North Monastery

GEMMA HAYES

The swagger of the remarkable hurling teams up in The North Mon during our secondary school years in the early 1980s would regularly entice entire slabs of Cork’s northside on tour beyond the county bounds and out of reach of regular reason. On assorted mid-week afternoons every winter, a slew of battered old buses and coaches would fetch up at the gates and deliver the school’s travelling army to remote, rural venues all over Munster for big colleges games. And these were all bleak, barren and backwards places ;- with our crudely-formed inner-city smarts, anywhere other than Blackpool was.

Decked out in our duffle coats and hooped blue-and-white scarves, and with our cheese sandwiches packed away in our pockets, we saw the very best of emerging locals like Tomás Mulcahy, Tony O’Sullivan, Jim Murray, Liam Coffey and the mighty Connerys of Na Piarsaigh up close in their callow bodies and pimply faces in villages and towns all over South Tipperary and beyond. Those young men were never beaten and consistently left it all out there on the killing fields in the school’s cause and, back in The Mon, we made sure to commemorate their heroics.

We had a song, ‘Amhrán na Main’ – a bit like Amhrán Na bhFiann meets The Green Fields Of France – which we’d rehearse in class before big Dr. Harty Cup games and, on those occasions when we’d reach a provincial or national final, the school would produce it’s own hurling fanzine, a badly photocopied, Pravda-inspired issue called ‘Monsoon’. In which you were told all you needed to know about the teenagers on the panel – club, height, weight, the class they were in and their own favourite hurlers – with a cursory line at the end about their off-field peccadilloes.

Frankie Walsh was one of a small number of pupils who were trusted with loud-hailers and hand-picked to lead the cheering and chanting on the days of the big games. He had a wheezy smoker’s rasp and a fine beardy shadow and some of those in the school clearly thought his sharp tongue and quick wit could be channelled a bit more positively and, for a change, to the school’s benefit. And so, on the marquee occasions, he’d be given a bit more latitude than usual and enlisted as an official rabble-rouser.

But Frankie was easily bored too and would sometimes deviate off-script and into more dangerous territory [‘Tax The Farmers’ was one of his better originals] and, from his seat at the back of the bus, would slyly drop the teachers’ nicknames into some of his post- watershed material. It took a brave boy to stare down The Christian Brothers but Frankie had a hard neck and a soft head and he’d give anything a decent old shot. And on the days immediately after we’d put one over on Thurles C.B.S. or Saint Flannans of Ennis or Saint Colman’s of Fermoy, he’d strut the ramp up to school like someone returned from a fortnight in America with a buffalo’s head in his holdall.

It was hurling that first took us to Emly, New Inn, Cahir, Clogheen and Ballyporeen, and they were vile places ;- one-bit, two-horse towns that whiffed of diesel and whose pop-up tuck shops and filthy chip vans lured the per diems from the sweaty palms of the day-trippers. How the locals, we imagined, must have feared the bumper days when The Northside, in it’s rattling fleet, rolled into town with it’s history, cocky young hurlers, loud-hailers and quotient of un-reconstructed tulls.

Decades later I married into the South Tipperary crowd and, for the last twenty years, I’ve routinely driven those roads through the same villages and towns deep within The Golden Vale, often over the hills into Kilworth and back home by stealth to Cork from my in-laws house in Ardfinnan. And every single time I drive the four-and-a half miles from Clogheen into Ballyporeen, a part of me is still fifteen years old, thick and back there with the Mon boys on tour, taxing the farmers. And another part of me is older but no less clueless, wondering which of the narrow by-roads around these parts could have inspired such wonder and magic in the songs of Gemma Hayes ?

Born and reared within a large family in Ballyporeen, Hayes remains a peripheral figure and real curiosity within Irish music circles and, even after nearly twenty years spent making records and keeping on, is frightfully difficult to pin down. Sitting neither in the fish bowl of the kooky left-field set populated by Lisa O’Neill and Julie Feeney or in the often ungainly mainstream of Imelda May or Sinéad, she’s long paid the price for her ambition and wanderlust and even more so for her indifference.

I’ll happily stand corrected but I’m still not convinced she’s been given the credit she deserves as one of Ireland’s most consistent, curious and captivating writers and solo performers, as engaging over long distance as Neil Hannon, Conor O’Brien and even Sinéad herself. So much so that, when I see Imelda May vamping it one more time for the cameras, the latest in line of national sweethearts, I wonder if Ireland just likes it’s contemporary story-tellers far better if they’re more malleable and just available ?

