Get That Monster Off the Stage:
The story of Finbarr Donnelly and his bands Nun Attax, Five Go Down To the Sea? and Beethoven
— An Oral History by Paul McDermott
Part 2 — London (Part 1 — Cork is here)
Chapter 9 — Exodus
There was a mass exodus of just about everybody from Cork in the early 80s, they coagulated again in London in different forms — Giordaí Ua Laoghaire
Cathal Coughlan — There wasn’t a lot that people could do to make things happen so everyone was reliant on people in Dublin to pull strings for them. You could play at the Arcadia maybe once a month. In my case and in a few other people’s case, Elvera Butler would give you a few odd jobs to do to keep a little bit of money coming in so that you could keep doing music, but it wasn’t anything like a living. Nobody was particularly making any money through doing music, and Cork was falling apart because factories had closed down, you know it was just getting crappier and crappier. Nobody, talking about the widest cross-section of people, under 25 especially, had any money. So people stopped going to gigs, they stopped going to the Arcadia anyway. So there was really nothing much you could do to push things forward and that Kaught at the Kampus record that was recorded at that gig came out and it didn’t really do anything. We were the ones that kept going to Dublin, so we made more contacts in Dublin and that’s what got us out of Ireland eventually. You’re talking about three years before we actually pulled anything together really.
I remember we did a great gig at the Mansion House [Official residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin] in Dublin. It was The Three Johns, Five Go Down to the Sea? and Haystacks, there were only about 50 people there. Haystacks was Mick Stack, Sean, I think Ricky played bass and I played drums some of the time, I was and still remain a deeply ungifted person on the drums. Sean was the lead vocalist and [laughing] it wasn’t really like the lead vocals he does in The High Llamas it was difficult to describe. [Laughing] Kind of Balkan, Country & Western with a bit of a rockabilly flavour. The Mansion House looked like it hadn’t been decorated since the 30s, so it was just like playing in de Valera’s [Third president of Ireland] front room, it was extraordinary. There was a lot of like-minded people there, there was a sense that this thing was going to be departing shortly and it did.
Jon Langford — Donnelly was a big figure of that time. The first time I saw them was in Dublin. The Three Johns were playing with Five Go Down to the Sea? and Haystacks, which was made up of members of Microdisney and the lads, opened for us. Donnelly had a really bizarre haircut, shaved up the sides, it looked like he had a carpet on his head. He was just a very imposing looking person. He made quite an impression on me, the shit he said between songs. They were all just on the point of moving to London and they ended up in a squat in Rotherhithe.
Michael Stack — I can remember we did a TV spot where Microdisney and Five Go Down to the Sea? were joined together as a new entity, called Haystacks. Sean, and myself, messed around and came up with a little ditty that we went up to Dublin to record in a big fancy studio. I wore my mother’s best jumper so she’d see it. We had to mime. The piece ended in a wrestling match. Microdisney had me play with them once at least too. I remember Sean telling me, “Go easy on the bass, you don’t have to hit it so hard.” [Smiling] Their music was a bit different to ours.
Ricky Dineen — Haystacks was a hybrid of the two bands, ourselves and Microdisney. It was Sean and Cathal’s brainchild, we recorded a Country & Western ‘choon’ upstairs where the Lobby was [situated on the corner of Union Quay and Anglesea Street], and managed to perform it on RTÉ. Hopefully no footage exists!
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire — Five Go Down to the Sea? didn’t lead the way to England, that was Microdisney, but there was a mass exodus of just about everybody from Cork in the early 80s. They coagulated again in London in different forms. Certainly there would have been band rivalries and admirations and tensions and dislikings abroad as in all scenes, you can’t help that.
Jim O’Mahony — I remember the Microdisney farewell gig in the Triskel, Sean and Cathal were literally going off the next day. We went to the gig with Donnelly who was pissed as usual; we had been drinking in The Phoenix for hours beforehand. The band was playing and Donnelly was out dancing away, waltzing and disco dancing in front of Cathal. Cathal wasn’t in great form that night. Cathal was doing his moody Microdisney thing at the time, the last straw was Donnelly went up when Cathal was in mid sombre moment and pressed the keyboards and Cathal punched him and a fight broke out, the gig was stopped and Donnelly came back over and sat on the floor in the middle of us. There was silence in the hall after this fight; people couldn’t understand what had happened. The next thing Donnelly shouts out, [laughing] “I hated you for years.”
I think Microdisney always saw a future for themselves. They always kept their hand in Dublin. I can remember seeing Microdisney in Dublin in 1982, they played in some hotel off Parnell Square and they rammed the place, really stuffed the place. People were aware of them, they were held with a certain respect. I think they saw that they had to move. So Microdisney left and then Five Go Down to the Sea? eventually looked around and realised that they could do nothing in Cork, that they were only pissing against the wind, that they had to move too.
Cathal Coughlan — So we all ended up in London within about six months of each other. Me and Sean went first and Ricky acted as our porter for our equipment [laughing] on the train. I think we got the Inisfallen from Ringaskiddy. It was horrible, Ricky and Sean got really drunk on the boat on the way over, for some reason I stayed sober, why I’ve no idea, and I ended up having to nurse maid the other two who were violently hungover on the train. We had to get the local train from the port to the mainline; we were in this thing that was like a tin can in a blazing heatwave we had never seen heat like this really. Both of them were nauseous with their hangovers. It was hell; we ended up in Paddington Station in the middle of July, 1983 seeking fame and fortune. We just paid Ricky’s ticket because Ricky fancied coming over and he was supposed to help with the amp.
Sean O’Hagan — It was Cathal and myself and we carried an SK-10 keyboard and a little guitar and a bass and we didn’t have enough to drive over. None of us could drive so we asked Ricky to come to London with us and help us carry a few instruments, so Ricky had a free trip to London. We went and stayed with all the guys from Kissed Air, or KA in Cricklewood.
Cathal Coughlan — I’ll never forget me and Sean had to look for a flat, we were staying with friends in Willesden but they didn’t have room to accommodate us longterm. I’d been phoning about places and having the phone put down on me. [Laughing] Ricky said, “Why don’t you put on a cockney accent, all you’ve got to say is, ‘Come ‘ere give us a flat. Cor Blimey!’” That was his solution; he stayed for a few days. [Laughing] But that was emblematic of what happened when they came over. They had made an EP at that point and really had nothing more or less going for them than what we had.
When they moved here in early 1984 they just would not compromise their identity, even on a day to day level in the tiniest bit. They would speak Cork Northside patois to anybody and if they didn’t understand, just fuck them. There was just no compromise whatsoever. Nobody was asking them to compromise, but people couldn’t understand what the fuck they were talking about, even people who were well disposed towards them. A lot of people thought they were great; The Three Johns thought they were great. For a time it wasn’t an obstacle but I think it became an obstacle.
Chapter 10 — Rotherhithe
We were all sleeping in one room with a cooking coil on its side for heat at night and upright during the day for boiling the kettle — Michael Stack
Ricky Dineen — It wasn’t happening, so time to uproot and go and try it. And it was a bit of a hard struggle at the start over there. If you can remember the time, in the early 80s, there was nothing like. There was nothing here; there was nothing over there either. So there was no work involved, we couldn’t do anything and I’d say for about a year we were going along on the breadline, squatting it basically. We found a squat through some other Cork people that we knew in London and some people from Dublin. Silver Walk, Rotherhithe, it was an insane place.
Sean O’Hagan — Five Go Down to the Sea? discovered the squat scene in Rotherhithe when they arrived in London and they enticed whole sections of the Cork fraternity down south of the river into this squat city, which was basically Rotherhithe. I was living with Garreth [Ryan]at the time in Hackney and Donnelly and Ricky used to come up and say, “We’ll get a squat for you, we’ll break a squat for you, no problem.” So sure enough they found a squat for us and within a few weeks I was down there living in this bizarre little oasis of madness in South-East London, it was almost like a bit of Cork had just been shipped over. I wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not; it was very much a hippy kind of community. There were a lot of South of England hippies who used to go on the convoys. The early 80s convoy, the Hippy Convoy travelled all over England, they would be confronted by the police in various counties of England and they’d have sound systems. It was kind of the beginning of the rave thing, not musically but in culture and attitude, it was a traveller, convoy thing. They used to all park up in Rotherhithe, so that was very much the hippy community in Rotherhithe. So you had the convoy people living there with goats and dogs and naked children running around and Five Go Down to the Sea? had a little place there and we were just up a few yards up in the next block. Garreth and myself.
Declan Mallon — I lived in Rotherhithe for a while and I remember Donnelly with great fondness. I was a regular in The Ship [latterly renamed The Clipper, Rotherhithe pub], and if he was there he would make a point of speaking to me. The Ship was an eccentric place that the squatters seemed to have taken over. You would rarely see any of the locals in there. Of course there were very few locals left on that street anyway. I worked briefly in Southwark Working Men’s Club but got into a debate with someone about squatters’ rights. They sacked me the next day. I think the argument was about how local council tenants had been forced from the area because of undesirable squatters. I was a very shy man and normally just sat at the bar and kept to myself observing the shenanigans going on around me. I found Donnelly very interesting and we talked about writers and writing. I don’t know why. I must have intimated that I was interested in the arts in some way. I have almost no memory of the conversations apart from Donnelly’s love of Dickens. He held him in high regard. Sometimes I’d have to ask him to repeat what he was saying because of his accent but that could have been the drink; me not him. I didn’t really know the rest of them but they all worked on the sites apart from Donnelly who cooked for them. His week’s work was collecting welfare under several different identities. I do remember Donnelly telling me his routine, he used to have a timetable and he’d have to get around the city to different welfare offices for a certain time. He seemed to have put a good bit of effort into planning it.
