News: In April 2020 AllCity Records’s AllChival Imprint released ‘Hiding From the Landlord’ a Nun Attax, Five Go Down to the Sea? and Beethoven compilation. Order here.
This oral history is a companion to Get That Monster Off the Stage, an audio documentary about Finbarr Donnelly and his bands Nun Attax, Five Go Down To the Sea? and Beethoven.
This oral history contains new contributions from 16 band mates, friends and contemporaries of Donnelly’s, who were not interviewed for the original documentary. It also contains interview material from 17 others that never made the final edit of the documentary due to time constraints.
Finbarr Donnelly was born in Belfast in 1962. Escaping the Troubles his family moved to Cork City when he was 12. By the late-70s he had formed Nun Attax, a punk band, who played their first gig on Valentine’s night 1979 in a community hall in Mayfield, on the Northside of Cork City.
Nun Attax are synonymous with the Downtown Kampus at Cork’s Arcadia Ballroom, the lynchpin of the city’s post-punk music scene, where they shared the stage with U2, Virgin Prunes, UB40, Micro Disney and a host of other local bands. Their live performances were unforgettable, incendiary events an example of which can be heard on the Kaught at the Kampus EP released by Reekus Records in 1981 [reissued in 2015]. In the early-80s the band changed its name to Five Go Down To the Sea? and recorded the Knot A Fish EP 7’’ for Kabuki Records. Soon after the band left recession-ridden Cork for London.
Margaret Thatcher’s Britain provided a stark backdrop for the music of Five Go Down to the Sea? As new immigrants to London, the band scraped a living but gradually gained critical acclaim, earning a reputation for astonishing live gigs and releasing The Glee Club 12’’ for Abstract Sounds and the Singing in Braille 12’’ for Alan McGee’s fledgling Creation Records. In 1988, Five Go Down to the Sea? changed their name to Beethoven and provided Setanta Records with its first release, the Him Goolie Goolie Man, Dem 12’’. This single would go on to be named NME ‘Single of the Week’. A few weeks later on 18 June 1989 Donnelly died in a drowning accident in the Serpentine Pond in Hyde Park. He was 27 years of age.
Finbarr Donnelly left a far-reaching musical legacy despite his early and tragic death. His life and work also offers much insight into the role of the outsider in pop culture and of artistic expression during times of economic hardship. This oral history is the definitive record of someone who is a legend to those who knew him and would surely have been more widely acknowledged as such if his life hadn’t been cut short. With his larger-than-life personality and surreal lyricism, he inspired and paved the way for a generation of Irish rock musicians. This work is a picture of Cork in the 1980s, a provincial port town beset by emigration, recession and unemployment. It also documents the social history of a generation of Irish who left in the 1980s to live and work in London.
Get That Monster Off the Stage — the story of Finbarr Donnelly forms the first part of a Cork Trilogy. Part two, Lights! Camel! Action! — the story of Stump, tells Stump’s story from their indie beginnings to combustion by the late 80s. Part three, Iron Fist in Velvet Glove — the story of Microdisney, tells Cathal Coughlan and Sean O’Hagan’s story from meeting in Cork in 1979 to disbanding in 1988. All three stories have their roots in Cork’s post-punk music scene that coalesced around Elvera Butler’s Downtown Kampus at the Cork Arcadia in the late 70s.
In December 1999 Cork’s Triskel Arts Centre hosted Cork Arc 1979–1999. As part of the weekend festival an hour long rough edit of Get That Monster Off the Stage played on a loop in one of the galleries accompanied by a selection of photographs by Ciarán Ó Tuama taken at the Downtown Kampus (at the Arcadia Ballroom).
The documentary was originally broadcast on Cork Campus Radio (now UCC 98.3FM) in July 2001 and went on to win the “Radio Production of the Year” award at the O2 Smedia Awards in April 2002. Myles Dungan, chairman of the judging panel, commented: “This is a fascinating snapshot of the vibrant Cork music scene of the 80s. The producer went after (and got) contributions from the main players and constructed a compelling account of cult rock hero Finbarr Donnelly. The programme itself is an excellent weave of music and the spoken word, and is unobtrusively informative.”
In 2008 the documentary was re-edited to include contributions from Ricky Dineen, Donnelly’s friend and band mate.
Ricky Dineen — Nun Attax/Five Go Down to the Sea?/Beethoven
Úna Ní Chanainn — Five Go Down to the Sea?/RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra
Michael Stack — Five Go Down to the Sea?
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire — Nun Attax/Micro Disney/Nine Wassies From Bainne
Pete Astor — The Loft/The Weather Prophets
JC Brouchard — Vivonzeureux/Author
Elvera Butler — Downtown Kampus/Reekus Records
Joan Cairns — Rotherhithe resident 1984
Rory Cobbe — RTÉ Producer
Finny Corcoran — Belson/The Belsonic Sound
Cathal Coughlan — Micro Disney*/Microdisney/The Fatima Mansions
Conal Creedon — Author/Playwright
Keith Cullen — Setanta Records
Stan Erraught — The Stars of Heaven
Shane Fitzsimons — Journalist
Joe Foster — Television Personalities/Creation Records/Rev-Ola Records
Gavin Friday — Virgin Prunes
Leigh Goorney — Social Secretary, Thames Polytechnic 1984–85
Dave Galvin — Micro Disney
Liam Heffernan — Mean Features/Actor
Greg Keeffe — Big Flame
Noel Kilbride — AC Temple
Jon Langford — The Mekons/The Three Johns/The Waco Brothers
Declan Lynch — Journalist/Author
Mick Lynch — Mean Features/Stump
Morty McCarthy — The Sultans of Ping FC
Rob McKahey — Stump
Declan Mallon — Director of Upstate Theatre Project
Enda Murray — Filmmaker/Virus Media
Dave O’Connell — Urban Blitz
Sean O’Hagan — Micro Disney/Microdisney/The High Llamas
Jim O’Mahony — The Belsonic Sound
John Robb — The Membranes/Journalist/Author
Ian Wilson — Producer, RTÉ Radio
Phil Wilson — The June Brides
*Micro Disney — The first 5-piece version of the band which formed after Constant Reminders split up. Micro Disney lasted from August 1980 until early 1982. Cathal and Sean continued as Microdisney from early 1982.
Part 1 — Cork
Chapter 1 — UFOs and John Peel
He had a very good record collection, and a very weird record collection as well, of stuff that I’d never heard of except maybe on John Peel — Ricky Dineen
Ricky Dineen — I met Donnelly around 1978. I actually met his brother first. I used to work in a chipper on Shandon Street. We had an interest in UFOs, Donnelly was interested in UFOs as well and he introduced me to Donnelly for that reason. Having met Donnelly then, he introduced me to this whole new world of punk rock, new wave or whatever you might call it at the time. At that time I had been listening to Status Quo, Pink Floyd and all that kinda thing. I thought that was cool, like, I thought that was great. He introduced me into the world of John Peel and alternative music. Many a night we spent trying to tune into BBC Radio 1, a very tough station to get, still is actually. We were listening to all these mad bands, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and all these mad things altogether.
We had no intentions of forming a band, but I had slight aspirations before I met Donnelly. I had bought an electric guitar, for £19 in Bristol on a school tour. Myself, Philip [O’Connell] and Smelly [Keith O’Connell, Philip’s younger brother] were in school together in the School of Comm [Commerce] with a guy called Aidan McCarthy, he was Joe Mac’s [Joe Mac of Irish showband The Dixies] young fella and tragically he was killed in a car crash later. Aidan got us into playing a guitar and the idea of forming a band. He was an excellent drummer. Eventually one day we said, “Why don’t we ask Donnelly to sing like, because he knows the scene?” I think for ages when we were toying with the idea for a band we were telling him about it and he wasn’t saying anything. When we asked him he lit up a bit. I remember it was in the Glen [Cork suburb], I was walking down Assumption Hill and I said, “Why don’t you sing?” And there it was like, he was delighted with himself, [laughing] his vocation was there. And that was it. Donnelly came up to me to my bedroom one night with pages and pages of lyrics and I’d say it was the first time he ever wrote down lyrics and it was probably the last time as well. So we went into the bedroom and started doing these two-chord wonder songs and one thing led to another, Smelly got involved, Philip started playing the bass, everything was grand, ready for the gig. We played a gig up in Mayfield Community School, I remember it, it was Valentine’s Day 1979. It went on from there like. We were shocking, Jesus, you can imagine. We were playing ‘Teenage Kicks’, ‘Pretty Vacant’, a few covers and a few of our own songs then that Donnelly had done the lyrics to and we had put the music together for, but it moved on from there.
Donnelly used to go round the Glen with a spray can writing [laughing] ‘Punkx Rule’. He was definitely the man for the job. He was a fierce man for buying things and [laughing] not paying for them. He used to buy obscure records from people in Australia from ads in the NME, and say that he’d send them the money on. He had a very good record collection, and a very weird record collection as well, of stuff that I’d never heard of except maybe on John Peel, The Lurkers and all these bands. He was the guiding influence of making us go in that direction. Otherwise we would probably have ended up being like Hot Guitars [Cork Bluesrock band of the late-70s].
The first couple of gigs were in all obscure places like Church Halls and things we organised ourselves, some of those gigs I don’t remember because we were so demented, and that’s not exaggerating, we were atrocious. But it started coming together. We got in Mick Finnegan, he came up for an interview, he could play the solo of ‘Hotel California’. We said, [laughing] “Oh right, you’re in, you can play”. He was the first proper musician that was ever involved with us. Mick was there for a while, but maybe he wasn’t on the same level, the same punk level as us, he was more rock orientated.
Later in the thing Giordaí [Ua Laoghaire] came on board. I mean, Giordaí is excellent, fantastic. Our music suited him down to the ground, it was fantastic, but eventually he jumped ship. [Laughing] He went over to the opposition, he joined Fianna Fáil [Irish political party], he joined Micro Disney. We never forgave him for that — ever.