During the summer of 2015, Gemma did a short radio insert with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ Radio One ;- she was plugging her fifth album, ‘Bones And Longing’ and, from a remote studio in London, performed a couple of numbers on acoustic guitar and gave her host a terrific if all- too-brief interview. During that exchange she revealed that Louis Walsh, the one-time Boyzone and Westlife manager and now a well-known figure on British television, once suggested he take her under his wing and manage her career. ‘He wanted to work with me at the time. He was saying to me, ‘Gemma, you need to play the game more. We need to get you out dating another celebrity, we need to get you on the scene and in the papers’’, Gemma told Miriam.

Walsh, who she described as ‘a brilliant businessman’, also suggested that Hayes stop writing her own material and that he employ a team to do that on her behalf instead. And kicking the corpse once more for good luck, he assured her that she did indeed have ‘The X Factor’ which, no doubt, thrilled her no end.

Walsh is a diverting, often creepy and always boisterous figure with a traditional view of the entertainment industry – ‘the business we call ‘show’’ – who’s long understood the enduring benefits of good teeth and the utter pointlessness of the creative process. Alongside a couple of RTÉ presenters, Walsh is easily the most available ‘well-known face’ in the country and, to this extent, is a world removed from Gemma Hayes who remains at a distance and tends to hold her whisht unless she has a record to perform or promote or something of interest to impart.

Which has it’s advantages too, of course. Because if Gemma was more visible and closer to hand, like all national sweethearts, would her terrific songs still carry the same degree of mystery ? Does unsung and distant give her more room to roam, more of a licence to take risks and distort her sound ? Either way, she had a lucky escape with Louis Walsh.

Hayes first made herself heard during the late 1990s when, around the fringes of the post-raggle taggle Dublin scene dominated by the likes of The Frames, The Mary Janes and Mark Geary, you’d sometimes see her with the Whelans and Mother Redcaps set, often alongside the cellist Julian Lennon. There have been five albums since, all of them flushed with the soft, acoustic touch of the old school folkies, the frenetic, shoe-gaze blitz of Slowdive, the up-beat pop swagger of The Bangles and the giddy eclectics of Kate Bush. And every one of which, kicking against convention, has been progressively better and more ambitious than the last.

Foremost among which is 2008’s ‘The Hollow Of Morning’, a terrific break-up album seeking both ‘order in the chaos’ [and indeed ‘chaos in the order’ too] in the aftermath of a split, whether that be from a person, place or thing. Or indeed all three.

Sharply produced by David Odlum, one of the original members of The Frames and a member of Hayes’s kitchen cabinet for years, it’s easily one of the best Irish albums of the last two decades. And yet ‘The Hollow Of Morning’ rarely features on anyone’s list ;- another recurring theme of Hayes’s career. Unsurprisingly, the records that followed it – the excellent ‘Let It Break’ [2011] and 2014’s ‘Bones And Longing’, both of which, like ‘The Hollow Of Morning’, were independently issued – didn’t trouble the chart compilers either. Indeed despite a handsome cluster of terrific, guitar-fuelled albums, she is arguably best known fora cover version of Chris Issac’s ‘Wicked Game’, which featured on the soundtrack of the American teen drama series, ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and, to a lesser extent, for ‘Making My Way Back’, which sound-tracked the Lidl supermarket chain’s Christmas advertising campaign some years back.

But she remains one of my own favourite artists and I routinely return to Gemma’s songs ;- after a recent post here about Joe Chester, who’s collaborated with and featured alongside her for years, I’ve listened to practically nothing else since. And there’s a lot of material to suck in too, most of it determined by simple melodies and those gorgeous, breathy deliveries and smart, often arrant lyrics that have long been among her signatures.

Over the course of a random shuffle, she’ll divert and shift gear from the giddy, piano and plucked string staccato of ‘All I Need’ [from ‘Let It Break’] to the up-beat, guitar pop workouts of ‘Happy Sad’ [from ‘The Roads Don’t Love You’] and ‘Out Of Our Hands’ [from ‘The Hollow Of Morning’] to the introspective, fuzzy shoe-gazed tuning of ‘Laughter’ [from ‘Bones And Longing’]. And in spite of myself, I’m still suckered every time by the full-frontal pay-off in ‘Keep Running’, her 2011 single that, after a mildly-tempered rattle that name-checks some of the most interesting cities in the world in which the writer ‘might as well be lost’, proceeds to flail blindly, like a drunken uncle at an indie disco.

