tape.

Dublin bands at a particular level have traditionally been photographed either on local beaches, against grainy, industrial back-drops or inside their rehearsal spaces, where they’ve routinely looked either frozen, scared, po-faced and often a combination of all three. The Thrills were almost always snapped, instead, in glorious technicolour and in exotic locations that were always more Venice Beach and less Dollymount Strand.

And it helped, of course, that they could take a decent close-up and looked like they enjoyed being photographed. In their carefully- styled vintage duds, they made like they were having a good time all of the time. And with a stash of irrepressible, radio-friendly pop songs in their locker, there was a time when they fleetingly had the world in their hands.

It’s an indication of the scale of their impact – and a reflection too of the dearth of genuine personalities in Ireland – that, as soon as they’d made an initial chart breakthrough in Britain, they found themselves regularly lampooned on ‘Gift Grub’, a comedy insert on ‘The Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show’, a weekday radio programme on the the national station, Today FM, where they featured alongside some of the more prominent political, entertainment and sports figures of the day.

‘Gift Grub’ has long given a soft soaping to the lighter end of the daily news lists and, in the absence of consistent writing and strong editing, its focus tends instead towards characters whose distinctive accents and verbal tics can be most easily replicated. And so The Thrills, with their soft, unfeasibly polite and American-blend South Dublin accents, became easy radio comedy fodder alongside staple characters like the Cork-born footballer, Roy Keane, the Donegal-born entertainer, Daniel O’Donnell and the rambling, shambling Drumcondra-born Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

But back in the real world, The Thrills career was on the crescent of one of those dramatic rollercoasters that often back-dropped their publicity photographs or their videos ;- they quickly gained a decent commercial foothold, sold records and made a real noise. Just as easy to lampoon was the shameless thievery that characterised their  sound, had the country’s comedy writers bothered to root around under the bonnet.

Well-read students of popular music history, The Thrills borrowed freely and to good effect. From the sun-kissed aspects of The Beach Boys to the clinical, designer-built friendliness of The Monkees and the confident but surly swagger of The Byrds, they were, at their peak, clinically re-parcelling old school tropes and, to the trained ear, the odd re-cycled riff. And they were a terrific burn.

But The Thrills came of age on record and an upward critical curve is clear to anyone who stayed the course with them for the four years from ‘So Much For The City’ in 2003 until ‘Teenager’ in 2007. Over the course of three albums on Virgin Records/EMI, they left a footprint that is as considerable as the division in Irish public opinion they created as they did so. And while they’ve not been entirely purged from the recent history of contemporary Irish music, their achievements – and, by current standards, those have been considerable – are far too easily lost in the wash.

By the time their pedalo ran aground – just after their record company heard the final mixes of ‘Teenager’, I suspect – not only had much of The Thrills’ fanbase moved on but the national optimism they’d sound-tracked back in Ireland had been spectacularly sundered. Against the backdrop of an international economic collapse – that led to the nationalisation of the Irish banking system, a period of prolonged austerity and a re-alignment of established political thinking – The Thrills just sounded utterly out of time. Like many others all over the country they were made redundant almost over-night.

But on record they’d developed a second skin and it’s a real shame that, just as they’d started to incorporate some of the more interesting aspects of the R.E.M. style-book into their sound, they were already whistling in the wind. Indeed creatively, they’d come very far very quickly and, by 2007, The Thrills were a much more sinewy proposition to the green-beats hand-picked by Morrissey to open for him during his fine comeback shows in Dublin’s Ambassador Theatre five years previously. And where they looked wafer-thin but to the manor born.

It’s to the band’s credit too that, unlike Bradford, The Ordinary Boys, Phranc and a host of others, The Thrills survived Morrissey’s infamous patronage – when it comes to endorsing new bands, he has the Midas touch in reverse – and went on to achieve mainstream success quickly thereafter.

