Pairc Ui Chaoimh

SIAMSA COIS LAOÍ

An earthy Breton harpist, Alan Stivell, topped the bill at the first Siamsa Cois Laoí, a day-long festival of folk and traditional music that took place at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork on July 17th, 1978. Then in his mid-30s, Stivell was a prominent figure in the electrification of Celtic music and was already a fixture on the live circuit here. Nine albums into what was then – and what has continued to be – an extraordinary and prolific career, his prints are all over what we might respectfully refer to as Celtic rock music.

Adding electric instruments and lavish arrangements to traditional Breton tunes and spikey originals, Alan Stivell was one of those leading the way and carrying the light: his 1975 album, ‘Live In Dublin’, is one of Celtic rock’s essential foundation pieces. Recorded over a couple of nights at The National Stadium in November, 1974, that elpee features bagpipes, Breton woodwind, flutes and harp over a blanket of progressive electric rock riffing. Onto which Alan spoons vocals and general caterwauling to a record that, forty-five years later, straddles the junction between invention, genius and parody. On the eve of an upcoming world tour, Stivell repeated one of his regular mantras in Cork: ‘I’m trying to preserve the Celtic culture through music’, he told one of the local newspapers.

His set-up in Páirc Uí Chaoimh was pared back and un-plugged: Alan, seated, on harp and tin whistle, flanked by fiddle, acoustic guitar and basic, hand-held percussion. The 1978 Siamsa Cois Laoí – which translates as Festival by the [river] Lee – was captured on film by an RTÉ outside broadcast unit and subsequently transmitted as a multi-part performance series by the national broadcaster. In the early evening balm at the great bowl deep in Cork city’s dockland, Stivell’s ornate, Breton vibes are lost in the outdoors.  

The lingering shots of attractive young women, couples shifting and youths necking beer suggest that RTÉ’s live director was looking to distract from the subdued humours on the main stage, on which Alan never looks entirely comfortable. Over coffee with Vincent Power of The Evening Echo the following day, he claimed that while ‘the [Siamsa] organisers are nice people, they don’t know anything about sound’. Although pleased with the reception he received in The Páirc, ongoing issues with the stage monitors didn’t help his cause and, he claimed, his small band had found it ‘difficult to play together’. 

As well as hosting thousands of games and training sessions during its lifetime, the original Páirc Uí Chaoimh also staged ten consecutive Siamsa Cois Laoí shows and numerous other high profile and profitable live events after it opened in June 1976. The stadium endured until 2015, after which it was razed to the ground and re-built. Over the last couple of years, my friend Michael Moynihan has highlighted, in a series of scarcely-believable exclusives in The Irish Examiner, the extent of the over-spend on that project. Peter McKenna, the Stadium Director at Croke Park and an influential figure within the G.A.A. hierarchy, has suggested that the eventual cost of the project will be close to €110m: the venture was originally budgeted at €67m. At a meeting of the Cork County Board in February, 2019, Michael O’Flynn, on behalf of the current Stadium Committee, predicted that the final cost of the re-development will be closer to €96m. By any measure, the over-spend on the recent re-fit is staggering. The cost of the re-construction of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, whatever the final figure might be, will have consequences for Gaelic Games in Cork for decades to come.

Some of the veteran delegates and officers of the Cork County Board will know this feeling only too well, though, because they’ve been in this territory previously. When Páirc Uí Chaoimh was first opened in June 1976, it did so at twice the projected cost and it too left a mouth-watering debt in its wake. Using terms that’ll sound very familiar, it was presented as a strikingly modern, state-of-the-art, consumer-friendly operation: the most contemporary facility of its sort in the country. The final cost, even allowing for the rate of inflation during this period, was off the charts.

In May, 1978, the then chairman of the Cork County Board, Donal O’Sullivan, told The Cork Examiner that ‘even though the County Board succeeded in raising £650,000 from its own resources [towards the cost of building the stadium], and received considerable grants from other units of the Association, there is a debt of £800,000 still due, and the repayment of this loan means that a big sum must be found annually’.