No one song captures the breath of Hayes’s ambition better than ‘I Let A Good Thing Go’, from her sturdy 2002 debut album, ‘Night On My Side’, which boasts all of her primary strike assets within it’s four minutes :- the carnal vocals, acoustic underlay and full-frontal thrashing that plays with skewed tunings and distorted lower ends. Ingredients she’s long favoured throughout her recording history, in which the most obvious variances have been in her increased use of beats, loops and dips ;- her most recent work is certainly infused with far more ambience and space. As if, almost, the more perceptive and confident she’s grown, the easier it’s become for her to pare her songs right back ;- on ‘Bones And Longing’ as if she’s often just corrupting the beauty.

A couple of summers ago, I produced ‘Saturday Night With Miriam’ for the RTÉ One television schedule and, with no little prompting from the show’s music booker, my old friend Caroline Henry, we invited Paul Noonan from Bell X1 and Gemma to come in and perform a live, acoustic version of ‘The Snowman’. Trading for the occasion as Printer Clips, a solo project of Paul’s, they fetched up in Studio Four without fanfare or fuss and, working the song through during afternoon rehearsals, had a core of us absolutely distracted as they did do.

Gemma had arrived bearing gifts ;- as well as her acoustic guitar, she also brought along her husband, who was also minding their first child, a little boy. And hours later, and in front of an audience of just over one hundred, Paul and herself delivered a mighty live performance, directed with her usual brio – in one shot only – by Niamh White and captured on camera in a single take by Gerry Hickey, a formidable and skilled operator. Once we’d downed tools for the night and repaired back-stage, Gemma told us that she’d successfully crowd-funded a new record, even if motherhood had given her far more pressing priorities and, as you’d expect, plenty else to occupy her mind and her time.

Months later she’d also delivered ‘Bones And Longing’, as absorbing a record as any and easily her most salient. And across much of the promotion she did in support of that record, she spoke about how becoming a mother had genuinely liberated her and about how music no longer absorbs her so intently or exclusively.

Life as a parent clearly suits her.

And her work.

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DAVID BOWIE :- THE CORK YEARS

 

‘Him ? Sure, he doesn’t know if he wants to be a man or a woman’. It was the end of the summer, 1980, and David Bowie at his most theatric, glamorous, playful and compelling, wasn’t convincing my mother. And seeing him in lavish make-up, polarised and in complicated Pierrot garb doing ‘Ashes To Ashes’ on Top Of The Pops, was just that bit beyond her. My mother fostered a real love of music in all of her children and our house regularly resounded to the sound of her radio and, on the special occasions, her record player, which she’d roll out to give Marianne Faithful or The Beatles a spin for us.

As her first child to start school, she made sure I left for Junior Infants back in 1972 with a basic ability to read and write and, after four years spent almost exclusively at her elbow at home, an even better ability to hear a tune. She was wary of those who didn’t like music or who, as she’d say, ‘didn’t have music in them’, but Bowie’s latest incarnation was troubling her. He’d changed quite a bit since ‘Space Oddity’, her introduction to him years earlier, and something strange was going down.

I turned twelve years old that same summer and was about to start secondary school just as ‘Ashes To Ashes’ was topping the singles chart in Britain and as David Bowie was entering the most commercially successful period of his long career. I remember my hometown at that time as a bleak, smoggy and hard place and, when I’d accompany my father on his calls around Leitrim Street and Watercourse Road, it seemed to me that every second premises was a coal yard or a garage. I enjoyed a brilliant, bright childhood in Cork but, for as long as I could recall, Blackpool was seriously dilapidated, in bits. One of it’s most popular pubs, The Unicorn on Great William O’Brien Street, looked like it had been bombed during the war and been left untouched in the years since. Which didn’t seem to deter the regulars, mind, of which there were many.

So it was far from mime, avant-garde and Berlin we were reared but, every weekend, The Evening Echo newspaper carried a series of clues that hinted at a far more interesting part of town and, in underneath the cinema listings, were regular adverts for ‘nite-clubs’ ;- Krojacks, The Bodega, The Arcadia and numerous others. Not un-connected, pirate radio in Cork was having it’s first flushes and several proscribed outfits were broadcasting furtively from caravans, back-rooms and attics around the city. Much of the pirate output was as dire and ramshackle as you’d expect, but the likes of CCLR and CBC at least gave us a local entry point to the pop charts and a connection outside of the mundane. And the pirates themselves were accessible too ;- you’d ring in and, almost always, would get straight through to the duty jock with a request or a dedication. Many of which were scurrilous.