Michael Stack — Rotherhithe was tough at first. We had no money and would pool a portion of our dole to buy food; the rest went on drink. One of us would have to do the shop. We’d eat stuff like pilchards and rabbit because it was cheap. When we got to London first, we were all sleeping in one room with a cooking coil on its side for heat at night and upright during the day for boiling the kettle.
Joan Cairns — I was a 22 year old American living with Five Go Down to the Sea? from 1983–1984. We lived in 27 Silver Walk Terrace. A squat. Our next door neighbour was a glue sniffing psychopath with a blanket for a door. Our downstairs neighbour was a hippie with a blue eyed goat. My boyfriend [Michael Stack] was the ‘manager’ of the squat. He was a civil engineer and was rather handy with getting the gas and electricity working. Great times at the pubs. The Blacksmiths and The Mayflower were favourite pubs. It was a unique time and for a California beach girl, it was a different kind of world, I had never seen anything like it. I will never forget it. I miss that girl — she was kinda fearless.
Michael Stack — The joke was that I was the ‘landlord’. I had tools and knew how to hook stuff up. I was not as crazy as this electrician who stayed with us for a while and who had the balls to bridge the main fuse for the whole block wearing a pair of wellingtons to insulate him from ‘ground’; the ampage would have surely turned him to a cinder.
Sean O’Hagan — Rotherhithe was such an odd little place, it was almost Gothic, those old 1920s blocks that were abandoned, it was pre-docklands, pre-everything, just the decay of the estuary.
Declan Mallon — I lived further up the street so was never a part of the commune experience. The gang that were in The Ship were people trying to find their own way of making it, these alternative movements took time to migrate across the Irish Sea so I thought I was witnessing some extension of the punk revolution in new clothing. In a way that’s what it was. They were all good people. Maybe a few of them were less full of the ‘live and let live spirit’ the lads seemed to have. I do remember one of them [Michael Stack] was also good at cartoons and had drawn a series of caricatures of the band that hung behind the bar. If they arrived into the bar together their lively wit and manner could be like a whirlwind, but that’s also because The Ship, in the middle of the winter and everyone broke, could also be a miserable place.
Enda Murray — When I went to London I ended up in Rotherhithe, partly because Sean [O’Hagan] was already there. I think the second night I was in London there was a session at The Ship and then we went back to someone’s squat. I remember sitting in a circle and someone passing around chewed up coca leaves. This chewed up mess of coca was passed by hand from mouth to mouth. I thought it was very subversive but I certainly didn’t get a buzz and now when I look back I can’t believe we did this; but this was pre-Aids. The squats in Rotherhithe went downhill as more smack came into the scene. It got so that there was so much petty pilfering of possessions that you really couldn’t trust anyone and the fun went out of it. I stayed in the squats for maybe a year and then went to live in Marlow. After that I just visited at weekends.
Declan Mallon — Ricky was also a friendly fella but I don’t remember him in The Ship as often as Donnelly. I knew their musical reputation from Ireland but never saw them in London. I do remember them talking among themselves in that wonderful sing song accent and not understanding a word of what they were saying but enjoying the sound of their banter. I get the impression that Donnelly was considered awkward to deal with but I didn’t really see any of that. Some might say that Donnelly was a tough looking fella and a bit daunting to approach but I found him very kind. I do remember that on my last day in Rotherhithe I went for a pint in The Blacksmiths at lunchtime. Donnelly was there with a friend. We didn’t speak much but wished each other good luck. I never saw him again. I have retained an affection for Donnelly maybe because we were just two drunks tolerating each other when no one else wanted to speak with us.
Cathal Coughlan — We fell out a bit. Sean and I had gotten a publishing deal, which was for bugger all money. Sean was living in a squat, I was signing on. But we were able to afford to rehearse and things like that. To Five Go Down to the Sea? that was just like, “Sold out, what the fuck is wrong with you?” They were living in the next block of squats along from where Sean lived. It was obvious that the Hilton was not Sean’s place of residence. We had a bass guitar that Sean used to play when we recorded, total shoestring bullshit we were doing. They left the guitar at a gig they were doing at the Clarendon in Hammersmith, a horrible venue that we used to play too. They left it there and something you left wouldn’t last five minutes, they didn’t even tell us they left it there for some time afterwards. [Laughing] I should say that I’m not still angry about this or anything like that, but the fact that we weren’t good sports about it, losing £200 worth of an instrument, when we hadn’t a bean either, put us in the bad books for years thereafter.
This is sad in a genuine way because, I can say with my hand on my heart that I would not have ended up doing music if I hadn’t met Donnelly, and if I hadn’t done music I would have ended up as a malcontented alcoholic civil servant working in a food factory somewhere in County Offaly, in the black bogs with a permanent fog hanging over me so I don’t say this lightly. I didn’t see Donnelly after that until…I didn’t see him after that basically. I didn’t feel any sense of grievance against him; it just got embarrassing after having this stupid falling out. Microdisney became a regular occupation for me and I was away a lot. That’s all that happened really, there was no sense of avoiding people or anything like that.
Chapter 11 — The Glee Club
I fucking loved that band, I loved working with them. We had weird mental adventures — Jon Langford
Ricky Dineen — When we eventually got a gig it was Abstract [Abstract Records] came along. “Do you want to make a record?” [Laughing] “Grand, sound, how much will ye give us?” It never came to money, but we made The Glee Club then, which was the start of a small hardcore following in England.
Jon Langford — They got me to do some production work for them on The Glee Club and I stayed with them a few times in the squat in Rotherhithe, it was them and some mates of theirs who were working on the buildings at the time. We [The Three Johns] were on Abstract at the time and we kind of got them that deal. Edward Christie who ran Abstract came to one of our gigs and saw them play. He was a bit freaked out because they were very intimidating, drunk and chaotic. Stack, Ricky and Finbarr, they definitely lived in their own world. The Abstract release is really great.
Michael Stack — Jon Langford looked after us as well as producing The Glee Club. He’d have us support The Mekons or The Three Johns. I liked both bands but I have a special place in my heart for The Mekons; Tom’s voice, the second record, the fiddle player. They were good people and still are, going by the documentary I saw about them recently [Revenge of the Mekons (2013)], they’re doing for a million others what they did for us.
Cathal Coughlan — They got better and better as far as I was concerned. The Glee Club probably is the best one. They weren’t trying to be amusing anymore. I mean they turned into langers in a way, because they were actually serious, but the sense of humour was so turned in on itself that people didn’t really know how to take it. That was the best one.
Noel Kilbride — I think that Five Go Down to the Sea? are one of the great unsung bands of that era, The Glee Club is one of the great releases from that time and scene.
Jon Langford — I fucking loved that band, I loved working with them. We had weird mental adventures. I can remember sleeping in the squat in Rotherhithe. We’d finish in the studio at six in the morning, and we’d go down to a pub where the meat workers go, down by the market. We’d start drinking at six in the morning, like it was a normal evening. They were hugely entertaining. I thought they were smart and really clever, they all had an amazing wit. A razor sharp, surreal fucking wit. It was like being within someone else’s world, they were their own family. They were a one off, there has definitely never been anyone like them.
Michael Stack — I remember recording The Glee Club, which Jon produced. It was our thing NOT to prepare for a recording session even though we were paying by the hour (dumb!) AND to get it all done in one long session. I remember that weekend before the recording session doing a few things, I borrowed a trumpet and tried to figure some stuff out on it. I remember too doing the guitars on ‘Jumping Joley’ having some notion of how the two parts would go together on the end and then a weird thing happened where it went together in one take, and came out sounding better than I could have wished. I remember Jon Langford asking how I’d done that and not being able to do it again afterward.
Shane Fitzsimons — I can remember Five Go Down to the Sea? at a gig in the JCR in Trinity College, the Junior Common Room. It was bizarre, halfway through the gig the band just stopped playing and Donnelly came off stage. A bunch of people had been glugging at the band and they were all 15 or 16 year olds, I was only 16 myself. He got down the front and revisiting his own youth he was running around the place after the 15 year olds glugging at them. This was in Trinity College with the Provost standing there bewigged and begowned, he wasn’t prepared for a bunch of culchies from Cork coming up running around gobbing on everyone. They weren’t what a Dubliner would imagine someone from the country to be like, these were just mad people, absolutely mad. The JCR gig was just in the wake of The Glee Club being released. So we all bought a copy of it outside. They had a merchandise stall set up, merchandise in those days wasn’t the monster that it is today, it was genuinely a band trying to communicate and get their records out to the people because they wouldn’t be stocked by the shops. It wasn’t people trying to sell t-shirts for €20 or what have you. The Glee Club, that was the absolute classic, that point when they reached perfection, when they just hit that fine high sound.