He was speaking in Dublin at the launch of the first ever Siamsa Cois Laoí, one of a number of innovative schemes devised to help alleviate the Páirc Uí Chaoimh debt. Siamsa was promoted during its ten-year history by Oliver Barry, from Banteer in North Cork, who served his time on the fledgling entertainment industry that sprung up around the Irish showbands during the 1960s. He was a formidable operator with strong G.A.A. credentials and I credit him as one of the most important, innovative and unheralded figures in the history of Irish entertainment. 

Because of the G.A.A.’s constitution – ‘the Association promotes Irish music, song and dance and the Irish language as an integral part of its objectives’ – the early Siamsa line-ups needed to recognise the organisation’s ethos while also being commercially attractive. With the Grounds Committee of the Cork County Board, Barry put together a first line-up that spoke, in broad brush-strokes, to the association’s cultural remit. Apart from Alan Stivell, Siamsa 1978 also featured The Chieftains, The Dubliners, The Wolfe Tones, the Dublin-born fiddler, Paddy Glackin, and a group of set dancers from Youghal. Tickets were priced at £3 and the show attracted over 12,000 paying punters, grossing almost £40,000 in sales, half of which went towards the stadium debt.

Siamsa Cois Laoí is a seminal concert series in the history of live music in Ireland and, by the mid-1980s, had re-drawn the entire pitch for entertainment promotions here. After ten years, it was seamlessly morphed into bigger, international-scale shows by the likes of U2, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra and Prince, all run by the same principal partners: Cork G.A.A. and Oliver Barry. Its line-ups bear witness to the development of cultural imagination in Ireland during the 1980s, not least of all within the upper reaches of the Gaelic Athletic Association.

In 1984, the G.A.A. marked the centenary of its foundation by pointedly staging its annual congress in Belfast during the height of ‘the troubles’. It is to the credit of those driving G.A.A. matters in Cork that they could look out beyond the narrow rhetoric and cultural focus that often characterised their organisation. What went on within the concrete wrap at Páirc Uí Chaoimh from 1978 until 1987 was utterly game-changing: Siamsa set the course for U2’s show at Croke Park in 1985, Féile in Thurles in 1990 and all outdoor live music events in this country ever since. It is a hugely important cultural pivot point. 

The last event held under the Siamsa Cois Laoí banner took place at Páirc Uí Chaoimh during the weekend of August 8th and 9th, 1987, when U2 and Status Quo headlined two consecutive nights at the ground, a series co-promoted by Oliver Barry and Jim Aiken. The melding of the two live shows back-to-back, and the re-scheduling of that summer’s senior inter-county championship calendar to accommodate live music in Cork, was as profound a development in its own way as the opening of Croke Park to rugby and soccer decades later. Status Quo, legs-splayed, denim-clad rock and roll scruffs from London, were the last ever Siamsa head-liners: the roll-of-honour also includes Don McLean, Joan Baez, Glen Campbell, Kris Kristofferson, Leo Sayer and John Denver. 

The broadcaster, Donncha Ó Dúlaing, was keenly aware of the G.A.A.’s cultural bent. From Doneraile in North Cork, he began his broadcasting career in the RTÉ radio studios in Cork during the early 1960s as Denis Dowling, before his name was changed at the suggestion of one of the station heads. He compered the first Siamsa concerts and, as he did throughout his long career on the wireless and on television, oscillated between English and Irish, the first language of the Irish state and the Gaelic Athletic Association. During his long career, Ó Dúlaing conducted a number of interviews with the fabled Cork hurler, Christy Ring, including the only surviving television sit down, which was recorded for a series called ‘Donncha’s Travelling Roadshow’ shortly before Ring’s death in 1979. 

During The Dubliners’ Siamsa Cois Laoí set in 1980, Ó Dúlaing invited the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, to join the group onstage. The Fianna Fáil leader reluctantly took the mic and belted out a line of an old Dublin song, ‘Monto’. As he was being glad-handled back down the ramp at the side of the stage, Haughey quipped ‘What about my fee?’