From the release of ‘Scary Monsters’ onwards, and certainly for the remainder of the life-span of the pirates, David Bowie was a staple on their play-lists, a strange fish on stations that, initially at least, tended towards soft disco and popular soul music. Most of the jocks, with their footballer aliases, were doubling up at night in the night-clubs around town where, one suspects, they mis-pronounced Bowie’s surname as liberally as they did on the airwaves.

I attended The North Monastery, a huge, Christian Brothers-run school at the bottom of Fair Hill, in one of the most deprived parts of Cork city. I’ve written previously about the history of music in the school during my time there, and that piece is available here. I enjoyed ten terrific years in the school, most of it good-humoured and positive – and all of it free – but others among us weren’t so lucky and several were lost in the system to the usual ills, unemployment and poverty mostly. But enabled by our parents and by several excellent teachers, we were always encouraged to read widely and, for those who did, our smart-alecry was tolerated a bit more as a result. The school, as you’d expect, broadly reflected the tone and outlook of the community it served which, in 1980, was over-whelmingly white, Catholic and straight. Fianna Fáil had swept to power in 1977, led by arguably The North Mon’s most famous past-pupil, Jack Lynch, and the Dáil seats in the area tended to mostly go to the two traditional political heavyweights. Even in such a working class area, with unemployment and taxation levels touching record highs, the constituency tended to still vote cautiously and, following a by-election in 1979, the Labour Party held no seat at all in Cork city.

north mon

via Cork Past and Present

 

1980 was also the year when The North Monastery’s senior hurlers claimed Dr. Harty Cup and All-Ireland Colleges titles, back-boned by some of the finest players to ever don the blue and white. Local boys like Tomás Mulcahy, Tony O’Sullivan and Paul O’Connor were among the many stand-out players on that team and, on returning to the school after their successes, were greeted by bonfires in old Blackpool and in the quarry off of Gerald Griffin Street where Neptune Stadium now stands. The school retained the Dr. Harty Cup the following year – with a team that featured Teddy McCarthy – when they beat Coláiste Chriost Rí in the final at Páirc Ui Chaoimh in front of a crowd of over 6,000. That side was captained by John Drinan, from Carrigaline outside of Cork City, who provided one of the most interesting links between sport and music in the school ;- when he wasn’t a marauding forward, he was also a member of the Carrigaline Pipe Band.

To be lateral or notional in appearance or outlook up in the school was often to run a gauntlet there. Every morning during the heart of the playing season, the school’s outstanding hurlers would be fed sandwiches and soup over in the big hall, set apart. But for many others, the yards, playing fields and the walk home were less hospitable and fraught and, on occasion, the climate inside the school  wasn’t much better. I remember a talk about careers at which one of our class-mates fetched up wearing an earring and a mohair jumper. Notwithstanding the school’s rules on such matters, or the cockiness inherent in such grand gestures, the reaction of one of the Career Guidance teachers from the stage at the top of the room pretty much summed up the school’s undertones. ‘Is that an earring you’re wearing ?’, the teacher asked. ‘Because if it is, you can take it off and put it into your handbag’.

The line reduced the hall to fits and, no doubt, reduced our class-mate a bit too ;- it was a sharp, instinctive and instructive exchange and the intention was clear. Earrings had no place in a school like ours, which was exclusively male. Maybe it wasn’t only my mother who was put out by those who may have just wanted to buck the trend and test the bend a bit ?

Myself and one of my friends still recall a conversation in the schoolyard one time about David Bowie ;- a member of our class was certain that the singer had under-gone a sex change. Sure, why else would he look like he did ? And, by looking like he did, looked nothing like either ACDC, Status Quo or Madness, the most popular music acts among our peers. And that’s how absolutely dopey we were ;- sexual ambiguity never featured on our radars, nor did it feature in any of our biology, religion or civics classes. The closest our parents and teachers got to the subject was when April Ashley, a British model who had actually undergone a full sex change in the 1960s, appeared one night on The Late Late Show and left a week of consternation in her slipstream around Ireland.