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire — As a young hippy character I found myself involved with Nun Attax because I was interested in new wave music, I liked the oddball stuff that they liked. I was from Ovens [a small village 15km west of Cork City], a geranium from the country, but I’d come into town and hang out. I was in a heavy rock band, a really awful band but it was great to be in a band though. Nun Attax were haranguing me because they’d no gear and they wanted to use our gear so they came over much to the disgust of the other heavy rockers. They went through their stuff and I thought, this is brilliant. They said, “If you think it’s brilliant, why don’t you join us.” Mick Finnegan had been playing with them, but couldn’t take the abuse anymore, Mick could play but he was a traditional rock and roll guitarist, in a Blues style, and they wanted somebody more Spadgie*. I joined up and in no time I was having great craic with them. We used to jam in Smelly’s bedroom. I used to cycle in from Ovens with the guitar. Elvera [Butler] gave us our first gig supporting somebody in the Arc [Arcadia Ballroom], I don’t remember who, [laughing] probably U2.
*Spadgie: Noun. Someone who is thought of as pathetic and a fool. Someone who is thought of as either annoying and of low intelligence or somewhat malignant and of low intelligence or all three.
Chapter 2 — Downtown Kampus at the Arcadia
Cork was a brilliant audience; they were really receptive to new things — Elvera Butler
Elvera Butler — To begin with even before the Arcadia, I had done a few gigs with Denis Desmond; he wasn’t running MCD at the time, so this was pre-MCD. He was based in Hull; he was an engineer at the time. He supplied some bands while I was a student; I did the work on the ground. I had done the Feelgoods [Dr Feelgood] in City Hall [Cork City Hall] and The Stranglers and a couple of other bands so I had built up a bit of reputation then with agencies, a bit of trust from the agencies. I met Hugh Cornwell a couple of years ago and I mentioned having done the gig in Cork years earlier and he remembered Cork because they felt it was like going to [laughing] Eastern Europe. It was a long drive from Dublin to Cork in those days. Ireland was very different back then. In terms of venues there was the Stadium [National Stadium] in Dublin which was the big venue, there certainly weren’t any big pub venues. There was the scene on Baggot Street [Dublin] with the Baggot Inn and Toners and so on. But you didn’t have any purpose built venues at the time.
I had funded my way through college by going to London to work each summer. I used to spend all my time down the Marquee and the 100 Club getting ideas. I was attracted to the Arcadia because you could run out-of-term time; you could attract a non-student audience as well as students. I knew from going to gigs or dances, from the time I was a kid in Thurles [Co. Tipperary], that you could run on certain nights over Christmas or Paddy’s [St Patrick’s Day] night and so on. It didn’t work to begin with but over Christmas it did and it just took off from there. Cork at that stage had a few venues, there were some very good musicians around but they were typically Blues musicians. I was actually working with a band that Jimmy McCarthy and Delcan Sinnott were in called Southpaw.
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire — I was never a big drinker but those who drank, drank in Heaphy’s [situated on the corner of Union Quay and Anglesea Street] first and then down to the Arc. Heaphy’s was run by two hippie characters, Martin and June, it was a mixture of dockers, regular folk, hippies and punk rockers. It had a great atmosphere. Everybody would then go down to the Arc. The Arc had no bar, it had a sort of hippy food bar and Elvera and Andy [Elvera’s partner, Andy Foster] ran it and their thing was to bring in new wave and punk bands from Ireland and Britain and anywhere else and some of the rock bands that were also going at the time. She had a preference for the new wave bands from Ireland and Cork up on stage as support.
Elvera Butler — I probably would have been disapproved of slightly by some of the older Blues bands because here I was giving so much space to the younger punk bands but I liked their unpredictability and their spontaneity. I still gave gigs to some of the older bands but not as many I guess. Even if an English band was bringing a support band or if we had two Dublin bands on you’d still give a Cork band a gig.
There was no bar in the Arcadia. I had to go to court twice to try and get a bar licence, I think we might have got a bar twice over one Christmas. But after that I never did bother again, it was a dry gig, it was amazing.
Elvera Butler — I was looking at all the figures recently, I was compiling and digitising all our past reviews and adverts and I found all the figures from the Kampus gigs. There wasn’t 1,000 at all the gigs but there were 2,000 at some of them and 1,500 at a lot of them and so on. You had a base crowd of about 700 and then it depended upon who was playing. The summer was a bad time, you didn’t have the touring bands and you also didn’t have the students, so we probably did an average of around 700 people during the summers. The colleges weren’t profit driven, so they could afford to be a bit adventurous about what they did. As Entertainment Officer, I got a small budget from UCC [University College Cork] to work with at the beginning of the year. It allowed a leeway in terms of the bands I could do.
Elvera Butler — Cork was a brilliant audience; they were really receptive to new things. There was the first time that we did a reggae band, which was The Cimarons, and I thought no one will come to this gig and a huge crowd turned up and they went down a storm. They were one of the most successful bands to play at the Arc.
We did The Specials and The Beat at the end of January 1981. I really tried hard to get them, I heard they were coming to Ireland and I couldn’t get them. I think MCD were doing them in Dublin, I was onto the agent in England and they had no interest. Then suddenly I got this phone call maybe a week before the gig, asking me could I put them on. It was because Nightdoctor, the reggae band I used to bring in, was rehearsing in the same place as The Specials and The Beat and said to them, “You’re obviously going to Cork?” The bands said no and were told that they had to play Cork. So even at that stage you still had to fight to get bands to come.
Michael Stack — I would go to see whoever was playing. I didn’t have much of a clue on music. A few of the lads were trying to help me get over my hippy tendency. I was up from Kerry after all. I think everyone was in a band then. It was the thing to do. This was the time of the Arcadia — what a wonderful name for a place for a Saturday night — when great bands were playing regularly. The best night was The Specials and The Beat together, especially when they all came on stage together at the end to do ‘The Tears of a Clown’. I was sure the place was going to collapse and come down on our heads the place was jumping so.
Jim O’Mahony — The Arc was completely different and completely weirder than anywhere else because you had a kind of an arty element; it looked arty but it wasn’t, if you know what I mean. Musically all these people were listening to Captain Beefheart. Throbbing Gristle were popular at the time, and the Virgin Prunes used to come to Cork and play in the Arc and go down better in Cork then they did in Dublin, with some people. The Ska-heads that would be in the Arc would look at the Virgin Prunes in the same way as [laughing] the Legion of Mary would look at Satan. Out of that you had a lot of really strange bands coming along.
Gavin Friday — We went to Cork once. That was quite interesting because that was the first time I met Cathal [Coughlan] and the first time that I met Donnelly. They’d heard of the Virgin Prunes and there was a great kinship but we were a little bit more fuckin’ out there and we had already jumped into Europe.
Dave Galvin — The Arc had been going for quite a while, from about 1977. I remember going to lots of gigs there before I ever got involved with the scene. I remember going to Dr Feelgood, John Cooper Clarke, Graham Parker and the Rumour. I suppose you had Sir Henry’s and you also had the Arc, having two really good venues like that spawned a whole series of bands, and gave them a regular place to play. Around 1980 there was an absolute explosion of bands in England and they were all going on tour and a lot of them seemed to take in Ireland to start their tours. A regular tour was maybe Cork, Dublin, Belfast and perhaps Galway as well. Over quite a short period of time, maybe two years we got an unbelievable array of bands coming over to the Arc, Saturday night after Saturday night you had a huge scene going on there.
Elvera Butler — In order to bring bands in [to Ireland] we had to do a few other places as well, we used to do Jordanstown Poly [Polytechnic, now Ulster University Jordanstown], Queens [Queens University, Belfast], Trinity [Trinity College, Dublin] on a Friday, Cork on a Saturday, and then depending how long you had the band in for there was a gig in Sligo on a Monday.
Jim O’Mahony — The Atrix used to play regularly in the Arc and there was one particular guy who used to hate them with a fit. You’d just mention The Atrix and this guy would break out in hives. The Atrix had one song with a gap and during the gap the drummer would stand up and click the sticks four times and go into it again. After seeing them for a while your man copped on that this was happening so he went to the Arc one Saturday night and waited for the part in the song where the drummer stood up and the guy reached into his jacket [laughing] and took out an air gun and shot the drummer. [Laughing] He was never discovered by security as far as I know. Fucking priceless, wouldn’t you just love someone doing that today. [Laughing] There are so many bands I can think of that you’d love to go along to the gig and just shoot some pillock in the band.
Dave O’Connell — The airgun incident makes me wonder if Urban Blitz had been hit by other projectiles. Jim’s account is of a very target specific attack and not the kind of random shooting that I remember it as. We heard about the airgun after the show and assumed that the objects that hit us were pellets. I didn’t see what hit me and Ber, from memory didn’t either.
Finny Corcoran — When we played in the Arc, I think we were about 14 or 15, we had a punk band called Belson, it was myself Gene Russell, Paul Meeley and Con O’Donovan. We were a bit of a novelty at the time because we were so young. We were playing up there with the likes of Nun Attax, Mean Features, Micro Disney and all these other bands who were around on the scene at the time. As well as that you’d have bands that would help you out; Urban Blitz were very good to us; Ber Murphy and Sean Linehan, who died in an accident. Sean had a radio show on CCLR [Pirate Radio Station, Cork City Local Radio] at the time and he used to play mostly punk music. We did our first interview on CCLR with Sean, I think I still have that on tape at home — it’s very funny. [Laughing] Saying things like, “Punk is dead, and we’re still dying.” We thought we’d be punks forever. [Laughing] Sadly we all grew up. The fact that we were so young people didn’t take us too seriously, we didn’t take ourselves too seriously either. We thought we were The Clash and then we got progressive [laughing] and then we thought that we were The Gang of Four and then we broke up after about two or three years.
Dave O’Connell — Urban Blitz came together as a band around 1979/ 1980. The line up was Ber Murphy on vocals, myself and Sean Linehan on guitars, my brother Kevin on bass and Don Touhy on drums. Ber, Kevin and I went to Mayfield Community School and Sean and Don went to Farranferris. We formed the idea we’d start a band. I had an old acoustic that my aunt had given me. She had bought it with Green Shield Stamps. By then punk had come to our attention. Sean Linehan was talking about The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, The Clash and his favourite The Jam. Up to then I’d been a Status Quo fan. My first memory of a punk song was hearing the Radiators From Space’s Television Screen on radio. I had no idea what punk was but I was completely blown away by the speed and rawness of that recording. Punk provided the perfect context for completely incompetent guys such as ourselves to imagine we could form a band. We got together in the garage at Sean’s place and started working on songs with a great degree of difficulty on my part. We decided we had to get serious one day when Ber, Kevin and I found ourselves gaping through the ceiling to floor glass windows of the cafeteria in Mayfield Community School at the improbable sight of Finbarr Donnelly, Ricky Dineen, Phillip O’Connell, Mick Finnegan and Smelly playing punk rock under the title of Nun Attax. Finbarr was a year ahead of us at Mayfield and the first punk we’d ever met.