 

 

Led by Conor Deasy, the band’s unconscionably good-looking and hirsute lead singer and their heartbeat and pulse, bass-player and guitarist Daniel Ryan, The Thrills’ debut album, ‘So Much For The City’ became, for many, a free-wheeling national soundtrack of sorts after its release in 2002. Apart from the singles, ‘Santa Cruz’, ‘One Horse Town’, ‘Big Sur’ and ‘Don’t Steal Our Sun’, that elpee also contains the mighty ‘Your Love Is Like Las Vegas’ and, across its eleven tracks, not a single word or accent to suggest where the band came from.

One of the recurring criticisms levelled at them – and, by any standards, The Thrills seemed to be held to account far more aggressively than many of their peers – is that their horizontal, JI-visa view of the world was just far too flimsy and narrow. The suggestion being that The Thrills could instead – like one of their own favourite Irish bands, Whipping Boy – have been documenting the minutiae of [sub]urban life in Dublin as opposed to that in San Diego, New York and California. They were scarcely believable, basically.

I can’t recall the same charges being ever put, though, to Snow Patrol, a band who share many of The Thrills key characteristics and who, at the same time, emerged in similar fashion and to the same effect. But I can certainly recall the core argument.

So I am reminded of the guts of the 1991 pamphlet by the writer and academic, Desmond Fennell – ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ – in which he took the poet Seamus Heaney to task for what the author perceived to be a failure to adequately address the plight of Northern Catholics within much of the poet and writer’s work.

Fennell, now in his 80s, has long been an engaging and free-thinking chronicler of Irish society and the nation’s character and, by 1991, had plenty of form. Throughout his considerable career – much of it spent abroad or on the fringes – he has rarely held back, especially on what he felt was the colonization of Irish art at the expense of more prevalent national issues ;- the ‘cleansing of Irish literature of Irishness’.

And yes, The Thrills were far from perfect. Lyrically, especially, they could be unforgivably naïve, while Conor was never the most gifted singer :- he had a limited vocal range at the best of times and, live, he often struggled to tip the top end. All three of the band’s albums also feature an amount of rockwool – more draught filler than decoration piece – while their specific cultural references, as these things do, have dated them quickly and badly.

But then there was the elephant in the room :- the matter of the band’s background. They  they grew up in the South Dublin suburbs of Blackrock, Stillorgan and Ballinteer – and their education. Deasy and Ben Carrigan, the band’s drummer, are past pupils of Gonzaga College in Ranelagh, one of Dublin’s most elite and expensive fee-paying schools and more renowned, historically, for producing more lawyers and judges than rock and rollers.

 

 

And it would be naïve to think that – either consciously or not – this was never a factor in how the band was initially received and, latterly, how The Thrills were critically assessed at home. Indeed The Irish Times was quick out of the blocks and, by July, 2003, was already sniping away under the cover of a ‘style over substance’ piece as if the band were bringing nothing but connections and good looks to the party. And whatever questions that existed around the band’s frame of reference were amplified by the sense that they were simply killing time, just monkeying around.

Which is, in my view, to seriously under-estimate the records they left behind them. And which got better – and less commercially successful – as they went. Their last album, ‘Teenager’ was led by the sturdy single, ‘Nothing Changes Around Here’ but that title was a real misnomer ;- by then everything had changed and The Thrills were burning oil. Curiously enough, the promo video featured Conor Deasy, alone, walking yet another sea-front, with the rest of the band nowhere. It had been merely five years since the clip for ‘Don’t Steal Our Sun’ where, in the worst traditions of The Monkees, a gang of pale Irish goofballs fetch up to shoot hoops on a public court with local slam-dunking magicians.

 

 

And this much was apparent throughout the exchange that Conor Deasy conducted with Michael Ross for a long feature piece in The Sunday Times’ Irish edition in 2007 where  he sounded like he’d just been ground down. It had been a relentless half-decade of record-tour-write-record-tour, underpinned by The Thrills’ dual efforts to impact in America and, as a pop group, to remain in the moment. And to this end they’re not the first band – and certainly not the first Irish band – to have been torn asunder by the scale of the U.S. inter-state highways and all that they bring with them.