Cork folk in general – and Blackpool people especially – like to remember their own successes proudly and loudly and you’d hear regular mention of the great entertainers, actors and performers from around our way ;- Niall Tóibín, Joe Lynch, Walloo Dunlea, Paddy Comerford and others. But you’d hear far less talk about Danny La Rue. La Rue was born Danny Carroll in Madden’s Buildings, a loft of a bowl, literally, from where our house was, although his family moved to London in the early 1930s while he was still a young boy. He’d enjoyed a stellar career as a singer and stage performer in Britain and even by 1980, was still one of the most popular draws on the British theatre circuit and a regular on the stages in The West End. Danny La Rue was a gay man, best known as a female impersonator and drag artist. He’d routinely return to Cork, where he’d fill The Opera House and, in his flamboyant frocks and rubber bosom, bring the house down with his arch routines and songs.

Danny La Rue’s performances in Cork never attracted protests outside of the local theatres. Nor did I once hear my parents ever suggest that he didn’t know if he wanted to be a man or a woman. But then, as a regular fixture on prime-time television in Britain, La Rue was a safe bet and just faintly ridiculous;- beyond the crinolines and the smutty one-liners, he was harmless.

David Bowie, though, was a far more legitimate threat ;- he was younger, more provocative, smarter, more beautiful and open. And yet he – and Freddie Mercury – always found favour among the local gutty boys, many of whom would rather open your skull than ever open a book. And who, when they weren’t trying to score girls to the strains of ‘Let’s Dance’ or ‘Radio Gaga’ in Chandras or St. Francis Hall, had little time for ‘faggots’ and ‘steamers’ and weren’t slow in saying as much. Those local toughs whose concession to diversity extended as far as crossing, the odd time, over into the Southside and yet who, in the same breath, loved ‘Boys Keep Swinging’.

Some of our teachers weren’t spared either and the abuse doled out to one or two of them in particular was savage. To speak or behave in a particular tone or manner, to be effete in any way, was simply a weakness in any male teacher and was exploited at every turn. And yet, when it came to David Bowie, who was sexually ambiguous and very outwardly so, there was never an issue.

Maybe he was just too subtle, too popular and too complicated for the hardy bucks, many of whom, in their Bowie suits and slip-on shoes were already paying their respects openly with their choice of trousers ?

The Bowie suit was an iteration of the wide-boy uniform for a couple of years from around 1983 onwards, based [very loosely] on Bowie’s look during the ‘Let’s Dance’ period. Comprised of a jacket cropped in above the waist and a pleated trouser for narrow men of narrow mind cut in a baggy style, the look was often complimented by a knitted jumper tucked into the elaborate waist-band. It was, for a while, the home kit of every gowl in Cork and, alongside imported leather jackets and American-style cardigans, made a household name of at least one Cork-based retailer.

But it wasn’t just with cheap imitation clobber that Bowie was publicly lauded in Cork. I remember plenty of graffiti acclaiming his genius daubed on walls around the Northside, most memorably along the side of Farranferris college, around where we lived and which, for decades, served as Cork’s diocesan seminary. And this at a time when street art around the city was largely confined to scrawled support for the I.R.A., for outing those who had allegedly snitched on dole cheats and standard punk rock slogans. Deb Murphy, who grew up as a David Bowie fan on Blarney Street, has written a lovely piece on this subject on her blog and that piece is available here

The point has been made repeatedly in the many obituaries and tribute pieces since his passing that, apart entirely from his body of work – which is utterly magnificent – one of David Bowie’s most telling impacts was in how he enabled society to tolerate difference, an example of sorts to those who, for one reason or another, felt like they were being unfairly restrained. And this much is undoubtedly true.

Away from the school, especially during holidays and weekends, you’d see a handful of Mon boys from all over the school with their earrings in, their hair un-furled a bit and maybe even wearing an odd bit of slap or eyeliner. I half-knew a couple of lads from around Dublin Hill who, in their tight tank tops and Henna-dos, cut brave, impressive shapes and it wasn’t too difficult to know what, and who, they were listening at home in the evenings.

The North Monastery has long been a renowned centre of education and achievement and boasts a rich, proud and far-reaching history that endures to this day. But to many of us, for a number of years from 1980 onwards, one of our finest teachers and most impressive and impactful educators was someone who never once stepped foot into our classrooms. But whose prints are all over the ambitions we’ve long determined for ourselves.

 

 

 

 

SINDIKAT ;- THE GREATEST CORK BAND NEVER TO HAVE PLAYED SIR HENRY’S ?