On-stage in front of The City End and with a live mic in his hand, Ó Dúlaing’s schtick was peppered with tribal old guff. ‘Two years ago, I had the distinction of being called a republican by The Irish Times’, he told the Siamsa crowd on that same afternoon in 1980. ‘Well, since this is a republic, I suppose we must all be republicans’. A review of the event in Magill magazine mentions how he later called for ‘a round of applause for the late Tom Barry’, the Kerry-born commander of the West Cork Flying Column during the War of Independence and the Civil War, who died a couple of weeks previously. In remembering Barry, Ó Dúlaing played fast and loose with history, telling that crowd that people like Tom Barry ‘gave us the Ireland we love – the thirty-two county Ireland’. 

The Wolfe Tones, a four-piece ballad group from Dublin, were well known to Ó Dúlaing: he’d cut them a couple of decent breaks during the earlier part of their career. Trading in old school folk and rebel songs and anti-British sentiment, they were managed by Oliver Barry and have the distinction of being the only act to play at all ten Siamsas. At every single one, they’d amble on-stage in the mid-afternoon and rouse the crowds with some of their most popular material, much of which, like ‘A Nation Once Again’, ‘Some Say The Devil Is Dead’, ‘On The One Road’ and ‘God Save Ireland’, was politically-charged. They were unapologetic opportunists who didn’t do nuance: a popular live draw all over Ireland at this time, they were also regulars in the Irish charts. 

During the weeks that preceded the first Siamsa Cois Laoí, a number of atrocities took place in Northern Ireland, as had been the case all too frequently since 1969. On June 17th, 1978, the I.R.A. carried out a gun attack on an R.U.C. patrol car near Crossmaglen, County Armagh. One officer was killed at the scene and a second was kidnapped. A Catholic priest was kidnapped the following day as a reprisal and, later that year, three R.U.C. officers were charged with the offence. The same officers were also charged, along with two other officers, with the killing of a Catholic shopkeeper in Ahoghill the previous April. Three members of the I.R.A. and a passing Protestant civilian were shot dead by undercover members of the British Army during an attempted bomb attack on a Post office depot in Belfast.

This backdrop wasn’t lost on The Evening Echo’s traditional music columnist, Bob O’Donoghue who, the week after that first Siamsa, claimed that The Wolfe Tones’ left him ‘as cold as death in Belfast’. Drawing parallels between the power of Irish and American Negro folk music, he concluded his piece by reminding readers that wounds are healed by justice, a combination of ‘reason and feeling’. Justice does not lie, he signed off, ‘in the song of the bullet’.

It’s unlikely that his sentiments were shared by the Cork County Board’s Registrar, Denis Conroy, who was back at Páirc Uí Chaoimh early on the morning of July 18th, 1978. The long-serving Carrigtwohill delegate, who never hid his republican sympathies, was leading a group of fifteen young helpers to clear the ‘massive amount of debris left behind’ after Siamsa. A trial match between the Cork senior and under-21 footballers set for Tuesday evening meant that time was precious and the clean-up crew was up against the clock. Describing Siamsa as ‘an unqualified success’, Conroy paid special tribute to The Wolfe Tones who, he reminded reporter Maurice Gubbins, ‘almost brought the house down’. ‘I never saw anything like it’, he said.

Siamsa was notable also for the first appearance at the venue of pint-sized cans of beer, which, up until the mid-1970s, were almost unheard of in Ireland. From the evidence left behind by thirsty punters, they were a popular choice of refreshment, a fact not lost on Denis Conroy. Noting that the cans were imported, he suggested that ‘there was surely an opening for an industry manufacturing them in Cork’.

A decade later, the people of Cork had a far greater choice of beers and soft drinks available to them, in cans, bottles and on tap, both inside Páirc Uí Chaoimh and outside it. During the weekend of that last Siamsa, local hotels and guest houses were, as reported by The Cork Examiner, ‘jam packed for 20 miles around’ while restaurants and bars across town were ‘turning away customers on Friday and Saturday nights’. Not only was Siamsa now generating considerable ticket revenue, it had also developed its brand more widely: for three years from 1984, the event was supported by a title sponsor, the Ford Motor Company. A media partnership was formalised with local and national outlets, side deals were concluded with stall holders and hospitality providers around the event and the net value to the city was determined to have been in the millions of pounds. This during a period when 248,462 Irish people were registered as unemployed. 