Chapter 12 — The Living Room
They were completely lovable, charming and likable but they were like, “Wow you are on your own planet, you are in the Five Go Down to the Sea? world” — Pete Astor
Ricky Dineen — Most of the following seemed to be up around the Midlands of England, beyond that again, Yorkshire, Leeds, the gigs in London were nearly always a disaster to be honest with you, they didn’t know what to make of us you see. The exception to the rule was a good gig in London called The Living Room. That was put on by Alan McGee. It was excellent, gigs by the Television Personalities and all that.
Sean O’Hagan — We hooked into the whole Living Room scene, the early Creation [Creation Records] scene. They were very much sort of fans of Microdisney and Five Go Down to the Sea? So we started doing shows for Alan McGee and people like that in 1983, 1984 and there was a kind of a bit of synchronicity about our existence in London which included the early Creation. Forget the record company, early Creation was very much like a magazine [Communication Blur], a venue, a bunch of people. We never recorded for them, but as you know Five Go Down to the Sea? eventually did.
Jon Langford — Cathal and Sean and Five Go Down to the Sea? started playing Alan McGee’s club The Living Room and we started playing with them a lot and we’d get them to open for The Three Johns. I loved the gigs they did with The Three Johns. [Laughing] The Three Johns would just sit in our van talking in Cork accents to each other. They had all these jokes and silly rituals, I can remember Finbarr shouting, “The Pope had a baby but they covered it up, they threw a mattress over it.”
Joe Foster — They used to be regulars at clubs that Alan [McGee] and I ran. They would always show up and at first we couldn’t really figure who they were, they always went very much out of their way to dress in a particular style [laughing] they looked very un-rock and roll, they looked like guys who had come over perhaps looking for work on the buildings or something, [laughing] but getting to know them they were all pretty mad characters and I started to notice that they very deliberately did a kind of put on style and they were obviously really, really intelligent guys.
Pete Astor — One evening they were playing at The Three Johns, one of The Living Room venues, next to Chapel Market in Islington, it was coincidentally a pub called The Three Johns, the band weren’t named after it. I remember seeing them and thinking that they were the strangest, most unusual band. There’s this thing that people say that bands have to be in their own film, in their own world. They had the prerequisite that every band is in their own film in the way that the Ramones are one of those bands that are like a thing above and beyond music. Around that time we [The Loft] were getting to know the Happy Mondays and getting them to play with us and they had exactly the same vibe. But Five Go Down to the Sea? had that thing even stronger, it was remarkable how “other” they were. It was just like, wow, it was fantastic. They were completely lovable, charming and likable but they were like, “Wow you are on your own planet, you are in the Five Go Down to the Sea? world.”
Phil Wilson — The June Brides played several times with the band, but I didn’t really know them, although I loved the band live. I remember the time my mum came to see The June Brides live at The Living Room, and Five Go Down to the Sea? were supporting. Finbarr delighted in shouting, “Spunk off on your mama’s tits,” after every song, much to my horror and embarrassment! They were really ferocious live and Finbarr was incredible — singing, dancing and gurning like no-one else could! I loved seeing them, as their Beefheartian edge was a terrific contrast to so many of the bands (like mine!) who were jangling away on guitars.
JC Brouchard — I spent the 1983–84 school year in London as a French language assistant teacher in a college of higher education, as part of an exchange programme. I was not in London by accident, I was a big fan of new wave music and especially of British music. I read a short live review in the NME (possibly written by Pete Astor) of a Television Personalities’ gig. So I scoured the NME gig guide even more closely in the following weeks and I finally got to see the Television Personalities at a Living Room night on December 9th 1983. I was writing for a an English fanzine project which never saw the light of day, styled after Communication Blur and The Legend! [fanzines run by Alan McGee and Everett True].
Here’s an extract from the Five Go Down To the Sea? piece. It’s not good enough for me to copy it entirely, as it’s full of stereotypes about the Irish and Beer:
“Five Go Down to the Sea? are MAD, as are all geniuses. Five Go Down to the Sea? are fun! Five Go Down to the Sea? look like some Status Quo guitarist’s grandsons, and you’d expect their music to comply with their look. It doesn’t. Five Go Down to the Sea ? are Irish and will probably be as important as The Undertones. But The Undertones played traditional pop; Five Go Down to the Sea? are different. Their singer sings like David Thomas and their music reminds me of Pere Ubu, but Five Go Down to the Sea? are much more enjoyable.”
The main thing for me is that they sometimes looked like they’d just come off work on a building site (which might actually have been the case) but their music was this kind of elaborate post-punk no wave, not the straight punk or rock thing one might have expected. As such, they fitted perfectly on bills with American band Ut, who also played a lot at The Living Room at the time.
Michael Stack — There was no conscious effort about how we looked. I was the only one who cared about what I wore. I can remember a few times when Finbarr would be wearing something dirty or something would have vomit on it, and he’d go into a thrift shop, buy a new shirt or trousers or underpants, whatever it was, for pennies, put it on right there and then, and throw the old one away at the next dustbin. Donnelly had his demons. They were for the most part suppressed but would rear up if you were around in the early morning after a load of drink or walking home from a party or just being up in the sitting room talking. He was well able to talk them out. I would just listen. He had less inhibitions than most so he would practice behaviour we’d not considered, whether sexual, scatological, confronting strangers, or just the unexpected.
Jon Langford — They disappeared for a little bit and then The Three Johns stopped playing. The Mekons came back and they had been very big Mekons fans. I can remember them in the audience at a Mekons gig. The Mekons were freaked out — who were all these Irish people in the audience screaming for Mekons songs shouting with surrealist heckling? That would have been at a pub called The Three Johns where McGee had his Living Room club.
Leigh Goorney — I used to go to a club called The Living Room which was run by Alan McGee so I think I first saw Five Go Down to the Sea? there, or it could have been at the Ambulance Station [a squat run by anarchists in the Old Fire Station, 306 Old Kent Road], it was a long time ago so I’m not 100% sure. I saw them play many times, they were hilarious. So funny and you were never sure what was going to happen, Finbarr was great to be around, he was very sharp, articulate and funny.
Michael Stack — The Ambulance Station was a great place, though not for music. The Jesus and Mary Chain were crap, always; pop through a distortion pedal. I couldn’t believe they were getting away with it.
Leigh Goorney — In 1984 I had just finished studying at Thames Poly [now University of Greenwich]and was elected unopposed to the job of Social Secretary for the academic year 1984 to 1985. I put on a lot of bands that I liked and a lot of students were not into what I was doing, quite a few gigs were benefits for the miners which did not go down well with some elements. However there were a lot of like-minded students who liked what I was doing and of course people from outside the college. We soon became known as a venue which would put on exciting bands so for instance, when Sonic Youth were doing their first British tour their manager rang me up to get a gig.
Leigh Goorney — One of the first gigs that I put on at Thames Poly was Five Go Down to the Sea? supported by The Jesus and Mary Chain in September 1984. The Mary Chain were unknown at the time. And I’m pretty sure it was before their first single had been released. It was even before Bobby Gillespie had joined and they had a conventional drummer. The venue held about 300 people and the attendance could vary from 40 to 300. There was hardly anyone there for Five Go Down to the Sea? and The Mary Chain, maybe 40 people. Over the course of the academic year 1984–85 Five Go Down to the Sea? played Thames Poly about seven times. They shared the stage with The Mekons (both bands were fans of each other), The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Omega Tribe, Ut, and The Astronauts.
John Robb — You know some people have music just going through their blood and that’s what they were like. I used to love that band and go and see all of their gigs in the North of England. I saw them play in Manchester at this tiny little club that Big Flame used to put on. They played there and did Big Flame’s heads in completely because Big Flame had this very cool attitude about what rock and roll should be. Bands should have a certain length of hair, a certain look and be influenced by certain classic groups. They booked Five Go Down to the Sea? because for some reason for about six months in Britain they were considered a very trendy band. They turned up in their big chunky pullovers and played this mad mutated metal-punk weirdness. You can’t tag their music because you can go through every style of music in the world in a big long list and there’s a bit of it in there.
Greg Keeffe — We [Big Flame] promoted Five Go Down to the Sea? at The Wilde Club [at Man Alive, Grosvenor Street, Manchester]. They were really good that night. Donnelly was fantastic up front. He reminded me of Ian Curtis in a way, in that he was “in the zone” when he performed. I don’t really agree with what John [Robb] said; we really liked the first single so we put them on; we knew what we were getting and we were really into them. I remember that Donnelly put the whole microphone into his mouth at one point — what a feat! The Wilde Club held about 100 people and only allowed short 30 minute sets; the very tiny stage and the intensity of the place really worked well with Five Go Down to the Sea?; they really got into being close to the audience and being very drunk helped too. For me they were like Beefheart fans who’d never heard Beefheart. They appealed to us in Big Flame because they were crazy, but actually really rigorous in what they did — which resonated with us. They were very polite to us. They could really drink though; my family are from Cork so I knew what to expect!