Rob McKahey — I saw The Cure down the Arc, it was the Faith tour, just the three of them when they were at their minimal best. They were very good, they were using Pink Floyd’s PA, or a bit of it, or as Robert Smith said, [laughing] the bit that Roger Waters uses to listen to his records. Before the gig we were drinking in Handlebars [pub on Lower Glanmire Road], the bar nearby and it was so packed that it was evacuated and the cops were called. There was graffiti outside Handlebars the following day, “Prevention is better than The Cure.” [Laughing] Which I thought was a really waggish Cork city reaction.
Finny Corcoran — Enduring memories of the Arc would be like being chased home after the gig by the clan from the Northside. Things like that, fights — a lot of fights — punks sticking together, mods, it was the time of the air guitar, people out dancing to AC/DC, ‘Good Times’ that song by Chic, that used to finish the disco, two o’clock, Saturday nights, they always played the same tune, I’ll always remember that. I remember a lot of skinheads, God lots of memories, the first time I saw a knife, a fellow called Bernard Pearse, a friend of mine. The first time I met Bernard is when he hopped up on the stage and he took a knife out of his boot and stuck it into the stage. That was the first time I ever met Bernard. All these images, the first time I met people like Blake Creedon, Ricky Dineen, Finbarr Donnelly. Up the Arc, I can still remember the first time I met most of them.
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire — The Arc was unique because it was full every Saturday night and everyone was young. Sometimes bands couldn’t play in Dublin, because at new wave and punk gigs it was more aggressive with The Black Catholics.* A guy was stabbed to death at a gig and it was hard for punk and new wave bands to play in Dublin for a long time, it was easier for them to get a gig in Cork, and invariably the place would be jointed.** It was always full and it was always great craic. Elvera had this thing about leaving the local band in for free, [laughing] so I suddenly found myself among the elite. I could sail in anytime, it was mad.
*The Black Catholics were a Dublin gang who would routinely cause trouble at gigs. Paul McGuinness vs The Black Catholics is Emmett O’Reilly’s account of their activities for The Irish Independent.
**On 25 June 1977, Patrick Coultry was stabbed at the Bellfield Burnin’ Punk Festival featuring The Radiators from Space, The Undertones, Revolver, The Gamblers and The Vipers. The NME carried a frontpage story on the gig the following week, it can be viewed on Brand New Retro, the vintage Irish pop culture and lifestyle blog. A number of firsthand accounts can be read on U2 The Early Dayz. Another detailed account of the event can be read on the Hidden History of UCD blog.
Dave Galvin — The Arc was a very special place for quite a while. The place was teeming, there was sort of an electricity there sometimes, you mightn’t have been particularly into who was playing but at the same time once it got the crowd going you really enjoyed the night. They weren’t all necessarily Punk or New Wave bands either, you had the Lena Lovichs and that of this world. We went every Saturday night, regardless of who was on unless we [Micro Disney] were gigging ourselves elsewhere. There was a huge social scene there, we’d have a pint of two in Heaphy’s and then we’d make our way up to the Handlebars and we’d have a pint or two there and then we’d pop into the Arc. Once we started playing there ourselves we started to get free entry to it, all the local bands did so everybody went there on a Saturday night. There was a great scene there. I can remember Tom Robinson playing there one night with Sector 27, a great gig.
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire —Hawkwind played in Cork in about 1981. I was watching them thinking, my God that’s Ginger Baker on drums. It should have been a classic gig, but it was incredibly unfashionable. Chris McCarthy [Micro Disney, bass player], Cathal and Donnelly had fashioned a penis type shape out of cardboard at the end of a piece of Wavin drain piping, during every guitar solo they proceeded [laughing] to masturbate the Wavin piping in front of the guitarist, all night long.
Ian Wilson — The truth of it is that nobody from the international music business wanted to know about anything going on in Ireland. Dublin was ignored; the rest of Ireland was completely ignored. The only place they were interested in was the North [Northern Ireland]. If you looked at the time you’d have seen a wide range of bands from the North getting small record contracts. A lot of acts from Good Vibrations were signed and they had a limited amount of success but that was where it was happening. It wasn’t happening in Dublin or Cork. They didn’t know about Dublin and they weren’t even aware there was such a place as Cork. But there was definitely a punky kind of thing going on in Cork, much more vibrant in many ways then what was going on in Dublin because they were bonkers. Cork had the Downtown Kampus and a progressive and sussed out promoter, they took advantage of it all and that was also before the scene was completely dominated by a few big promoters, now it’s tied up by a couple of promoters then it was a bit more open so it was a whole set of different dynamics.
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire — Previous to the Arc scene Cork was largely dominated by the Rory Gallagher thing. Gallagher in his own way was a man of incredible integrity. But by the late 70s his music had lost all relevance to a younger audience, if you liked him there was seriously something wrong with you. It became rock by numbers music and there was a tendency to sing in an American Blues style. So Donnelly would certainly have been the first person to combine what was relevant to the young people of the time in the city with the language of Cork. It was unique, he was brilliant, an amazing singer and a great lyricist. He liked glam rock and he liked opera, he was from Belfast so when he heard the local people speaking in Cork, it was like he’s not from Cork but he has to be from Cork or else the wackers [Cork slang — trouble makers] will beat the fuck out of him so suddenly he’s much more Cork than everybody else, at the same time he’s observing the way everybody speaks so it comes out in the songs. He just soaked up influences, it wasn’t particularly conscious with Donnelly, he didn’t say, “I’m going to be the greatest singer”.
Chapter 3 — Nun Attax
He turned out to be an extremely friendly person, which surprised me. In fact you couldn’t get rid of him really — Cathal Coughlan
Cathal Coughlan — I met Donnelly at the Arcadia, curiously enough, I mean, I think that’s where most people met each other at that time. Obviously he was one of the more extraordinary looking people in Cork. My own background was pretty dull, you know, lower middle class, one of those schools, UCC, driving me insane. You know I wanted to be involved in music but I didn’t know anybody who was doing that sorta thing. So I just struck up a conversation with him, he looked like the kinda person who ought to know about these things and after a fashion he did.
He turned out to be an extremely friendly person, which surprised me. In fact you couldn’t get rid of him really. [Laughing] I got to know Ricky within a few minutes and the whole circle. I took to going to their jams at Smelly and Philip’s family house up in Farranree [Cork suburb]; I honestly can’t remember where it was exactly because I’m fairly crap at these details. These were kind of social occasions, sitting in a very small bedroom, [laughing] listening to four people making a loud noise. I forget when exactly that was, I think it was late in 1978 or early ’79, I’m really not too sure. And sometime after that I met Sean O’Hagan and started doing music myself but we stayed close as you have to do in Cork. You’re close whether you like it or not.
Ricky Dineen — We were actually working class snobs. Basically like, we were from Gurran [Gurranabraher, Cork suburb], we were from Churchfield [Cork suburb] and we started associating with the likes of Cathal and all of these people that were in college. It was we who were actually the snobs, they weren’t, do you know what I mean, we thought we were above all of them, and they were trying to be like us. Now maybe that wasn’t true but we were the snobs alright. The working class snobs, from Gurran, walking up the hill, and they all probably being collected by their Daddies at the end of the night.
Sean O’Hagan — It all started for me when I met Cathal at a party in 1979, a New Year’s Eve party. Cathal was at college and I was just working in Little Island, doing a day job. We were just discussing music, we realised that we had sort of similar tastes, Scritti Politti, The Pop Group, that kind of thing. I was about 21, Cathal was about 19, we decided to get together and just do a kind of poetry thing, poetry with guitars. So that’s when I met Mick [Lynch]. Mick was the first person that Cathal turned me onto and through Mick we got to know the Nun Attax, as they were then. I just knew them as these four guys who were very odd characters, almost sort of like to the point of caricature. Which I found very odd because I had just spent a good few years growing up in Luton, a car town just outside London. So I was in this fairly odd town or city meeting people who didn’t work in car factories, I had come from a culture where all your mates came from the same sort of suburban culture. Meeting people who were from a middle class culture and then a country culture was quite odd. And then a working class culture; because Donnelly and Ricky and all that lot very much came from the city working class culture. That mixture was really fascinating to me and it was something that I didn’t realise existed until it was presented to me.
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire — After Nun Attax exploded on the scene as it were, everybody including Cathal and Sean and Mick Lynch said, “Jesus, we can do that.” So before long, within six months they were getting their things together, under the same spirit like. If Nun Attax can do it, so can we. Cathal was doing medicine or something in college at that stage, he said, “If Donnelly can do it, I can do it.” Cathal was writing for Hot Press as well, he’d do the odd review of gigs. Everybody looked up to Donnelly basically, because he was the number one character around the place. His general demeanour drew extreme reactions from different folk, depending on what side of the fence they were from, “That guy’s mad, he’s dangerous.” We looked up to him, [laughing] but he wasn’t the kind of guy that you’d bring home to your mother. He could be both amazingly good looking and amazingly ugly all very quickly. Everybody knew him, some people were afraid of him. He wasn’t allowed into Sir Henry’s. The bouncers said, “What age are you?” [Laughing] And he said, “12.” Out the door and that was the end of that.
Sean O’Hagan — With Donnelly, Ricky, Smelly and Giordaí, the interplay was brilliant, smart guys, quick fire stuff, it was almost like being out in the pub every night with the Marx Brothers. Walking down the street with the Marx Brothers; that was just the way they were, a mixture of colloquialism, humour and cynicism. The only time I’d ever come across it before would have been on TV. But that was obviously stiff and wasn’t spontaneous. [Laughing] They used to spit at Giordaí and call him a hippy. That was funny. It was always very funny. Even when Giordaí felt like the outsider, the joke would have been known, it was almost like a public joke, “Giordaí is a hippy and he’s playing with Donnelly and Ricky and that’s bizarre.”