Live music in Cork that weekend wasn’t confined to Páirc Uí Chaoimh either, and most other venues of note piggy-backed the occasion and ran well-supported shows of their own. A formidable local outfit, The Belsonic Sound, played Sir Henry’s that Friday, introduced on-stage by RTÉ’s Dave Fanning, while In Tua Nua took the boards at De Lacy House as their patrons, U2, were half way through their set down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. An emerging young band from Bray, County Wicklow, The Icon Trial, played the first date of a four-date residency in Mojo’s.  

Such was the expected influx of crowds into the city over the couple of nights that Fine Gael councillor, John Blair, was fearful of a breakdown in public order. He warned a meeting of Cork Corporation in July, 1987, of possible clashes between rival followers of U2 and Status Quo on the city’s streets. From Ballintemple, in the shadow of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, John Blair’s late brother, Des, was one of the best known local promoters working the seam in Cork at the time. In respect of live music, Des Blair, who died in 2014, is best remembered for booking the Sonic Youth/Nirvana double bill into Sir Henry’s in 1991 and also B.B. King’s shows at The Neptune Stadium in 1988 and 1990.

John Blair was lending his voice to the worries of some of his constituents: those living in close proximity to Páirc Uí Chaoimh have long had concerns about public safety, access, lighting and general crowd control around that part of the city. With over 80,000 concert-goers moving in and out of The Marina that weekend, additional Gardaí were drafted onto the city roster from Mallow, Fermoy, Cobh and Midleton. As it turned out, most of those fears were unfounded: Chief Superintendent Larry McKeon told The Examiner on Monday that ‘the number of arrests or incidents in the city were on a par with any other weekend’. 

A familiar public safety concern at the time concerned the use of small, unlicensed boats, dozens of which – some of them home-made and most of them without life-jackets – would ferry concert and match-goers across the river from Tivoli. One of them sunk on the afternoon of Siamsa, without any casualties.

Cork G.A.A. eventually knocked forty years out of the original Páirc Uí Chaoimh but, by the 2000s, the cracks, literally, began to appear in its structure. The stadium was eventually over-taken by the demands of the modern consumer and, on the days of bigger games and concerts, it was just too much of a challenge to get in and out of. Large-scale, live music events feature prominently in the stadium’s  history and, looking at the financial strategy under-pinning the recent re-build, will continue to do so. Two high-profile British performers, Ed Sheeran and Rod Stewart have already played there.  

But if Siamsa is another story of an emerging Ireland and, within that frame, the evolution of the Gaelic Athletic Association, it’s also another chapter in the remarkable story of Oliver Barry. From show-running dance bands at The Crystal Ballroom in Dublin during the 1960s, to the vagaries of the cabaret circuit that followed it, he was just as comfortable running with the international jet set during the 1980s and thereafter. With the Wexford businessman, James Stafford, Barry was one of the founding directors of Century Radio, Ireland’s first independent national radio station, that opened in 1989. 

Supported by high-profile backers like the radio and television personality, Terry Wogan, and the singer, Chris De Burgh, Barry attempted to lure Gay Byrne, then the best-known broadcaster in Ireland, away from his long-time home at RTÉ. Despite the promise of a salary of £1m a year, and all of the supports and benefits he required, Byrne wouldn’t bite. ‘When all is said and done, RTÉ is my home, and a pleasant one’, Byrne wrote in his 1989 autobiography, ‘The Time Of My Life’. Century collapsed within two years and Barry took a considerable financial bath, estimated at the time to be close to £3m.  

He was also compelled to appear at the Flood Tribunal, a mammoth tribunal of enquiry, set up in 1997 to investigate irregularities in high-profile planning procedures in Dublin. In May 1989, four months after Century Radio won it’s commercial radio licence, Barry gave €35,000 in cash to Ray Burke, the Fianna Fáil Communications minister, at one of his departmental offices. Mr. Justice Flood found that Barry, and James Stafford, among many others, had obstructed the Tribunal’s work.

