“A new world opened up when you walked through its doors,” says Paul O’Mahony of the early days of Sir Henry’s
If, as the saying goes, the past is foreign country, then I come from a land with no internet, no social media, no mobile phones, no bottled water and no electronic guitar tuners.
The late ‘70s and early ‘80s were a depressing time in Ireland. The Catholic church and Fianna Fail had a stranglehold on the country, Northern Ireland was a daily news item of death and destruction, and across the water Margaret Thatcher came to power. Unemployment in Cork was rife and the general sense of economic doom and gloom was reinforced on Leeside by the closing of the hugely important Ford and Dunlop factories.
Emigration was on an epidemic level. Most of my friends left the city. And so did I. Eventually…
But not before Sir Henry’s arrived in ’77 to bring a chink of light to the city. Jimmy O’Hara and Dominic O’Keeffe (RIP, 1994) brought their version of a Hard Rock Café to Jerry Lucey’s premises on South Main St. Dominic had been a DJ I’d seen when I used to sneak (underage) into UCC’s Campus Kitchen and his records stirred my teenage rock’n’roll dreams with grooves by the likes of Bad Company. Plus, he looked cool. On the other hand, I didn’t know Jimmy prior to Henry’s, but I can’t recall him never wearing a suit of some description. Not long after starting up, they parted, with Dominic moving over to the Victoria Hotel to run the hugely successful and now also legendary Co-Co’s Nightclub, Pitz cocktail bar and other offshoots.
In those days, Henry’s was Jimmy. It was part cocktail bar, part restaurant, part live venue. It contrasted sharply with the dullness of the streets outside. A new world opened up when you walked through its doors. In the pre-MTV era, it also had a large screen that showed the ‘latest’ videos, from The Rutles’ pastiche on The Beatles to Jackson Browne’s ‘Stay’ to Sid Vicious doing ‘My Way’. Local bands like Hot Guitars, Small Change and Asylum held down residencies but I don’t recall any international acts coming in as they did in later years when the venue expanded. The music scene pretty much reflected the wider socio-economic context, being mostly tired and uninspired.
Into this came Berserk, the city’s first ‘punk’ band, influenced by the energy and attitude of the punk scenes in the US and the UK, although it was The Sex Pistols whose highly charged ditties we’d cover most frequently, from ‘Pretty Vacant’ to ‘Bodies’ to ‘Did You No Wrong’. And we had the attitude, embodied by Aidan McCarthy (RIP, 1981) on drums and occasional vocals, a natural entertainer like his ol’ man, Joe Mac (of The Dixies fame). Manic energy. One of my earliest memories of a Henry’s gig is ‘Maccer’ scattering cornflakes and feathers from a (deceased) chicken – which he was plucking there and then – into the audience while singing his tune ‘I Got Fever (Inside My Head)’ with the band noisily riffing away behind him.
Being in my first band, it was nerve-racking and adrenalin-surging to play a ‘real’ rock venue like Sir Henry’s. Furthermore, to be playing bass with Maccer was unnerving, for what might happen next! And it always helps when the venue booker likes the band, likes the spirit, as Jimmy did.
You can hear a short clip from a 1979 Berserk rehearsal – never heard in public before – taped on an old banger of a cassette player
I got involved with Maccer and guitarist Martin Kelleher while I was working part-time in one of the best indie record stores Cork ever had, Dave O’Loughlin’s TNT Records on Paul St. We used to rehearse in the Worker’s Party offices across the river from the old dole offices and, later, during daytime below Henry’s itself in The Stardust club inside the Grand Parade Hotel. To earn a few bob, the band doubled as The Shades, a middle of the road covers band doing material like ‘Love Is In The Air’, a chart hit at the time. It was almost vomit-inducing to play such insipid rubbish and nearly became so one Sunday night in the Ardmanning Inn in Togher! Booked to play a nice gentle Pop set for the Sunday night regulars, The Shades – Incredible Hulk-style – suddenly transformed without warning mid-set into full-on Berserk! We hadn’t planned it that way, it just sort of happened! The devil in us. We never got paid.
Yet, somehow, Berserk have been written out of the ‘official’ histories of Cork rock. It probably didn’t help that we, regrettably, went unrecorded. And although I went on to write for Hot Press magazine, I ‘blame’ that publication for that state of affairs, for when Reekus Records later started their nights in the Downtown Kampus, Hot Press were brought down from Dublin to see the likes of Nun Attax and thus the history of Cork ‘alternative’ rock invariably and erroneously seems to begin at this point. One hundred yards from the railway station and the train back to Dublin. It’s not a bad point to begin, and most of the bands were great (I particularly liked Constant Reminders, featuring Mick Lynch), but it’s factually incorrect.