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire — All the punk rockers and everybody, including Mick Lynch turned up to look at us. Everybody was amazed, because now there was this new added dimension of genuinely playing because before I joined it was chaotic. Nun Attax were the first genuine Cork punk, new wave band. Donnelly was charismatic and influential but it came from absolutely nothing, a shambles, really bad untogether, out of tune music. A complete and utter garage punk rock approach but not even tight or together and then it kind of tightened up when I joined up with them. They were all over the place and I had learned to play at that stage. It sailed for a while and after that they had figured out some of the tricks of playing.
Mick Lynch — There was just a great scene; Nun Attax, Micro Disney, ourselves [Mean Features], The Flaa-Macs and Belson. You had the Dublin bands like DC [DC Nein] coming down to the Arc and they might bring a support band with them but there’d always be a local band playing. Because of that then, people were seeing you in action. Then if you were having a gig down in Heaphy’s or in Sir Henry’s or wherever people would come along and see you. I mean it was a very incestuous bunch really. Punks and their molls. There was a couple of Mods hanging on and that. The 2 Tone stuff was happening then as well, so there was a big upsurge in that whole look or feel about things. The good times were going up to Dublin. We used to play up in the Magnet [pub venue on Pearse Street, Dublin]. We almost had a residency up there of Cork bands every Saturday night. Packaged up it would be; Mean Features and Nun Attax; and Micro Disney and The Flaa-Macs, or you know subtle variations on that. They were hilarious like. People in Dublin didn’t know what to make of this, these lunatics coming up from Cork who didn’t give a shit about anything like. It was tickle and pink.
Gavin Friday — When I met first Donnelly and Cathal in Cork, they were all on the verge of starting bands. The Virgin Prunes were that little bit earlier than them. They came to see us live and they were back stage. I went to see the Nun Attax play live in McGonagles when they first came to Dublin about a year or so later. I Ioved them. I loved the fucking name — NUN ATTAX. They were similarities, it was just how the fuck can you control that singer? Well you can’t. I was a bit similar, the angst and the adrenaline. The beautiful thing was that we had this medium, this thing called music, this thing of being in a band, to let go of all that angst. I could see that with Donnelly.
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire — Nun Attax would be walking out to my house in Ovens and it was like, “God, watch out, they’re coming.” My mother was afraid of them, particularly afraid of Donnelly, she thought he was a bad influence. My aunt rang her up to warn her of the arrival of Nun Attax. Another time my sister arrived in Ovens with him. He got the bus and asked, “How do you get to Giordaí’s place?”. Someone told him, “That’s his little sister walking along”. She was 14, with Donnelly walking bedside her, not talking to her for about a mile and a half, [laughing] with several colours in his hair. My little sister not knowing what the hell to make of this. He specialised in old man’s suits. He was very tall so he wore suits. The pants were always too high and he had his own way of walking through town that was ungraceful in a kind of graceful sense.
Sean O’Hagan — We used to meet regularly on a Thursday at the bus station in Cork and we’d take a trip about 15km west of Cork City. It was near where Giordaí lived in Ovens or Ballinora [Co. Cork town], he lived in the countryside with his parents. Giordaí was a member of the Nun Attax at that time and we went to a GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association] hall. Giordaí’s dad was in the GAA and he had let them use the hall to rehearse. Can you imagine getting on this rickety old bus, loose bolts all the way, heading out to Ballinora and walking for a couple of miles through small country roads into a GAA hall. Listening to the Nun Attax in that environment was completely bizarre. We used to go out there, Cathal, Mick, me and Dave Galvin and watch this. It was almost like a cartoon, watching and then all traipsing out to wait for the bus home. We’d be talking about what we were going to do. “Well, that’s what they did, what are we going to do?” It was the first time that I was introduced to the Nun Attax, I was fascinated, it was the first time that I’d ever heard music that didn’t seem to have any kind of tangible relevance to anything I’d heard before — angular music, it was the first time that I’d heard angular music.
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire — I had to leave Nun Attax, you wouldn’t know what drug was the order of the day. My father knew somebody, who knew somebody who had the use of a hall in Ballinora. So one of my insane plans is that we’d stay the night, sleep there over night. To facilitate sleeping there the lads took a whole lot of Pondies, which were diet pills that produced speedy effects so everybody was up all night. Of course I arrived the next morning and Ricky was vomiting. We were supposed to be jamming all day; I was into doing it properly, by the book, you know, more fool me. And the abuse because I was from the country and everything like, from Philip, and everything like. Just continuous abuse, all the time, continuous abuse. So I eventually went over to the civilised Micro Disney camp, [laughing] where people would turn up for rehearsal, even though Micro Disney at the time wasn’t as good.
Ricky Dineen — We used to take the piss out of him all the time, but he had to learn to live with it. He was a bit unusual for us, he was a bit weirder. He used to be eating nuts and things like that, [laughing] health food and that sort of stuff. We had no interest in that auld malarkey. He couldn’t stand the pressure and we were a bit hard on him. But his musical influence was fantastic, because he was very, very, very talented. When he joined he made a complete difference, it was fantastic. But as I say he jumped ship and I had to take over and I was still on a learning curve by then and I wasn’t good enough to be honest with you.
Sean O’Hagan — Donnelly used to be a mixture of absolute charm and politeness and unpredictable attack. He was very funny, very smart. I couldn’t get used to somebody who didn’t play the life game of actually not saying what you think, you know. You think something but you don’t say it. Donnelly would think something and say it, and then question you, “Why shouldn’t I say it?” I found that really extraordinary, not confrontational but extraordinary. I was a little bit afraid of him for a while, but then I learnt not to be afraid of him and I kinda used to enjoy talking to him in calmer moments. In a one to one situation Donnelly was very enjoyable, you’d get a lot out of him, he wouldn’t stop talking about books. Reading, of course he was reading voraciously, incredibly turned-on bloke. In a group with a few other people he used to be a performer, and you wouldn’t get to the kind of more intelligent Donnelly, the more expansive Donnelly. He used to be the centre of attention, always funny. And the weird thing is once someone else came into the group and met Donnelly for the first time, you knew that this person was in for a sort of slight baptism of fire. First of all being confronted by this character, trying to understand and being shocked, getting to know him and then realising that there was a bit of shadow-boxing going on.
Dave Galvin — I had great time for Finbarr. I’d often bump into him and we’d be chatting away, he was fierce smart, a very bright guy, a very funny guy and he had a fierce sense of humour. When you met him in company then he was different, it was Finbarr the performer, he was completely different. So what persona you were confronted with depended on the circumstances in which you met him. He was unique really.
Declan Lynch — I knew about Nun Attax through Hot Press, there was a piece by Cathal Coughlan which was about the first punk he ever saw in Cork, this strange alien creature who he saw doing the rounds in Cork, which turned out to be Donnelly. There was also a photograph which arrived into Hot Press of Donnelly, a very striking, great photograph of a very unusual looking gentleman and some very strange copy with it, very odd song titles. It came at a time when you had Micro Disney at it as well and all sorts of lurid tales were coming out of the South, it just appeared that something unusual enough, for Bill Graham [Irish journalist and author] to go down and investigate what was going on. In a weird way I would compare Donnelly to Bill Graham, even though they were ostensibly ludicrously different people, there was a fellow feeling between them, I don’t know what it was. On their few meetings I think they became kindred spirits to some degree, this unique sensibility that each of them had.
Elvera Butler — I can remember Bill Graham from Hot Press came down to interview Nun Attax. Bill was a great champion of the band. I can remember bumping into the guys on MacCurtain Street on the Saturday. They thought it was great, if only you could read it [laughing] because Bill wrote so well.
Sean O’Hagan — I’m amazed that it sustained itself for as long as it did, it did sustain itself right through the Nun Attax, through the first few years when they took the whole Dublin scene by storm. There was an element of surprise in Dublin when they used to go up there and play. I always found it quite interesting that whatever was happening in Dublin, there was definitely a stopping and taking of stock up there, when Nun Attax arrived and did what they did, it was like, “Hang on a minute.” You know it was almost like there were a million bar bands in Dublin, you know like, The Lookalikes, and The This, and The That. There was a lot of pointy shoes and bow-legged stances, skinny ties and of course when Nun Attax went up there with braces, big country pants and silly grins and this music that most people said, “Oh this is Beefheart, isn’t it?” Which it wasn’t, it was much more then that. They introduced this kind of experimental edge to what people thought was punk rock in those days. There was definitely a sort of element of surprise.
Stan Erraught — There was four or five bands in Cork then, that were certainly more interesting than anything that was going on in Dublin. Bands in Dublin were still sort of at the stage of imitating what was popular or successful abroad, whereas bands in Cork were doing something that nobody else was doing. In a way I used to wonder why it was that Dublin, a much bigger city, wasn’t capable of producing music of this calibre. I think one or two or three people in a scene can make a huge difference. If there’s talented people just going for what they want to do. They stimulate others to do it, they also raise the standard and they make people, you know if there are two bands as good as Micro Disney and Five Go Down to the Sea?, or Nun Attax as they were then, going in a city then everyone else has to try and compete with that. I think they felt in order to do anything they were going to have to get out. Although Disney and Nun Attax played in Dublin, they weren’t that interested in breaking Dublin, they knew they had to go further afield.
Liam Heffernan — It wasn’t manufactured in any way. It was very genuine, he just was fairly loopy. I suppose it allowed the rest of us to be a little bit loopy then as well. That side of us came out. I mean this is all in hindsight, at the time we wouldn’t have said that it was Donnelly. I mean the days in the Arc, all the bands that were happening, there were people who were calling it the Lee-beat at the time as opposed to the Mersey-beat. Because every band that came out had a different kind of take on them, they weren’t like your normal punk rock bands that were happening in Dublin, who all seemed to sound the same. Each band who came out of Cork, they had their own take on it. Listening back to some of the stuff from those days, the lads, Nun Attax, Five Go Down to the Sea?, extraordinary, musically it really was exceptional. His voice and his passion in his voice, this is all again in hindsight, at the time it was just, “Yeah, yeah, yeah they’re doing their gig, we’re [Mean Features] doing ours.”