In the telling of the history of popular music in Ireland, Oliver Barry’s name features largely. The Gaelic Athletic Association features far less so. By consistently evolving from its tentative beginnings with Alan Stivell in 1978, Siamsa Cois Laoí – an initiative of the Cork County Board in partnership with the promoter – has had a considerable impact on the development of live entertainment in Ireland, and the industry that has grown up around it. Maybe far more than even the G.A.A. itself might admit.

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 from 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’.

CRYSTAL, FROM CORK

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Picture courtesy Siobhan O’Mahony

 

Crystal were one of Alan Murphy’s outfits, in essence a more formed and focused version of his previous band, The How And Why Insects, with his girlfriend, Lisa, added on vocals and Kieran Curtin replacing Anthony Murray on guitar. They were one of a number of bands from the Turner’s Cross/Capwell/Glasheen Road side of Cork City, via Coláiste Chriost Rí, but who, drummer Keri Jones apart, had little else in common with their peers, notably Censored Vision and Serengeti Long Walk.

With Brian Quigley [bass] completing the line-up, they were easily the most academically qualified band to emerge in Cork as the eighties ground to a close. But they were keen students of classic and alternative sounds too ;- Alan, especially, had a far-ranging frame of reference that stretched back to the classics and forward into the contemporary margins. And, once Lisa integrated more fully into the line-up, Crystal developed a sinewy – but no less sparkly – guitar-pop sound. So much to that, for a while, I genuinely thought they had enough about them to really kiss the sun.

But they never received the credit their ambition warranted, especially around Cork, and their live shows were often pock-marked by poor sound and indifference from audiences. But Crystal, with a rich depth of field, a real attitude about them, and swarthy good looks, were well able to hold their own in any company and, for a number of years were prominent, but never over-bearingly so, on the local circuit.

Some of the band later embarked, inevitably enough, onto careers in full-time academica, after which Alan and Lisa re-grouped, re-charged and re-modelled themselves as Starchild, a far more ambient and considered outlet for Murphy’s songs.

But not before, in August, 1991, I gave them this review in Melody Maker magazine, capturing them at their peak, live in The Shelter on Tuckey Street. At the time, Tuam band The Sawdoctors and raggle-taggle period Waterboys dominated the general conversation but, lurking beneath them, a fresh wave of excellent, alternative regional acts had taken their starter’s orders and already had the mainstream squarely in their cross-hairs. And with Crystal among them, I thought.

And so, with the game on, I stepped out to bat and, not for the first or the last time, gave a decent, emerging band, the kiss of death.

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Picture courtesy of Siobhan O’Mahony

Crystal, (The Shelter, Cork)

Crystal are a million miles away from raggle-taggle and they couldn’t care less for sub-generic jangle guitar pop. Mention The Sawdoctors to them and, like Woody Allen on love and life, they’ll internalise. Grow tumours. They’re resolutely hip. Essential. And they’re completely un-Irish, rather like Toasted Heretic and Therapy? and The Cranberries and The Frank And Walters, I guess.

Crystal are indie-kids with style and attitude and looks. They’ve missed all of ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, and the repeats too, because they’ve been too busy listening to My Bloody Valentine and R.E.M. and The Who. They’ve just fallen for ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Revolver’ and ‘Rubber Soul’ and they make some of the most beautiful noise-pop in, well, months.

Tonight in this wonderful little pop hut, Crystal are like a whale out of water. Their comic-culture upbringing, their style, their attitude, their complete disdain for anything remotely linked to Irish pop actually confuses tonight’s pop kids. Songs like ‘Forbidden’ and ‘Touch The Sky’ are murmur-pop songs that we can actually hear. And hum. And remember tomorrow. And then there are three-minute rant-and-rave pop songs like the perfectly-formed ‘Too Late’ and the head-spinning,body-line bounce of ‘Free’.

There’s Lisa’s voice ;- a travelling companion in first class for Dolores Cranberries’. There’s her looks. There’s Brian’s top-heavy bass guitar and a drummer on loan from Anthrax. It’s a confusing little bag. Like Fatima Mansions, if you like.

Crystal might well be a product of their environment, but that patch is well away from here. That is where they’ll stand or fall. The only certainly is that, like My Bloody Valentine, they’ll never be seen as an Irish band. Because they’re not.