This post – minus image and music – originally appeared on Sir Henrys 2014

‘They Didn’t Teach Music In My School’ is an old Toasted Heretic song that first appeared on ‘The Smug’ E.P., released on the band’s own Bananafish label in 1990.

Anyone who, like myself, attended The North Monastery school on the Northside of Cork city during  the 1970s and 1980s, will appreciate the song’s title, if not its memorable chorus, which runs as follows :-

‘But we got out alive, We’re rich, We’re famous. And you’re inside for sliding up Seamus’

The dominant extra-curricular focus up on Our Lady’s Mount was sport, and the school’s legacy on  tracks and fields all over Ireland and beyond has been well chronicled. The Mon has produced  numerous All-Ireland winners and has excelled in a variety of disciplines outside of the classroom.  But has the school ever actually crashed the pop charts ?

Rory Gallagher briefly attended primary school there after his family moved to Cork from Donegal  [via Derry] in the late 1950s but, as Marcus Connaughton puts it in his book ‘Rory Gallagher – His Life  And Times’, it was only after Rory moved to St Kieran’s College on Camden Quay that ‘he prospered after the more repressed regime of The North Mon’.

A school choir – The North Monastery Boys Choir – flourished briefly during the late 1970s and early  80s. Led by musical director, Andrew Padmore, the forty boys famously did a brief tour of Rome,  performed in the school on grand occasions and actually released an album. But beyond that, the  school’s support for music was very limited and the subject didn’t feature as part of the formal  curriculum. That said, every now and again a cluster of like-minds would gel-up around the darker corners of the school, often including those you’d least expect to find messing around with pedals,  plugboards and multi-core leads. Billeted in the heart of a staunchly working-class part of town, Monboys were more likely to throw slaps than rock star shapes.

Alan Whitehouse and Noel O’Flaherty from Dublin Hill led an angsty, punk-pop combo called Blunt  [who were anything but], that generated ripples and snagged a couple of nice supports around town. Michael Dwyer from Gerald Griffin Street fronted The Electric Hedgehogs and, further up the school, Jim O’Mahony was known to be hanging around rehearsal rooms with trendy types from across the river. But these were rare exceptions :- The Mon may have churned out many sportsmen of calibre [and a few well regarded poets] between 1976 and 1985 but, back then, we lagged well behind schools like Coláiste Chriost Ri, Deerpark and Coláiste An Spioraid Naoimh, when it came to producing rock bands.

Very few of you will remember Sindikat. They hardly feature within the broader pages of Cork music history but, thirty years on, I remember them and their songs in ultra-fine detail. To a small handful of us in our mid-teens, they were the closest we got to real erotica. And although we’d already been mainlining on the likes of REM, The Smiths and Prefab Sprout, Sindikat were different and, in many ways, more important. They were our secret crush, the first and only band in the village.

Sindikat were a surly five-piece and, among their number counted three lads from the class immediately above us and another from a different part of the school. Not only that, but they’d just committed their stuff to tape and had recorded a demo. And they were playing live. The original line-up comprised of Pat Lyons [vocals], Brendan Smith [bass], Kieran O’Sullivan [guitar], Paul O’Reilly [Hammond] and Paul Sheppard [drums] and here they were, in their black tops and out-size shades, badly photocopied on the front of their five-song cassette. I’d always had Lyons pinged  as a new-wave sort, cut in the likeness of Vince Clarke. But he stared me out now from the front of the demo’s sleeve with a single strand of blond hair wrapped around his ear – which was multi- pierced, of course – on what was an otherwise standard issue punk cut. It wasn’t just the wonders of an Arts course he’d discovered since he left The Mon for U.C.C.

Vocally he strained to hit the top of his register and wasn’t a natural singer. Behind him, Sindikat borrowed liberally from Joy Division, The Doors, The Velvets and some of the mellower post-punks. Their best songs [‘Jezebel’, ‘Indecision’, ‘Beyond The Purple Mountain’] were wrapped up in Kieran’s delicate guitar licks and his easy way with middle-eights, breaks and the more complicated end of the tutorial books. A shrill Hammond would routinely parp its way in and out of the mix and, bubbling underneath, a tinny drum sound and basic bass rumble. And it was a beautiful racket.