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire — I played a gig in UCC with Nun Attax to a large country audience, who were just there looking at us in complete disbelief. Noel Redding was playing later on, out on the green in UCC so we all went down to watch him. Donnelly was throwing things at the students and the lads were shouting at Noel Redding, [laughing] “Where’s Jimi Hendrix?” Noel Redding looking confused, “Jimi’s dead.” UCC would have been dominated by country people, so they wouldn’t have liked new wave or punk at all. They would still have been getting hip to Fleetwood Mac. The students came to watch Nun Attax, it was a reasonably OK show for the time, it would have been 15 fairly together songs. They would have been watching Donnelly like he was somebody literally from another planet. It was a city thing. It didn’t spread outside the city, it wouldn’t have been appreciated in the country.
Michael Stack — I saw them play before I met them. I knew of them, Donnelly was striking looking just walking around Cork. He was hard to miss, and they were in “that band”. The first time I saw them play was of an afternoon at the College Bar at UCC. Giordaí was with them. Ricky seemed extra small with a small Gibson and a Mt. Everest of Marshall Amps extra-dwarfing him from behind. I remember them sound checking with Ricky doing a few bar chords and then getting an evil imp smile over the power he had to hand. They then started playing. Giordaí fidgeted around the place and Finbarr wailed over the top. All you could see of Smelly was his nose behind a massive set of drums. Phillip, Smelly’s brother, was there too with that big Rickenbacker bass he always had. I seem to remember Donnelly putting a pint glass into his mouth at one point, a particular talent of his. The band would be noodling and messing playing “songs” and then it would come together like the chorus at the end of the Ninth Symphony. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen. When not playing, hanging around the College Bar, they were busy asking everyone they could, “Peter, have you seen my book?”
Chapter 5 — Kaught at the Kampus
With a lot of justification a lot of people thought that they were going to become the next U2, a lot of people really did think that, in Dublin even — Cathal Coughlan
Ricky Dineen — Kaught at the Kampus was fantastic, everybody knew each other, it was like being a real musician and we were only young. I was only 18 as was Donnelly, Smelly would have been 17, it was great having a big huge recording bus outside the Arc. We were excited and really delighted, it was great.
Liam Heffernan — It was all brilliant. Shur, we were only young lads. I remember Giordaí tuning our guitars in a car outside before we went on, no such thing as a tuner.
Cathal Coughlan — In the autumn of 1980, Giordaí had left Nun Attax and joined Micro Disney. We played with Nun Attax, Mean Features and Urban Blitz at the Arcadia at this gig that got recorded. That was supposed to be the beginning of an opportunity for all of us to become famous. We did the gig and it was recorded and the stars of the whole thing were Nun Attax. With a lot of justification a lot of people thought that they were going to become the next U2, a lot of people really did think that, in Dublin even. [Laughing] Even people who couldn’t stand their behaviour thought that that was going to happen. You know, the Nun Attax tracks were great. I mean it really caught them at what they were doing at that time. [Laughing] The Micro Disney track was shite but that’s neither here nor there.
Morty McCarthy — I think the big influence was Kaught at the Kampus. My friend’s brother had it, we used to play it time and time again and we couldn’t believe there were Cork bands who actually had a song on record. Urban Blitz and Mean Features and all of these bands. It was the first time that we had ever seen a Cork band on vinyl. We had been listening to U2 and Dexy’s and all this kind of stuff and we quickly realised, [laughing] “God a Cork band other then Gina, Dale Haze and the Champions [Cork pop band/showband from the 1970s] can put something down on vinyl.” You know for me, even though I was a kid, it was something that did definitely stick with me.
Cathal Coughlan — The social scene developed at that point and it was the first time in a few years that there was suddenly a group of people who were all doing the same things. It was quite an optimistic time for about six months, no more than that really. Nun Attax started getting quite a lot of attention and Donnelly became the next big thing as far as the Dublin music press were concerned; he didn’t become any less extreme in his personal behaviour in fact probably more so, I suppose that’s what people do. The variety of extreme behaviour that Donnelly and Ricky and everybody else went in for was of a particularly colloquial type and by and large a lot of people from Cork couldn’t handle it. People from outside Cork generally couldn’t handle it at all. The further away from Cork you went the worse that got. I’m sorry if I’m stating the obvious but that has to be added.
Ian Wilson — We were well aware when The Fanning Show started that there was something happening in Cork. The Fanning Show started on 2FM, Radio 2 as it was then, in 1979, and by 1980 it was fairly obvious that there was quite a lot going on in Dublin, a fair bit in Belfast and we started to hear rumblings of the early punk thing in Cork. I can remember going down to the Downtown Kampus in the Arc and seeing a few shows there, I can remember going down with U2 once in the very early days. I got to know the people involved in the Arc — Elvera Butler and Andy, and they had an interest in doing a record company so they brought out Kaught at the Kampus with Micro Disney and Nun Attax. Arising out of that we brought them up to Dublin and did sessions in early 1981 with all the main Cork bands of the time.* It was quite interesting what was going on, it was completely bonkers, it was this sort of strange mixture of punk stuff with this Cork whimsical kind of thing, it was quite a powerful concoction actually. They were as mad as hatters, particularly Donnelly and the rest of them were completely bonkers also. They didn’t know what to make of us at all; RTÉ being a very corporate kind of place and the image that they had, so it was all a bit weird. We subsequently had them back in various forms, Five Go Down to the Sea? and Micro Disney came back and did later sessions as well.**
*Nun Attax’s Fanning Session from 9 February 1981 is available on The Fanning Sessions Archive blog.
**Five Go Down to the Sea? recorded two Fanning Sessions (18 October 1983 and 20 November 1984)
Cathal Coughlan — For them it was harder because by the end of 1980, Donnelly’s face and his pie-bald head was in the centre of the Hot Press Calendar for 1981. The Hot Press yearbook was full of Nun Attax and somehow nothing happened. I wouldn’t put it all down to their behaviour; it was just that things couldn’t happen for anybody. The local scene was drying up and it cost a lot of money to go to Dublin to play at all. Personal relationships started to get pretty bad, it had to be said, people started drifting apart. The social side of gigs wasn’t happening anymore.
Donnelly didn’t care; he didn’t have any fixed idea of what he was looking for in business terms. I mean, Nun Attax used to have this expression; somebody was ‘a businesst’. [imitates Donnelly] “Oh, Philip’s the businesst.” Because Philip had some interest in getting gigs and stuff like that. “Ah, Philip’s the businesst, Philip’s a langer*.” So you know, that was the theorem basically, ipso facto, if you were a businesst, you were a langer.
*Langer: 1) Penis (I’ve got a huge langer, boy). 2) Foolish person (You’re some langer, boy). 3) To be intoxicated (He was langers, boy).
Chapter 6— Arc finishes
It’s actually life just gone slightly beyond the bounds of plausibility and it seems surreal but it actually does happen — Conal Creedon
Finny Corcoran — There was the days of the early Arc where we had Micro Disney and Mean Features and Nun Attax and then the Arc finished and then there was a lull. I remember there was a nightclub called Gatsby’s that tried to get something going for a while and that collapsed. It’s always the same in local music scenes, there’s a venue and a scene and once the venue’s gone the scene is gone so that’s what really happened with Micro Disney and Nun Attax, when the Arc finished they had to go abroad because there was nothing for them here anymore either.
Elvera Butler — The Arc finished in May 1981 because of that awful fire in the Stardust [Dublin nightclub]. Insurance premiums rocketed after the Stardust fire and capacities were reduced. But also what happened of course was the Hunger Strike. A lot of British bands started cancelling Belfast and then it wasn’t viable for them to come in.
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire — It was only a small scene that collapsed after the Arc died. Nothing happened in Cork then for ages. The Arc died around 1981. It was just a golden era from 1977 to 1981.
Elvera Butler — After the Arc finished at the end of May 1981 me and my partner Andy started a gig in September of 1981 in the Savoy. We had some great bands there. I can remember The Teardrop Explodes and Horace Andy. The Savoy wasn’t as good a venue, it was hard to get the gear into and it didn’t have the same flow of people. I went to London at Christmas in 1982 and started running gigs over there at a cinema in Brixton. I was doing gigs nationwide for about a year before I went to London, I was touring bands. I lost so much money on the Savoy. I was offered a share of a venue in London through my partner’s brother. We kept on doing Reekus and I kept on doing gigs in London. I did Big Self because they had also moved with me to London; they were one of my favourite Irish bands. The Camino Organisation had also moved over, another band on the label. I did gigs for Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Mary Coughlan and all of that kind of thing. We did John Cale, and poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson. We put on things that were safe in terms of the cinema screen. Finbarr and Smelly used to come in a lot, they’d pop in and say hello.
Declan Lynch — I lived in Cork for about three years between 1982 and 1985; I was in UCC at the time. Just from knocking around the place, I ran into them, it was drink that brought us together essentially. There were a few places that people used to go to, The Phoenix [Union Quay] was the main place that Donnelly used to go to because Tom Dineen who ran it used to give them safe haven and sanctuary and even the odd gig there. I directly met Donnelly in a place called the Bodega [situated on Oliver Plunkett Street], which was very indeterminate at the time, the complete opposite to whatever trendy is now. I could go there and meet Five Go Down to the Sea? over a few drinks and neither of us knew why we were there exactly. [Laughing] We were passing through to somewhere else. It was just a mad drunk meeting really but from it there was a vague arrangement that I must do an article about them. I also went down to see them rehearsing in a little room somewhere; I just remember this incredible noise of these men battering away in a little room off the Southern Road [Wallaroo, Old Blackrock Road].