 

PRINCE, DOWN IN THE PÁIRC

The summer of 1990 is fondly recalled in Ireland by those of a certain age, and especially so in Cork. We’ve already referenced these magical few months, on the playing fields and in the pubs and clubs, in several other posts and those are available here.

That three month period was dominated, to a large extent, by Ireland’s exploits at the World Cup Finals in Italy and, at home, by Cork’s quest for an unlikely All-Ireland hurling and football double at senior level. But there were plenty of other diversions that summer too, far from the madness in Genoa, Palermo and Rome, but no less unprecedented. Easily the biggest crowd to gather in Páirc Uí Chaoimh during 1990 came not to hail Cork’s hurling and football heroes but, rather, a diminutive American performer with the physical cutting of Joe Deane but who presented more with the attitude of a Kieran Donaghy, as a self-styled bling-dripper.

On Saturday, July 7th, 1990, a crowd cited by the organisers at 60,000 filed down The Marina in brilliant sunshine to see Prince, by then one of the most cavalier figures in contemporary pop music. The explosion in the scale of music video production had helped to propel him and his randy, funk-fuelled pop songs into the mainstream’s bullseye and, beyond the potty mouth and beneath the burlesque live shows, was a gritty and smart writer and producer. Several of those Prince singles from 1980 onwards are still essential to any self-respecting collection, even if many of his albums are far too opaque for the day-trippers and the four-gigs-a-year set.

But basking in the global after-glow of ‘Sign O’ The Times’ and ‘LoveSexy’, he was, by the summer of 1990, one of the most interesting writers and performers of the period even if, with an over-reliance on cheap metaphors and innuendo, he routinely sailed close to parody. But he’d earned the right to be bored too and, plugging a lavish but difficult ‘Batman’ soundtrack, and ahead of the release of ‘Graffiti Bridge’, there was a sense that the ‘Nude’ tour was some sort of fin-de-siecle statement, musically scaled-back and, in terms of content, far more lateral than what had been the recent norm.

Michael Jackson – then unquestionably The King of Pop – had performed back- to-back shows at the same venue a couple of years previously and killed it, more or less. And yet, on one level, the more subtle and nuanced aspects of his sublime set – and there were many – were lost in the wind whipping up over The Atlantic Pond. The vast, unforgiving spread of Páirc Uí Chaoimh had splintered many a big reputation over the years and, heading down to The Old Bowl to review the Prince show for The Cork Examiner, I summoned up my inner Carrie Bradshaw and wondered if, perhaps, Prince was maybe a bit too flaky and intermediate to deliver on such a stage ?

Parts of the run-up to the Oliver Barry promoted event were especially bizarre. Much had been made of Prince’s lasciviousness and it was suggested in some of the more mischievous sections of the media that he was likely to defile the holy ground with his filthy-talk and horny carry-on. A large bed – big enough for eight or ten, apparently – was, it seemed, the centre-piece of the stage design. There was talk of a simulated sex-show, lesbian backing singers and strippers and many speculated about what exactly Prince might get up to in front of The City End.

Cork has always done indignation and outrage far better than almost anywhere else. Two years previously, The Cork Film Festival’s scheduling of Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ had been pre-empted by similar kinds of talk and the screening was disrupted by protesters outside The Opera House after Bishop Murphy determined the film to be blasphemous. A counter demonstration on the night by an all-female group, clad in white robes and calling themselves The Handmaidens Of Ballinspittle, met fire with fire and matched rosary with rosary while, in the foyer of the theatre, security checks and body-searches were carried out on those attending.

With this still fresh in the memory, one of the local newspapers put the issue of Prince’s live performances to the then chairman of the Cork County Board, Denis Conroy. A long-serving grandee from the Carrigtwohill club, Conroy wouldn’t have been known for his taste in contemporary funk but even so, and with his usual grace under pressure, acknowledged the concerns of the GAA on the matter of Prince’s sexual pecadilloes. ‘We’re going to have to sit down with Prince and discuss this’, he told The Evening Echo. There is no evidence that such a meeting ever took place but quite what Prince made of Cork, a city then on it’s knees, also remains undocumented. What we know for certain is that, thirty minutes after he finished a lack-lustre sixteen-song show in Ballintemple, he was out of town on a private jet to London, never to return.