JC Brouchard — The slots at The Living Room were soon pretty sought after, over the course of that year I saw the band five times, I have at least two live recordings of them, they’re handheld mono recordings on the cheapest cassettes available and they’re most probably the lowest-fi possible. I always kept notes of the dates, bands and places of the gigs I went to:
22/3/1984: The Nightingales, The June Brides, Five Go Down to the Sea? — The Living Room, Union Tavern
6/4/1984: The Times, The June Brides, Five Go Down to the Sea? — The Living Room, The Three Johns Pub
12/5/1984: The June Brides, Five Go Down to the Sea?, Ut — The Living Room, The Three Johns Pub
20/5/1984: Folk Devils, Five Go Down to the Sea? — The Living Room, The Pindar of Wakefield
26/6/1984: The Three Johns, Red Guitars, Five Go Down to the Sea? — The Empire Rooms, Tottenham Court Road.
JC Brouchard — Finbarr was certainly impressive. Apart from seeing them play live, I only spoke to them once, at the bar of a pub, probably at a Living Room gig. Of course, I didn’t understand every word they said, not being used to the Irish accent. I remember we laughed because of course they offered me a beer and I don’t drink alcohol. But they sure stood out among the bands I saw at the time. Others would follow soon, though, as they only came a few months before bands such as Stump or Bogshed.
Leigh Goorney — I thought it would be interesting putting them on with the Poison Girls and Action Pact in July 1985. This was a big mistake, in the crowd were members of the band Conflict and they took exception to some comments Finbarr made and some of them attacked the band outside, after the gig. I did not see what had happened but ended going to outpatients to find the band and check they were OK, which fortunately they were. Colin from Conflict came to see me a day or two later, and he told me he thought they were Nazis, and now realised they weren’t and phoned them from my office to apologise. I still can’t believe how anyone could think they were Nazis and attack them.
Michael Stack — I remember it as us beating the shit out of those Libertarian Hairdos! One of our people, Anne Keohane, was very pregnant and had to hobble fast to get away from those “hard punk rockers”. Dickheads.
Greg Keeffe — We [Big Flame] drove our own bus so to speak, and didn’t really have too many allies. Big Flame were very self-referential. It is important when you’re doing something that is artistic — as I think it was — that you only reference yourself, particularly in performance. Five Go Down to the Sea? did this so well. They were untouchable by the commercial people, and also by the pretentious side. I think for them it was a protection thing, almost a gang thing; they were creating boundaries to keep safe. [Smiling] They really made me laugh at the time. Like all good satire, it went beyond taking the piss and became something critical. We were all trying to destroy rock and roll convention, and they did it in a lampooning way!
Ricky Dineen — There is a band called The Fire Engines, from Leeds, a great band, and you’d hear all the guitar influences there. Well The Mekons, obviously, The Mekons. There was a crowd called Bogshed. There was a few bands around at the time that were quite innovative, but the fact that we came from Ireland, they thought that we came from Blarney, a village in the middle of nowhere, they didn’t know what to make of it.
Leigh Goorney — Five Go Down to the Sea? were a fantastic live act. What a voice Finbarr had, I loved those guitars and their in-between song patter was hilarious. I loved the band and we became friends, not close friends but friends, there was always a lot of alcohol involved, there was a lot of drinking but they were very intelligent guys. Finbarr’s voice sounded like God talking to Moses.
John Robb — They were the most insane band really, they played the most back to front songs, they were like Beefheart but weirder. They’d do the gigs completely pissed off their heads. They were all mental, wild people, but they were incredible musicians. Even though they were completely pissed Ricky would be playing the most amazing little solos. You’d think Jesus, how can he do that? He can barely stand up. They wrote the most complex amazing songs that showed there was a fierce intelligence there but they were totally barmy. Some people are so intelligent they just go crazy, that’s what they were like, they were just like, misfits and they looked wonderful as well; a load of mad guys that had wandered in, up from the hills and just wandered into rock and roll.
Chapter 13 — Singing in Braille
They were just absolutely unique they had something about them, you couldn’t put your finger on it, they were just from totally out there — Joe Foster
Ricky Dineen — Most of us were working in the construction industry in London by then, Donnelly wasn’t working at all, Smelly was gone at that stage. We came across Daniel Strittmatter, who was Swiss, a totally eccentric mad bloke, I can’t remember where we came across him, excellent jazz drummer, excellent altogether. Smelly fucked off around that stage and [laughing] left us in the lurch, until we got Daniel, but we actually got a dog and [laughing] called him Smelly as well. Daniel was a worthy replacement in fairness. Daniel is still playing away, he was a superb drummer, he could do everything, all the tempo changes that we wanted. Daniel had a very weird sense of humour, he was from the German part of Switzerland. Alan McGee had The Jesus and Mary Chain and he started them on a barrage of publicity, there was a couple of riots at their gigs and that sort of shite. [Laughing] He met us in Burger King, Joe Foster was there as well, and he said that he wanted to start us off the same way, he’d stage a few riots and all. [Laughing] We said, “For fuck sake, just release the record boy, will ya.”
Joe Foster — I recorded their EP for Creation. I was down to produce the session and make sure that everything was fine. As far as Alan was concerned the crux of their unique sound was their drummer a fellow known for obscure reasons as Smelly. They were trying to conceal this but he had decided, enough’s enough I’m off back to Ireland, so off he went. They didn’t actually [laughing] want to tell Alan in case it queered the whole thing, so they decided that what they’d do would be to just brazen it out. So I got to the studio and they were getting everything set up and they introduced me to this fellow and from the way he spoke he was obviously German and they were saying, “Ah Joe, you’ve met our drummer Smelly haven’t you.” I said, [laughing] “Yes I have indeed and this isn’t him.” Then they broke down and explained the situation [laughing] and assured me that he was a superb drummer and we cut the thing and although he wasn’t up there with Smelly himself, he was actually a really good drummer in that he had a really unusual style. It worked, but I had to keep it a secret for about six months afterwards because Alan would have gone nuts and said, “Well why didn’t you stop the session.” [Laughing] It was ridiculous, but there you go.
Sean O’Hagan — That whole deal with Creation, they just threw that out the window as far as I could see. Creation sent the Melody Maker and the NME down to talk to them and they used to just talk complete baloney to the journalists, which was brilliant. The journalists couldn’t understand it and just couldn’t handle these guys from Cork. I think their relationship with Creation ended because of that. But the great thing about Five Go Down to the Sea? was that they always sought out oddness and odd corners, so in South East London they’d find nice little venues and odd things going on, like the Woolwich Tramshed, which was a crazy little gig that used to happen in Woolwich, if there were any illegal festivals, they’d be there.
JC Brouchard — When Singing in Braille was released, Creation had absolutely no budget, so I don’t think they would have taken a chance on Five Go Down to the Sea? if they had not sincerely been somehow interested in them. Five Go Down to the Sea? fitted in with the Creation early singles. Sure, later there was a Creation jangly-noisy pop sound that they’re now known for, but both The Living Room bills and the early Creation singles were eclectic. Think of The Legend!, Les Zarjaz or The X-Men.
Joe Foster — They were just absolutely unique they had something about them, you couldn’t put your finger on it, they were just from totally out there. Maybe it was a Cork thing, I don’t know but there was the same kind of thing altogether about Microdisney, they seemed to come from nowhere, the whole thing was like, what the hell are these guys about and Five Go Down to the Sea? were the same but more so, even more from their own world and they’d come out and they were doing this thing that reminded us in some ways of Captain Beefheart, or The Fire Engines, just complete disregard for structures of pop music. But the more you listened to it the more you thought this is pretty damn good [laughing], there’s something about this and as live performers they were terrific. They were really good and they were really nice guys and it’s as simple as that.
Ricky Dineen — We did interviews with all the major music papers, the NME, Melody Maker. We were too lazy, we didn’t want to put in the bullshit, we didn’t want to be a rock band, wearing leather trousers and doing posed publicity shots, selling ourselves, we just didn’t want to do it, we just couldn’t comprehend it. We couldn’t go knocking on doors. We weren’t trying to be cool or anything, we just couldn’t be arsed, we didn’t want to pander to musos that were in London at the time, all these people that just wanted to talk about the business all the time. We just couldn’t do it. The odd time you’d be invited to a record company opening party. “Fuck off, will ya.” We just couldn’t talk to these people in the way they wanted us to talk back to them. It just wasn’t on, it just wasn’t in our way, we couldn’t do it, all these record company people just wanted a certain way of talking or to deal with them. I couldn’t and definitely Donnelly couldn’t like.
Joe Foster — They did what they did when I was doing stuff with them. It wasn’t like producing some band where you could deconstruct what they were doing and advise them what to do on this or that. All I could do was basically go along with what they wanted, join into their unique world and make sure that it was all properly recorded to the best of my ability. It wasn’t like you’d go in and do a wonderful arrangement for strings and choirs of one of their songs; it was the way it was. This is it. All I could say was well, “I think maybe you should play a bit louder there Ricky, give it a bit more aggression.” “Ok, sounds good.” And that would be it. I was just helping them to do what they did and that was it. They did what they did and if you didn’t like it, too bad. It may sound foolish, but I liked that. Musicologists might argue with me but I felt it was unique. That was it, that was just the way they were and I think some people thought it was a joke, which it wasn’t and I always found that rather frustrating and I never actually asked them, “Does this piss you off?” They always seemed impervious to other people’s opinions, they had a conviction that they were absolutely correct in what they were doing. I liked that about them, I thought it was great.