Conal Creedon — Donnelly and this Cork surrealism and I don’t think it’s actually surreal. The phrase that I would use is “surlifeism”. It’s actually life just gone slightly beyond the bounds of plausibility and it seems surreal but it actually does happen. A prime example now with Donnelly is — I was walking down by the statue [Fr. Matthew Statue, St Patrick’s Street, Cork] and he was coming up the road, he was with Smelly or Ricky or Philip or somebody. They were coming up by Easons and I crossed over and I was like, ‘How’s it going, what’s the craic, what are ye up to?’ He was eating, you know those skull loafs of bread. It’s a round loaf of bread with a hard crust on it and it has really soft bread inside of it. He had one of those under his arm and he was eating the white out of the bread, just chatting to the lads. So all that was left was the crust, and next thing it started raining. He just finished the bread and put the crust on his head. It was just the size of his head, and I thought that loaf of bread is called a skull and it fits his head perfectly right. The conversation ended and he just headed off up the street and he was quite happy there with the loaf of bread on his head. The skull on his head. At the time you don’t think much of it. No doubt probably the following week someone said, “Look at that langer, I was downtown last week and he had a loaf of bread on his head.” But it’s only when you look back in retrospect that you say, “that’s brilliant you know, that really is brilliant, that’s performance going on there.” He knew exactly what he was at. It wasn’t a gobbing on life, It wasn’t doing the punk thing, spitting on the road. There was a major statement. You could call it performance art in some ways. There is no doubt that the irony of putting a skull on your head certainly crossed his mind. But without passing comment on it and left it there. I just thought that’s typical, that’s the guy that we all knew.
Declan Lynch — Donnelly was in an odd way quite integrated in his community, he wouldn’t be advertising this in any way but you would meet him doing the rounds of doing things like going to the library, or collecting his dole. To some degree he did have an ordinary life in Cork except that he looked at it in a completely different way. Anytime I met him on the street he always seemed to have a few books under his arm which he got out of the library. I very rarely, no more than anybody else, had what you might call a normal conversation with Donnelly, but you would get around to sort of talking about things in the most weird way eventually, once you understood that what seemed like belligerence was just not. He was a man of peace, he came in peace. But you had to figure that out, I can see how his presence or an initial meeting with him would be very disorientating because he was capable of anything, of saying anything to anybody. You would hear legends of him actually stopping fights on Friday nights between skinheads and whoever they happened to be beating up. Because everyone knew him so well, he oddly enough was trusted by all sides.
There are just people like that, seminal people who just take all the risks and do it first, they just seem to be constantly pushing it. The whole essence of rock and roll as such is that it is an alternative; it is outside the barriers of normal life except an awful lot of its practitioners are middle class people. For any ordinary middle class person observing Donnelly he was like some vision of liberation and freedom from everything that was oppressing you. There are people like that, they are just like primal forces as such. They live entirely by their own lights. They really could not give a fuck what anyone thinks about them and with Donnelly it was particularly attractive because he seemed to have a coherent aesthetic for this, it was very hard to put your finger on what it was, but you knew that it existed. He actually knew what he was doing to some degree, he wasn’t just some delinquent running out of control, it’s as if he had somehow figured out this aesthetic which could accommodate the way he was in the world. Every musical movement in the world can look to some unique individual like that, who did it first.
Further reading: for extra insight into Cork’s post-punk musical landscape, the Downtown Kampus at the Arcadia and the Kaught at the Kampus EP read…
Lights! Camel! Action! The Story of Stump
An Oral History of Stump, the Anglo-Irish experimental, rock band from the 1980s by Paul McDermott
Chapter 7— Five Go Down to the Sea?
I had always wanted to play the bass and I never imagined that I would get to play in a band with the cello — Úna Ní Chanainn
Ricky Dineen — Five Go Down to the Sea? was the name of a Nun Attax song and obviously an Enid Blyton novel. We said we’d use Five Go Down to the Sea with [laughing] a question mark at the end of it for some reason, as the name of the band; that would have been Donnelly’s influence again. We’d [Nun Attax] had enough, it was frustrating it was terrible. We couldn’t get a gig in Sir Henry’s, they wouldn’t have us because we were punk rock, we weren’t the rock and roll types. We’d play in the Arc and the Magnet in Dublin, they were our buzzes; that was it. The idea was to start afresh and Philip called it a day and then we came across Stack from Ballyheigue [Co. Kerry]. I can’t actually remember where we met him, but he was in UCC and he would have been around at gigs and things like that.
Michael Stack — I was in a band called Prague Over Here with Feargal Keane, the now RTÉ reporter, my buddy Chris Leahy on drums, and a woman named Liz, who replaced Mick Lynch. Mick left because we were bad. We were playing in the College Bar in UCC and I remember in the middle of a song as I was playing along Ricky just walks up to me and looking at my fingers said, “That’s interesting, why don’t you come by Marie Lynch’s house* on such and such a date for a practice.” Then he just walked off. The lads called me Stack, I never liked ‘Mick’. My dad was Mick, my grandad was Micheál and I was Michael. It’s not important really.
*Marie Lynch (Mick Lynch’s sister) lived in a house called Wallaroo on Old Blackrock Road. Five Go Down to the Sea? practised in a room upstairs.
Ricky Dineen — Stack was out of this world, weird guy like a very deep thinking guy. He was so intelligent, he couldn’t talk, and he couldn’t express himself. So he’d be there trying to explain something that’s very simple, and he wouldn’t be able to do it. He could play the accordion, the banjo, the violin anything. Musically adept, into writing, into reading a lot like you know. He was fantastic for us. He did the sleeves for the Five Go Down to the Sea? records as well and I think he did one of the early Microdisney sleeves.
Cathal Coughlan — Philip left Nun Attax so they didn’t have a bass player and they didn’t do anything for a while and then the next thing was I think it was early ’82, they came back as Five Go Down to the Sea?, with the cello player. The first time I saw them was at the Granary Theatre. It was just incredible. I mean, it was just completely different to Nun Attax mostly. It wasn’t like a rock band anymore it was just like a bizarre but coherent, completely focused attack of extreme Cork eccentricity. Nothing went on for longer than two and a half minutes. Donnelly was for the first time singing in his Belfast accent for some of the time, because of course he had lived there until he was 12 or something like that. It was just unforgettable really; I mean that is the one thing stamped in my head, now not quite date-stamped unfortunately.
Ricky Dineen — We were at a play. Actually Mick Lynch was in the play. Úna was playing the cello in the play. And there was kind of a party after the play and we asked, we didn’t think that she’d say yes like. And she turned up, she turned up with her cello, it was amazing. Here, here you are, she started playing. It was fantastic and we decided to drop the bass then at that stage, it worked.
Úna Ní Chanainn — I had always wanted to play the bass and I never imagined that I would get to play in a band with the cello. I had started listening to punk before meeting the lads and this followed on from a Rory Gallagher/Thin Lizzy phase. The play in question was The Love of Don Perlimplín and Belisa in the Garden by Lorca [Federico García Lorca]. Mick Lynch played Don Perlimplín and John Browne, who was a music student at UCC, as far as I remember, had written a beautiful score and the musicians were playing at the side of the stage in tails and white faces. I met the lads at the after party, they were pretty drunk but persuasive and interesting to me, so I agreed to go along and rehearse with them.
Cathal Coughlan — They sold their souls to the devil obviously. [Laughing] Donnelly and Ricky went down to the crossroads like Robert Johnson and came back with a Gaeilgeoir [Irish speaker] cello player, [laughing] as you do. Mick Stack was the other guitarist in Five Go Down to the Sea?, he was quite peculiar, he had spent some of his childhood in Britain, he was an engineering student which meant that he was completely different to them but he was quite an unusual person and a very good guitarist in a deranged way. He and Ricky had this great thing going between them.
Sean O’Hagan — They went away and said, “We’re not going to do it anymore,” and they stopped. Giordaí wasn’t there and Philip had left. They came back as Five Go Down to the Sea? with the cello, the big addition. It was amazing, this idea of bringing in a cello. God, we thought, that’s amazing, that’s great. And it worked brilliantly, it really worked.
Ricky Dineen — Stack was from Ballyheigue and Úna was from Glanmire [village, 7km to the East of Cork City] and they’d be from completely different backgrounds to us. We were coming from the working class Norrie [Northside] background. Different, completely different backgrounds; but it seemed to work, it seemed to work, [laughing] Stack could take the abuse better than Giordaí, I think. And Úna just carried on, she exploded a few times about bad language and sexist remarks and things like that. She was fine, but she eventually had enough and went off to do her classical music.
Úna Ní Chanainn — I was from a very different background and I envied the tight “community” that they had and it only highlighted for me how alienated I felt from everything myself. My dad was from Derry and my mom was from Belfast, and so even though I grew up in Cork, I definitely felt different, I had no relations in Cork, I was an all Irish speaker, my Irish was Donegal, so I didn’t even fit in with the other Gaeilgeoirí, and I was a cellist, and I had curly hair, and I lived in Glanmire, which was the country in those days.
Cathal Coughlan — I would say stylistically and musically, to them that was perfect. I mean you couldn’t have anything more Spadgie then a cellist in a new wave band, [imitates Donnelly] “a punk rock, new wave band, new wave Spadgie band”. She was very, very different from them. If I’m not mistaken Úna was a really A-rated music student in UCC. It was like chalk and cheese, but they were doing this thing, they had this sort of processional; dum da, da dum da, kinda feel about it. “You must have strings for that, darling.” I mean it was Brechtian, but they would have urinated upon, you know, the very word.
Úna Ní Chanainn — I remember rehearsals in the room in Wallaroo, full of smoke and deafeningly loud. Ricky often sat outside the room to hear from a distance. He sometimes was in pain with his ulcer and always had bottles of Maalox on hand. We did some gigs in Cork and I think maybe one in the North Star hotel in Dublin, but I could be imagining that. I couldn’t ever hear myself properly at the gigs and had a fear of my cello getting smashed by all those punters who already were smashed.
Mick Lynch — I mean it was Donnelly roaring, but as they got better with their playing and all that; I mean there was the core, the four and then the three of them, they could almost read each other’s minds, music and stuff. You know, there was the time they had a cello player instead of a bass player. That was amazing, that reincarnation was amazing. You’d get these really long holding deep bass notes, It gave a whole different, orchestral air to the thing. So they were very open to ideas and stuff like that.
Úna Ní Chanainn — Donnelly and Ricky almost had their own “secret” language, like twins have sometimes. It keeps what is inside the circle safe and it keeps out threats. It was like a moat around the castle. Donnelly adored Ricky. Ricky was like a brother to him and became like an anchor in Donnelly’s world in Cork, which must have been shaken by moving to Cork from Belfast aged 12. He mentioned this so often in the time I knew him, not about Belfast as such, but how he was uprooted and felt like an outsider for so long. Maybe it was a real life metaphor for not fitting in, in other ways, regarding his sexuality. I had no idea he was gay, at the time.