I’d turned 22 years-old the month before Prince and his entourage pulled into Cork and I couldn’t get over the wonder of myself. I’d been writing regular pieces for The Examiner for a while and proposed, as one does, that I review the show for the paper’s edition of Monday, July 9th. That article appeared on a full-page devoted to Prince’s brief encounter in Cork, surrounded by colour pieces by Ralph Riegel and Vincent Power and featuring the pretty ace photography of Maurice O’Mahony and Paddy Barker. And we’ve re-produced the text below.

From Vincent’s piece, we learned that Prince spent a total of six hours in a suite in Jury’s Hotel on The Western Road on the day of the show during which he ‘relaxed throughout Saturday afternoon by listening to CDs of Stevie Wonder and Anita Baker’ in rooms that were decorated ‘on Prince’s instructions, with five magnificent floral arrangements, prepared by local florists to his exact requirements’. We were informed too that ‘the entire block of rooms where Prince, his band and tour handlers relaxed was protected by his troupe of kung fu bodyguards’.

Down town, meanwhile, things were far less tranquil. The pubs were rammed from early and, at one point, Prince himself, ‘in the back of a ‘bullet-proof Jaguar Sovereign’ with blacked-out windows snaked through the crowds that thronged the city-centre’. Some of his entourage even ventured out as far as Blarney Castle. Ralph Reigel’s piece, possibly over-dramatically, claimed that ‘walking through Cork on Saturday afternoon must have been like trying to struggle through Mecca during the holy season’.

Elsewhere, ‘a harassed inspector at Bus Éireann’s Parnell Place depot’ admitted that he’d never experienced anything like the scale of the crowd previously. ‘We’re absolutely swamped by buses coming in’, he said. ‘By 1 p.m. we’d already had seven buses arrive with God knows how many more on the way. Each bus is full to capacity and, as I understand it, people are actually having to be left in Dublin’. But the atmosphere was all very good-natured and the sun brought the best out in the visitors. Gardaí reported little trouble all day and, as Ralph informed us on Monday, ‘the only major city centre crime on Saturday was a robbery at O’Mahony’s Jewellers on Patrick Street’, after which a man was later arrested on Oliver Plunkett Street.

Like Michael Jackson before him, Prince couldn’t find it in himself to speak with the locals and this came as a surprise to The Cork Examiner, who seemed as insulted as they were bemused. An uncredited front page piece on the Monday after the show mentions that, although he ‘gave the thumbs up to his Irish debut on Saturday evening … responses come in mono-syllables and one whole sentence seems a major effort’.

By comparison, the promoter of the show, Banteer-born Oliver Barry, was rarely stuck for a word or a quip. He had a long association with Páirc Uí Chaoimh and, as far back as 1978, had been staging live music at the stadium, originally to help ease the debt incurred by the Cork County Board during the build. Siámsa Cois Laoí – a day-long folk and trad event – ran for several years, headlined variously by Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson and John Denver, supported by hardy local annuals like The Furey Brothers, The Wolfe Tones and Bagatelle. And, memorably, by the Breton composer, Alan Stivell, whose delicate harp sounds were at odds with the Harp-fuelled carry-on from many of the youths assembled around the ground.

Barry was one of the primary investors in Century Radio, the country’s first national independent radio station which opened in 1989 and, at the apex of a long and eventful career as a concert promoter and band manager, persuaded Michael Jackson to bring his ‘Bad’ tour to Páirc Uí Chaoimh in the summer of 1988. In a 25th anniversary feature piece on that show in The Irish Examiner in July 2013, Barry agreed with Kieran O’Mahony that securing Jackson – ‘the greatest show on Earth’ – was but ‘one of the crowning glories of his career’. He’d served his time and cut his teeth on Ireland’s showband circuit during the late 1960s and conveyed an impression that, irrespective of the demands and the excesses of the star turns he was dealing with in Cork, he’d actually seen and heard it all previously. Having hawked The Freshmen, Seán Dunphy And The Hoedowners and The Furey Brothers all over the island and beyond, handling Prince must have seemed like a breeze, by comparison.