Pete Astor — I remember there was a thing in the NME called Teasers, at the back of the paper where they had little bits and they got McGee to put something in: “Five Go Down to the Sea? have just moved to London and they don’t know anyone, [laughing] here’s their phone number if you want to call them up”. It was a bizarre thing to do, to actually give out a landline number in the NME. I can understand people speaking with a heavy accent of any type, I know plenty of Irish people with heavy accents but this was a completely other thing, it was like Jamaican patois or something. But it wasn’t simply the thickness of the accent it was the fact that they were so surreal, they were doing things and playing games that were way above and beyond them being local to somewhere in Cork, it was more about them being down right weird. That’s what was exciting about it, they were deliberately odd and surreal. I can remember Jeff Barrett [Heavenly Records] telling me a story about a place he used to put on gigs in Plymouth called Ziggys. He would put on all the Creation bands down there. They drove down to Plymouth and they got the wrong week. [Laughing] They got there and he went, “You know you’re on next weekend.” And they just went away and drove back again [laughing] the following week. It was The Enigma of Kasper Hauser.
Ricky Dineen — Some of the stories are grossly exaggerated and some of them are not exaggerated enough. Some of them were a lot worse than what people are saying and some are the other way around. No, basically, it’s fairly true alright; he was one demented chicken. I’ve heard loads of stories over the years about things that happened around that time and they gather momentum. To be honest sometimes I just nod in the background when these stories are being told, [laughing] they sound good, so I leave them go. We played a gig in Leeds and we drove down all the way to Plymouth, which was a long drive and I remember the gig was off, but I don’t remember it being off for any particular reason. I do remember staying in Jeff Barrett’s house that night. I remember we drove back up through Stonehenge the following day. Leeds to Plymouth was a huge drive, we were driving one of those Citroëns with the bonnet sloping upwards and on the way up to Leeds the bonnet [laughing] flew open on the motorway.
Michael Stack — Playing was very spotty. The balance would be bad or we’d just be off. On the odd occasion, when it would come together, we were the best band in the world, easy. Jon Langford was there for a few of those epiphanies. There was an NME writer from the North of England who was there for one gig when the sound system went out; we turned the monitors to face the crowd of twelve and all seemed to gel anyway and he captured it in a writeup.
Keith Cullen — I was familiar with Five Go Down to the Sea? I moved over in 1985. I interviewed them for a fanzine that I did called Pure Joy, probably in around 1986. I interviewed Donnelly for that when they were Five Go Down to the Sea?
Michael Stack — The band breaking up had been coming for a while. From my point of view it seemed that to the lads drink had become more important than practice or making up new songs. I had another avenue going working at Camden market, doing cleanup and maintenance and I was working on various events that were going on there at the time. I was meeting another crowd. I was trying to do a bit of ‘politics’ too; I had joined the local Rotherhithe Labour Party and I was helping out at an anarchist paper every other week or so. This was around the time of the Brixton and Tottenham riots [1985 Brixton and Tottenham (Broadwater Farm) riots]. We were still squatting, deeper down in Rotherhithe in some amazing places on the river and there was a good community growing up there. The local pub, run by an ex-priest, was overrun with the various alternative types who squatted the blocks around (punks, travellers, labourers, oddballs). There was easy credit. Even our dog was coming home drunk at the time splayed in the morning like the rest of us across couches and floor.
Sean O’Hagan — They used to shoot cheap horror films for American TV cable companies down in Rotherhithe. We’d very often go out and watch the filming and I can remember going out with Five Go Down to the Sea? and Smelly the dog, [laughing] they also had a dog called Smelly. [Laughing] I can remember waiting holding the dog and we’d wait for a scene to start and then just as the scene started, just as they’d say “action”, we’d pat the dog on the back and send him onto the set. [Laughing] They’d say, “Cut, remove the beast.”
Michael Stack — Eric Reynolds was running Camden Market. Around Christmas 1985, there was a massive circus tent put up near the market site, part of an event he’d put on for those coming to Camden. He hired it to do the Christmas party for the market stall people. He didn’t like them too much, thought they were complainers and thought it would be a lark if Five Go Down to the Sea? played in front of all these well-dressed ladies and gentlemen. I liked the idea of the fellows who cleaned the market playing in a circus tent before all in their finery and gowns. Though we’d lapsed as a band, I tried to explain the ‘opportunity’ to the lads. I went home at midday because I was afraid the message was not getting through. I found Finbarr in an altered state and tried to help sober him up before heading back to work. When the boys arrived that night, Finbarr was langers [drunk]. In frustration we all just beat the shit out of each other rolling in the mud and dirt. I was distraught afterwards because I knew it was over. That was the end. I went to America a day or two later. It was supposed to be temporary but I’m here still.
Chapter 14 — Beethoven
They had a Swiss drummer and I can remember, at some point during the Birmingham gig, them haranguing him repeatedly with the loud chant of “cuckoo clock, cuckoo clock” — Noel Kilbride
Keith Cullen — Our paths crossed later and Donnelly said that they were looking to get a new band together and a friend of mine Maurice Carter was a bass player so I hooked them up and then I ended up doing the record. It was just part and parcel of the whole conversation that we were having at the time.
Ricky Dineen — Maurice Carter, the bass player was from Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, a skinhead, he was a great bloke, he was a grand bass player, he was very tight. He would stick to the fucking plan. We started doing a few songs together and started playing a few gigs, it wasn’t too bad. Daniel was still with us, still playing away, he loved it, he said Beethoven was the best band he ever played with.
Keith Cullen — I booked their gigs; I was ipso facto manager or whatever, by default. They did a bunch of gigs, mostly shitholes, The Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park and I can remember Perry Farrell from Jane’s Addiction was at that gig. It was try and get a gig here and a gig there. They had a bit of a name for themselves after Five Go Down to the Sea? so doors were opened to some extent but it was just starting over, and for me it wasn’t starting over it was the first thing that I ever did, it was all new to me.
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire — I met him in London once and he had grown a large beer belly and he was showing it off to me. He drank a lot; there was a pub in London that he used to drink in. He was gay and that added to the confusion that he must have had inside, because later on the records get a little less humorous and a little bit more edgy. The last time I met him was in a pub in Cork, he walked in and he said, “Giordaí, are you still speaking Irish.” I said, “I am, yeah.” [Laughing] He said, “Ya langer,” and walked off out. That was the last thing he said to me.
Noel Kilbride — AC Temple played two shows with Beethoven. One was at the Barrel Organ in Birmingham and I think the other one was at Take Two in Sheffield. I had them staying at my house for a few days in Sheffield around those dates and one specific memory that I do have is Donnelly getting a bottle of brandy from the off license for breakfast. They had a Swiss drummer [Daniel Strittmatter] and I can remember, at some point during the Birmingham gig, them haranguing him repeatedly with the loud chant of “cuckoo clock, cuckoo clock.”
Ricky Dineen — Beethoven were playing a gig with two or three bands in a pub and down the road Stump were at the Town & Country Club, a big massive venue. [Laughing] It was deflating at the time to be honest with you, we were jealous as fuck. It was a strange occasion, to see that Mick [Lynch] was up the road and Donnelly was in the pub. It was jealousy, but it wasn’t begrudging jealousy, it wasn’t, “Those fuckers up the road there, and here are we playing in the local fucking pub, and he’s up there with [laughing] queues outside the door.”
Rob McKahey — I can remember we [Stump] were playing in the Astoria, it was sold out and Donnelly came in backstage, I was talking to him, and then I said to Mick afterwards, “Are you nervous now ’cause Donnelly’s here?” And he was a bit because Donnelly was outside watching the gig, Donnelly was almost Mick’s mentor.
Chapter 15 — Him Goolie Goolie Man, Dem
There wasn’t a strategy, they were a fucking band. I was looking for a band. They were looking for a record label — Keith Cullen
Keith Cullen — They always turned up to the gigs. But it was always, fuck are they going to turn up, is it going to happen because Donnelly was a bit off his game, as was Ricky. They were professional in that they knew it was important to them. I can’t remember ever being stressed about those kinds of things. I guess I took it all in my stride. I remember having a few good chats with Donnelly, but I can remember him being difficult, but we were friends; he told me when he found out that he was gay, so yeah we were friends. The thing is anybody at that time who was getting out of Ireland, hated it [Ireland]. To my mind it was a fucking shithole and I can only imagine Cork was as much of a shithole to them as Dublin was to me. There was never any desire to go back, it wasn’t like The Franks [The Frank & Walters], they always had a thing about Cork, about going back. But at that time [the 80s] nobody went back, you just got out. Ricky would have been keener to go home much more than Donnelly. For Donnelly’s sexuality London was obviously easier.