The Thrills were never the finished article but, for five years, they were one of the most interesting and freshest Irish bands at play in the deeper end of the pool. And like many of the successful domestic acts who have divided the popular court here over the last forty years – U2, Sinéad O’Connor and The Boomtown Rats – The Thrills too have had their authenticity – or is it their audacity ? – fiercely questioned in their own backyards.

But it’s important and only fair that, in accurately assessing them, we play the ball and not the men.

THE STARS, THE THRILLS AND THE CLOCKS

 

One of the more attractive and visceral away trips for many of those involved in Gaelic games in Dublin is the winding drive up to Johnny Fox’s pub in Glengullen, the short walk across the wild mountainside and over to Stars Of Erin, one of the smallest clubs in the county and one of the most unique.

I’ve made my way up there regularly over the years with my daughters:- they play for a neighbouring club and so matches and local blitzes at The Stars are a regular fixture for us. And if the games aren’t going well, the furze, the thin air and the views will invariably break the fall. So when your pocket-sized, eight year-old goalkeeper is having hassle with her air hurling, or if her ear-muffs aren’t fitting as comfortably as they might beneath her out-sized helmet, you’re still close enough and high enough to touch the face of God.

And then there’s the trip back down ;- the sort of journey that can easily lead off-track. Often the four miles or so across county bounds and into the new-age village of Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, where the artisan coffee and ice cream will quickly deaden a fella’s wallet. The essence of The Stars Of Erin is captured here in a terrific, re-assuring Irish Times profile by Ian O’Riordan that should be required reading for anyone swamped in the existential quagmire that goes with volunteering in the country’s largest sports organisation.

But while the bigger, more populated local clubs that surround them – Ballyboden St. Endas, Kilmacud Crokes, Cuala and even our own up in Ballinteer Saint Johns – have the numbers, scale, sponsors and profile to keep them trucking on another plane altogether, none of them have the rare beauty you get up at The Stars.

Which might explain how and why, every time I set foot up there, my mind is distracted towards another, off-road local wonder, The Stars Of Heaven, the one-time Dublin guitar band who, every bit as rarefied as their cosmic brothers and sisters in the mountains, still have an enigma of their own. Matched only, over many years, by the extent of their legend to a small but fiercely loyal band of anoraks and collectors.

 

 

If positive critical notices and unquestioning, die-hard fanaticism could be harvested, measured and sold, The Stars would have been one of the best-selling Irish acts of the last millennium. But they were never designed for that in the first place and their billing in contemporary Irish music history – honourable mentions alongside some of the city’s bigger beasts, references in the index and the odd footnote in broader pieces about guitars and the side-influence of country music – is fitting.

And to this end they’re still name-dropped frequently by men – and its practically always men – of a certain shape, age and short-sightedness – who invariably remember them more for what they weren’t and not for what they were.

The Stars might not have appreciated it at the time, but the rolling uncertainty that seemed to dog them throughout their six year existence may actually have conspired to bring the best from them. And they consistently did it their own way, regardless of how cack-handed that way sometimes looked and felt.

Sound-wise, they stood tall as an imperious guitar band with a wide frame of reference that went far beyond the obvious indie tropes of the period. Even if it was R.E.M., in the first instance, who enabled The Stars Of Heaven with whom, on many levels, they had plenty of common ground. Their bloodline went back to classic Americana, from Gram Parsons and The Byrds to The Band, with a flush Velvets finish and, often, a country swagger.

 

In the great traditions of the Australian band, The Go-Betweens – to whom they weren’t entirely dissimilar either – the writing duties were shared between the band’s primary pointmen, Stephen Ryan and Stan Erraught and, in their pomp, their material was as terrific as any and, generally, better and more tentacled than most. And yet The Stars could often be a frustrating and inconsistent live ticket – understandable enough given how fragile they often sounded on record – conveying a regular sense they might simply disintegrate mid-number and have to be carried off of a sound-stage somewhere. All of which only added to their lustre, of course, as regulars at what was once The Underground Bar on Dame Street will attest.