On the night itself, Prince took the stage just after 8.30 and, although the skies had, by now, turned from blue to grey, there was plenty of light left over-head. Opening with ‘The Future’ – from the ‘Batman’ soundtrack – and quickly segueing into ‘1999’, he struggled to connect with the crowd and, pretty quickly, they were off entertaining themselves. Half-an-hour in and the first flushes of ‘Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé’ broke out from the cheap seats. ‘This town needs an enema’, Prince told the audience at one point ;- someone had clearly informed him of the potency of the booze served in Sidetracks.

Comparisons with Michael Jackson’s set at the same venue two years previously were inevitable, understandable and ultimately just wrong. Jackson had played every beat for his audience while Prince just confronted his. And lost. Fifteen songs on and one single encore later and he was gone, leaving plenty of gold behind him, untouched.

Ralph Riegel was vox-popping the crowd on it’s way out of the show and found the usual diversity of opinion and drunk-talk. ‘One dedicated Prince fan from Tralee hailed the show as ‘the best rock performance that the country has ever seen’ while Philip Linehan, ‘a distinctly unimpressed school-teacher from Newmarket suggested, to really enjoy Saturday’s concert you’d have to be a dedicated Prince fan’. According to Ralph, ‘the neutrals were left somewhat in limbo’, which was a charitable take on events.

From my seat in the Uncovered Stand in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, I thought the whole thing was just plain dull and I said as much in my review. With Prince already long gone, I surveyed my surroundings and, in the best traditions of many a Cork half-back, lowered the blade and had a right cut off of him.

This review was published in The Cork Examiner on Monday, July 9th, 1990

And so, the enigma continues. Or rather, it escalates and expands into a fog of absolute confusion. Prince’s ‘Nude’ date, his self-styled return to root live show, hardly convinced. The show left many important questions unanswered and, more importantly, did little to suggest that Prince can manipulate this decade as he did the last.

As a live theatric, ‘Nude’ was a disappointment, an almost ritualistic canter through the most impersonal of motions. ‘Nude’, to be fair, was bland. The most shocking aspect of the show is how unshocking it actually is, with Prince becoming a parody of his own performing self. He inter-plays with backing singer Rosie – ‘U call me some kind of pimp, a little purple pimp’, but it all seems so familiar, so hollow. The stage theatrics become lost in a glade of predictability and, as Prince stalks his stage with pomp, no one really cares.

The erotic stage play-pen never materialises. It’s just something old, borrowed and blue. Nothing new. Nothing new of substance or consequence. ‘Sign O’ The Times’, ‘Raspberry Beret’, ‘Paisley Park’, ‘Little Red Corvette’, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, ‘When 2 R In Love’, “I Wanna Be Your Lover’ and ‘I Wish U Heaven’ go unplayed. Instead, Prince Drags ‘Purple Rain’, ‘When Doves Cry’, ‘1999’ and ‘Take Me With U’ through the rusted ringer of pop history. And it’s all routine.

There are moments, though. ‘Nothing Compares To U’, written originally for The Family, is here in a sparse, tender and untouched glory, while ‘Housequake’ and ‘The Future’ are potential party-pieces that generate some sense of occasion.

But ultimately it all falls horrible wrong.

Given his own sense of standard, ‘Nude’ failed to either excite or captivate. Half-hearted and token, the reaction was strangely muted as the crowd struggled to grip ‘When Doves Cry’ or the extensive ‘Purple Rain’. What should have been a night of sweet soul-play rarely touched either the erotic or the exotic.

And even so, Prince is still very much untouched as a showman. But then stadium pop is hardly his bag and his songs do beg intimacy and embrace. And of course Prince is still important, still precious but, given the standards that he has himself set and provoked, ‘Nude’ is a pale imitation Prince can still be both a poet and a fool. He gives no clue, no consistent line in either direction but, all through his career, he has ridden a rail of buckled track.

He moves neither this way nor that, but in seemingly twelve different directions. Simultaneously. But even given that, ‘Nude’ was a disappointment. The show never once looked like touching either heart or soul, of ever bellowing fire. I left Páirc Uí Chaoimh feeling strangely incoherent wondering if 60,000 people could possibly be wrong. And I think so.