Shane Fitzsimons — They were trying to get a deal and Keith Cullen from Setanta Records picked them up and he was quite blatant in saying it to them that he was picking them up to gain credibility. He wanted to run a pop label of Irish bands but he knew that if he started off signing pop bands he wouldn’t get anywhere, he wouldn’t get any reaction from the English journalists. By this stage an awful lot of the Irish media had begun to infiltrate the British pop papers. Keith Cullen knew that if he signed a band with a bit of credibility, he would get credibility reflected onto his label and so he signed Beethoven. You can call that cynical but it was aiding both of them, it was aiding Keith, it was aiding the band and they were getting a record out.
Keith Cullen — There wasn’t a strategy, they were a fucking band. I was looking for a band. They were looking for a record label. I liked the music but it wasn’t any grand master plan.
Ricky Dineen — ‘Daytripper’ just happened by accident, I just started playing the riff one time during a jam and Maurice joined in. All the songs were always put together in bits and pieces, the last thing to always go on were Donnelly’s bits. There might be a bit of a lyric at the start but we’d nearly always put our bits together at the start, a big jigsaw puzzle.
Keith Cullen — They gave me Jon Langford’s number and I chatted to Jon about doing it, I’m pretty sure he did it for nothing. It came together, Jon loved Donnelly, he just thought that he was a character; when I rang and said that they had a new band he was very keen to do it.
Jon Langford — They had come back with Beethoven, and I was delighted to be asked to do the Setanta release, I just really loved the band. They were pretty self-destructive and useless at organising themselves but the music speaks for itself. I was quite charmed by it all. I did the black and red sleeve as well, I was kind of working as a graphic designer at the time and they knew that I could mock something out. Finbarr was drunk a lot and I was drunk a lot, but he was very gentle, I thought there was a lot of putting on a front. I got to know him quite well and then later he used to come to Mekons gigs on his own. He’d be there on his own very sweet and quiet. I would never call him obnoxious. There always seemed to be method behind his behaviour. I loved their energy, they were one of a kind. I’ve got eclectic tastes, and they were never going to be a mainstream pop band but there was something about them that just fascinated me, there was something perverse and wild about them. Strangely as I got to know them, I felt quite at home with them, [laughing] which probably says a lot about me.
Mick Lynch — The Beethoven single was seriously powerful. They were hitting a different level there altogether. [Laughing] He had an amazing lateral way of looking at the planet, surreal a lot of it.
Jim O’Mahony — It was a brave first release but it was also a first release that would have turned a lot of heads and got Setanta noticed. I’m not sure if anybody else would have released that at the time, I don’t think anybody else would have released it as a first single. But I can see the logic of having Beethoven as the label’s first release.
Keith Cullen — We’d have pressed 1,000 copies of Beethoven, it wasn’t repressed and it might have only sold a couple of hundred. I’m sure there was a lot left over. I remember Dave Long from Into Paradise had a thing for Five Go Down to the Sea? so the fact that I was working with Beethoven was probably brownie points for me to some extent. There was a bit of a gap between the Beethoven 12’’ and Into Paradise which was due to a lack of money.
Keith Cullen — If one magazine liked it then the other wouldn’t like it, that was the way it was, but the fact that it got any press was a bonus. I was only learning as I went along, the fact that it was in the press in any way shape or form was exciting for me.
Sean O’Hagan — We always bumped into them; we always went to see them whenever they played. But they used to do really odd little gigs; they didn’t play in the obvious places. I can remember the last Beethoven gigs were just really odd affairs. I can remember Donnelly putting the microphone in his pants and just singing into his pants. Ricky playing a few tunes and then putting the guitar down and going and drinking at the bar while Donnelly carried on and then going back up on stage to continue. I’m not saying that it disintegrated but it was almost as if they went out of their way not to do anything that was predictable. They were always looking for ways to undermine a situation, anything that vaguely became a cliché, they’d look to undermine it.
John Robb — You’d see them live and they did some ridiculous gigs, like when their drummer left. I saw them one night in Preston and they turned up with just a drum machine. They couldn’t get the drum machine together in time with the guitars, so they just played along with this drum machine, with these ridiculous beats, pre-programmed beats all joined together and it was still amazing.
Cathal Coughlan — The Beethoven EP was great as well; it wasn’t a Five Go Down to the Sea? record but it was still pretty close to the same thing. They just got better and better; if you didn’t have to take the dramas that were going on around it. My only contact towards the end was Keith Cullen from Setanta ringing me up ranting at me about how impossible it all was for him, expecting sympathy, [laughing] which I’m sorry I gave him really to be honest. He was putting gigs together for them, and they didn’t want to do them because they had to work to stay alive. [Laughing] It’s funny how record companies have a problem with that sort of thing, but they do.
Elvera Butler — The lads might have been ambitious, but I can’t really say that Donnelly was ambitious. The last time I met him in London he was Beethoven at the time and he said he’d have loved to have done a record for me [Reekus Records]. He said he’d have loved to have done six records at the one time. [Laughing] You don’t do that if you’re ambitious, you focus and use the system. You don’t alienate record labels.
Shane Fitzsimons — The last time I saw Finbarr Donnelly was the night before he drowned. It was in the Falcon over in Camden and I hadn’t realised they were playing, I was just passing through London and I called up to some friends and they said, “Beethoven are playing.” They weren’t quite Beethoven it was Fuck Me, Fuck My Beethoven which didn’t actually make it on to the EP. So I went to see them and they were mad. Mad seems to be a word that crops up an awful lot in this. Their drummer on the night was missing, so they were playing along with [laughing] a nursery drum machine, a primeval drum machine, [laughing] Fred Flintstone was in there rattling some bones.
Chapter 16 — The Serpentine
I didn’t know what he meant. I felt sick when he told me and I remember dropping my glass. I still can’t believe it — Úna Ní Chanainn
Ricky Dineen — Beethoven didn’t last very long like, well unfortunately Donnelly ended that. But there was lots of plans of future things with Setanta. I think actually Donnelly’s plan was to do ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. To be honest with you now like the day he died, walking through the park in Hyde Park, he was kind of putting his bits together, putting his bits together for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, that might have turned out pretty mad alright.
I can remember looking at the paper on the way down to Hyde Park, the Ayatollah Khomeini was being dragged through the streets and they were trying to pull him out of the coffin. It was just an extremely warm day like, myself and the girlfriend at the time and there was another girl there as well. The four of us just went into the park with a couple of bottles, flagons of cider. Some people would lead you to believe now that Donnelly was langers [drunk] going into the water but no, no fear of that. He was just mad for swimming, he used always go to the swimming pool, and it was just so warm that Donnelly just went into the water in the Serpentine. He swam halfway out but it’s a non designated swimming area so one of the lifeguards came over in a boat and told him to get out. Donnelly went under to come out the other side to carry on and just whatever happened below. Whatever he got caught on, some sort of reed or something like that and that was it like.
I couldn’t see him coming out so I, well first of all people before me, started shouting, screaming. So I ran, ran over then and just rang the ambulance, the emergency services and that was it. He wasn’t found ’til the following day.
We went home and started ringing a few people. There was a big circle of friends and we all came together in the squat, still in the squat. And it was just moments of laughing and crying at the same time with us all. We got a load of cans, you know the usual again like, drink, drink. Laughing and crying, we knew it was all over. It was almost like a wake. But one of the most horrible things I ever had to do was ring his mother. Fucking, never again like. Jesus, I never want to do anything like that again.
A lot of people would like to think that it was a suicide, it really pissed me off. An aspiring rockstar, they have to commit suicide, the people who said that weren’t there. If you listened to the conversation during the day it was all about the future, [Laughing] it wasn’t, “We’re going to record ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, but I’m going to commit suicide today, so we won’t bother.”
Keith Cullen — It was terrible, Ricky called me and told me and that was that. I remember going up to the house on Wood Lane [Shepard’s Bush], it was just all very surreal. That was it, which was the end obviously of Beethoven; it called a halt to it all.
Shane Fitzsimons — Beethoven weren’t very good that last night, and it’s terrible to say this now but they weren’t as good as Five Go Down to the Sea?, they’d lost the spark; they were on the downhill at the time to be totally honest. It would be lovely to say they were getting better and better and Finbarr was cruelly robbed by drowning, but that wasn’t the story at all. They’d grown up; he’d gone through all of that madness of his 20s. He was 27 when he drowned, I think when you’re 27 you’ve lost a lot of the energy of youth, you’re keeping it together but you’re keeping it more as a memory as opposed to a genuine emotional reaction to the world around you.
Jim O’Mahony — I knew him well and when I heard he had died, I didn’t believe for about a day that he was dead. Just complete disbelief, when you’re that young and someone you know that young dies, it’s very hard to describe it and put it into words.
Sean O’Hagan — I heard about Donnelly’s death from Cormac, one of the guys from Kissed Air in Cricklewood. I heard about it within a day, it got around pretty fast. I was absolutely flabbergasted by it. The guy was just the most unusual person I’ve ever met. There was no predictability about him; his behaviour was almost alien to all known behaviour, which was great. But there was also an unpredictability about him that when you were presented with the news that he had drowned, you just thought, “Well maybe that was going to happen.”