The Stars were on the fringes of a cluster of emerging, guitar-driven Dublin groups that built up their earliest stock at that small downstairs venue operated by Jeff Brennan and his father, Noel, during the mid- 1980s. Among them Something Happens, A House, Rex And Dino, Backwards Into Paradise, Guernica, The Slowest Clock and, later, Power Of Dreams and Whipping Boy. And as such, The Underground is rightly remembered as a vital and doggedly free-thinking stepping stone in the development of many of the country’s best and most interesting bands and performers during this time.

I’ve referred to Jeff, Noel and the venue on several occasions previously but easily the most perceptive and adroit piece on what is still one of Dublin’s most fondly-recalled dives is this written by one of the venue’s best-known graduates and a man who saw the place from every angle, including the tiny stage and what passed for the toilets.

The spirit of that bar and it’s small but obscenely colourful cohort of staff, patrons and various hangers-on – you’d go there as quickly for the nightly floorshow as you would for the music or the beer – is also captured, with contributions from some of its other alumni, on a short album, ‘Live At The Underground’, that was recorded there over consecutive nights in September, 1985. Released on Jeff’s own, strictly one-off label, Fear And Loathing Records, the record was primarily sold – or in many cases just given away – from behind the bar. And on it, early warning notices were served by Something Happens and A House, alongside The Stars Of Heaven, who contributed ‘Hey Little Child’ to the short, sharp six-tracker.

The history of Irish rock music during the 1980s is defined to a huge degree by U2’s global breakthrough and, in its slipstream, the industry’s determination – doomed and reckless as it was – to locate others like them around Ireland. But unlike Something Happens and A House, their contemporaries on ‘Live At The Underground’ and in whose company they’re frequently referenced, The Stars Of Heaven never got away on a major label :- they fetched up, instead, on Rough Trade Records, whose revered founder, Geoff Travis, in keeping with much of the band’s narrative, just didn’t like their first and only fully-formed studio album, ‘Speak Slowly’.

And so while, in their broken frame, The Stars were the absolute antithesis of U2’s stadium-sized ballast, they stayed outside many of the left-field conventions of the day too. Even if, in one of those unlikely codas so typical of the cracked looking glass of Irish popular music history, they briefly consorted with U2’s label, Mother Records, towards the end of their career. For whom they recorded – with the one-time R.E.M. producer, Mitch Easter – but never actually released any material.

I first came across The Stars on Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on what was then RTÉ Radio 2FM – where else ? – during that period in 1985 when they’d released their debut single, ‘Clothes Of Pride/’All About You’, on Eamonn Carr’s Hotwire label and were making regular cameos at The Underground. And after which they seemed to stay resident on the edge of everything, perhaps too tender and lyrically delicate for the general mood of the period, which could all be a bit rushed, loud and frantic and into which many of their peers slipped seamlessly.

And I should say that, to my mind, Stephen Ryan is easily the best Irish lyricist I’ve come across in my years spent hunting and collecting and, as recently as his 2015 album with The Drays, ‘Look Away Down Collins Avenue’, was still at it, working both ‘antihistamine’ and ‘Roger from Supertramp’ into one of the many magnificent songs on that elpee. His ability to knit words and sentiment so easily and convincingly would be worth a long-read of its own if one didn’t feel so consistently inadequate by comparison just looking at his work laid out.

It’s no surprise that The Stars seemed to keep their best work for the small hours. They recorded a number of mesmerising late night radio sessions over the years, initially for Fanning’s ‘Rock Show’ and then more notably for John Peel’s BBC One show where, in the dead of night, they sounded for once like they were perfectly in synch with time and space. Those recordings were made available on the Rough Trade mini-albums, ‘Sacred Heart Hotel’ and ‘Rain On The Sea’, which were both released in 1987. [The latter is actually the former, with an additional four track E.P. attached].