Jim O’Mahony — When Five Go Down to the Sea? had Úna playing cello, they were one of the best bands I have ever in my life seen. I must have seen them forty or fifty times. The classic track, I think I’ve the only copy of it on demo that Donnelly gave to me years ago is a track called ‘Knocknaheeney Shuffle’.
Morty McCarthy — From listening to them I don’t think they were really interested in your traditional rock structures and traditional rock instruments, they were trying things out. That song ‘Knocknaheeny Shuffle’ sounds like a thousand wackers saying, “Come ‘ere, what’s in dere?” Bizarre ideas and most of them worked and some didn’t but they were just an original band and that’s the main thing. Having a cello, weird guitar sounds and the drum style was very very unusual, very quirky, very stop-start. Quirky is the word you’d have to use. They’re the sacred cow of Cork music; they’re almost the untouchable band. Every band whose heard of them looks up to Five Go Down to the Sea?
Jim O’Mahony — “Down, down down da down,” and he’d be like, “I’m from Knocka-na-heeny, I’ve from Knocka” [Cork Suburb]. Brilliant! And what was it, the two they released on the Knot a Fish 7’’ single, ‘Why Wait Until April’ and ‘There’s A Fish On Top of Shandon Swears He’s Elvis’. It was very brave, this was an era when some Dublin singers would suddenly experience personality disorders the minute they saw a microphone, they were no longer from Finglas [working class, northside Dublin suburb] or Donnybrook [middle class, southside Dublin suburb], they were from either LA or Middle America. You’d go to see some Dublin bands and you’d see this guy from the inner city turning into an American before your eyes, it was a bit silly because when you listen to someone singing in an accent of another country there are always certain words that you can’t really sing, it used to look fucking stupid. Cathal used to sing in a Cork accent but he didn’t accentuate it too much, but Donnelly milked it. Those songs couldn’t have been sung in another accent though, imagine singing ‘Knocknaheeny Shuffle’ in an American accent, [laughing] imagine doing ‘Knocknaheeny Shuffle’ in a New York, Lou Reed accent [laughing] I certainly couldn’t.
Úna Ní Chanainn — Donnelly was so unique and imaginative as a presence, and was always creative and playful with words and sounds. He seemed to spend a lot of energy messing around with words and phrases to best describe a feeling or a person. This appeared to me to be as much a constant striving to get to the essence of something and I was always left with the feeling that he was a lonely person. He was shy and very vulnerable, poetic and sensitive beyond measure. He sifted people by showing them his “worst” side initially. I identified completely with that. I loved how expressive he was, especially in trusted company. He was always kind and gentlemanly around me. This was in contrast to the more edgy feeling that he didn’t really have anything to lose and in this sense, he really did live in the moment. He seemed to be always searching for kindred spirits. These people were then described by him as “brilliant”. Brilliant meant “sound”, unique, funny and brave, all the things he was actually.
Ricky Dineen — My guitar bits were very, very simple because of the limited talent I had, not coming from a musical background. Most of the complicated guitar and bass are coming from Mick Stack, he was the real musical talent behind it. I had a big part to play in the arrangements of the songs, [laughing] all the simple shitty things are mine.
Michael Stack — Ricky’s playing was totally refreshing — like no one else’s — and I think just hearing it is what opened up music for me. The only fellow I know who comes close is Marc Ribot, who I first heard on the Tom Waits song ‘Going Out West’ . If Ricky was into jazz, a better Marc Ribot is what you’d get. Me and Úna would work on stuff together, but then Ricky and I would have a go too. Finbarr came in at the end and just did his thing, and yodel over the top. Usually he had a theme of the week — a joke, a comment a kid had made to him walking over Knocknahenny, or a particular perversion in the space time fabric he’d noticed (always a perversion, never items of beauty), or an anomaly he’d read of in a book after it had been strained by his brain, drink, drugs, and brilliance and this is what he’d start singing about. It’d come together pretty quick after the initial groundwork had been laid.
Sean O’Hagan — I think Ricky’s guitar playing got even more bizarre at that stage, he basically stopped using chords completely and he started playing riffs and counter point, sort of totally. Donnelly stopped singing and I think he started getting into berating, you know a berating thing. Mick Stack is very important to all this, Mick was an amazing musician, fantastic, started playing traditional instruments, started playing mandolins. A great guitar player, he could play the bass, he could play anything. Brilliant you know, worked very well with Ricky. And Smelly was always just a naturally brilliant drummer. It was fantastic; the EPs bear witness to that. The Knot A Fish EP, I think is tremendous, tremendous.
Jim O’Mahony — What I used to love about them is that you could see little bits of what they might be listening to here and there. But a lot of the time what you might imagine they’d be listening to they wouldn’t be listening to at all. I think they used to like The Birthday Party, Pere Ubu a bit. I was very young when I heard them first so I wouldn’t have been very fluent in the Beefhearts and Zappas of this world. [Laughing] I would have had more experience with Captain Birdseye than Captain Beefheart.
They sounded like nothing else, especially when it was the original line-up with the cello. When Úna left, Ricky just started playing bass and Stack played guitar, they never replaced her, they just stuck to a four piece. The cello definitely gave them something and I mean she was a serious cello player. I don’t know where they got her, but she used to play in the Irish Youth Orchestra. I remember meeting her one night in Dublin. We had gone to see The Clash in Dublin and we got lost and we were wandering around up by Stephen’s Green and we met her, she was coming from the National Concert Hall, with the coat, the dress, the cello, the music and everything. We were just going, “Fucking hell like, Jesus, Five Go Down to the Sea? have gone up in the world,” you know, “Where are you coming from?” “Oh yeah, I’d a gig tonight in the National Concert Hall”. “Oh yeah, how’d it go?” And then she said that she played in the Orchestra. [Laughing] I was relieved, because I’d have hated to have missed them if they’d played there. I don’t know where they found her.
Úna Ní Chanainn — I never saw myself as superior to the lads, ever. During my time with the band, I started freelancing with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, and I came back to Cork at the weekends for the jam with the lads. I can remember getting the mail train back up to Dublin at 5am on Monday mornings to go to work. My favourite view on the way back to Cork was the water tower; I’m nearly home, nearly in Cork.
Shane Fitzsimons — I’m from Dublin so when I first heard Five Go Down to the Sea? it was in the Magnet, on Pearse Street, so I saw them as a bunch of mad culchies [a person from rural Ireland], absolutely mad culchies. They were the first country people who I actually had time for. Pearse Street today is a bad area, in those days it was a very bad area. I can say this now because the place is closed and no one can sue me, the Magnet was the biggest toilet that I’ve ever walked into in my life. There was a bunch of punks in Dublin called The Black Catholics at the time and they were hard punk rockers. Finbarr Donnelly had been wandering around the Magnet being overly friendly to everyone, twisted out of his mind. He was going up and tapping money off The Black Catholics. This was uncanny, The Black Catholics used to make a fortune standing outside Freebird and Base X, [Dublin record shops] tapping 10p and 5p off people. But he was going up tapping money off The Black Catholics. We were the Churchtown [southside Dublin suburb] mob, we all thought that he was going to get his head kicked in but no, he was able to go up and even The Black Catholics appreciated his wit and wisdom. He was able to drink their drinks, pick up their pints, have a slug and give it back to them, no problem. This was totally bizarre to see.
Jim O’Mahony — There was absolutely no pretensions about it, it didn’t involve any tosser music journalists or stupid promoters. If somebody from Hot Press magazine came along, Donnelly’s first thing was, “Buy us a pint.” If you didn’t buy him a pint, like fuck you. He was a complete character. Because of the way he looked, if you didn’t know him you would imagine that he was this terrifying guy who was really hard and who’d kill you, but he was the complete opposite. He was a teddy bear and a really really funny guy. He would do and say things to people and get away with it.
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire — The use of English, particularly the Spadgie element is very Cork. It’s hard to describe really, a sort of a feeling, it lacks any element of funk or groovy sophistication, or radio friendliness, it’s a form of rock music that is wrong. It’s right and wrong at the same time, the good thing is that Donnelly’s singing is streets ahead of most people.
Jim O’Mahony — It was completely exclusive to Cork; it couldn’t have been done by anybody outside Cork because of the city and the environment. They say that the cities that are by big harbours attract the strangest people, maybe it’s because you get more strange people coming in and out. People used to say the same thing about San Francisco. There was a lot of humour to it as well, but it didn’t fully rely on the humour, everything was taken very seriously. You had similar people from outside Cork who were doing strange things, you had a band from Belfast called KA, Kissed Air, you had The Atrix in Dublin who used to do it very well and to an extent the Virgin Prunes, but there was always something a bit funny about them because of the U2 connection. It’s probably an awful thing to say [laughing] but I could never respect them because they were friends with U2.
Shane Fitzsimons — It was mixing avant-garde with the country. And I couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen, I thought that if you had avant-garde that it had to come from the biggest city, it couldn’t be from people who would claim to be inarticulate, because these people were as articulate, in their own way, they were able to express what they wanted to express. In a bizarre manner, in a manner that communicated when you cut out all the middle man stuff, just went to the heart of the matter. It made you bounce around the place, and that’s all people wanted to express in those days — bounce around the place.
Michael Stack — This version of the band played around a few times. The Phoenix in Cork on the weird stage — that was “home”. Tom Dineen, the owner looked after us, letting us practice at his house, he was a good man. We played in Dublin once or twice and I remember a trip to Dundalk. There were rafters over the stage and at one point Ricky was hanging from them with the guitar dangling around his neck. There were more people on stage than off with one of them sawing Úna’s Cello. There was a bunch of bikers who wanted to beat us up because of something Finbarr had said to them. They deserved it, but if self-preservation was high on Donnelly’s list he’d have kept it to himself. This version of the band was great live, the Cello was tough to amplify but when it was right, it would lift us all. Úna had cause to be afraid for her Cello, it was probably worth more than anything we all owned put together, multiplied by 100.