Ian Wilson — I remember hearing about Donnelly’s drowning and it was a pretty big deal for us all because Donnelly was certainly the most important person coming out of Cork, he drove that whole scene in the early 80s, there’s no doubt about it.
Mick Lynch — I was in total shock. I was living in Brixton and they were living in Shepard’s Bush by then, but in London you might as well be 200 miles away from each other. He had already been shipped home before I heard about it in a phone call. I was in disbelief. We [Stump] did a benefit for him in London with The Mekons. The lads were all shattered; Donnelly and Ricky were like the best of pals. Five Go Down to the Sea? had done a lot of benefit gigs for the miners so fair dues to those people they got it together to run a benefit gig. That was really emotional. Donnelly was such a character; there’ll only ever be one of him. A lot of people thought he was crude and everything but he was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. He read voraciously, he had the most amazing memory for things. When it suited him he could argue philosophical points or whatever in his own oblique way. He had his own way of seeing things; he’d tell us all fuck off, [laughing, imitates Donnelly] “Go way and fuck off.” He was totally unique, there are people still going around saying things that Donnelly thought up.
Jon Langford — The last time I saw him we were playing at the Mean Fiddler and he was just hanging out with us. I remember him pointing at me and saying, “Look at your eyeballs, they look like pissholes in the snow.” I remember that night he was very sweet, he was much more laidback, he seemed happier. I was very, very sad when Donnelly died, it was horrible, they couldn’t find his body, Ricky and the others thought they’d somehow see him the next day.
Cathal Coughlan — Keith phoned me the day after it happened; he was in an awful state. Things were going pretty bad for me at that point, [laughing] obviously nothing like as bad as that. It felt like things had gone full circle; I felt the same when Bill Graham died. It was horrible, I felt like something had happened to all of us. It was this thing you feel, it’s too late now to make up.
Shane Fitzsimons — I had just come back from London and there was a message left for me that a guitarist friend of mine had died. I thought it was Ian Olney who I’d been staying with, of course my mother had gotten the message wrong and it was Finbarr who’d drowned. It was the ending of a tradition because Donnelly was Five Go Down to the Sea? They were an avant-garde band, they were years ahead of their time and that’s why they weren’t listened to when they came out. They didn’t compromise; they didn’t try and bend over to suit the music industry, to make their music more amenable to other people. They scared people and that’s what was so charming about them. They scared people, I’m sure they scared sophisticated Londoners, [laughing] they didn’t serve cappuccinos in Cork in those days. He was a visionary, he was an individual, and he had his own particular slant on the world. He didn’t compromise, he never ever compromised. The music came second to him, what mattered most to him was expressing himself and whether that was going and getting twisted or playing a gig, it didn’t matter. He’d have been a Roky Erickson or some other kind of twisted lunatic visionary.
Keith Cullen — It was a horrible death, but it wasn’t “a great tragedy” to be honest because that was exactly how he was going to go, something like that you know what I mean. It’s not like they were destined for this, that or the other, they were a pretty noisy, extreme band but it could have gone somewhere. We had talked about ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and I had been speaking to the guy [David Cunningham] from The Flying Lizards about producing them. It’s weird because I just heard The Flying Wizards’ ‘Money’ the other day and I remember having that conversation and I hadn’t remembered it in a long long time. When I started a record label trying to get through to Adrian Borland from The Sound to produce Into Paradise was a big deal, for me to speak to the guys from the fucking Flying Lizards was a big deal, they were Top of the fucking Pops or whatever. [Laughing] ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ could have been good.
Úna Ní Chanainn — In 1989 my parents rented an apartment in Valencia, Spain. I was there for a week or so visiting them. During this time, the Cork School of Music orchestra came out to do a gig in Valencia and there was a party afterwards in the flat. John O’Connor, who was a teacher at the time in the Cork School of Music, came up to me and said, “That was terrible about Donnelly wasn’t it?” I didn’t know what he meant. I felt sick when he told me and I remember dropping my glass. I still can’t believe it.
Ricky Dineen — Back to Cork practically immediately for the funeral and that was it, that was finished with London, finished with the music business, finished with everything, so that was the end of it. I had no intention of ever doing anything about it again. Myself and Finbarr were there from the start to the finish. So there was no point carrying on, I couldn’t have found anybody that could do what he did. I could have found loads of singers but not the whole persona. We’d come up with a bizarre piece of music and he could sing across it in a lovely melody. Sometimes we’d get the guitars to follow his voice. People talk about Donnelly now and I wonder where they were all these people when we wanted them, when we wanted them to turn up to gigs and buy the records. If he hadn’t died we’d probably still be plodding along like The Fall or something, releasing things and being on an even keel.
Chapter 17 — Aftermath
Finbarr was unsung so that’s why I wanted to write the song, it was that thing that he was a legend but there were no cameras around — Pete Astor
Shane Fitzsimons — Philip [O’Connell, Nun Attax] ran a gig for Donnelly about a month after he died and it was in Sir Henry’s and a huge crowd turned out, breaking all the fire limits, there was 800 people inside Henry’s and there was 300 or 400 people turned away. With that kind of crush you would have expected some snarls but everyone had just big smiles on their faces, even though it was to remember somebody who was dead. I think anyone who dies when they’re 27 in the middle of doing something is worthy of a legend. Every generation needs a marker.
Jim O’Mahony — We [The Belsonic Sound] played at it, Cathal Coughlan played on his own at it. He might have done ‘The Door-to-Door Inspector’ or ‘Bishop of Babel’, I can’t remember which but he was really good. Some of the guys from Stump played at it; I think Robbie McKahey did something with Cathal Coughlan as well. A lot of people that you hadn’t seen for years had turned up, that whole thing was finished anyway and a new breed had come along at the time. Donnelly dying was probably turning the key in the lock. Microdisney had fairly distanced themselves from Cork anyway, a new breed had arrived. The big bands in Cork at the time were ourselves [The Belsonic Sound], Cypress Mine!, Burning Embers and Without The. An awful lot of people who were going out at the time to see bands, would never have heard of the names Five Go Down to the Sea?, Microdisney, Mean Features and Urban Blitz etc. There would have been a few people around who were there since back in the day and a lot of them were horrified by what they were seeing because the scene had all become very career orientated at the time anyway, [laughing] you had managers, guys walking around with briefcases with milk and apples inside them. It was the era when everyone wanted to be on the guestlist.
Ricky Dineen — Maurice Carter eventually died from an overdose. After we left London he went downhill and back to his old ways basically. I suppose we put him on the straight and narrow, [laughing] if you’d call playing with Beethoven on the straight and narrow, I felt sad, I think that Donnelly’s death indirectly lead to another. If Donnelly had still been alive we’d still probably have been gigging, he wouldn’t have gone near that fucking shit [heroin].
Leigh Goorney — I had the idea to do a live album from the start of my time as Social Sec at Thames Poly. From the start, I taped lots of gigs from the mixing desk, and put forward the idea to the Student’s Union Executive Committee which I was part of. A few years after the LP came out I pitched the idea to Overground Records to put out an edited version on CD. I heard about Donnelly’s death by reading it in the NME. It was sad and tragic, so I dedicated the CD reissue to him because he was an important part of that year to me, and I liked him a lot and miss him.
Cathal Coughlan — The next time I saw Ricky was when he grabbed me by the throat at a Fatima Mansions gig and screamed, [Laughing] “It’s nothing but a pile of fucking noise.” At the time I thought he was joking but on mature reflection I think he was actually making a point.
Pete Astor — The reason I wrote the song is that I have an incredibly strong memory of Donnelly and the band. The song had to do with the idea that Donnelly was the unsung hero. He was like a complete hero, a total legend, just like Shaun Ryder was and is, and years later just like Richie Edwards was and is. But Finbarr was unsung so that’s why I wanted to write the song, it was that thing that he was a legend but there were no cameras around. You can tell what people are like from how they behave and he was clearly an incredibly smart person. He was definitely a Kasper Hauser.
Chapter 18 — Afterword
There is no middle ground of artistic respectability in Ireland. You’re a scumbag that’s down in the marsh, in the swamp, wallowing around the place or else you’re U2 — Giordaí Ua Laoghaire
Finny Corcoran — All the best artists are self-destructive anyway and to get the most out of your art sometimes you have to go to the edge and be destructive at the same time and bands like Five Go Down to the Sea? were self-destructive, Donnelly was a very self-destructive character anyway. They weren’t motivated by stardom, they were motivated by making what they wanted to make musically and they didn’t give a shit about anybody else and what anybody else thought. That’s the kind of music that usually stands the test of time. If you please other people and you don’t please yourself and then reflect on it afterwards it comes across in the music, it will always come across in the music. Bands that are really good always set out first day to please themselves and that’s the way music should be made first and foremost.
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire — Sadly a lot of people only discovered his talents after he died. If Cork was in California you’d be reading about all of this in Mojo magazine; Finbarr Donnelly would be like Beefheart or Roky Erickson. There is no middle ground of artistic respectability in Ireland. You’re a scumbag that’s down in the marsh, in the swamp, wallowing around the place or else you’re U2. So it doesn’t matter how good Donnelly was, or how good Cathal Coughlan is unless they achieve commercial status you won’t hear about them. Each one of those Five Go Down to the Sea? records might have sold a few hundred copies and then he died. So they are generally considered to be failures because some consider that the Art doesn’t really matter. It’s always been the same for a lot of people on the periphery.