The Stars had everything and nothing in common with their peers back at The Underground. In their suede jackets, plaid shirts and smart boots – the uniform of the time, the clothes of pride – even at their loudest they still kept their guitars in check, in open defiance of many of the core conventions of the time. Like several of those who came after them – Hinterland, Brian, Villagers and Jubilee Allstars, particularly – it was the quiet and the space between the bars that determined them and set them apart. The Stars really did come alive in the dark.

Which is why I always found it funny that the front cover of The Stars’1988 studio album, ‘Speak Slowly’, featured a close-up shot of a solid steel wheel on one of C.I.É.’s rolling stock of trains. Carefully assembled and crafted in the old school, The Stars’ own casters often moved very slowly too and they were also just as liable to break down without warning.

Which isn’t to say that The Stars lacked sturdy engineering and heft ;- they could wig out with the best and indeed the worst of them but they were often far too delicate for their own bodies and in this respect, had far more in common with the likes of another local band, Hey Paulette, than they did with the more forceful, psychotic characters in The Underground. Apart, perhaps, from The Slowest Clock, with whom they shared a kindred philosophy far more than they ever did a sound.

The Slowest Clock were another of the Dublin bands of that period who were far too interesting – and all too frequently bored – for their own good. Powered by a furious guitar sound that regularly filled the premium spaces left by angled, full-bodied bass runs, they were an American underground outfit in all but birth-certificate – classic Velvets, Television, Husker Du – that set Sir Henry’s alight once or twice over the years. They sounded nothing at all like The Stars and yet shared far more of their characteristics than one might imagine.

But I don’t think that The Stars’ influence has been heard as obviously or as overtly on any Irish band as it was in the early 2000s when the South Dublin pop band, The Thrills, were making hay, front covers and commercially successful, sun-blushed records. The Thrills were ardent students – and fawning fans – of Whipping Boy, the Dublin/Kildare outfit that first cut a memorable dash as noisy, sneering young men at The Underground.

 

 

They released three terrific albums on Virgin Records that, to my mind, just got better and more interesting – and less commercially popular – as they went. And from the get-go, I detected a real Stars influence at work in them. Apart, entirely, from the shared set of influences and the incorrigible, horizontal feel to much of their output, Conor Deasy’s breathy vocal delivery – and that perennial struggle to scale the top of his register – was instantly redolent of Stephen Ryan’s most attractive vocal feature.

The Thrills were enthusiastic collectors in their own right and were well plugged into the history of contemporary Irish music. And to that end, they’d have been more than familiar with The Stars and their fine back catalogue.

Much of which, in one form or another, is compiled on ‘Unfinished Dreaming’, a substantial compendium of the band’s material that was eventually released in 1999 after a painstaking gestation of many years on the small Dublin label, Independent Records. And lovingly curated by David O’Grady, who I first encountered around the fringes of the Dublin left-field scene thirty years ago and who has evidently defied science in the decades since by looking younger now than when he was first clocking me into venues on Engine Alley’s guestlists.

On one of the versions of ‘Unfinished Dreaming’, The Stars are snapped on the front sleeve, outside of someone’s sash window, looking in as forlornly as usual, at an ornately decorated front room. As self-aware and as self-deprecating until the end, they’re still speaking to us from beyond the tomb.

CODA :– All four members of the band stayed involved in music to Varying extents. Stephen Ryan went on to lead the rowdy Revenants and then subsequently, and currently, The Drays, while Stan fetched up as a member of The Sewing Room, who laid the extent of their ambition bare on their debut album, ‘And Nico’. Peter O’Sullivan, the bass player, went on to play with a good-time, loosely-formed Tex-Mex collective, The Wilf Brothers. And I last encountered the band’s drummer, Bernard Walsh, when he sat in as a member of one of the regular backing bands we used to use on The Late Late Show, although eagle-eyed Stars- watchers will frequently see him credited as a stills photographer on numerous Irish-produced dramas and feature films. His name often cited alongside Ray Harman, the Something Happens guitarist and now an award-winning composer for the big screen.

 

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© Colm O’Callaghan