Enda Murray — Sean O’Hagan is a first cousin of mine so I knew Microdisney and Five Go Down to the Sea? through him. We put both bands on in Drogheda. We had a music promotion co-op in Drogheda called the NMS [New Musical Society]. We put on a double bill with Microdisney and Five Go Down to the Sea? on March 25, 1983 at Biba’s night club in Drogheda. We also put on a Five Go Down to the Sea? gig in a tiny place called Sarsfields on April 10, 1983. This was one of the most memorable gigs we ever did, the song I remember them playing was ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’. They went and did a gig in Dundalk a couple of days later.
Ian Wilson — I particularly remember the last Five Go Down to the Sea? session, which was the last thing that they did here for us. There’s some classic stuff on it. Our recording sessions are a two day event, where a band comes in one day and records and we mix on the multitrack tape the next day. They lashed through their stuff, really fast and played as live as live can be and got it done as fast as they could with a real sense of urgency. By about 6 or 7 o’clock on day one they were actually finished and I thought, wow that’s really fast, most people take another four or five hours. They said that they were very happy with what was turning out and that they wanted to head off. I said, “Fair enough.” I assumed that they really needed to get back to Cork; I knew that some of them were on the dole. I said, “What about the mix tomorrow?” They said, “Sure you know how it works.” I said, “Fair enough; I’ll send you a tape as soon as it’s mixed.” That was it. I found out subsequently that instead of heading back to Cork to go pick up their dole they went immediately down to the nearest off licence here in Donnybrook, got as many flagons of cider as they could, filled themselves full of drink and [laughing] passed out in Herbert Park, woke up at day break and [laughing] got in their van and went back to Cork. That was typical. We mixed the thing and it was brilliant. That was fairly typical of their carry-on.
Michael Stack —There was no ‘gay’ in Cork back then! I remember the first gay bar opening in Cork, being in there and keeping my back to the wall. I was extra-ignorant then. Somehow, we were in that bar a lot. I’ve been living in San Francisco now for years, through what the Aids epidemic did to the city and many people I knew. I hang my head in shame at how clueless I was then. Now I have a better sense of what Finbarr must have been going through. Even in my ignorance, I knew he was tortured especially given he was from a religious family. It all weighed on him. He’d talk about his sexual predilection but even with us he was reticent. Maybe we’d told him fuck off too often. Later in London when we were all older, it was different. I remember talking to him of his lovers, one in particular, what he was like.
Úna Ní Chanainn — Donnelly’s singing had more expression and pathos in it, than anything I have ever heard. Man what a voice. What a privilege it was to know them. They slagged everyone off all the time, especially if they had hair. It didn’t matter so much about me, I was a female. I was shy and I recognised that same shyness in Donnelly. Donnelly himself recognised the beauty in things always. He liked sharing his things with you and I remember the endless Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut books and his endless admiration for the Andrews Sisters and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Michael Stack— The slagging from the lads could be incessant. I would get my fair share but usually it’d be funny too, at least if they liked you (it’d be rough if they didn’t like you). After a while, I was sort of left alone. There were always richer targets anyway with more yield; I was too predictable, too steady, too boring.
Rory Cobbe — Five Go Down to the Sea? would have been seen as sort of slightly avant-garde really compared to the twats that I used to hang around with who had bands. Five Go Down to the Sea? were the sort of people that you’d look up to in one way but at the same time you definitely didn’t aspire to be what they were, because they were almost Art. In the sense that they just did it and they didn’t give a damn about what it was and who came and who listened. It was, “This is it and if you don’t like it then just out the door, I don’t care.” The bands I worked with were into image and hair and stuff, whereas Donnelly always wore a black suit and a white shirt. You’d see him on the No. 2 bus going down to Blackrock and he was sort of an enigma. Compared to the guys I used to work with who wanted to be popstars. Donnelly just was and Five Go Down to the Sea? just were. There was no question of why do you do this and who are you and what does the name mean? It was plainly obvious that if you asked those questions you weren’t going to get any answer other than, “Fuck off.”
Chapter 8— Knot a Fish
I remember Finbarr calling John Peel from a phone box trying to get him to play our record — Michael Stack
Ricky Dineen — There was a crew of Dublin people who used to come for the gigs, the same people came down for our gigs and Microdisney gigs. One of those people was Garreth Ryan who went to England and he started off the Kabuki label. We recorded two of the tracks down in Ballyvourney with Tadhg Kelleher [Sulán Studios] and the others up in Galway in the middle of nowhere out in the country in a studio that was used by Big Tom and the Mainliners [Irish showband]. He released it then, he also released two Microdisney singles as well.
Cathal Coughlan — Things started happening a bit more cohesively. But a lot of people in Dublin wouldn’t touch them because they just thought it was too strange. Microdisney at this point was just me and Sean and a drum machine. Between the hopping and trotting we ended up on the same indie label that Garreth Ryan started in London. We all started getting our stuff heard in England a bit, so the Dublin impasse wasn’t quite so much of a problem.
Sean O’Hagan — Our records were released by Garreth Ryan who was a friend from Dublin, a notorious Dublin punk who worked at Golden Discs and went to London and worked at Rough Trade. Garreth released our records; Microdisney’s ‘Hello Rascals’ and ‘Pink Skinned Man’ and Five Go Down to the Sea?’s Knot a Fish EP; on Kabuki.
Úna Ní Chanainn — I remember Tadhg Kelleher’s studio and the other one was in Galway. I remember we slept in a barn in Mayo. I don’t think the equipment was really safe around us; the mic was more often in Donnelly’s mouth, than near it. There were a lot of visits to the pub too. There was always Cadbury Creme Eggs and Tayto and pints of milk.
Michael Stack — We recorded it in a studio in Headford, Co. Galway. It was a showband studio. I remember that session. We got up early in Cork. Picked up John O’Sullivan to do the producing and then headed off. The fellow who ran the studio thought we were clueless and then Úna started up on the Cello and maybe Ricky did exactly what was asked of him and then he changed his tune.
Michael Stack — Later that night after all was done, we got into the Volkswagen van driven by Ricky’s brother in law Georgie and drove to my grandparents house up the side of a mountain near Tourmakeady, Co. Mayo. It was super dark and you couldn’t see anything and I remember a bunch of us sleeping in the hayshed that night. In the morning the boys woke up and looking out at Lough Mask were astounded by the grand view.
Everything used to move way too slow back then. Excitement soon dissipated and by the time the record showed up, you didn’t care about it much anymore. I thought the songs were good, interesting, dense, full of music. I liked them. I knew they were better than what most folks were doing. I was also sure that no one but us “got” them and there was nothing really that we could do about it. We didn’t care what others thought. From time to time we’d care and would try and get someone to write a good review of us so folks would buy a record or come see us but we were pathetic. Having a few pound so you could have a pint, so you could just be together and talk was the main objective, always. I remember Finbarr calling John Peel from a phone box trying to get him to play our record.
Ricky Dineen — A guy from Sounds came over to interview us, he flew to Cork and we collected him at the airport.* We brought him down to The Phoenix on a Sunday afternoon and there was a photographer with him who had come down from Dublin to take our photographs. That time the pub would have to close for The Holy Hour but the owner, Tom Dineen locked us in and we did the interview. [Laughing] I can remember Donnelly taking a sup out of your man’s pint and blowing drink into his face for no reason, he was covered in drink, that’s the kind of thing that used to happen. The guy just laughed it off and carried on.
*“Cork Scratchings: Dave McCullough travels to Ireland to unCork Kabuki Records” was published in Sounds on 18 June 1983.
Jim O’Mahony — I can remember one night we were in The Phoenix and a guy from one of the UK music papers was over, a very nice guy he turned out to be actually but Donnelly literally made him buy drink for everybody for the weekend. This guy must have gone back with an expense sheet that made it look like he was away with Aerosmith or something because he literally got the whole Phoenix drunk for three nights in a row. [Laughing] That was great; you couldn’t see that happening today. I couldn’t see a band sitting down in their local pub saying, “Right you want to interview us, buy everyone a drink.”
Michael Stack — I wouldn’t say I ‘designed’ the sleeves. I was interested in graphics and I was doing some drawings. I liked typography too so came up with the Five Go Down to the Sea? logo by cutting out type from Vanity Fair and glueing it all together after doing mighty photocopy sessions shrinking and enlarging letters. I’d then stick it together with a couple of drawings of things I was interested in at the time — Harpo Marx or a little illustration of a fish to put on top of Shandon — these latter drawings drew themselves. Finbarr was great at drawing too and at least for early stuff, he had some input. I’m not especially proud of Microdisney’s ‘Pink Skinned Man’ sleeve (sorry Sean and Cathal) it was a cheapskate hand-made ‘Microdisney’ on a grey background and one colour green, that was all that Kabuki could afford for a print job.
Úna Ní Chanainn — Gradually, as time wore on, I became more focused on that life in Symphony, and just wanted that, more. There was something more “holistic” about Stack’s presence which felt safer, especially at times when the others were living on the edge. I recall one Stephen’s Night in the Phoenix and everyone was drunk and I decided the best thing to do was to go and see Stack, who was down in Co. Kerry with his folks. I went to the County Hall [Carrigrohane Road, the western approach to Cork City] and hitched all night and got there around 8am the next day.
Ricky Dineen — Úna was probably with us over a year. Úna couldn’t handle the live gigs, because there’d be people jumping around the place, and they’d be falling on top of the stage. Punk rockers falling on top of her cello, her cello was her life, “Leave it alone.” I realise that the band with the cello was completely different alright but we had problems with the amplification of the cello, sometimes when we were on stage it didn’t feel like it was working because you couldn’t hear it, but the audience seemed to think it sounded great.
Part 2 — London (is here)
The exodus to London/Rotherhithe/The Glee Club 12"/Abstract Records/The Living Room/Singing in Braille 12"/Creation Records/Beethoven/Him Goolie Goolie Man, Dem 12" and Setanta Records…
Get That Monster Off the Stage (Part 2)
The story of Finbarr Donnelly and his bands Nun Attax, Five Go Down To the Sea? and Beethoven — An Oral History by Paul…
© Paul McDermott 2018, All Rights Reserved
Lights! Camel! Action! The Story of Stump
An Oral History of Stump, the Anglo-Irish experimental, rock band from the 1980s by Paul McDermott
Iron Fist in Velvet Glove — the story of MICRODISNEY (Part 1)
an oral history by Paul McDermott
© Paul McDermott 2018, All Rights Reserved
© Paul McDermott 2018, All Rights Reserved