Finny Corcoran — Obviously the only reason that he is an icon is because he died. If Donnelly was around today, God only knows what he’d be doing. Donnelly was a huge character; he was a larger than life character; it’s hard to describe him. I’ll give you an image of Donnelly; he would never be outdone on the performing side of things. I remember being up in the Arc and Nun Attax were playing and someone glugged up at Donnelly. This thing was horrible, in slow motion you could see this thing going through the air heading towards Donnelly and it lands on his pants. Everyone in the crowd was laughing, going, “Ha, ha, ha look at that.” So Donnelly proceeds to put his hand down fingers the whole thing and sticks it into his mouth and eats it. Everyone in the crowd just went, “Ugh my God.” That was Finbarr Donnelly for me — he wouldn’t be outdone. No one could outdo Finbarr Donnelly, that’s for sure.
Mick Lynch — Can you imagine if Donnelly had been set loose on the States by some accident of nature, birth or geography. If he was alive today, still working, who knows where he’d be, I’m sure he could have turned his hand to writing as opposed to singing.
Jim O’Mahony — My image of Donnelly is always of him walking along Patrick’s Street [Cork] in those suits that he used to wear with the big boots and the shaven head. He coming up to you and disgracing you in the street. When I think of him, it’s never him on stage singing, I think about him in the pub or on the street. The legend thing is something that never really springs to mind, but when anybody in that position dies there’s always some degree of idolatry that will come into it but the myth was there already with Donnelly.
Declan Lynch — The Cork that we are generally given, in terms of ‘The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee’, and that sort of fellows singing songs beside the blazing fire with the baby grand tinkling in the background. That version of Cork, is so at odds with what’s actually really funny and vibrant about Cork. There’s a very bourgeois public image of Cork which is sold to the world. The middle class sensibility in Cork is extremely strong and it needs something almost as mad as what people like Donnelly were on about. An antidote to it, I think. That’s just a bog standard theory of mine. Unquestionably the stuff that they did was inextricable from where they were coming from and that was again what was very good about them because I think any good music it’s symptomatic of where it comes from, it doesn’t just arrive out of a vacuum. They were a very Cork band as well, it didn’t just come out of anywhere it came out of their own lives and their own way of looking at the world. To coin a phrase like, “Official Cork” to this day probably doesn’t know of the existence of Finbarr Donnelly. It’s still Dixieland Jazz, down to the yacht club on a Sunday morning with blazers. That’s Cork to them. But it’s important to recall that there’s another side to it as well — an underbelly. Except I would regard the Dixieland Jazz on a Sunday morning as the underbelly — the seamy underbelly.
Sean O’Hagan — The fact that this guy came down from Belfast and had to assimilate into this very odd little place; Cork was such an odd place in those days. It really was; it was like this crazy little city over the hill. Over the hill there’s this mad little place you know, they do strange things down there, strange music and strange everything. I think obviously coming from Belfast, coming from the thick of the 70s Troubles to this crazy little place must have been odd. One of the things I’m always struck by is the fact that nobody really knows about them, apart from the privileged few who got to see them live and got to hear their records. There’s so much music that’s happened since then that is purported to be exploratory and inventive yet didn’t go anywhere near the sort of lengths that the Nun Attax and Five Go Down to the Sea? actually achieved. And you actually try and talk about this and reiterate this to people in this country, you know it’s just, very hard to articulate, it’s very hard to get hold of the records, it’s very hard to describe what they did.
Shane Fitzsimons — In the ’80s the first “worthwhile” musical movement that came out of the British Isles was New Romanticism. New Romanticism was just about dressing up in foppish clothes. That might make sense to you if you’ve got an awful lot of disposable income and if you’re running around in a flash and trendy place like London. But if you’re outside London, that means nothing to you. So anything that can speak to you, that you can call your own, it’s going to become so important to you because it’s articulating where you are, the place you feel in the world and that’s why Five Go Down to the Sea? mean so much to so many people. It’s part of the reason; the other part of the reason is that they were just so much good fun live. Even though, to look at them, they looked like a bunch of skinheads, live they had a sense of fun which was contagious, that just spread around the audience.
John Robb — If by some sort of weird quirk of fate Five Go Down to the Sea? had staggered into the limelight, it would have worked for them. They maybe seemed completely insane in 1984 but so did the Happy Mondays and so did loads of other groups. Some groups get through and some groups don’t and it was a tragedy that they could never hold it together long enough. You know how most bands go, “I’m really mad, I’m really insane, I’m crazy, I do crazy things,” no they don’t, do they. They get a little drunk and maybe have a fight with the drummer but Five Go Down to the Sea? did all those crazy things, didn’t they.
Cathal Coughlan — The thing you can’t ignore and I don’t want to sound patronising about all of this, you can’t ignore the fact that they came from a part of Cork where people were treated like sub-humans for hundreds of years. I mean Gurran and Farrenree didn’t exist a couple of hundred years before but you know the kind of working class people who were their ancestors, were their parents, their grandparents, had nothing but their humour to get them through a crap everyday way of life in a rancid fucking port town, whose reason for existing had all but evaporated by the time we’d grown up. My people were from the country so there wasn’t that same edgy repartee that was really important to the lads. For myself personally, both hands up, I grew up with advantages that none of those people had, and that gives you a certain confidence, not as great as certain other people’s confidence but nonetheless a certain confidence, about mixing with people who aren’t the same as you are, which comes a lot harder when you aren’t born to it. I don’t have a guilt about it; it’s just the way things are. I don’t think it makes them any less remarkable as creative people who didn’t get their just desserts when they were working.
Shane Fitzsimons — The Dixies mean something to a certain generation and Rory Gallagher means something to another generation but not to mine. And even The Franks and The Sultans and Five Go Down to the Sea?, they mean nothing to a younger generation now, but we should all know where we come from. If we don’t know where we’re coming from, where are we going?
Michael Stack — There was nothing better when working on a song when it was coming together, or going into The Phoenix on a summer’s evening to play a gig or have a few pints with the lads. The band was more than a band though, it was a take on life where nothing was sacred and all was up for jest and dissection. It’s hard to describe. Cork was the centre of the universe and all else revolved around it. You had to be there. It made sense at the time, at least to me. I can remember being in a bedsit in Cork, Donnelly was lying on the floor. Joanie, my girlfriend, was visiting and I asked Finbarr to sing her the new song we’d just made. From the floor he sang, tenderly ‘Why Wait until April?’ while I played along. That is one of my favourite memories.
Úna Ní Chanainn — Donnelly was a huge influence on me as a person. I adored him and I would give anything to go back in time and spend an afternoon with him, but as I am now. I could tell him, straight out how “brilliant” he was and how much I loved him.
Jim O’Mahony — In its own right this is as valid a part of musical history as any other. Musical history should never be determined by record sales or mass popularity. Chronicling this is as important as chronicling the Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco, the Andy Warhol scene in New York, the R&B scene in Britain in the early 60s with Them and The Animals, or the London Blues scene with The Stones. This is Cork’s musical history and to people outside Cork it mightn’t mean anything, but to people in Cork it means a lot; going to see Five Go Down to the Sea? and Nun Attax and Microdisney, going to the Donnelly benefit gig, these things mean more to me and to a lot of other people in Cork than the concept of The Beatles playing at the Cavern Club. Someone from Liverpool who would have seen The Beatles growing up would never have looked at The Beatles in the Cavern Club as being the biggest band in the world, nobody has a crystal ball, so the level of importance that had for people then is the same as this has for me now. It has to be chronicled as a valid part of musical history. It’s all part of the bigger picture, if you have a million piece jigsaw puzzle it’s not complete if you only have 999,999 pieces, [laughing] maybe Five Go Down to the Sea? is the millionth piece.
Thanks to Conor O’Toole and Kieran Hurley from UCC98.3FM. A special word of thanks to all of the contributors who were so willing to take the time to answer my questions, in particular I want to thank Ricky Dineen for participating. Special mention to John Byrne for passing on the photocopies of all clippings.
I would never have undertaken this oral history project had it not been for Philip O’Connell, Nun Attax’s bass player. I worked with Philip’s Frontline Promotions promoting gigs in the mid 90s. Many’s the gig ended with a late night lock-in at Nancy Spains on Barrack Street in Cork. These sessions invariably involved Philip running up a bar tab while holding forth in the company of myself, Ally Ó Riada, Jim Casey, ‘Irish’ Jack Lyons and whatever touring Irish or UK band was in town. Philip regaled us with stories of Nun Attax, Donnelly and the Arc. These late night storytelling marathons were side-splitting affairs but funnily enough most of those stories didn’t make this oral history and will have to stay in the ether due to Ireland’s defamation laws. Dowtcha Philip!
Paul McDermott teaches Media Studies and Journalism at Rathmines College, Dublin, and is the Director of Programming at 103.2 Dublin City FM.
© Paul McDermott 2016, All Rights Reserved
© Paul McDermott 2016, All Rights Reserved