It was just before we sat The Leaving Certificate in the summer of 1985 that Sindikat really started to register. They’d formed nine months previously as first year university students and had already caused a bit of live rumble in the College Bar. Their demo earned them a nice billing [with a photograph] in Brian O’Brien’s weekly rock column in The Echo, and our interest was piqued. The fact that the core of a fully-formed band had been shaped in the classroom next door, through the partition, caused no little wonder. The world was indeed filled with possibilities and, for a couple of years, I chronicled and checked this band’s every move.

I recognised the rhythm section from around Gerald Griffin Street and had never remotely thought of either of them as likely rock stars. The keyboard player looked like he was on leave of absence from the Housing Department in Cork Corporation and Pat looked like a dog’s dinner, but it didn’t matter. Sindikat were local, accessible, visible and were making waves. And I wanted a piece.

They only ever played half a dozen live shows during their two year history, and The Underground, off Patrick Street, was their live venue of choice. A couple of their gigs there were captured on pretty decent recordings by another former pupil of the school, Paul Daly, who was one of my neighbours and friends on Seminary Road. Those tapes record sweaty, mildly chaotic live affairs, with the band frequently re-starting some of their songs and Lyons being roundly baited from the floor. In the best traditions of punk rock, the band – Kieran apart – seemed to struggle with their instruments, but this too was irrelevant. They’d routinely lash through fifteen or sixteen songs and end in fury with an angry take on Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’. It was perfect and we lapped it up.

On a memorably hot Sunday afternoon during the summer of 1985, Sindikat performed as part of the celebration marking the granting of city status to Cork, 800 years previously. On the back of a truck parked in a tarmaced car-park beside what was then the Graffiti Theatre Company, they appeared third on a bill that also included Porcelyn Tears and the day’s headliners, Flex And The Fastweather. It could have been our own private Glastonbury.

But Sindikat weren’t suited to the out of doors and the day didn’t go well for them. Brendan broke a string on his bass early on and, after what seemed like an eternity spent trying to replace it, the band lost momentum as the crowd of fifty lost interest. In the white heat of the summer, Sindikat’s post- punk schtick was lost and out of place. I shouted at them to play ‘Factory Fodder’, a live favourite, but Lyons sneered back at me from the truck. ‘We haven’t rehearsed that one’, he said. Sindikat were an intensive live experience but, removed from their natural habitat – the low ceilings at The Underground and the warmth of The College Bar – their impact was lost.

There was another show in The Buckingham [which later became Mojos] during which O’Reilly’s Hammond took up half of the stage and where punters had to actually walk across him and his gear to access the toilets, such as they were. But when Denis Desmond – a local impresario – took over The Cork Opera House for a week-long showcase and put every young band in Cork into a serious, serious venue – it looked as if Sindikat were ready to spring. Finally the band was set to perform in a venue that matched the scale of ambition I’d set for them in my head.

Sindikat’s set aside, that suite of gigs is still memorable for a terrific set from Ballincollig band The Outside and for an appearance by a Bishopstown band called Echoes In A Shallow Bay, fronted by Brendan O’Connor and featuring Niall Linehan from The Frank And Walters on guitar. The highlight of their set was a shocking cover of ‘Stairway To Heaven’, where the singer read the words from a sheet of paper as he swayed around the vast stage.

But Sindikat had undergone radical surgery. The curtain went up and revealed that Kieran – the band’s tender guitarist and key writer– was absent, presumed gone. In his place a new member, Eddie, and a scatter of terrific new songs. But they found their old habits hard to shake too and, as ever, had to re-start the opener, a sturdy new number ,‘The Light’, that featured far more lead guitar runs than previously. Eddie was clearly an honours student at the Knopfler school and, as with the aforementioned Toasted Heretic, their songs now rolled with added licks. The band’s name may have suggested a group sharing common interests but, from our velvet seats in the stalls, Eddie was rocking to his own beat.

A listing on the excellent http://www.irishrock.org website claims that Sindikat were active from 1984 until 1986 when, I imagine, the original gang dissipated and the band just ran out of puff. But not before I crossed the floor and very nearly joined them.

A friend of mine from Blackpool, Ray O’Callaghan, is a fine guitarist whose form line extends back to Poles Apart, a Police/Rory/muso-conscious three-piece led by singing bass-player, John Drinan. They were a decent live draw, Sir Henry’s regulars during the early 1980s [alongside the likes of Sabre] and recorded a ballsy three-song session for Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on the then Radio 2. Ray responded to a newspaper advert placed by a Northside-based rock band seeking a guitarist and keyboard player. That band was Sindikat, who had obviously come apart at the seams and were looking to re-fuel the jet.

Ray and myself fetched up on a cold, cold night at a breeze-block rehearsal room at the bottom of Fair Hill that, appropriately enough, touched onto the playing fields at the back of The North Mon. I’d passed the gates to this building regularly often over the years and had often wondered what went on behind the metal doors. And now I knew. It was here, against slabbed walls deadened by old rugs and dimly lit with naked bulbs that we jammed with what remained of the old Sindikat line- up for the guts of an hour. Ray was – and still is – a beautiful, old-school musician. Another graduate from the school of serious players, he boosted the body of every number with no little power and using an impressive artillery of pedals and effects. Loud to boot, Sindikat would have been lucky to snare him.

In the opposite corner, I hunched over a primitive Casio, awe-struck in such company, and barely managed to get a full chord away. Like a desperate psychotic on a blind date, I also knew Sindikat’s canon of material better than the band itself, or what was left of the band by then. Pat Lyons looked mortified and, although the long-standing rhythm section were courteous and kind, there was an elephant in the room. Even then, we all knew. Sindikat were blowing hard, drowning not waving.

Nothing ever materialised from our one-night stand and I never heard of the band again. Even more curiously, I never subsequently saw any of them around either, although I’ve since heard many tall tales about them – Pat especially – over the years.

Sindikat, to the best of my knowledge, never played Sir Henry’s. But then this band comprised a core of Northsiders with bottle and, you know, maybe they just wanted to trade on their own terms and stubbornly do things their own way ? Their short biography on http://www.irishrock.org claims that Sindikat ‘were considered a ‘northside band’, local parlance for outside the mainstream’ which, although clearly tongue in cheek, may help to explain why they steered clear of Cork’s most vaunted live music venue, preferring the smaller, more delapidated and far drearier atmosphere at The Underground instead.

But to these ears at least, they are the first, the last and the always. For two years they were the band I obsessed most about, quite possibly the greatest Cork band never to have darkened the door of Sir Henry’s. And that, in the pages of my own limited and deficient history of Cork rock music, only sets them further apart from the pack.

Brendan Smith subsequently posted two great comments on the original piece – we include those here…

Hello Colm, Brendan here. Really enjoyed reading this and how you remember that time. Forgot many of those details myself. Have some recordings from back then also. Respond by email and I’ll get in touch. Cheers.

Great piece Colm. Just like being there. I (Brendan) had forgotten many of the details myself, but reading this jogged my memory. Thought I would fill in some of the gaps.
I laughed at your comment about us regularly restarting songs. Had forgotten that. Honestly it was not a subversive attempt to create chaos. We had cheap crappy gear for the most part and equipment manfunctions were the norm. Would start off and the mike would not work, or the keyboard amp. Twenty seconds in we would mess around with the equipment and restart the song. Must have seemed a strange quirk to you on the floor.

Shortly after making the demo in April 1985, Sully (Kieren) left to take a job in Germany for the Summer. Eddie came in for a few months. Not all the original set worked well with his Knopfler-esque style so we wrote some new material that went in a totall different direction. The Light and Flying Colours were the pick of them. Sully came back briefly but quickly became disilusioned. The first gig we did with Eddie was at The Underground in September. Was an excellent gig I recall. We had not played in months and had a huge raucous crowd. I think someone out there has a recording of it. As you pointed out, the Cork 800 show had us out of our element and did not go well.

I recall only two more gigs after that, in early 86. The Buckingham and Opera House. Shortly thereafter things began to unravel. Paul O’Reilly started thinking he was a rock star already. Started missing practice a lot. Showed up late for the Opera House gig, arriving just as we were about to go on, so drunk we had to prop him up on his stool. Final straw was when he approached Paul and I to insist we replace Pat with a female singer. He had to go.
Then Eddie left. Wanted to join his buddies in a New Romantic band. They also played the Opera House then, do not recall the name though
.
Worked with a blues guitarist, Mick, for a while. Some good songs came out of that but were never recorded or played live.

Ended shortly thereafter and we all went our seperate ways. Sully went on to become a psychiatrist or something, Pat joined the army and lives in Carlow I think. Reilly got married and moved to Spain, have not heard from since. Paul Sheppard still lives in the Cork area. Opened a head shop in Barack Street called Utopianation. Still there I think. I moved to the States in 1988. Try to get back to Cork every couple of years.
Good times. “A beautiful chaos” sums it up well.