There was a link, however. Myself and Berserk singer Mike O’Brien did go into the studio as a one-off studio side-project, Loko Parentis, with Rikki and Smelley from Nun Attax and Giordai O’Laoghaire to do two tunes we had never rehearsed; the idea was to capture the tunes as live as possible and the resulting Loko Parentis demo picked up notable airplay in Cork and nationally on the Dave Fanning show on RTE. But the idea was to just record, capture the energy and disappear. Like a mayfly. It was a concept I would come back to in 2007 and the Oxegen festival.
You can hear a track from that 1981 Loko Parentis demo here:
Following Berserk, guitarist Vince and I teamed up with Ger Hennessy (guitar/vocals) and Padraig Murphy (drums) in Orpheus, who played Sir Henry’s several times.
As you can hear from this Orpheus instrumental track, featuring Vince on lead guitar, it was a world apart from Berserk or Loko Parentis:
Other Berserk guitarist Martin Kelleher went on to form The Kidz, who moved to London, while Maccer started a few projects in Cork. Alas, he was killed in a car crash with his wife Linda in 1981, leaving behind a young child. It was front page news on The Cork Examiner and was a tragic event and upsetting time.
Here in full is my tribute to him in Hot Press at the time:
Orpheus then added Berserk and Loko Parentis vocalist Mike and became power-pop outfit Factor Fiction. At one gig in Sir Henry’s in 1982, we came away from the gig with exactly one pound note – which we tore into five pieces afterwards so we all came away with something! The gig had been packed after we’d done some promo for our vinyl ep and we’d also had a Dave Fanning session broadcast on RTE but we decided to get the Henry’s gig recorded, hired a big PA, a sound engineer, and printed posters. Raising the bar meant our costs escalated.
You can hear a clip from that same 1982 Factor Fiction Sir Henry’s gig here:
As with such bands with members aged in their twenties, however, and with little job potential in Cork, the members started to scatter to the four winds.
Having written an obituary about Maccer in Hot Press, I decided to keep submitting articles to the magazine, with Sir Henry’s as the core review venue. I had seen from a musician’s perspective that Cork bands were not getting the profile they deserved in Hot Press and the national media. In those days, there were no social media or mobiles, so the gap with a predominantly Dublin-based Pale-centric media was a chasm. My first review as ‘Cork Correspondent’ was of Hot Guitars in Sir Henry’s and then I covered bands like Alice in Wonderband, 1990, Real Mayonnaise, Porcelyn Tears and more. Some – like Driveshaft, The Kidz, 5 Go Down To The Sea, Microdisney, Mick Lynch and Stump – by-passed Dublin altogether and headed straight for London and probably gained more traction than they ever would have in the capital.
From a personal perspective, it was in Henry’s where, as an aspiring writer, I had the good fortune to meet and chat with the legendary rock journalist Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone and where I would invent cocktails with Fiona H. Stevenson (RIP, 2003), who would also begin to co-write Cork feature articles with me before she moved to Dublin as a full-time staffer with Hot Press, as did I in 1984.
And pirate radio had come to Cork in the early to mid-‘80s, as it had to the rest of the country. Steve Archer in Cork City Local Radio (CCLR), Ian Richards in ERI and, to a lesser extent, Southcoast Radio started giving the kind of airtime to Cork bands that RTE was not.
You can see step into a Cork time-warp thanks to Bob Le-Roi and see photos and logos of the Cork pirate stations and hear a sound link from ERI in 1983 at http://www.bobleroi.co.uk/ScrapBook/Ireland_SCR2/SCR.html
As well as the pirate stations, The Arcadia, UCC College Bar, Heaphy’s, the Phoenix, the Bodega (Oliver Plunkett St) and venues in Clonakilty and Youghal all supported original Cork bands at the time, as did local journalists like Brian O’Brien in the Cork Evening Echo and Con Downing in The Southern Star.
Yet, it was Sir Henry’s that was the city’s flagship, and when it broke down a few walls and extended its capacity so that it could accommodate national and international bands alike, and eventually club nights like Sweat, that it entered a new phase quite unlike the ‘innocence’ of the 1977 to 1984 era of being very local and self-contained.
The venue was evolving into something new, reinventing itself on a bigger scale, as it had to do in order to survive as long as it did. Its future was not to be part of the memories of ‘my generation’.
Our day in Sir Henry’s was done.
Postscript: After leaving Cork in 1984, Paul O’Mahony worked for Hot Press in Dublin until 1999. In 2006, he re-activated the Loko Parentis project in Dublin with a new line-up, which included members of The Gurriers and Las Vegas Basement. They played the Oxegen festival (New Band Stage) in 2007 and released two albums, The Other Side of Fear (2009) and Dream Revolution (2010), to critical acclaim. In keeping with the original 1981 Loko Parentis project, there was never any aspiration to do anything else other than record two very good albums.
You can hear a track from each album, here:
The Other Side of Fear:
Remember to Breathe: