The Statue of Richard Harris in Limerick City is an unsure monument to a Limerick-born actor and sportsman. It may be said that the consequences of an agenda surrounding its construction have denied the city an open / lateral reading of his legacy. Instead decisions taken and managed have supported a fixed solution that serves a commercial rather than a public site.
Issues of place, managed space and what Marc Auge called anthropological places (areas that contain memories of previous places) are suggested in this investigation of the complex circumstances and consequences of the idea of Richard Harris in a Limerick context.
Traditional agendas in regard to monuments and place overlap with the reframing tactics and unitary urbanist actions that intentionally and unintentionally radiate from the primary site. These actions combined with some redefined vernacular monuments and situations are offered in contrast to imposed forms of urbanism. The actions are suggested in research methods led by Lefebvre’s critical concept of the festival, ‘a celebration of the collective ownership of urban Space’. (1)
City centre monuments mark public areas in units of bronze, steel and stone. These objects in the western tradition exist in the main for historical commemoration but also manifest issues of propriety in the context of location. The static cityscape figure is familiar and well established by the industrial revolution. William Morris wrote on how this time classified a new kind of artist, set adrift from community craftsmanship, whose practice now became reliant on patronage. The new fine artist under a capitalist agenda was employed to sell back to the bourgeoisie ‘commodifed versions of their own visions of themselves’ (2)
As designated modules in a city, monumental markers continue to visualise the dominant material relations represented primarily by civic and mercantile interests. Marx and Engels mentioned that the ruling classes came to manage the ‘ideas of mental production’ over those who, they determined, ‘lacked the ability to do so themselves (3). Grant Kester remarks of modernism that ‘we understand the work of art in the context of a system of given cultural and historical constructs that construct the category of ‘”art’” as a repository for values actively suppressed within the dominant culture’ (4).
The obvious but understated fact is that if questioned, those who commission and direct the construction of didactic or mimetic representations in the city may find that in the end, their endeavours have ‘less to do with the lessons of history than the (actual) construction of (a) cultural identity’ (5).
In his book The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch discusses the open position of vernacular landmarks as geographic markers. He speaks of a ‘coincidence of association and imageability’ when a landmark ‘coincides with a concentration of association’. (6). It now becomes the process around location that is the key context for this conversation on the fixed and the vernacular map points. Both organised and disorganised travels in urban space make use of a combination of private and public monuments as markers. These beacons continuously dissect paths for both consumers and wanderers and it is in a matrix of these travels that a cityscape primarily accounts for itself.
Traditional landmarks exude fixed meanings but Lynch also draws attention to the cartographical significance of the vernacular objects that exist alongside monuments. They exist alongside the sponsored or commissioned units: the city’s uncommissioned or detoured objects that function both as physical and psychological markers. While the use value of the fixed monument is based on a subjective passivity, it is in the user dialogue between official and unofficial points occupied by the fixed, transient and virtual monuments that the true psychic map of a place exists. These combine in what the Marxist geographer Doreen Massey calls extroverted space.
In recognising this dialogue a particular investigation of space now invites a more complex reading if location politics and aspects of place are brought to the fore. In the introduction to ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’ Micheal de Certeau suggests guidelines for such an inquiry. ’The presence and circulation of a representation (taught by preachers, educators, and popularisers as the key to socioeconomic advancement) tells us nothing about what it is for its users. We must first analyse its manipulation by users who are not its makers. Only then can we gauge the difference or similarity between the production of the image and the secondary production hidden in the process of its utilisation’ (7).
FIXING AN IMAGE OF RICHARD HARRIS.
The subject of interest is a bronze representation of the Limerick-born actor Richard Harris fixed in the commercial environment of Bedford Row in Limerick City centre. Fashioned in a realist manner by the Limerick sculptor Jim Connolly, the statue was commissioned by the city council in 2008 as an integrated focal point for the €3 million Bedford Row regeneration process.
The council had mooted a commemoration to the popular Limerickman for some time. Once the regeneration began, agendas were integrated and the statue was included in the process now as the figurehead of the Bedford Row project. Everything regarding the subject matter and management of the statue as well as issues arising from its intended location was channelled through a group called the Cultural and Environmental Strategic Policy Committee. A decision was made to create a monument to Harris by rendering his image in the character of King Arthur from his first major film role, a British musical of 1967 called Camelot. The bronze is reputed to have cost €150,000.
Connolly’s statue was unveiled in 2008 to some criticism (5). The Limerick press reported that members of Limerick’s Art community questioned its size, shape and poor resemblance to the actor. The painter John Shinnors spoke here of a ‘missed opportunity’. Unfamiliarity was an expressed concern. The Limerick public expected to experience at least a celebration of his sporting background via a solid visual reference linking Harris to the active culture of rugby in the city. This expectation was fanned by newspaper polls combined with the knowledge that a statue of Harris as a young racquetball player was already struck in Killkee Co Clare (2006) (8).
A small concession does exist in the understated plaque at the base of the Bedford row statue. It references Harris in character as a rugby player in the Oscar-nominated film ‘This Sporting Life’. By its size and understated placing, this touch is both an acknowledgement and a denial of the rugby content of his legacy in bronze in Bedford row. It appears as a badge on the sleeve rather than the full uniform.
Holding an inverted sword with a proclamation of peace inscribed at the base, this interpretation of Arthurian legend as delivered in the film Camelot became the figure that was unveiled to the Limerick public in 2008. However, a combination of the commercial location of Bedford Row and the unfamiliar, relatively obscure, film reference invited a certain amount of confusion.
In an act of intervention the statue was christened ‘The Burger King’. Locals were drawn to the similarities between the statue’s crown and the ubiquitous cardboard crown supplied by the fast food chain (a long established business in the city centre). King Arthur’s stance positioned him across from another much used fast food joint trading in this space at weekends and the visual joust between the monument and the business came to define the place. The quick act by which the bronze became known by its nickname was the first intervention by the public in the process albeit through humour. The act was also a representation of the process of de Certeau’s secondary production
Physiognomy suggests the notion that identity can be divined from external appearances and public expectations were high that any representation of Harris would in some way channel many aspects of his public life. His multi-dimensional legacy was very much in the public domain. How to represent the totality of such an individual without compromise in the traditional format is another matter. Yet it was the assumption that some attempt would be made to tackle this as a brief.
The Limerick Leader newspaper ran a poll asking what type of (conceptual / biographical) ‘material’ should be considered as sculptural commemoration. (6) The paper deduced that there remained the sense that people now wanted a physicality associated with the Harris myth. They wanted to see him, to put meat on the bones of the many tales about him that are passed around the city. Because this was no forgotten individual of the past, this was a sportsman, actor, singer, poet and a Limerick man of living memory.
The concept of creating a monument celebrating popular Irish entertainers was common in 2008. In 2005, Dublin unveiled a city centre bronze of the Irish rock star Phil Lynott and this quickly became a popular locus for fan and tourist appreciation. Around this time the concept of an Irish entertainer existing as commemorated icon began to impact on the thinking of local authorities where previously the concept had been unknown. It now made sense to respect the process of rendering contemporary references in public as they could be justified under a progressive commercial agenda. These units spoke for the currency of certain spaces and the remit of remembrance widened to include commercial ‘spin-off agendas.
The one per cent for art scheme introduced by the state facilitated some populist / fan-led applications that previously would have remained within particular communities of interest. The bronze of the guitarist Rory Gallagher in Donegal is another example of this.
A RUGBY LOCUS.
The actor and celebrity friend of Harris, Russell Crowe, unveiled the Kilkee statue in 2006 and his presence for this generated much interest. The subtext in the media coverage at the time was to stoke a dramatic Harris / Crowe / Rugby / Hellraiser mix around the ceremony. This was always a convenient commentary which encouraged a mythical reading for an audience sympathetic to both men’s chat show personas.
Once the news that a statue of Harris was proposed for Limerick, the interest and sentiment for it was high. It began to be willed into existence as a totem that would function on many levels. In overall discussion there was the primary expectation that a representation of the actor would operate as a type of shrine that would accommodate the city’s relationship with rugby in a traditional fashion. To have this marked as such would be as important as any recognition of his acting legacy.
There is a decorative factor to Limerick city driven by the rugby-themed advertising as building-sized jerseys and inflatable promotional material dot the city centre when matches feature in Thomond Park. However, before the prevalence of alcohol companies’ sport sponsorship began to visually impact on the city there was another act by the city to officially draw attention through the medium of sculpture to the profile and civic relationship that it has with Rugby.
The city owns a series of small, forgotten, truncated posts of steel that radiate from the city centre towards the grounds of Thomond park
This was the Munster Trail, a means by which a wandering participant would traverse the city centre and be led to the sacred ground , the home of Munster Rugby. This was more of a tangential conversation with the subject and any conceptual idea of sculpture to facilitate a brief appears to be undertaken at planning / city architect level. The evidence for this rests in the shape of the posts which are variants of the street barriers generally used by the council. By choosing these pre-fabricated modules as basic markers to sketch out this commemorative path it appears that any other aesthetic / conceptual considerations for remodeling have been ignored. There are examples where city authorities have supported civic boundary projects that have featured similar ‘posts’ and incorporated conceptual material. Often there is a superficial overlapping of form between street furniture and urban sculpture with particular durable materials as a common factor.
Today a neglected ‘Munster trail’ remains and a collection of anonymous unmaintained stainless steel stubby posts, some with a faded Limerick City logo attached, functioning neither as sculpture, street furniture nor signage.
Another anonymous and unbranded example hangs across from Colbert station. It is a banner that covers the front of a closed building. Here the outline of a rugby player is rendered in white against the photo background of cheering Limerick fans. The accompanying text reads simply ‘The 16th Man, Limerick city’.
At the base of the banner, a surveillance camera is focused on the neighbouring Casino giving the site the unplanned appearance of a contemporary Art piece or a sort of sculpted movie billboard. When the banner and camera are read as one the effect is to re-focus attention on the white outline, which now appears as a figure trace from a TV crime drama. Branding would have managed the banner’s intended celebratory meaning but in the absence of a logo or maintenance either from the city, the corporation, or an alcohol company, the identity of 16thman is visually problematic when it is read as a ‘greeter’ to the city. This is accentuated because of the banner’s location. Subliminally visitors may ponder this.
Charlie St George’s bar at the base of this exhaust-covered banner is also of interest here. It highlights a personal touch that is located in the site. A small window display has been organised in e window with rugby-related material paying tribute to past teams and games in the city. To the right of this display is an understated postcard-sized image of a stern bearded man leaning on a staff in the countryside. It is Harris, not in a sporting pose but in character from the film The Field. Regarding the site, visitors are encouraged to make the link between the man and the place. His portrait is almost colours hung in pride (9). Entering the bar itself (as Russell Crowe did) you will be told that it has a long tradition with Young Munster, Harris’s beloved club.
At present (until legislation dictates otherwise) it is primarily the alcohol companies who remain keen to develop brand relations with the city via rugby as their promotional budgets allow the spend for it. Each year promotional displays compete with each other on the street and become ever more prominent with each event. On match days, huge branded jerseys cover buildings and inflatable goalposts on pub doorways facing public thoroughfares become commercial monuments for citizens to navigate around.
This temporary branding of the city centre is seen as a positive in civic discussions as the financial benefits that surround the game will always be seen as a benefit to the city.
On big match days there is a sense of religious fervour as locals and visitors walk together from the city centre (through Bedford Row) towards Thomond Park. The linking of the passion of Rugby with Limerick civic pride is regularly echoed in the promotional language of the alcohol companies’ material and this buy-in is largely unquestioned. The sociologist Erik Cohen in a definition of pilgrimage, defined the process as a movement from the ‘profane periphery’ to the ‘sacred centre’, while tourism by contrast, involves a movement from the cultural centre to the periphery, or to the centre of other cultures and societies (10). This contraction is in itself a definition of place and its dynamic again accesses de Certeau’s description of the production of image.
There are relics in the holy space too. The Museum in Thomond Park holds a letter written by Harris to the producers of a film he was signed up for. In it he asks to be excused from filming for the weeks of certain Munster matches.
THREE CONSIDERED CHOICES FOR A COMMEMORATIVE IMAGE OF RICHARD HARRIS NOT IMMEDIATELY EVIDENT IN REGARD TO SITE.
1. The Bull McCabe. The familiar.
Before his late career success with the film The Field, Harris was paying a price for decades of unsatisfactory career choices by touring a stage version of Camelot. While lobbying for the lead in The Field he was at the same time acting in a stage version of Camelot, a theatrical self-commemoration of sorts based on a role that initially brought him fame.
Parallel with the Youtube clips of his talk show appearances, the most popular tribute to the man is continuous (9). It is the yearly reruns of The Field on Irish television. In this award-winning role he channels The Bull Mc Cabe, a patriarchal farmer in this rural Irish psychodrama. Reviews of his performance tend to locate the character of The Bull in the familiar theatrical language of a romantic landscape. Earthy terms such as ‘his craggy features’ abound in the descriptive shorthand that links the theme of the man with the land familiar to Irish rural drama since the 18th century.
John B Keane, the author of the play ‘The Field’, based the story of blood attachment to land on a real-life incident of murder decades previously. This fact may have accounted for the council downplaying the possibility of a bronze of the character ‘Bull’ being cast in memory of Harris.
Identity surrounding The Field’s shooting location in Leenane, County Galway, is as intractably bound with the film itself as the village of Cong is with the Hollywood film The Quiet Man. This continues a tradition of American productions dealing with rural Irish themes on location since 1910 when a film shot in Ireland by The Kalem Company called ‘The Irish Lad’ became the first American film made on location outside the US. (10)
Once anointed, places that ‘stand in for others are encouraged to reflect on the experience and to regard their own landscape in the narrative of the finished film in the language of the tourist economy. These well-known films construct virtual environments and become living monuments to imagined spaces. Communities are proud, and even thankful of the association with the dream factory that simplifies the complexities of a rural Irish environment and then manage the consequences within tourist boundaries.
This is the tradition of Irish film locations inviting the identity of an imagined Irishness once a production has wrapped.
An actual working village ‘’Kirrary Town’’ near Dingle was created for the film Ryan’s Daughter (Harris was considered for the role of a British Major in this). The village was donated to the community afterwards and the remaining stones of this gift are still visited as curiosities. Continuing interest had led to a nostalgic documentary on the making of the film and the surrounding area. The same Kerry site was used in 1991 for the film Far and Away.
Another set for Far and Away remodelled some of Temple Bar in Dublin’s city centre invoking 1880’s New York. The handpainted commercial signage left behind consequently merged with the 19th century-themed design of the host buildings. The regeneration of Temple Bar had just begun and a hyper-real patina left by the filmmakers was subsumed in this process
Less subtle is another clash of signifiers in Galway. The City hosts a mural of John Wayne and Maureen O Hara who are pictured in combat from the film the Quiet Man amongst a collage of shops and supermarkets. A business rendered here is again the ubiquitous Burger King. This mural remains as a tourist-contemplated artwork that celebrates both the Quiet Man and contemporary consumer choice in a city centre location. Other examples are towns of Avoca and Enniskerry in Wicklow, which maintain continuous associations with the British TV series Ballykissangel.
An image of Harris playing the character the ‘Bull’ McCabe was chosen by An Post to commemorate 100 years of Irish Cinema as a postage stamp in 1996. The exposure from this choice is significant in how the image of Harris the actor is currently held in Ireland. A mention of The Field remains on one of the insert plaques at the base of the statue. This particular insert is placed (out of sight) at the back on the base of the figure of Arthur.
2. Hail fellow well met.
In Limerick, Harris’s generosity of spirit is never more than a glass away, particularly if in company with men of his generation. One of his contemporaries, while referring to the amount of former Limerick rugby players who claim to have broken Harris’s nose in a game, remarked ‘it’s a bit like the patriots who say they were in the GPO in 1916, there’s more of them each year’. Everyone it seems is obliged to have a story about some shared adventure with the man in the 60’s and 70’s. Tales build other tales and in retelling the anecdotes are grafted together in a collective bond. This is in no small way helped by television repeats of the Late Late Show where Harris’s appearances have become embedded into public consciousness. With regularity, TV hosts such as The Late Late Show’s Gay Byrne framed and stoked these ‘wild tales’ as reified entertainment for a mass audience. Consequently people were invited to believe that they ‘knew’ Harris. The Irish have responded to this managed role admiringly and possibly more so than any character Harris professionally played on screen. The image/cliché of the rebellious wayward creative, localised and fêted both as Irish and as a character on Broadway can perhaps be traced back to the reception afforded to Brendan Behan at the height of his fame.
Sometimes stories don’t even need to be true. Around 2008 a character in Limerick had a routine for seeking free drink in city centre bars by pretending to be Harris’s brother. An imagined demand for Harris was taken as an opening for an opportunist to exploit the legacy using stories from it as a resource.
3. Presenting a statue as an open source for intervention.
Although he was teetotal since 1981 Harris’s dominant public legacy continues to be this media-supported image of the wild man. It is this aspect of his fame that was referenced with an unauthorised intervention to his presence in the Bedford Row in 2010. Someone painted the underside of the statue’s nostrils white.
Some creative was suitably inspired to visualise a drug reference on to the statue. Harris fought an addiction with cocaine and nearly died of an overdose in 1978. Whether the perpetrator knew this or not the cocaine inference remained until eventually the white marks were spotted and cleaned off. In a previous intervention King Arthur’s inverted sword itself was damaged in an altercation with an oversized delivery van. Factor in the weekend acts of action painting that renders the granite surrounding the statue’s base abstract with fast food and cola stains, then the vision of the authorised image of Harris in Bedford Row remains increasingly in a flux.
Anchoring the statue in place.
In a casual read, the project seems to have simply wanted to mirror the official process that commissioned a bronze called ‘The Singer from Quimper’ in the nearby Cruises St shopping area in 1992. This particular exercise in city centre regeneration was a notable intervention for its time by the Council and the unquestioned conservative figure spoke simply on its site. This was a direct and uncomplicated process. On paper a facsimile process for Bedford Row must have sought to channel the simplicity of a time when any act seen to ‘combat recession’ which spoke of an agenda of commercial ‘progress’ had unquestioned universal support. The foreword to the Limerick city strategic plan of 2008 even quotes the Bedford Row development as an example of how rejuvenated space prompts ‘significant private sector investment’. Any city centre remodelling post 80’s was reviewed positively. There was not an automatic update for Bedford Row à la Cruises St. The idea of a city centre-shopping base with ‘Art’ as a civic cure-all is not a handed down economic given no matter how neat and attractive the concept is.
Commentary of modernist regulation in contemporary city space as critique has profile through the work of Henri Lefebvre who termed the process the (techno-bureaucratic) ‘production of space’. The alternative ‘restoration of ‘a totally human experience’ promoted by Lefebvre is not in evidence here and any consideration of it would register as a complex insertion. The basic thrust of regeneration in the areas of question prioritises these areas’ maintenance and thus the fixed statue amongst paving has a long history as a popular option/solution. A graffiti stencil with the image of the Joker from the Batman film franchise remains on Bedford Row beside the film-based statue of Harris. Funny yet? It asks.
On the base of the commissioned statue of King Arthur there is prominent information outlining a mercantile history of the Harris family. This eulogy has a higher word count on the plaque than the actual biographical details of the actor who is surely the presumed focus of the commemoration. Considering this and on balance, the word-count confirms the primacy of the overall agenda designed by the commissioning body. One may speculate on why such detailing is present. This may then focus on the phrase on the front of the statue which states that the bronze is ‘in memory and celebration of Richard Harris, Actor (and) was unanimously approved by Limerick Co Council’.
To render any information about the commissioning process in bronze, as part of the object seems excessive. To include the word ‘unanimously’ suggests that those involved in legitimising the process were conscious to emphasise the participation and judgment of the civic authority in all decisions regarding not just Harris’s legacy but issues of artistic merit, location and of course the statue as a figurehead for shopping. Following this hierarchy of information the dominant foregrounding of the family’s mercantile history in Limerick firmly anchors the statue firstly as a component of Bedford Row’s commercial agenda and only then as a representation of an actor who once played King Arthur.
However any intended fixed meaning by the council has been undermined by regular interventions. The site generates its own movement. All contents of the location now exist in a twisted bind of unusual sorts. The representative strands combine aspects of the act of shopping, a tribute to the mercantile achievements of the Harris family, (according to the statue they founded the Limerick County Lawn Tennis Club), urbanist actions and the varied associations with the actor’s legacy. In total this statue now hosts active agendas in constant change. The intended, almost romantic, meaning of Harris commemorated as King Arthur is undoubtedly reduced.
The Bedford Row Harris stands rendered in bronze and cola forever outside the Bank of Ireland, with an outstretched arm that ambiguously salutes or rallies against Supermac’s fast-food restaurant. It strives for attention and demands to be heard as an ideal. But the collective noise from a site that has subsumed the image insists instead that everything must be heard at once calling to mind Walter Benjamin’s description of architecture as ‘the prototype of art which is appreciated by a collectivity in a state of distraction’. (11)
Articulated moments and unfixed monuments
Doreen Massey defines place as follows. ‘What gives place its specificity is not some long internalised history but the fact that it is constructed out of a particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus. Instead then of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around them, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings, but where a large proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that moment as the place itself, whether it be a street, or a region or even a continent’ (12).
The brief to physically commemorate a figure associated with the City and present a particular reading in a fixed location has in this case generated a continuous monument unfixed from the commercial figurehead envisaged by a dominant authority in fronting a shopping area.
There is another city centre monumental reference to Richard Harris that registers as fixed in its own identity but fluid in another. It is a headstone in the grounds of St John’s Church in John’s Square, one of Limerick’s oldest Christian grounds. Amongst the weathered graves in the front of the deconsecrated Church, someone spotted a version of the name Richard Harris on a white stone headstone from 1906. They rubbed that section clean as an imaginary ‘out of copyright’ reclamation of Harris’s name for the City Centre. Within this act of reverse graffiti by another street creative the name Harris has been drawn into the realm of the scrawled commemorations to be seen on buildings from John’s Square to Bedford Row.
Harris’s actual ashes are scattered in the Bahamas. In Limerick his memory can now be registered in a matrix created in the fabric of a living city that imagines him having an imaginary barfly brother, residing in a sedate grave in a churchyard whose church building was also once a dance studio, glowering from a secondhand videocassette of The Field in William St, looking brooding from the cover of a greatest hits cd in HMV, in a faded image on the back of a postcard and finally frozen in a bronze statue inspired from a 60s British musical. His legacy mutates yearly, he is continuously being remembered and discussed by the people of in Limerick in Limerick terms.
This open reading of a monument for Richard Harris resists the edited version commissioned by Limerick city Council. If we designate the council as a dominant authority with an applied subjectivity, then the intention of its ‘mental production’ in regard to a joint commemoration of the legacy of Richard Harris has to be registered as a limited solution supplanted by an agenda that prioritised any reading of the site as primarily a commercial place and not as a repository for a particular Limerick man.
There is something of the unfinished in all this as different methodologies come into play. Jacques Derrida created the term ‘hauntology’ when writing on the exotic nature of unrealised futures in his 1993 book ‘Spectres of Marx’. These unrealised futures derive from past points in history and in the contemplation of reconsidered scenarios such as those circling the idea of a monument for Harris — a creative approach citing hauntology could be sought. Artists taking part in the AV festival (international festival of Art Technology, Music and Film) in the north of England in 2012 operated on a ‘slow’ approach in formatting creative responses to place. The festival’s statement mentions that ‘in order to re-animate the past, slowness must first occur, perhaps to entice a nostalgia for memories that never happened and a future that never was. (sic)
This new remapping of the statue in regard to the multiple points of input surrounding the legacy of Harris questions the rationale of the fixed monument when a situation is framed as a complex system in the language of urban planning. Complex systems usually follow nonlinear patterns of cause and effect, which means that most of the situations requiring social interventions require looking for complex forms of causality. The complexity surrounding Harris, his legacy, and his position within a wider process was recognised and simplified to the extent that monument from the city would not invite any complex forms of causality.
FIXED AND UNFIXED OPPORTUNITIES.
Commissioning a western civic monument hails a traditional process that errs on the side of the permanent and respects a history of material on a plinth. The subject must be deemed worthy of entry to a civic pantheon irrespective of which city in question. Deviations or expansions within this process are rare. In London a popular competition set around the empty fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square invites leftfield applications that are intended conceptually to expand the site and the text of the monument. Part of any reading generated by this allowed process is of course based in the contrast of a chosen work for the plinth reaffirming the traditional agenda. Once installed, leftfield or temporary presentations on the fourth plinth are tied first and foremost to the Trafalgar site.
Limerick’’s most famous monument is The Treaty Stone. This is the reputed object on which the Treaty of Limerick was signed in 1691. In the city its image in all shapes and sizes is familiar as a logo freely used by taxis and many other businesses. It is even neatly replicated carved on another stone monument in Pery Square that commemorates ‘All who died in the service of world peace’. In a continuation an image of that monument is then used as a photo display in the front of the Limerick City Gallery of Art. In a Limerick context, The Treaty Stone is a ubiquitous mobile monument, literally in the case of a photo-shopped version that adorns a council refuse van. This unsubtle visual was commissioned as part of an anti-litter campaign and shows a gigantic cigarette being extinguished on the stone.
Without a plinth this ‘sign’ is an ambiguous large stone but when elevated and framed by King John’s Castle it commands first and foremost an obligatory status for tourist bus stops as the premier representative icon of the City.
The plinth itself is celebrated in commemoration with the large inscription on the side facing the castle that states ‘This Pedestal Was Erected May 1865 John Rickard Tinsley Mayor.’ This in no uncertain terms establishes a civic horizon for the viewer by the size of this inscription. Explanations are registered in smaller type. A fabricated information display outlines the complex chronology that led to the treaty being signed and stands alongside the pedestal. A version of this information is also repeated in bronze at the base of the stone. In fact the site is noisy with the amount of related graphics demanding attention. For example the stone even merits an adjacent plaque that records movement from its previous site 20 feet away (1865-1990).
Unfortunately, for years this display has hosted a typo that in one instance informed readers that the Treaty was signed in 1891. Again, the stone is just a ‘reputed’ site of history, willed and accepted into place by city authorities since 1865. Though the typo is small it is still within officially sanctioned text and no less problematic because of its size.
Between the ambiguous site of the signing of the treaty and the confusing nature of the date the fixed nature of the site becomes inauthentic and temporal rather than fixed.
THE CHARACTER OF COLLABORATION
Gaps appear and meanings arise from images in position as situations are activated irrespective of intention. An unaccredited stone plaque outside the White House bar reads ‘’ The Limerick is furtive and mean; you must keep her in close quarantine, or she sneaks up to the slums and promptly becomes disorderly drunk and obscene ‘’. Fixed scenarios appear as narrow and unsatisfactory for Limerick when monuments are rendered within monuments and somebody’s headstones commemorate someone else’s ashes on a beach in the Bahamas. Dates and icons hold confused identity and when only the speculated tales of a virtual man on Youtube offers security is it safe to negotiate the city space. Maurice Merleau-Ponty spoke for an experience beyond the physicality of architectural objects and beyond the chronological sequence of a programme, not so much for a place for events to occur but the continuous unfolding of spaces and vistas and the continual overlapping of programmes. (13)
There are two significant examples of the act of commemoration unique to Limerick City that may offer the experience called for by Merleau-Ponty. These two examples expand the concept of a monument and introduce a vernacular continuum to the process. They are publicly generated and follow what Jane Rendell has termed ‘Critical Spatial practice’ by which work is positioned in a way that makes it possible to question the terms of engagement or the projects themselves in relation to site. (14)
In these works the relationship betwen the commemorative subject and the audience in respect to the legacy of the subject is paramount. The process recognises the profile of a fixed solution but formulates it by unique modes of address as a type of participatory engagement. This activates the project for the future and follows the dialogical practice outlined by the British artist Stephen Willats where he says in ‘Society through Art’ (that) ‘a prerequisite for an art work that manifests a counter-consciousness is that the separation which existed between the artist and the audience is closed, that they become mutually engaged, to the point where the audience become the rationale in both the making and reception of the work’. (15)
In 2008 the respected Limerick rugby player Shane Geoghegan was murdered in a case of mistaken identity. His death shocked the immediate and wider community and a response led to a series of public events that united the city in condemming the profile of gang crime synonymous with Limerick City at this time. Many tributes were paid to the deceased and much coverage was given to his commitment in organising and coaching young rugby players.
The Pitch for Shane project was devised as a monument to the player’s memory and led by Geoghegan’s aunt Margaret Walsh who is a ceramicist. The commemorative artwork involves the creation of 20,000 small figures moulded in clay. When the target figure was reached, this ‘metaphorical pitch’ was displayed in the civic office gallery space in Istabraq Hall in Merchant’s Quay for 6 weeks. Significantly the creation of the figures is undertaken by the public who were invited to mould the shapes. Each weekend in the city’s Milk Market a stall was set up where members of the public were invited to fashion a figure to add to the field.
This process is supported by a presence on the web and in posters around the City. One supporter, Mark Quinn,
climbed Everest and placed a small token for Shane at the summit. This is an example of the engaged process that constantly generates a profile for the project and the Shane Geoghegan trust. It invites participation and maintenance as a continuous process that references the low-key achievement in civic work undertaken by Shane in his career and continuously by his supporters. According to the organisers it stands also as a monument to victims of violence. The trust aims to offer children a range of community-based sporting and creative activities as alternatives to anti-social behaviour.
The process is referenced through a reading of art out of necessity. The project’s inspiration according to Margaret Walsh drew on the collective image of the Chinese Terracotta Army. Other factors included an awareness of the year of the Volunteer and the year of Crafts combined with the city hosting the European Year of Sport. The ensuing profile combination allowed the memorial team a publicity stream on the subject daily.
As a physical endeavour the Pitch for Shane overtly references a famous work by the Sculptor Anthony Gormley called ‘Field’. This art work uses thousands of hand-size clay figures that are installed in galleries where they are intended to, in the language of the press release of the Tate Gallery, ‘return our gaze, which has the effect of making us, and not them the subject of the work’. Gormley’s Field is intended to ‘act as an invasion of ‘infection’ and the sensation is that of a tide; an endless mass that has become temporarily limited by the architecture of the place where it is installed, but could easily extend further than we can see.’
No reference is made to the remarkable visual similarity of the two projects in any of the commentary or reviews of the Pitch for Shane. While visual similarities are impossible to ignore, the concept brief and the nature of the respective colaborative practices are diametrically opposed. It is not known whether Gormley is aware of the Pitch project in Limerick.
THE MAN WHO TOLD A JOKE AT HIS OWN FUNERAL.
There stands in Limerick one monument to a man who entertained and supported Rugby with a passion and is continuously celebrated by those who knew him. Here is a statement on the man and the monument to him by one of his friends.
Jock Hunter, wayward son of a Scottish judge, drifted into Limerick after thirty feckless years roaming the world. In search of an old colleague from The Northern Rhodesian police, Jock also found a family. In Limerick, he discovered all the things he loved: rugby, storytelling, fly-fishing, good conversation and a willing audience for his tall stories. When he died, his friends created Jock’s Block in his memory, constructing it with some of his ashes and a great deal of love. Today, the block sits outside the White House pub, where Jock held court and where he related some of his finest fibs.
The details of Jock’s commemoration are of interest in their own right but also as a contrast comparison to any fixed commemoration.
When Jock died he was in the process of recording a series of audio pieces for a children’s tale written by a local writer. At his wake a recording of Jock telling his favorite joke was played as part of the ceremony. Afterwards his friends decided that his memory should be kept alive in a manner that reflected his contribution to a particular place. It was important that any representation of his character should physically communicate this in Limerick. This became the brief.
Funding was raised and a decision reached on a monument. A two-foot concrete cube was finished with a small brass plaque fixed on top. The plaque simply said, Jock Hunter, a proud Munster Man. Born Duirinish Scotland 6th February 1940. Died Limerick 12th July 2004. Made for him by his friends.
The block was a repository. It was collectively built by those who oversaw his cremation and as a living vessel for his ashes. The ‘seat’ containing the ashes was placed permanently outside the White House Bar in O Connell St. It is a monument commissioned by a community of interest, a sculpture, a resting place and a talking point.
One touch that registered the block as sculpture was the lengths of copper plumbing pipe that surrounded the concrete. Jock was not the best plumber in the world and the physicality of this inside joke resonates with the intimate audience while gently puzzling others.
Any regular of the White House will take queries on the block. They will give details on both the construction and the history of the man. Jock therefore is creatively remembered as precisely as it is possible for a character to be remembered. This welcoming invites a common ownership of Jock’s legacy as each visitor spreads the story.
Jock’s Block is a significant example of the lateral possibilities surrounding the construction of a monument in extrovert space. In 2011 as part of the Catherine St CATDIG festival curated by The SpiritStore Art Project, one of Jock’s friends produced and performed a short monologue based on the man in Bourke’s Bar in Catherine St. Titled ‘The man who told a joke at his own funeral’ this performance was billed as a celebration. To a full house of friends and the curious, the monologue was performed around the actual block which was lent for the duration by the White House.
This commemoration will continue and with this and any similar project the lateral possibilities will always challenge fixed meanings.
‘’An author who teaches writers nothing teaches no one. What matters, therefore, is the exemplary character of production, which is able, first to induce other producers to produce, and second, to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better, the more consumers it is able to turn into producers – that is, readers or spectators into collaborators’’. Walter Benjamin.
John B Keane based the story of The Field on the 1959 murder of Moss Moore in Co Kerry. The chief suspect was a neighbour Dan Foley who denied the charges. As the incident would still be held in living memory the potential link would presumably have ruled out a representation of Harris as the Bull for a statue in Munster
Before he died Harris feared that he would be best known for the role as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies. In a short sentence the site www.deadoraliveinfo.com presents a description of his career begining with his role in Camelot and finishes with his Dumbledore role. Thirty years separated the roles.
Contemporary compilations of the Late Late Show interviews introduced by Gay Byrne do not now concentrate on the charm of his guests’ tales of drunken benders.
Initial web searches for Harris interviews will flag the following.
Conan O Brien. 1998 ‘the late great Richard Harris drops by to entertain us with tales of his alcoholism. The first quote underneath this Youtube clip reads ‘A real legend man, makes me proud to have Irish blood in me’.
The same individual posts on a clip of Harris on the Late Late show. ‘Richard Saint John Harris October 1930 – October 2002 I wont forget you mate, you are missed, and I honour your life by getting absolutely PISSED on this fine day, my role model. You can’t take life too seriously, this guy knew how to have fun and fun is the most important thing in this life to have I believe, without fun you live a boring and dull life, live it up!! Go wild! Enjoy this one life you get here that’s what matters! RIP!’
The Image of Richard Harris as spectator in what is presumably a Rugby match on the Skiptraces banner was taken by a photographer unknown at present. The Limerick man with the glasses has been identified as a Mr John Horrigan and the boy as one Stewart Neilan. The occasion may have been a Young Munsters match in the early 90s
1. Jelena Stojanovic. internationaleries in Collectivism After Modernism. University of Minnesota press 2007.p33)
2. Will Bradley. Art and Social Change Ed Will Bradley and Charles Eche p 12
3. The class, which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it. (The) ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations, the dominant material relations grasped as ideas; hence of the relations which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.’
MARX, Karl/ENGELS, Friedrich: The German Ideology, p.22 /p.23
4. Grant Kester.Dialogical Aesthetics. Conversation Pieces university of California press 2004 p90.
5. Ethel Seno. Trespass. Taschen 2010. p82
6. Kevin Lynch. The image of the City MIT press 1960. p101
7. Michel De Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press. Xxv111.
In 2007 a poster campaign appeared in Limerick City co ordinated by a group calling themelves A Movement for a Safer Ireland. The message delivered by the A4 posters’ black on white text was anti-immigrant and racist in tone. According to the text, foreign nationals were denying Irish nationals work and education opportunities. This was a standard racist provocation replicated in similar messages by ‘white only’ groups in England and Europe.
The primary display area for the campaign was a regular route beginning at Colbert Station through to John St and it was updated monthly. This route, based on its radius from the station, hinted that the poster team were not Limerick-based. It could have been a type of public-transport-facilitated tagging strategy where the act is undertaken using the visited city’s transport base as a hub. This is recognised graffiti practice.
Reaction was immediate as the posters were defaced and removed by a coalition of socialists, anti-fascists and offended citizens. Extra-strong paste initially fixed the posters but after intervention they were reduced to scraps of print on wallspace and street hoardings. However since the MSI had worked each month to establish their route, even without their full racist text, the scraps began to assert a familiar branded presence. Concerned individuals began to monitor updates on the route and some even made a habit of carrying tools to scrape off new additions.
For the contested duration, alleyways that were attached to the main poster route quickly became linked units of marked, ripped, and twisted hate text that forced themselves on the walls. The removal process by the coalition eventually decided on black spraypaint in retaliation, leaving streaks of translucent black lines as a final punctuation.
The remaining poster scraps with their fragmented message were a ragged cartography mapping out a perpendicular route from Colbert Station down towards the Milkmarket. Even as scraps they continued their taunts on the walls of the area’s flats which were predominantly rented by the racist’s targets
The defeated campaign lasted approximately 9 months. Afterwards there was a report of a MSI team being caught in the act and attacked at one point. This story is regularly repeated but remains unconfirmed.
I began to record the erasures’ finish as end detailing because I participated in the campaign’s removal and also because I was interested in the leftover scraps from a communication perspective, an interest that included reflecting on the project’s construction and to identify it as a record of a collective act of protest.
The MSI has a web address printed on the posters and their logo tenaciously floated out and remained in much of the black blobs that marked the route. The logo remained because often the intervention priority was to erase the printed message quickly, which sometimes meant that the smaller identity in the corners was overlooked. The posters probably used a type of water-based glue and not conventional paste for application (the traditional term ‘paste’ will always refer to an applied postering process).
The posters were designed to physically bond with Limerick streets. As much as the volume of racist endeavour is managed on the net there is always a basic street promotion built into the process. Websites often have templates and encouragement for the application for these posters. Obliteration by spraypaint became a solution that arose from a late awareness of the rhythms and tenacity of this campaign.
I looked at my collection of decommissioned images. I had stolen words and half sentences in isolated English. This archive suggested a reclamation from the overall intervention experience. I wanted a commemoration of some sort to recognise the work that a group of Limerick citizens, mostly unknown to each other, undertook for the campaign’s removal. It is continuously mentioned. When I talk of this time more often than not in Limerick company someone will admit that they too peeled a poster there and then.
“Talk isnt ment about the victims” is a construction of an A0 digital image mounted on shuttering plywood. Three A4 prints enlarge individual text from the MSI campaign to now read Talk / isnt / about. These words are then tacked on to a larger image of black paint with the words ‘the victims’ faintly legible. The final detoured sentence denies a communication of the MSI racist ethos and pays tribute to the collective deconstructive work of the self-directed coalition.
This construction was exhibited in the Limerick Printmakers open exhibition in 2007. The intention in registering it as an artpiece for the Printmakers Gallery in Robert St took into account that the gallery’s location was in the middle of the route from Colbert Station to John St. It was hung with a statement on the situation and the process.
These are ongoing notes on a variety of Irish-based and music-themed experience. Some have been published previously but all function now as complementary chapters. It is intended that collective themes will link vernacular interventions and forgotten paths. Images and corrections are added occasionaly.
The sketch Notes on an Irish Disco Landscape as a short historical overview began as a notion of place supported by ideas relating to the beginnings of an Irish disco landscape provisionally surrounding the early 80s
Initially I was interested in how 70s and 80s American-based dance sounds were used to redefine place in a post-50s Irish environment. This era was defined in part by the strong narrative of the ‘showband years, which have sometimes acted as a catch-all descriptor for music themed histories. The rural / city divide was to be a factor as was the cultural turn and consequences of the music and style that was delivered by British radio and TV. 1980 was an accelerated and strange time for the post punk and disco identities, which were forged in a recession and especially strange in the shadow of an ongoing war in Northern Ireland.
The first version of the sketch that was published in the Irish Times ‘On the Record’ blog in 2008 was culled from books, memories and conversations with people who had a stake in the history around the early 90s. It is now my intention to approach the overall subject in a framework of communication research with a combination of positivist and interpretative investigation.
This update introduces research from others and speculates on methodologies and some bottlenecking in regard to the dominance of a post 90s reading of dance culture.
Some participants who were active in Irish urban centres after 1990 see the excavation of the dance as being fixed in a modern era of (1990/98) and that window exists as the true beginning for those of an internet age. This simplified but circumscribed position dominates information on message board threads and is maintained by random posts on ‘clubbing’ sites. This position directs also dialogue that seeks to confirm the freedom and social simplicity of particular events and marshals them around a Dublin / Cork / Belfast axis.
The published sketch did not avail of existing web resources on the subject in initial research, as I was more interested in seeking to interview pre 90s players one to one. It was inevitable that in foregrounding ‘Disco’ in the research title a familiar and consumerist narrative of Irish Clubbing’, in the decade 1990-2000, would insist on inclusion. This determined description frames its own agenda to the extent that the gaps and small stories become notable by their absence. One comment on a thread suggests a certain social dance era time ended with the introduction of the smoking ban in pubs. If that was the end, then when exactly was the beginning?
I made a call out for people to carry on a conversation around pre-90 disco activity after being published in ‘On the Record’. But this was not as successful as I had hoped. In fact some key participants I was hoping to contact, particularly in the Dublin scene, seem to have disappeared and others declined to be interviewed. However, Irish material on sites such as Brand New Retro , Come here to me and Where’s Grandad? always celebrate the gaps. The Dublin ‘supper club’ ads culled from 70s newspapers and magazines, collated in Brand New Retro, speak volumes about an era’s urbanity based on an imagined foreign space.
I activated the project in 2012 after being contacted by different radio and film producers who had seen the post and contacted me for club history vox pops. In these meetings a regular question became ‘What is the timeline for an Irish Disco history?’ My personal opinion on the timeline favours a beginning that could start with the first 78 rpm records arriving in the country, especially those brought back by second generation Irish Americans in the 1920’s. These recordings were of Jazz, opera and Irish themed ballads. By the 60s the domestic consumption of records had increased enough to make a record pressing plant for the Irish market viable (the Carlton plant in Dublin). A finale would perhaps be the1992 Irish release on Mother Records of ‘An Thrush’ the traditional music themed dance song by Bumble.
In between, for inclusion on various levels, there would be US Navy jukebox’s in 50s Derry, 60s discos before Beat bands in Dublin, psychedelic dance records from Limerick groups in the 70s, Synth demos in the 80s and hiphop records from Galway in the 90s. Irishrock.org lists almost 200 indigenous Irish record labels.
Here is a reggae-tinged version of the traditional tune the Five Handed Reel, ‘Reel Reggae’ produced By Geoff Heslop on Rubber Records 1976.
I am aware that the ideal of a certain type of fully defined Irish Dance culture, the one that’s neatly packed in the 90s and similar to a type of one venerated in the UK, still circles the conversation. It’s stoked by a hum of online dialogue that seeks to wish a history of sorts into being and there are a few reasons for this. One results from the era’s memories being traced Irish urban practitioners who seek to format the history circling the 90s as a justification for some sort of a commercial continuation of the ultimate dance.
The falsehoods of the Celtic Tiger remain. Reading that is led from this stake often registers the pioneering work done by individuals as admirable but primitive, nice, worthy, but technically from an old Ireland. The idea of Dublin pirate radio playing a selection of the best new import dance records off a cassette dubbed from Abbey Discs may seem quaint but the impact of that weekly process alone created passionate activity and ownership. The fact that the listeners knew the mechanics of the process added to a sense of community, particularly those who invested in the new who supported and were supported by Dublin’s Abbey Discs.
In the UK, aspects of Rave history has become to be regarded in heritage terms as holding legitimate historical merit. Commentary there now accommodates socially engaged artworks typified by Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass. This collaborative artwork linked northern colliery brass bands with Acid House history as artwork that focused on the vernacular of Northern English place. Deller speaks of Acid Brass foregrounding “two authentic forms of folk art rooted in specific communities”. The performance ‘Fuck the Millennium’ by The KLF (1997) is another example that directly engages with a social history of dance and place. The performance work by artist Marcus Coates also feature.
The influence of the writing of Simon Reynolds looms over much of the theory and creative geography associated with any of this interpretative work. Reynolds has described the space of the rave as a ‘non-signifying system. Versions of a mantra of release associated with the rave seem to justify the almost religious communal language of being outside society and as some sort of a lost time.
The celebration attached to a unique document like the Watson brothers book Raving ’89 (Dj History.com) is a good example of the ‘pure nostalgia’ circling the subject. In the Irish experience there is not the equivalent reflection in the richness of the work of artists like Coates and Deller. The loose memories of the Irish have been transmitted orally and remain in the main untapped unregulated and in much of archives on the web, simplified.
The lack of visual record for the same time in Ireland only makes any memories of 90s clubbing in Dublin, Cork or Galway appear even more compressed, even fossilised and too often lingering on quality of Drugs in the 90s. The theme of Class A drugs fuelling past scenes does feature more than it possibly should. A thread found on the Peoples Republic of Cork message board has a ‘junior member’ calling out for images and footage of the interior of Cork’s Sir Henrys club as he intends to reconstruct the club virtually. In this scenario uploaded Dj Mixes would soundtrack a reunion where the community that previously defined the place could reunite ‘at the bar’. There is surprise threaded in the topics traffic as it dawns on all contributors that there is little to no footage available to facilitate such a project. Positioning documentation of Henry’s as sensory is perhaps already you-tubed and virtually in place. It is said that a memory can only reference the last time it was told and not the actual event.
Part of this nostalgia stems from scenarios holding outsider status in Ireland longer that of the UK. The Irish experience was also more compressed. A record of this recently surfaced on Twitter in a mid 90s letter to the Irish Times, titled ‘In defense of Techno music’ by Luke Mc Manus. The letter complained about the ‘increasing gap between those who make and those who write about ‘pop’ music’. Mc Manus felt the need to intervene with the august forum of the times letters page in defending Irish Techno culture. ‘Techno has invaded the charts he says, (and) created a vibrant anti –authority, underground culture. In its finest hours (it has) produced music of such quality that it beggars the fumblings of the orthodox rock world’. He is responding to what appears to be previously conservative commentary by the Irish Times on the subject. It is unlikely that similar debates on the ‘standards of music‘ were happening in the pages of the Times of London after the British criminal justice act moved the conversation towards dance culture as anti –social.
One contested chronology for a static ideal appears to begin in the early 90s and celebrates the Irish franchise of an international House music movement not only as Irish Dance music’s golden years but its year zero. The first Irish Dj Weekender was held in Sides DC Dublin in 1991 and the first ‘Rave’ themed party was held in the Olympic Ballroom in April of that year. Evidence of a split between those who supported the ethos of the Voodoo club and those who were sold the full on idea of a commodified version of the ‘ultimate dance’ can be traced to this moment.
In 2012 three works on 3 different platforms entered the conversation. Folklore from the Dance floor on Radio, the book Where were you? and the compilation Strange Passions on vinyl record. I participated in an interview in ‘Folklore’ and was a photographic contributor to ‘Where were you?’
Folklore from the Dance floor
Aoife Nic Canna’s 6 part radio documentary, Folklore from the Dancefloor, on Near Fm questions any simple reading or revisionism of the subject of the Irish Disco landscape. This was partly achived by interviewing core participants such as Dj Paul Webb and Dj and activist Tonie Walsh, both of who i interviewed for my original sketch. Webb speaks about his night called Black Monday in which he djed James Brown records. As Walsh puts it in a dctv film documentary currently in production, ‘we have to tiptoe around these memories’. By assembling and presenting her cast and research the way she did Nic Canna does recognise and adresses the stratification, reductionism and false memories surrounding the subject.
Properly outlined, Irish ‘Dance Culture’ as it existed in the 80s, forms a matrix comprised of pockets of breakdancers in Dublin contrasted with groups of country kids eager for the music they saw on Top of the Pops. This was a key moment in Irish adolesence. Two sides of a country processing personal missions at their own pace. Kids spinning on their heads watched by rockabilly couples in Dublin mirrored with denim jacketed kids avoiding the slow set at a country disco in end of days dancehalls.
Scenes followed their own path and developed and were appriciated simultaniously. Consider The line up for Feile 92 in Tipperary. The ‘Trip to Tipp’ that year featured the grooves of Primal Scream alongside another UK electronic/rock dance act EMF. Also playing were David Byrne, late of Punk- Funk- Afro- Disco New York band, Talking heads. And finally in the mix. the baleric sound of Les Negresses Vertes. All of these notable dance acts shared a stage in Tipperary for the duration of the 3 day festival with The Sawdoctors, Christy Moore and Sharon Shannon with the weekend ticket priced at 39 pounds and 75 pence. The duallity of participation in the presentation of old and new in Felie was a reflection of how contempory strands were being introduced alongside established ‘traditional’ irish festival material. It was not to last. By 1995 when the only Feile to be held in Cork happened, the festival hosted a Dance tent featuring international ‘superstar’ djs Carl Cox and Laurent Garnier. The Irish performers this time were Djs and Djs only.
Nic Canna’s well researched documentary records a range of participants unpicking scenes with the tangents of old social secnes surfacing in between. In Episode one a Mod speaks about nights in Bubbles disco ‘getting away from the harshness of the 80s’ while another speaker remembers 1980 as an important year with a variety and cross over of styles for the identidy hungry Irish teen to choose from. Punk still circled but there was now Mod and ska revivals alongside Hip hop and breakdancing to engage with. Electro Hip hop prehaps being the most exciting trend as in modernist terms it was the very new. A speaker in the documentary confims its attraction on a practical level ‘ there was no style as such associated with breakdance’ he says, ‘so anyone could be in it’. Both The Specials and The Beat played in Artane Dublin in 1981.
http://brandnewretro.ie/2011/07/03/the-beat-specials-dublins-stardust-ballroom-14-jan-1981/ in Dublins Stardust Ballroom.
in the radio piece Dj Mek (up from the country) forcefully makes the case for the pioneering Dublin Djs like as Tony Christie in Majesty’s club on Dame St. He also insists that the establishment of Mc Gonagles with the mid 80s Club Voodoo of South Anne St is the ground Zero in the history of Dublin Club Culture. Mek’s tight cronology links progressive post 70’s supper club djs, pivotal Dublin record shops, mixing on local radio (i.e Sunshine 101 who used to play Greg Merriman and Jim Kenny sets live from Tamangos in Portmarnock), and forward thinking young promoters. This combination created a progressive demand in the mid 80s that Club Voodoo answered. Mek states that the late 80s Voodoo playlist was of ‘funk, a bit of Latin, upfront Hiphop with the night finishing on 2 hours of ‘proper house’ (early Chicago and Detroit). Attendance was always good and the club was very significant in the history of Dublin nightlife. Progression was also compounded by Voodoo hosting visting UK djs of the cailbre of ColdCut, Jay Strongman, Norman Jay, Gilles Peterson and Mike Pickering who were becoming major trendsetters at this time. Another night called Soul on Ice featured there as well. Mek was able to demonstrate the art of mixing on RTE’s Joe Maxi youth programme in 1988 and went on to win 5 Irish DMC championships.
Voodoo accurately reflected the London Warehouse scenes expansive musical arc and style which was the first wave of Acid House. Club Sandino was another Dublin meeting spot of this time, again in Mc Gonagles. It operated as a fundraising event for The Irish Nicaragua Support Group. Its press release: ‘The club’s music policy is based on the links between musical languages and styles around the world. Salsa met reggae – soukous might be followed by r&b – bhangra beats gave way to highlife and so on. So! – If you’re into James Brown, Papa Wemba, Joe Arroyo, Khaled, Muddy Waters and an eclectic music mix this is where you’ll get it… Nicaragua Sandinista!
(There possibly does exist TV footage of the club as RTE’s Nighthawks programme did film there one night.)
The first episode of Folklore ends with a Tonie Walsh recording of a PA from US Diva Viola Wills performing ‘Saving my Love for You’ in the Hirschfield centre. Its in the middle of Temple Bar but It sounds like it could be in New York.
In this environment desired documentary images of Irish dance events are rare and there was deserved praise for the 2011 publication of Garry O’ Neil’s photographic history of Dublin youth tribes, ‘Where Were You?’
This book is the culmination of almost a decade’s work and the stories involved in how the images where sourced from personal archives would merit a separate document in itself. A major strength of the book is the documenting of the overlapping Dublin scenes in the 80s. Tribes of Rockers, Mods, Punks and Breakdancers lived out Irish versions of imported street identities.
It should be said that the culture visualised in the book could be seen to record the consumption of a culture of choice. It became easier to buy the clothes and associated ephemera; to buy one’s self out of post De Valera Ireland while negotiating its shadow. The middle class participants in these movements post 1980 acessorised their look as to precisely flag their commitment to a tribe of choice. Where Were You’s bedroom shots of youth posing with posters, records etc before venturing out to public Ireland carefully frame this commitment. The 1983 introduction of the domestic Video recorder and the video rental network also featured in design as stylized European and American outsider films such as Dario Argentos Italian psychological horror work offered truly alternative inspirations for the street. The Video recorder allowed the urban middle class teens to record and freeze study UK style shows such as Network 7, which had a significant influence. A separate case should be made for the consistency of the distinctive Dublin skinhead tribe uniform as held in a working class tradition of Harrington Jacket and Doc Marten boots. It often registered as battle colours for a decade before 1980.
In an Article for Frieze magazine 2009. Dublin based Artist Gerald Byrne mentions the audience participation in the late screenings of the 1984 Talking Heads concert film ‘Stop Making Sense’ in Dublin’s Ambassador cinema at the top of O Connell St. He describes the ‘riotous response’ from the audience as the environment translated the concert film into an experience that ended on occasion with Garda intervention. This participation was familiar in another Dublin cinema in Rathmines, which presented the Rocky Horror Picture Show as a fancy dress experience, but the dancing in the aisles for the Talking Heads film is possibly unique.
NB: In 1981 Broadcaster Gerry Ryan produced ‘No Time To be 21’
The press release at the time read, ‘Gerry speaks to members of a new generation of Irish punk rock groups like The Threat, The Peridots, the Nun Atax, Microdisney, the Virgin Prunes, the Vipers, Revolver and Berlin, and talks to people about why they became punks. He looks at how bands like U2, The Radiators and The Boomtown Rats who were products of this era were successful while others faded into the background’.
Here, Mc Creesh righfully references the importance of the avantgarde spade work in Ireland done by of Dave Clifford and Ray Murphy as the publishers of Vox magazine in the early 80s (15 issues approx.1980-83).
I subscribed to Vox in 1981 and can testify that its vivid framing of Dublin as a post punk revolutionary place was influential inside and outside the pale. Cliffords article ‘Alternative Expression’ in Vox 2 deals with the ethos and logistics of place for the practicing artist. This responibility underlined the magazine’s intention to be much more than a collection of music reviews and scene updates, it was a resource. The article ends with an invite to ‘use Vox as a public platform to express what you want from the music’.
The shift from consumer to producer was a constant theme as evidenced by on an going correspondence between Vox and the UK’s performance/ industrial music collective Throbbing Gristle, who were at the peak of their ‘Art Terrorist’ phase. TGs theorist Genesis P Orrige outlined a common ethos in a manifesto for Vox, ‘Its taking control, losing thee conditioned idea that other people supply your culture.’ At this time both Vox and P Orrige emphasised the necessity of urging a physicality in any acts of hegemonic resistance undertaken by their creative audience. Do things, make place, resist sloganeering and empahsise responsiblity when creating new structures in music and art. Both of course had experianced the commodification and castration of punk ideals. P Orrige is particularly clear in reflecting on the historical mechanics of this in Vox 4.
Alternative Expression in Issue 4 opens with a 1912 Futurist Statement ‘ All the truths learnt in the schools or the studios are abolished for us. Our hands are free enough and pure enough to start everything afresh’. Vox was aware of profile scene fanzines like Maximum Rock and Roll in the US and Sniffin Glue in the UK (1976/77) and Clifford and Murphy were equally aware of the social ethos represented in the political act of promoting such publication in a recession defined Ireland. The broadsides and manifestos continiously promoted participation.
Mail art featured as well, ‘I have an artifical disease- i want to receive mail every day’ was documentation (physically) posted and printed in Issue 4 by the artist Danny Devos.
As examples Vox critically presented the interdisiplinary work of performance artists alongside bands and creative spaces which included record shops. Inbetween the articles and commentary were street portraits of the tribal youth of Dublin and the layout foregrounded this equality. The opinions of Irish artists (including second generation UK based irish artists) were lined up with the social statements of foreign peers such as Throbbing Gristle. Issue 12 held interviews seperately with post punk royalty the Birthday Party as well as Christy Moore with the impact of them both side by side resonating somewhat as a joint statement.
The democratic packaging presented with sharp vernacular design and professional printing made Vox an uncompromising document of encouragement for Irish creatives in the 80s. And this is what it is primerally remembered as, a unique modernist exercise with great content. Again, practicing what he preached, Clifford himself designed records sleeves for the Dublin band The Threat and financed Stano’s debut single ‘Room / Town’ on Vox Records in 1981
A worthy addition to the work of O Neill and Creesh would be a digital or print compilation of all the Vox Issues prehaps along the lines of the UK Soul Underground magazine archive Catch The Beat. This could be a commercial project but as a seperate acedemic project a review of the Vox era based on its archive would be invaluable.
The National College of Art and Design library holds eight issues of Vox magazine wich are available for research purposes.
Combined, the radio show, the book and the record encourage future research directions to reinforce a vernacular perspective to account for the social activity that occurred in this area before 1990. It will be found in stories, and as the above combination has shown, the people are out there.
Certainly there is no version of the variety and elasticity of the British experience in this area available to draw upon. Nor should there be. The understated Irish versioning, the mistakes and gaps as movements were absorbed through fleeting transmissions have validated unique pre and post 80s Irish moments such the transmitted dance event as Fun City, the international hit of Sinead O‘Connor and Mc Lyte, the Scary Eire Mission and Bumble’s ‘West In Motion’. Memories of Club Sandino, Club Voodoo, and Bubbles soul night, Kerry Hip hop clubs and pirate dance radio stations in Castlebar remain as silent history between the pick up ‘supper club’ joints and the uncompromised commercial late 90s ‘clubbing experience’.
Notes on an Irish Disco Landscape remains ongoing.
Paul Tarpey July 2012
Notes on an Irish Disco Landscape.
It’s a long way from the back seat of an Austin Morris in Mullingar in the 1960s. That seat was dismantled and taken each week into the local ballroom where it was found to have the perfect shock absorbers to balance the two record decks on the stage on which a bequiffed DJ warmed up the showband - expectant crowds with the best rock’n’roll singles he could find in Ireland at the time. The promoters of these romance-drenched ballrooms thought an extra spark could be created between the jiving couples by some buck spinning a few auld records. The yellowed photo of this forgotten pioneer now historically hangs in a Mullingar bar.
As the dancehalls faded, beyond and inside the pale formica and leatherette lounge bars opened. With flashing tubed lights and a band sound system, Top 40 chart-spinning DJs glamourised the adolescent ritual, previously accommodated in these predominantly rural halls. The dancehalls still occasionally hosted bands, like touring art rockersHorslips, who rightly shook things up as a tenacious link to a sweaty past of another type of youth. Incidentally, a decade later Horslips drummer Eamon Carr could be found occasionally filling in for Dave Fanning, gleefully spinning Public Enemy and acid house to the nation, writing cutting-edge music stuff for the Herald and club DJ-ing in the mid 90s. Beat-driven music that didn’t chart was rare on the radio in the late 70s /early 80s and Irish kids, particularly country kids, looked to jukeboxes and poolrooms for any type of music.
Pips in Manchester 1979
Mail-ordered music and fashions from the back of English music magazines were another avenue for that adolescent definition thing. As a country boy, The Irish Times’s John Waters describes this stamp-licked practice in his 1991 book Jiving at the Crossroads. Once decked out in the fly gear culled from the NME, these uniforms acted as a barrier between the followers of the likes of [Irish showband superstar] Big Tom and the scooped t-shirt-and-platform-shoed Springsteen-listening townies who advocated a modernism through rebel music from abroad (albeit of a rockist bent). The concept of dance music being an outpost for a rebellious “other” identity was perhaps a little futurist in Roscommon in the late 1970s.
The post Saturday Night Fever of alternative music found occasional breathing spaces in the youth club discos where, for example, Bowie’s music continued to find glamorous favour. There was, and is, a sense of containment about this sketch and to this day, a trace of a music conservatism prevails, separating town and country halls. Looking at the Bowie-influenced portrait on Limerickman Barry Warner’s 1987 Irish electropop single “Just A Floor” is a reminder that the androgynous look always had the power to wind up Catholic Ireland. Incidentally, Warner, who is still DJ-ing, was probably the first Irish artist to produce and release synth and drum machine music influenced solely from Italo and Detroit sources in Ireland (The b-side of this single is “Jack the Floor,” an over-sincere homage to Steve “Silk” Hurley’s house classic “Jack Your Body”).
To the capital [Dublin] then. In the late 1970s and early 80s, the interior English trend of venues decked out in marble and mirrors floated across the Irish sea. On Dublin’s Leeson Street, the idea of a cocktail-fuelled nightclub experience became the hot social option, as the quietly closing city ballrooms that hosted the jiving rituals of the Sixtieswere seen as outdated meeting spots. The image of the nightclub as an otherworldly Xanadu was a frequent scene in the flash urban narratives seen in the new trend of the mainly American videos that were rented countrywide. As the recession settled, the communal ritual of the ballroom appeared passé, almost pre-electric. The need to socialise, with the day-to-day put firmly to bed and forgotten about, circled the city’s subconscious.
Zhivago’s on Baggot Street glittered, as did the Afrospot on Fleet Street and Lord John’s on Sackville Place. These snazzy cabaret joints soundtracked modern mating rituals with a slick pop radio selection delivered by a chatty waistcoated music host on the mic. Often an unwieldy black telephone stood in for headphones and the disc-cueing DJ appeared to whisper sweet nothings to the dancefloor from a spangled pulpit. He was a grinning prop, a servant a notch below the bow-tied barmen and the Farrah Fawcetted waitresses in the general scheme of the place.
The guys who went here were now released from the archaic dance rituals of the jive and standing against the wall in lines for courting. Instead, they circled the bar and splashed out on exotic drinks for ladies at their leisure. Before, people seemed to stumble awkwardly through a process; now modernism had finally arrived — people now… mingled. In this, men mimicked perhaps the suave behavior of J.R Ewing, Larry Hagman’s glamorous portrayal of the cowboy as cute hoor. The man, in theory, of the land, yet who was at ease in cosmopolitan Dallas nightspots, J.R was a potent role model for an up-from-the-country Irishman’s tentative steps onto a city dancefloor.
Confidence in shaky times. City folk themselves liked the bit where J.R. (vote Fianna Fáil) wound down, whiskey in hand in some fancy joint, usually after throwing rival Cliff Barnes (Vote Fine Gael) out of his gleaming corporate office. The décor and rhythms of the new cabaret spots channeled the potency of shows such as Dallas and Dynasty, which held huge ratings in a late Eighties Ireland still scratching their post “De Valera —Europe?” heads.
Aspirational characters of the like of our own squire Haughey also gave the impression of operating in this teleplay, cut glass tumbler in hand, holding court after a
Haughey and Joan Baez 1980
day of reassuring the country of his determination to banish the grey economic mists that blanketed everything beyond the Pale. A photo from those times, later
published in The Sunday Times and surfacing after Haughey’s death, shows a poolside scene. He is relaxing with mistress Terry Keane in Hinde postcard color. Confident and smiling, the couple’s holiday snap is taken at a surely unintentional nearly exact replica of the Southfork ranch pool.
Top of the piled carpet of the then glamorous hierarchy in the capital was the Pink Elephant, off Nassau Street. This was the Shamrock Studio 54 of its day, an essential place to be seen in should you swing in media and entertainment circles. Dance music as played there was derived from the popular radio sources of the time and operated, dancefloor and all, close to background noise. The environment in these churches reflected a congregation who in parts, as Waters commented in his book, “regarded themselves as the social and intellectual elite of modern Ireland, but who ideally would have liked to have been born somewhere else.
Over the following years, under the direction of Paul Webb and other DJs, the Pink absorbed contemporary dance sounds and became known as a dance club rather than a Sunday World social page, after the underground scene became too prominent to ignore.
Paul Webb at Cheebah 2009
In the general populace, emigration was cutting deep and for those left at home the act of socialising with a few bob was a serious business. £3 for a bottle of Ritz definitely focused the courtship ritual in these chrome and mirrored joints. Music was often seen as secondary to the swishness of the venue and in that paradigm too, it was very English. In a concession to the rest of Ireland and its crumbling dancehall rituals, the all-important last slow set took place even in Dublin 4’s gilded palaces. Couples shuffling to the strains of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” was a ritual as weary and sacrosanct as the national anthem as last song of the night. The crossfaded tone that hung between the national anthem’s beginning and the ringing end chord of Clapton surely is the ultimate Pavlovian bell for a generation now in their forties, its responsible toll ringing as the lights come on, stripping the artifice from Xanadu for another night.
Downtown in the then dilapidated city centre area of Temple Bar, things represented a decidedly different social turn. Surrounded by greasy bus lanes signalling the area’s once intended demolition for a massive transport station, it was a place not to be seen in once the sun went down. In its current prosperous incarnation, Temple Bar offers little evidence of the role it played in the creation of contemporary Irish dance culture, when Eighties property developers had turned the city into a pockmarked pile and the depressed city centre was a lost Vegas run down with burger joints and arcades.
Creative advantages presented themselves as cheap rents and allowed artistic types to establish studios, galleries and party spaces downtown. Standing proud in this bohemian landscape was the Hirschfeld Centre, a property that was at the time one of the established official gay and lesbian bases operating day to day in a urban centre worldwide. Situated at 10 Fownes Street, the Hirschfeld Centre was a hangout by day and a dance venue by night that promoted a positive gay agenda. More importantly at the time, it was a place to socialise for those of an alternative sensibility, marooned in the country in those straitlaced grey times.
The centre, which housed a café and cinema, was funded in part from income from the in-house nightclub Flickers and it’s here that the dynamic history of Irish club life begins. Tonie Walsh, activist and Flikkers DJ at the time, remembers the Hirchsfield as a place of resistance against a culture where the anti-gay legislation of the day paraded itself down O’Connell Street with Legion of Marymarches. “The centre was a contract with a community,” he says, echoing the organisation of New York gay clubs that took place after the Stonewall riots.
Post Stonewall, gay club music reconfigured certain music and the way this music was played (empowered female soul anthems, for example). This affirmed within gay groups a collective identity that refused to be ghettoised. In the light of this agenda, selected music when presented as such in the context of an exclusive party intentionally represented a statement of defiance. The parading sons and daughters of old Ireland would be appalled at Walsh’s description of his night The Cage as a celebration of sleazy music. As the son of a freelance showband sax player, the notion of music defined as style was in Walsh’s blood. The performance with a soundtrack was theatre. The notion of music as background noise could be applied here only if you can imagine it now as an audio code for sex! And here, that needed to be LOUD.
The Face. Night Fever
“I Need Somebody To Love Tonight” by Sylvester was spun. “Nightclubbing” by Grace Jones and the low-slung funk of the Bar-kays and Millie Jackson came to define the off-centered confidence of the night. Musical heroes such as the group Odyssey (whose anthemic song was “Our Lives Are Made For What We Are”) performed for these pioneering promoters. Sylvester, the ultimate gay performer, was eventually booked to play, but he was taken by what was known then as “the gay plague,” as the comprehension of AIDS was still alien in Ireland. The community downtown was aware more than most. An early term for AIDS in the worldwide gay dance community at the time was “the Saint’s disease,” so called after the devastation of the gay clientele from one of New York’s dance palaces in the first wave of the epidemic.
For a while, these were the good times. Walsh says the space was almost virtual in a 20th century way. “These parallel realities were an attempt to redress the imbalance felt by those involved in wider society”, says Walsh, who is adept at discussing the history in both polemical and nostalgic fashion as he assembles those memories for a book he is currently writing. In the London of 1983, the parallel Irish actions by Walsh and his crew were described as “parties with a vengeance” by David Johnson in The Face. In his article, he mentions the rebel dance parties that were “glorifying the individual and wrestling power back from the elders.” Johnson was referring to the commodification of the disco after Travolta sublimated the dance for the tribal “release from the bondage of weekday work” spectacle.
As the mega-disco arrived in London, the hybrid styles of a reactionary underground scene abroad inevitably made their way back to Dublin via those who worked there for the summer. In the Eighties, it was almost mandatory to get the boat for a few months’ work. Once there, you had access to new sounds. A bootleg tape from Camden Market or a set from a pirate station playing on one of those SONY Walkmans on the way back got Paddy hip for Holyhead as well.
Alternative Miss Ireland
Saturday nights down the steep stairs to the basement was the major night for the queens left in the country and the first all-night disco was held in the centre in 1981. Fashion and dress reflected a combination of street and glamour drawn in part from the secondhand shops that surrounded the centre, again emphasising dole-fuelled creative options. The non-alcohol restrictions of the centre’s license meant an inevitable sprinkling of acid, speed and quaaluded rebel footwork. The association of ecstasy with clubbing had yet to provoke the tabloids and, while the gay scene had access to the odd pill courtesy of adventurous visitors from abroad, the prohibitive cost at that time was £25 a pop.
For those out and proud, the centre was the start of the anarchy of the now institutionalised Alternative Miss Ireland contest. Superstars like Panti emerged who were Celtic cousins to Warhol’s glamorous stable of Hollywood Seventies wannabes. As the parties became established, Temple Bar sparkled as the place in Ireland to be out. Stories about No 4, a mid-Eighties gay shebeen at 4 McCurtain St in Cork, which pursued the same agenda, could be slotted in here, but its non-licensed state means the historical title for influential Irish club status must go to the pioneering Hirschfeld Centre.
Politics and passions combined with post-punk and disco grooves. A gay agenda ran the show accommodating gays and progressive straights who gravitated to the dimly-lit area around the Central Bank as word about the crazy music and unrestrained extroverts cavorting in a New York style got around. The frisson of the wrong side of town raising its party flag drew the committed. Evidence from these specific nights are documented by flyers and print paraphernalia held by the National Library courtesy of the National Queer Archive. The night Senator David Norris got elected was, by all accounts, some party, his election an affirmation that this show was going to run and run.
The rare sounds for the parties were initially mixed with the indie hits of the day (referencing the above English template) by DJs like John Cronin, creating a
Hewan-Clarke Original Hacienda Dj
tribal environment for those that transgressed neat punk/goth/new romantic labelling. Manchester’s Hacienda, for all its house music glory, initially used to finish off its equivalent nights with goths and Bowie fans doing the conga to the Thunderbird’s theme. The music spectrum had to have the edgy stuff from the B52s side of the charts to emerging electronic rhythm manifestos from Europe and the States. A commitment to forging a sound was now made by the Hirschfeld DJs, who set aside cash to fund a record pool. People came to hear the new and the new had to be found.
Inside the Hirschfield Centre 1979. David Norris in centre.
Paul Webbthe DJ was then working the decks at the Pink Elephant and is emphatic about the impact of the downtown set up. “DJs who guested at the club knew they could push the boundaries and play offbeat music, as the crowd and promoters supported the new and the innovative,” he says. “People came for obscure sounds. I’d clear the floor uptown if I chanced a heavy Trouble Funk track. But at Flikkers, there was never a problem, as the crew running the night trusted the DJ.” As hip travellers returned from abroad, they brought with them various records they thought would suit the scene’s agenda. Tracks such as “Love Reaction” by Divine, with its “Blue Monday” stylings, were sufficiently edgy and cutting to appeal to both indie and gay camps. Divine was the larger-than-life transvestite star of the John Waters flick Pink Flamingos and her husky singing generated a type of freaky funk for all types for outsiders to enjoy.
One song which had a huge impact was Donna Summer’s electro tranced “I Feel Love.” This robotic soul masterpiece was immediately set upon and dismantled by European producers. Its throbbing template became the definitive gay club sound that was explicitly referenced in tracks like Patrick Cowley’s “Menenergy” in 1981. Those relentless electronic beats needed to be spun out over a couple of hours for effect, something incomprehensible to the casual pop and rock punter who frequented uptown. New musical journeys downtown dispensed with any trace of the slow set, jive or party performance conventions that were in place uptown to orientate the unfamiliar visitor to the experience provided by the venue.
In Temple Bar, the absence of these (nominally straight) conventions can be seen as a pledge of definition by the nascent dance community to themselves. It was a way of saying “these are our rhythms and we own them.” Slow sets appeared on the crazy party nights where show tunes or familiar songs were aired, these sets were slow and low and once again out of reach to those out of the loop. Traditional folk and Anglo-Irish Dubs reassured themselves that this musical aberration was just a bent soundtrack. Big Tom’s Ireland may have found rock music just about derisible, but that quare stuff was much more acceptable to the queer stuff pumping from Temple Bar.
Check the record shops such as All City that now occupy Temple Bar and you will find remixed versions of this once derided “faggot music” currently enjoying a renaissance nearly three decades years after pumping from the Hirschfeld’s basement. Flashbacks like The Biddu Orchestra’s “Voodoo Man” – an electro classic from 1979, for example – were gloriously resurrected a few years ago.
Tonie Walsh doesn’t register Irish pop radio impacting on the club’s music policy but emphatically points to the influence of MT-USA.Vincent Hanley hosted this pioneering independent Irish TV show which played dance-tinged glossy American pop videos each Sunday afternoon, long before MTV fashioned its own culture. To this day, MT-USA is fondly remembered as a welcome distraction by those who were imprisoned by Inter and Leaving Cert studies at that time.
Pirate dance radio ships had yet to sail in Dublin, leaving the DJs the job of constructing the hot playlists themselves. However, the desired import records needed to fuel this mission commanded high prices. Webb points out that if you could manage to part with the cash for dance floor classics like the 12’’ mix of Roy Ayers‘s’ “Running Away” (€50 in today’s money), you took solace in the fact that there were fewer than 10 copies in the country. The thought of discerning punters clamouring to request it in the coming weeks was often the reason for hard-earned cash being handed over.
Dj Cool C
In sourcing grooves, Webb points to the influence of British DJ James Hamilton. His weekly charts in Record Mirrormagazine, combined with his yearly dance mix on BBC Radio 1, counted as essential research. Kilkenny’s DJ Cool C from Dublin’s All City crew also remembers these charts, diligently cutting them out because they contained the BPMs of various hot tracks, thus allowing a virtual mix in the eager DJ’s head as if he had heard them himself. This charming, labour-intensive behaviour certainly merits the well-worn “pre-internet” comment.
Commercial nightclub DJs were not well-paid individuals, as they were seen as the cheaper alternative to a band by venue owners full stop. The concept of DJs as performance artists in their own right was laughable, except for the guys from the radio RTE sometimes sent on the showband trail. These roadshows were often based on the spectacle of a showband itself, with the likes of the late Gerry Ryan being the radio star who descends on a country town for a night to give a taste of the big city and hinting at the showbiz paradise it is. This profiling added to the obscurity of the Temple Bar DJ’s mission. Denied the status of a Gerry Ryan or Pat Kenny, their true job description didn’t really exist, as it was by all intents too modern in the face of the airwave-sanctioned disco at the crossroads.
The passionate spinner in the shadow of institutionalised radio had to be committed. Webb, for example, travelled every week to the record company headquarters on the Long Mile Road to request promo records that were often just unplayable chart fodder. “Every Friday, I used to cycle around all day to these places for nothing, but I still
did it. Every week! Now, I get direct emailed demos and tracks from producers and groups before the record companies.” As part of this developing scene, Hanley physically brought back the latest US disco and post punk exclusives from New York along with his recommendations. Hanley and others repped for the home scene in America by checking out what was vogueish and thus keeping Flickers progressive. In one twisted example, the Flickers crowd worked The Weather Girls hit “It’s Raining Men’ on the floors months before the radio non-ironically delivered the concept of a downpour of accessible males to the rest of the country. It remains a staple on the Irish hetero wedding playlist to this day.
The significance of getting down to anthems that could only be heard in specific spaces cannot be underestimated in terms of pink solidarity. Music radios or programmed music were not an intentionally prominent feature in bars and a DJ spinning in an Irish bar is really only a decade old. Yet a tale is told of a regular Sunday afternoon disco in one gay-friendly bar (possibly The Parliament) that was a daylight extension of the Temple Bar groove and great fun in a non religious
Sunday drinking way, by all reports.
Only Webb’s column in In Dublin magazine as well as regular reports in the Dublin Event Guide carried any dance coverage, as the capital’s other publications, notably Hot Press, adopted a conservative anti-dance stance. A moment from this time on radio; after touring the October album in America, Adam Clayton arrived on Dave Fanning’s programme to play some records he had bought back. U2’s bassist opened his selection with the unexpected backwards bass slurp of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.” It seems this was the sound of the black clubs the blonde Afro-ed bassist was fascinated by on tour. Of course, Webb had been playing Clinton’s song in discerning spots months previously and the rare sound of this black funk slab floating over national airwaves hosted by the U2 guy registered overall as no more than a curious artifact from an urban field trip, instead of the punchy anthem Webb made it downtown.
On the ground, the lines were clearly drawn. The idea of a congregation worshipping at a stage that was not miked for guitars and drums seemed incomprehensible for print and radio coverage. Webb’s disco reports eventually ceased “when the editor wanted more of a club spy angle.” No doubt that imagined spectacle was the easier sell than a regular funky rundown on hot trends. A safe environment for congregating and dancing heightened a progressive unity between crowd and DJ as Flikkers began to push special disco megamixes acquired by Hanley and others. New York Dance producers like Jellybean (who assisted Madonna’s rise to fame) began playing specially mixed vinyl containing many dancefloor hits on one record. These popular edits were an alternative to tracking down all the necessary underground beats for mixing themselves, but still remained coherent dancefloor tracks in themselves. These tools were the next step as well as the always vital new thing. Disconet and Hot Traxx “DJ-only” 12’’ records segued electro themed American and Georgio Moroder pulsed Eurobeats, consolidating a futuristic alternative again only to be experienced downtown.
A couple of minutes from the Hirschfeld across the Liffey, Abbey Discs and the gay-run Beat Records began selling downtown sounds. These traders began pushing non-chart sounds in the rough and ready stalls in the Abbey Street Mall. Cassette tapes began to be passed around as DJs traded beat ideas amongst themselves. By the late
Eighties, the Virgin Megastore opened on the quays and a policy of dumping excess dance vinyl into bargain bins from Virgin’s stores in London inspired many a follower to consider a set of decks now that the content was available. By 1991, these shops stocked the Irish scene’s tentative vinyl outings in the dance market. One such object was a compilation called Music To Move To, Vol I on the Futuresque label. Barry Warner had by this time recorded a beat-tripped version of Bowie’s “Sound and Vision,” which didn’t get clearance, but was heard and appreciated by the Thin White Duke himself.
Two other mid-Eighties albums lost in those times but out there on a rhythm tip that may have circled Temple bar were The Protagonist 28 Nein (1986, Dossier Records) by Dublin poet/singer Stano andHyperspace (1987, Tara Records) from Sligo’s Those Nervous Animals. Stano’s effort musically twisted towards the post-punk (Cabaret Voltaire listening, William Burroughs reading) Virgin Prunes set, while Those Nervous Animals contained surprisingly deft Arthur Baker touches amongst their pop stylings.
In 1986, John Nolan and Cyril O’Brien open Sides DC at 26 Dame Lane (the “DC” stood for Dance Club). A stone’s throw from the flickering of the Hirschfeld, the opening of Sides announced that this was a scene which was more than just a necessary environment for the gay and curious. Rather than a hedonistic hint of New York at Flikkers, you were now able to experience a full on, 100 percent dance club.
At The Cage, DJs like Liam Fitzpatrick worked alongside Webb at the still new concept of the mix. Slow grooves building steadily would peak and drop as a theme teased through the night. “Liam was flawless,” says Tonie Walsh. “He would stretch records with two copies taking the crowd to 130bpm, then dropping the sound before building it up again.” In the other corner, Webb’s maverick style involved layering black civil rights speeches over James Brown instrumentals and peaking with a Kraftwerkian onslaught of Euro-electronic. Webb recalls parties being thrown by “a Nigerian guy in Ballsbridge” who played Afrobeat sounds and introduced the DJ to Fela Kuti records. “Man, I would have so much work for that guy right now,” Webb says.
The trip was now established and the crowd demanded a night that lived up to the new template. By the time Webb and Fitzpatrick had installed themselves as the first DJs in Sides, they owned the keys to an uncompromising sonic racecar with minimal white walls housing a purpose-built Cerwin-Vega soundsystem in Dame Lane. The race track was theirs. The gap between the sticks, the Leeson Street clubs and the Temple Bar movement widened. Now the scene moved overground and there was a classy alternative that lived up to the expectation of graduating club kids. Though Sides was never marketed exclusively as a gay club, Saturday nights had a proud pink crowd and the concept of a high profile spot in Dublin city centre where the gay night was not hosted on a Monday was read as “quite rebellious,” says Walsh.
From ‘Where were You’ Gary O Neill 2011
The Sides scene was predominantly male, 50/50 gay and straight, with a healthy art college input where a passion for serious dancing was the essential attraction. Active punters pushed the visual boundaries and began dressing themselves and the club to exacting standards. Niall Sweeney, a designer currently based in England, was a Face and ID magazine junkie. “I remember one shop in Rathmines where those magazines would arrive and next day at St Mary’s School in Rathfarnham, those in the know would furiously debate the hip content within.” Like many of his peers, Sweeney’s youthful studies included devouring pop videos and late nightChannel 4 TV exotica which led him to visualise far-out theatrical sets for the interior of Sides.
In our Youtube cocoon of today, it’s important to remember that the extravagance of club fashion in music and visuals literally had to be studied in the mid Eighties through the pages of a couple of English magazines and some progressive pop programming on Channel 4 beamed to an eager audience on the east coast. This was the channel that produced an hour-long scratch video based on Talking Heads music before that group’s own Stop Making Sense premiered. This funky audio-visual urbanity combined with the postmodern diktats of the Face united not just the Dublin kids, but those from the sticks who made it to the capital to study, particularly the visual arts.
At this time, the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) students held parties in places such as the Cathedral Club (a disused part of Christchurch Cathedral), creating another flank in the continuing battle against the doom-laden recession. Artist Nigel Rolfe, who lectured in NCAD in the mid Eighties, was known to DJ at college parties from cassettes playing uncompromising break-dance electro, referencing the contemporary collision of punk and DJ culture glimpsed in The Clash’s video for “The Magnificent Seven.” The anarchic midsummer night, Hallowe’en and New Year’s balls held in the Hirschfeld were well established mini Mardi Gras, where Sweeney and other creatives perfected crazy glitter and glue skills for the cause.
Sides DC, Dublin – 1994
They say the personal is political and in throwing these bashes, the collective was creating an active social agenda on their own terms and on their own budgets. The
SIDES DC 1990
rest of the country may have been concentrating the words of Haughey’s “tighten your belts” speech, but these teams probably spotted the ill-gotten designer cuffs poking from his mohair suit on TV and what was good enough for the goose became good enough for the gander in the creation of an identity, albeit with different budgets. The square community presided over by Haughey were born to suffer, but those downtown, in the words of the Hi-NRG song, were “Born To Be Alive.” Sweeney and another Flikkers regular, Frank Stanley, who both went on to design Dublin’s iconic 1990s shop Makullas, gleefully began to use Sides as their deranged canvas. Things had to be different, new and exciting to mirror the dominant sound now rendering the music partially abstract. Due to the power of the speakers, the bass warped the dancers’ moves and the visual space of the club expanded and contracted accordingly. “People wanted to get inside the bassbins, the sound had such a presence,” Webb recalls.
The DJ booth hung as an altar halfway up a wall overlooking the changing ceremonies. The club’s seats were black modules that formed new shapes each week and a sculpted fountain dispensed water beside the dance floor. Shaking his head thinking about the audacious energy of Sweeney’s men, Webb remembers half of a life-size aeroplane protruding from a wall one week. When Andy Warhol died, those who went to dance the night away in Dublin during the week of his passing did so around an elaborate altar of glass and UV light created in the middle of the club.
Claire Moloney JUJU club on the Left
Other nights saw the crew truck a cherry tree onto the dancefloor and simply adorn it with a disco ball as the only décor for that night. The Alternative Miss Ireland book published last year hints at the explosion of eye candy on walls and limbs that marked Sides’s classic period. These installations were the perfect acid landscape, as again, mainstream dance-associated chemicals for personal dance visuals had yet to hit the country in force. Sides was the first commercial place in Ireland to offer an environment that was not a bar first with dancefloor as an afterthought and those running it knew the responsibility that came with that. The rota of DJs and designers who passed through its doors came to define a distinct visual ethos that would define Dublin physically in the 1990s.
Fergus Murphy, who as a promoter and DJ fronted the influential late 90s Velure club nights in the Gaiety, was then a UCD [University College Dublin] student drawn to the scene. As a punter, he followed UCD’s John Donnelly into Sides in 1989 when that DJ held down a Thursday night residency. “The grammar of record collecting by these DJs had transferred into nights where the psycho metronomic funk of a Bohannon record was now the dancefloor norm,” Murphy enthused. “You could get the records now, and the gap between hearing about contemporary international releases and experiencing them mixed for the dancefloor had disappeared, more or less.”
DMC mixing Competition Nassau St 1990
The DMC (Disco Mix Club) now known for turntablism and scratch battles, set up its Irish base on the Tuam Road in Galway and distributed promos and remixes. Dance fanzines came into being to cover the scene with Mark Kavanagh’s Remix and Dublin Funk Collective News (aka DFC News) being essential reads in the early 1990s. By now, Sides wasn’t alone. Eoin Foyle ran an electro-tinged indie night called The Motion Club in the Warwick Hotel in Galway, before defining a commercial funk and hip-hop template in the capital withRi-Ra. Galway also hosted hugely influential pure electro nights in a spot called The Castle with a Donegal DJ called Chris Orr, who now resides in San Francisco. The legendary Sir Henry’s in Cork with Shane Johnson and Greg Dowling was up and running by the early 1990s, attracting busloads from Dublin, with many of these Jackeens then starting their own club nights.
Acid house, initially the most abstract form of disco’s revenge, began to attract attention and the first DJ generation inspired by Webb and Fitzpatrick began to pass through Sides. A profile of DJ Noel in the July 1991 issue of DFCNews by DJ Bass mentions that he will be throwing down “Italo, Techno, Indie, Ambient and Deep House.” Noel mentions he likes working in Sides because “it’s different to any other club.” The description of his playlist signified that the varied pulses of Webb’s inaugural sound had been streamlined and this defining house groove would be the foundation of nationwide dance parties throughout the 1990s. The impending onslaught of Irish rave events, often cited as the beginning of a dance scene, in Ireland was coming.
A geographical description of the dance scene in London from The Face’s December 1989 issue lists the grooves that were now also the progressive sounds of Dame Street: African chants, flamenco guitar, indie thrash, Eurodisco, Chicago house, hip house, Detroit techno, New York garage, rap, skacid, acid jazz and “almost anything else you want.” In today’s comfortable specialist clubbing age, there is no form of electronic dance music that today’s Ireland cannot absorb. That menu from The Face reads like the proud work sheet from the Warhol-inspired factories that were in effect the Hirschfeld and Sides.
West in Motion by Bumble. An internationally acknowledged Irish Rave anthem
This historical sketch ends with the beginning of the Celtic Tiger prowling round the notion that there may be some financial sense in these dance clubs as house music and hip-hop in the charts made what was previously underground accessible. The thrill of dancefloor discovery on the same level as back in the early days ended. The secret of obscure sound, the careful building of music, the fun of building an environment, the community, the wine licence restrictions, printing the names of the bouncers on flyers for Sides because everybody liked them: all this belonged to a slower, more transitional age. As the developers and drug-monitoring gardai moved into Temple Bar, the spots here and throughout Dublin began to accommodate a faster tempo.
Kiss Fm Pirate Radio Mayo Circa 1990
More was lost, however, than just time and place. By then, everyone knew the consequences of AIDS, none more so than many of the original pioneers of the Hirschfeld. “Just before the end of Sides, the scene was very dark, with funerals of many who were integral to the scene,” recounts Webb. The Hirschfeld itself fell victim to a fire before Sides too finally closed. With it went a decade of sonic and social achievement that redefined the transition from suited showband shuffling to synchronised hands in the hair. With dance remixes of U2 on the radio and Paul Oakenfold warming up for them in Lansdowne Road, the job started in a Dublin basement by some very energetic outsiders was done.
Scary Éire supporting U2 at Lansdowne Road; photo Paul Tarpey
Aidan Walsh: No meaning and no end to the Master of the Universe
A version of this review was originally posted at www.cheebah.net after the author found a second-hand copy of Shimmy Marcus’s 2000 film Aidan Walsh: Master of The Universe in Limerick. Much of the commentary alongside any descriptions stems from the author’s own personal experience of Dublin between 1984 and 1991.
IN the battered Dublin of the 1980s, urban cowboy Aidan Walsh had all the trappings of a 15-minute superstar. The Temple Bar glimpsed in Shimmy Marcus’s 2000 documentary, Aidan Walsh: Master of the Universe, is a million miles from that of the now familiar, bustling, commercial hub, fed by the Celtic Tiger’s greedy cubs. Back then, it was a starker, harsher, poorer area, but Marcus’s documentary fittingly portrays it as an open canvas used by a multitude of artists throughout that decade. And of the many artist types, Walsh was perhaps the most significant.
The Temple Bar of Walsh’s time was a transit zone where cheap rents allowed for an abundance of gallery spaces and performance venues. It was a creative hotspot and, on any given day, you were likely to come across some sort of performance-led event spilling out onto the streets from the area’s primary venue, the Project Arts Centre. Here, musicians and creatives collaborated on all manner of exciting and innovative presentations, including the ‘Dark Space’ gig where the likes of The Virgin Prunes shared room with Nigel Rolfe and other performers for a 24-hour experience. Amongst the clusters of ‘funny bunnies’ (Councillor Ned Brennan’s famous quote) congregating on the cobblestones for these events, one would occasionally see the ever-smiling Aidan Walsh.
It was easier to be a ‘face’ in 1980’s Dublin than it is today – emigration had culled the younger spectrum of the population, making social circles tight. But justification aside, there is no denying that Walsh stood out. Dublin city was being overtaken by the punk look imported from London; Grafton Street was being styled in the image of King’s Road, and rebellious poses were the norm. In the midst of all this, Walsh’s look was out of time, un-urban; he had spurned the second-hand London look in favour of his own style, and came across as a flamboyant, rural character.
All of the city’s bohemian population seemed to be on nodding terms with this ‘cowboy’. Artists and creatives befriended him, attracted to the outsider notions he represented. His new friends recognised in Walsh’s energy something that was not led by a conventional star agenda. He showed no interest in pursuing fame and its benefits. He didn’t just want to be the next big thing; he was that thing already. But if these artist types could help to promote this news, then he was willing to franchise his brand for the greater good.
This singularity was fascinating to all who encountered him. Walsh’s difference generated a romantic agenda, not just for himself but also for a local Dadaist fringe led by band members of The Golden Horde and the remnants of The Virgin Prunes. Product from these liaisons began to appear on the streets. The Master of the Universe brand was created, and could be found at gigs and in paintings, colourful posters and a lot of cartoons. This all helped to keep Walsh’s name, and his mission, in the public eye.
Shimmy Marcus’s film places Walsh’s experience in context, and suggests that his individual path was specific to a time and a place. The Dublin of the 1980s was in the process of deparochialising itself, seeking a postmodern place and striving for a worldview by establishing various international cultural and social links. Art spaces were operating between the international pinnacle of the Guinness Hop Store and the small, damp studios of a run-down Temple Bar. An example of the cultural index of the time was the journey by some of Walsh’s creative contemporaries to London for the Sense of Ireland Festival in 1980, whereby officially-sponsored artists and rock groups travelled to represent the nation’s art trends.
Behind Walsh’s big smile was the hard tale of an abandoned orphan boy. What saved him from his harsh childhood was an imaginative passion and a desire for a happy conclusion as an adult. In Marcus’s film, we can see that he is totally without social boundaries. Like a Celtic Sun Ra, he creates a basic rhythm and circles it in shiny costumed garb, expressing himself in both popular and unintentional conceptual art speak, communicating in fairytales and riddles. He sleeps on four mattresses, watching TV, and keeps a teddybear — not a girlfriend — next to him. Robots, he explains, have sex for him, as this is easier and cleaner for all concerned. He loves the community games and has claimed it is an artistic form understood only by himself. At gigs, he takes your picture and cuts it in half; if you don’t have your half with you at the door, he refuses to recognise you. He once performed at a polling booth when he ran against Bertie Ahern — later to become Ireland’s Taoiseach — in a 1997 local election.
Amongst the great showbiz tales and the pathos of his dealing with abandonment and “things he can’t tell yet”, the film’s narrative also documents a wider longing at the time for an urban underground scene typified by the imagined vibrancy of London or New York. The radio station 2FM — owned and set up by the national broadcaster, RTÉ — began broadcasting in 1979 and soon a post-punk sound and attitude began to filter through Dublin and the rest of the country. Suddenly, ‘edgy’ records (such as John Cale’s ‘Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend’) were being played. But would the national broadcaster be open to the wide-grinned bohemian on their doorstep?
Throughout the film, there are clips of various youth programmes illustrating RTÉ’s position on delivering rebellious or avant-garde material. It was all just light entertainment from a capital-centered jamboree. There are clips of Walsh on a popular TV pop music quiz, invited on by ‘hip’ presenter Gerry Ryan. The cowboy quickly spurns Ryan’s patronage as he proceeds to short-circuit the show’s banal answers, much to the quizmaster’s displeasure. He literally pressed the wrong buttons. Moving on, a radio clip of Dave Fanning’s show has a jubilant Walsh in full flight as the presenter attempts to police the spectacle. Fanning sighs, “Here we go” — just because Dave’s designated authority is on top of ‘what’s happening’ doesn’t mean he has to like all the material, or be seen to support Walsh’s surreal agendas.
The potential subversion of the idea of the pop star – which Walsh always represented – could, in a certain light, be regarded as a threat to Fanning, Ryan et al. The national pop channel’s belief in a modernisation manifested itself in the desire for universalisation; any attempt by an Irish Sun Ra to interject could feasibly liberate listeners from consumer passivity and create problems. Walsh’s jabs at the spectacle and his persona in this arena were unique and, in the end, were seen as a counterbalance to the establishment professionalism of RTÉ and its presenters.
Fanning and Ryan were big names in the Ireland of that time. They were both ex-pirate radio personalities done good, and they embodied Irish pop-rock celebrity. Interestingly, they are both recorded as orchestrating downtown events with Walsh, in situations that Ryan admitted were more beneficial as ‘street’ publicity for the 2FM DJs, than for Walsh and his vision. Ryan admits that Bono once had words with him about how this one-way traffic was being handled and he eventually assisted Walsh in a more responsible manner, particularly in helping to track down the orphan’s aunt on his radio show.
Ever since the beat scene of the 1960s, the gig trail has worked according to a pecking order of paying one’s dues. On occasion, Bono has rolled out the metaphor of the bucket of lobsters clawing back any of their own that dared to escape. Hence, as Walsh rode the bucking bronco of recognition, there always seemed to be some attempt to categorise him. But Walsh was usually energetic and original enough to sidestep these snide obstacles and embroider them into his own tapestry. Fame and his unique quest for it were sacred and eventually people began to realise that normal (and 2fm) rules didn’t apply to him. The Master of the Universe was so called because he controlled his own universe.
Around this time, Bono and U2 were enjoying momentous success internationally, and the momentum of this meteoric rise impacted not just on Walsh’s circle but on the whole of the Dublin city scene. The group’s campaign peaked at the time of the release of their film, Rattle and Hum. The people of Ireland supported their fame and worshipped them in whatever image they chose to present themselves as — at this stage of their career, they happened to prefer the ranch-style cowboy look. U2 now showed themselves off in denim jeans and Stetsons — which, let us not forget, are the mark of a gent in country and western terms and Walsh’s patented attire. However, the band’s very intent and serious delivery of their message, as well as Bono’s Messiah persona, were beginning to be remarked upon. Amongst Walsh’s then contemporaries were The Joshua Trio, a talented musical comedy act who reinvented themselves as cod preachers, sending up U2 in pub gigs with country ramblings like ‘The Edge Has Got His Hat On’. Meanwhile, as the celluloid Bono, Larry, Adam and the Edge spinal-tapped a rhythm in Graceland, Walsh took small ads in the Dublin indie press announcing, in all seriousness, that since Elvis was dead, it behooved the Master of the Universe to fill his shoes.
The music industry reacted instinctively to U2’s remapping of Dublin as the Klondike. Waves of A and R men flocked to the capital seeking the next big thing and there was no shortage of takers – the sense of expectancy around the clubs at the time was palpable: if you were a four-piece Irish rock band with messianic tendencies, it was only a matter of time before guaranteed airplay money came your way.
Bono and Guggi , who is pretending to urinate, in front of a Robert Ballagh painting, 1979.
In the middle of all this hubris, Walsh was signed and released an album, to some discontent from the conservatives. There is some great footage of a London showcase of Irish acts where Walsh and the Screaming Eagles are being praised by none other than Brian May of Queen, while at the same time being castigated as taking up space for “real Irish bands” by a mullet-headed Bono clone.
Guggi artwork in the toilets of the Marina Hotel, Rosslare, 2012
The producer of Walsh’s record was The Golden Horde’s Simon Carmody, who comes across here as a genuine supporter and facilitator of the Master of the Universe. The music he produced for Walsh reached out to the style of a Cramps-led, swamp-rocked jangle that had held its own through punk in England. ‘Psycho Billy’, as it was sometimes called, was more upfront about treating stage image as equal with sound, and Carmody was well aware of its suitability for the Walsh project. The Boneshakers were the first Irish manifestation of this live sound, followed by The Gore Hounds and Shark Bait. It was also represented visually in the comic shop culture that had only recently begun to find its feet in Dublin. The groove was also the personal taste of those that ran influential record spots, such as Freebird and Comet Records. For a fun snapshot of these times, check out Eammon Carr’s compilation ‘Guru Weird Brain Presents’. DJ Carr also played this style on RTÉ on occasion, so it had a listenership and, as a trend, it briefly had legs.
Carmody, like Carr, was very hip to the more esoteric, art-tinged possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll-based drama. He had a studied knowledge of the vintage garage rock scene that spawned Love, The 13th-Floor Elevators, and The Stooges, as well as a combination of scenarios that created the legend of The Velvet Underground. He appeared committed to developing an Irish version of those previous successes. He was the type that would not only know who the 1960’s US icon Robert Anton Wilson was, but be aware that he was actually living in Dublin for a while in the late ‘80s. The off-centered cultural knowledge of Carmody, combined with the avant garde tweaks of Gavin Friday and others, gave patronage and credibility to what otherwise would have been a private universe existing only in notebooks and cassettes archived by ‘The Master’ in inner-city Dublin.
As part of a wider agenda, Carmody’s stewardship of this project would consolidate the imagined (and constantly desired) underground perpetrated by groups like the Horde and offshoots like Hackalacka Biniti from the Prunes. The conservative Catholic landscape was one factor demanding necessary rebellion and another was the steady imperialism of the stone-washed Americana being played on radio. By now, Van Morrison was collaborating with The Chieftains and, with the commercial popularity of The Hothouse Flowers and The Waterboys’ star in ascendance, music culture seemed to negate the possibility of any type of post-punk progression being generated from the post-hippy Dublin scene. This is the legacy of modern Irish pop rock. For all Gerry Ryan’s patronage of Walsh and appearance of hip rebellion, his attention was never going to have the same impact as John Peel had in his support for The Fall; gate-keeping lines in Donnybrook are always drawn clear. In this light, Walsh’s legacy from the time stands proud. He literally tried every door in Dublin’s rock saloon and found only unworthy artifice lurking inside.
In retrospect, the nascent dance scene would have been a more receptive home for his mission. And as it was being created in real-time with committed hedonistic followers, it could be constituted as a true underground. Another Venn diagram would circle the Alternative Miss Ireland project, which was being promoted by Tonie Walsh and friends, again in Temple Bar. However, the idea of guitars, drums and sunglasses as a template for magical change was a hard one to leave behind, as these structures were built for a type of accepted radicalism. No matter how different you wanted your project to become, you were invariably sucked into this ultimately rock-driven commercial black hole.
Carmody’s particular brand of hands-on patronage was the equivalent of Frank Zappa in the 1970s. Zappa developed the outsider musician Wild Man Fischer as a countercultural performer, as the industry co-opted and controlled the freak scene in the ‘70s. Like Zappa with Fischer, Carmody’s work with Walsh was a one-off. The music created specifically for Walsh as a stand-alone package does not age as well as could be expected but, overall, is still worth checking out. At a push, the history of the famous ‘60s New York street musician Moondog is another outsider example for consideration too.
The colourful adventures of the Master of the Universe would always be too busy to be contained within the confines of any lurching model of the Irish music business, pre- or post-U2, and Shimmy Marcus’s film sketches the ups and (mainly) downs of various other commercial endeavours Walsh was involved in over the years. One great story has Walsh trying to buy the building on the Quays that was to become the Virgin Megastore. He began a bidding war and forced the price up, before Richard Branson cash-grabbed the building. Towards the end of the film, we see our hero starting his own young band showcase, offering advice and support to a group of very polite youth (his website currently continues this work). These stories are often disappointingly conveyed by Carmody and others, who tend to mimic Walsh’s distinctively high voice. This is unnecessary but, taken in context with Fanning’s ‘sure, it was only a bit of a laugh at the time and nothing more’ commentary, it gives Walsh’s own words a deserved sincerity.
The film cleverly balances all these strands, never losing track of Walsh’s humanity and enthusiasm. I personally remember him in the mid-‘90s, circling Grafton Street, his face hidden behind a mask, touting a sandwich board for a now long-closed record store. He wandered amongst a public who, if prompted to remember him, would wonder why was all that attention given to a strange non-singer who really didn’t seem Irish. Towards the end of the documentary, national broadcaster Fanning yawningly alludes to the whole exercise as an example of the quirks of an entropic scene specific to the Pale. In this, he echoes the underlying industry snobbery espoused by the Bono clone at the London gig. This offhandedness denies the Master of the Universe his righteous, multi-platformed legacy – another example of venerating conventional paths at the expense of outsider experiments. I wonder then how Fanning would describe Gavin Friday’s influential time in The Virgin Prunes? (Friday has alluded to the fact that the ending of the Prunes project coincided with them being co-opted into traditional promotional ‘rock’ mode.)
The victors always write history. RTÉ 2FM’s website proclaims, “There are those who say that without Dave Fanning’s live sessions, U2 would never even happened” – the implication being that gate-keeping was always in place, throughout. This note is rockist revisionism in place. The site also mentions that Gerry Ryan gave a (wacky) hairdresser from Cork called Terence a helping hand to become a national institution, confirming the thrust of Ryan’s curatorial designs. There is no mention of Walsh here or on any other site, apart from his own modest one. Does anyone remember Terence the hairdresser?
In reality, Dublin was always too small for Walsh to be excluded completely and Shimmy Marcus and all involved are to be applauded for readdressing and repositioning Walsh’s legacy within the city. The film opens with footage of the generation of 2000 welcoming a still beaming Aidan on-stage at another gig. Walsh’s impact on the Irish performance scene is clearly understated.
Twenty years on, Walsh’s presence can still be felt through the highly idiosyncratic ‘Country n Irish’ videos by Seamus Moore et al that can be found on Youtube. These, and the likes of the Hardy Bucks and Limerick’s Rubberbandits, make Walsh’s mission to the stars timeless. Now, as the godfather of a universe that has been officially mapped, Walsh’s mission continues unsullied.
To conclude, it is only fair that Walsh has the final word. This quote was taken from his website, and gives a brief insight into the mind of the Master of the Universe:
“’Aidan Walsh Private Investigator’ was shown on Irish television on December 8 (2008) on RTÉ’s Blizzard of Odd. The whole thing was out of this Planet what you could have ever seen before in this galaxy you’d die with a heart attack, a private detective taking over planet earth. Without no meaning and no end to it.’ [sic]
Never Talk Cheap
‘Scary Eire in Barnstormers Capel St Dublin’ circa 1993 Photo by Paul Tarpey.
This short piece is a commentary commissioned by Rabble magazine on the occasion of a TV report on Irish Rappers (RTE February 2012.) The programmes research edited an underground verbalisng on Irish social themes by a series of contemporary individuals in the Irish rap scene. The audience was presented with a post Celtic Tiger reading of a type of US/UK discipline of rapping which did not represent or acquit itself well within the understated continuum of Irish Hiphop. There was a confused commercial intention held in both the programme-makers’ and rappers’ agendas.
The participants in Irish rappers came across as dislocated verbalisers, isolated from the actual discipline of hiphop, which exists, relationally with the other key elements of its history. In this absence the interviews highlighted the presence of a traditional US rap entertainment narrative in which the ‘skills to pay the bills’ are seen to magically pave a road ‘out of the ghetto’.
This forced consumerist fantasy became the programmes default focus and confirmed the consequences of the historical gap between the programme’s portrayal of ‘struggling artists with something to say’ and original Irish hiphop crews who practiced rapping as part of an educated discipline with an awareness of their position in a social environment.
Published by Rabble Magazine, Dublin Issue 3 April 2012
For its February ‘Reality Bites’ series RTE showed a documentary on Ireland’s Rappers that hurled a version of Irish rap into the laps of the licence holders countrywide. Viewing figures for it were good but not as good as a rival station repeat show on gangland Ireland. RTE also focused on the so-called working class side of things. The resulting look at “a highly creative and dedicated subculture’’ was not welcomed outright either inside or outside the portrayed community.
This TV account of how some Irish youth have alighted on an urban art form to voice post-tiger complaint and pursue some sort of music careers in the process was buried in a bonfire of angry voxpops and docu-dramatic representations of the participants ‘keepin it real’.
Nominal representations of the expressive factors associated with ‘rappin’ such as ‘writing’ ‘battling’ and ‘community’ as outlined by Redzer, The Class Az’s and Finglas rapper Miss Elayneous amongst others, became damaged, internalised and caught up in the programme’s eventual confusion.
Some commentary, particularly on Jim Carroll’s Irish Times blog, mentioned that those who did partake seemed hung out to dry in the edit.
A wider picture emerged as the bulletin boards lit up immediately after broadcast as some of the programme’s ‘stars’ and concerned others sought to create some perspective, historical and otherwise, around a debate on the exotic subject of Irish Rap.
The elephant in the room was the very idea of something called Irish Rap in the first place.
The year zero for many of hiphop’s contemporary Irish followers remains somewhere in the mid 90s as marked by Curtis Hanson’s Eminem starring film 8 Mile. One recent post on this theme actually asks for clarification on ‘old school as beginning in the year 2000?” Although released in 2002, 8 Mile establishes its white boy/black world outsider narrative in the now golden era circa 1995. While the term hip hop threads the contemporary Irish narrative regarding ‘Irish rap’, its current state maintains no significant links with those Irish pioneers who began to verbalise over beats and represent as an Irish chapter of the universal Hip hop agenda.
The contrast to the early Irish hiphop scene with its reverence for the emerging scene worldwide from the early 80s is significant. Once the original art form announced itself any dedicated Irish participant who answered the call was required to invest physical time and effort in paying dues. Peer review was serious, whether in ordering a record, practising with a felt top pen/rhyme book or saving for the right tracksuit before they became known in Dublin as ‘police property clothes’.
This real time authenticity allowed groups like Scary Eire, (Curragh Camp / Tullamore /Dublin) Ghost and J, (Dublin) Ill dependents (Wexford) and AR LA (Cork) to confidently develop their homegrown productions. In their own words, after studying and representing on their own experiences, they would, ‘never talk cheap like a yellow pack brand’ (Scary Eire). Records, tapes and magazines were considered tools for an agenda first and consumer perishables last. An example here from 1983 is the passionate footage of break dancers speaking in Limerick, which is regularly shown, on RTE’s ‘Reeling In the Years’.
Today the history of these pioneers is assessed and processed in a much quieter vein. It is often manifested digitally in private web nooks and crannies and there is a reason for this. One is to distance the hard won ethos of those days from the ‘instant dues’ of today’s new breed. The other reason is to reaffirm the importance of the original hiphop experience amongst themselves and constantly acknowledge the original community. As part of this there is an understated ongoing archival process and it resides in clips such as ‘Sipho & Bionic M.C from the London Posse’.
Here a rare 1986 early performance of the seminal London rappers is captured on RTE’s Megamix youth programme. Before performing, the pair politely explain not only their unique take on their technique but the difference between UK and US hiphop. RTE didn’t put this lesson up on you tube but someone who saw the original transmission took time to get out to Donnybrook and get a copy for those of us who imagined we did.
Contemporary Irish rappers from that era who still represent on stage and on the web include Scary Eire’s RI-RA and the conscience of the Celtic tiger, Captain Moonlight. ‘Dirty Cunts’, Moonlight’s rant on the Ahearn’s teams corrupt management of the country from a few years back is one of the most significant (if not only) 7’’ singles to exist in any era of Irish Hiphop. Dole Q’, Scary Eire’s only 12’’ from the 90s ‘and the ‘Sons of Rosin’ track on the Ill dependents EP equally scratch the same post.
All these are vital artifacts and flag links not only between a similar political agenda of Irish and international hiphop but also between a legacy of traditional verbalisers and musicians such as Luke Kelly. Scary Eire’s ‘lost for words’ quotes the uillean pipes of ‘Moving Hearts in another nod to an under-appreciated continuum.
The 4 songs quoted here all made it on to actual record by hard work. The idea of ‘dropping another mix tape/album next month’ as befits the post 8 Mile generation is light years away in terms of mp3 distribution versus a ‘slow food’ recording attitude of the above crews but also in the concept of longevity. One producer from the above scene told me recently that the new scene is cursed ‘with music that just isn’t good’.
The gap between the old school attitude and hyper-assimilation is significant. But according to the Ennis hiphop Dj producer and teacher mynameisjOhn this gap stretches, contracts and within this tension offers possibilities.
’Seventeen-year-olds I have worked with are all up on the new Irish acts like Lethal Dialect’ he says, ‘but equally they balance an appreciation of contemporary expression with exposure to classic material from Wu Tang and before. That can only be good. Music gets exhausted quicker these days and people are beginning to see that this is having an effect on its appreciation. My generation might get a rap record in 1994 that would have come out in 1992 and live with it until 1996, but that gestation pays off if you want to pursue any of the hiphop elements’.
In someone like John’s opinion (an old school head / new beats producer), a fluid and relevant practice will arise with an awareness from today’s youth that speed of the almost daily ‘mix tape’ scene is not the sole representation of an appreciation of hiphop culture national or otherwise. We actually don’t need an Irish Rick Ross styled product delivery or Tim Westwood styled hype no matter how the mechanisations of the intense Irish mixtape scene would suggest. We need positioning to offer a balanced perspective and a start would involve more recognition of the Irish Hip hop pioneers in future conversations.
As for the ‘lads’ (sic) tarred by Reality Bites, a YouTube post by someone called Bulltilt31 after a clip of Redzer performing lays it down as such
‘’Yes the boys can put rhymes together but aint none of em look or sound good doin it. Sad to see lads keep on tryin at something they will NEVER make money in. At least the young lads realise there isn’t money in it and they do it coz they love it. You can make it with a guitar or turntables in Ireland, never as a rapper.’’
‘Dizzy Footwork. The Irish Times April 1985.’
Galway Event Guide. Circa 1993
The Mission is Balance
Hank Shocklee at the Red Bull Academy Dublin April 12 2008. Photo by Paul Tarpey
This conversation, hosted by the Red Bull Academy, presented one of the sonic architects behind the classic Public Enemy sound of the early 90s. The combination of the Shocklee brothers, Hank and Keith, with Eric ‘Vietnam’ Saddler made the production team the Bomb Squad’s work for PE the definitive rebel music of Hip Hop’s third stage. Currently working on a series of electronic works including the debut album from the Bomb Squad, Hank Shocklee’s profile has acquired a rejuvenated relevance. In Dublin to outline PEs themes and history, he is quizzed by host and fan, DJ Fergus Murphy.
For years the production of the first three Public Enemy have been dissected by HipHop’s faithful. As layered sample orchestrations they offered a glimpse into the political rawness attained through an ideology of conflict that fused the organic grit of James Brown funk with the uncompromising metal of Slayer. Once this flagpost was planted, Chuck D’s conscious lyrics hoisted the colours red black and green high for a multiracial worldwide audience. PE are still on active duty, overshadowed perhaps by their own legacy and how three crucial PE albums impacted in the era 87-93. The story of the group’s history in relation to how the elements of that era came together became the focus of this talk.
Shocklee is currently delivering versions of this conversation. He told me later that since the Waxpoetics magazine article of June 2006 had presented a definitive review of his early years, he now fashions historical bites specifically for each crowd. This brings out the educator in him as well as keeping it fresh.
The Shocklees were a musical family and music obsessed Hank’s formative years revolved around following teen funk bands with additional pilgrimages to the parks to check out Djs like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash. He began first to Dj this passion then promote it for an audience through the discipline of a sound system. He spoke on the excitement of hearing raw funk and Bob Marley for the first time as part of a combination of conditions that led to the creation of his own sound system. B-boys in the audience tonight caught some classic old school vibes from simple descriptions of how the visual dynamics of a Grandmaster Flash flyer hyped Shocklee’s Long Island posse.
These snippets were a glimpse of primitive times as the majority of this audience were certainly raised on an accelerated diet of mp3s and downloadable music software. Thus the contrast on the emphasis on the importance of finding the right guitar lead to allow to a turntable to be wired up a public address system was significant here. Here is a report of the transition from observer to practitioner as a physical act. From the curiosity of the analogue-led process of funk bands to the dynamics of a sound system needed to drive his experiments, Shocklee was careful to accredit the formative act of the physicality in building a sound from scratch. Only through direct engagement did one get to know where the creative parameters of a street-amplified funk sound lay.
In fairness there is a week long seminar needed to do justice to the history of Public Enemy in terms of the integration of sound design and social perspective in the canon of Hip Hop. PE’s origins were grounded in the promoted gigs run by the Shocklees Spectrum Sound system. This was in full effect after the acquisition of an initially unwilling MC, Chuck D. The extension of this hustle led to a radio show where the crew pioneered the idea of the continuous Hip Hop mix, a format which was then taken up by the legendary NY Dj’s Marley Marl and Red Alert. The record ‘Check Out The Radio’ became a celebration of their adventure so far. The next step involved the mutation of radio shout outs and jingles and the looping up of the James Brown intro to ‘Blow your Head’. This seminal loop became the track ‘Public Enemy no 1’ and The Spectrum Sound became artists. With the horns of Fred Wesley as a bedrock, rappers Chuck, Griff and Flavour Flav’s hardcore rhyming launched a concept of an organised militant rap set to operate on the battlefield of conventional entertainment.
At that time that the American music establishment had accepted product from the youthful hiphop movement as party music, an extension of the goodtime rhymes of mid 70s funk groups like the Gap Band but not so much the conscious funk of ‘America Eats its Young’ of funk by the renegades, Funkadelic. The potency of post 60s Black protest music was recognised and prone to content censorship which on occasion included self censorship. For example, while Grandmaster Flash and The Furious 5 had premiered the concept of the contemporary social rhyme with their 80s track ‘The Message’ they were not averse to performing it as a hit party record on stage. This denied the power of a ‘message’ as such and confirmed the music establishments regulated stance in regard to overt commentary as entertainment.
Public Enemy would not be found compromising on a black agenda. When their mission was finally rolled out fully formed, it attracted criticism both inside and outside the hiphop community. Most notable at the time was an angry response from Melle Mell of the Furious Five. The distinctive difference between the two era’s types of message delivery resided in the Bomb Squads insistence that the texture of the sound and lyrical content should be as one. There could be no looseness that could invite a separate benign ‘pop’ reading. There had to be no confusion in delivery.
T La Rock may have premiered the stark bass shudder of ‘It’s Yours’ when it became Def Jams first record but as Shocklee pointed out, his crew had already showcased self-produced versions of this transitional beat on their radio show on WBAU. As the tempo of hiphop downsized to 98 bpm the siren call of ‘Public Enemy No 1’ hit hard. This raw production sideswiped everything and a new agenda was heard on the street. The Bomb squad was in effect from this point and Shocklee knew just from beatbox plays of the track in the park alone that their lab experiments were hitting home. A realisation that also confirmed in himself a calling as a producer.
Tonight’s discussion culminated in Murphy dropping the needle on the intro to PE’s third album, Fear of a Black planet. ‘Contract on The World Love Jam’ is a deep collage that includes audio sound bites that reference the complexities of terrorism in the media context of the early 90s. This blast referenced the threat an American media insinuated into most internal discussions of the then Black agenda. It also reflected the pressure Public Enemy were under at the time following high profile criticism of their statements on a variety of subjects. These considered elements also took into account hiphop’s position regarding the target campaign by the increasingly influential Parents Music Resource Centre.
Since 1985 The PMRC’s campaign to neuter music by stickered warnings to protect the family unit had increasingly taken black music to task. It seems unregulated music contained dangerous words that were (quote) ‘infecting the youth of the world with messages they cannot handle’. Early in the PMRC’S campaign Tipper Gore publicly accused West coast rap don Ice-T for increasing the levels of violence against the LAPD. For artists like Public Enemy and Ice Cube, who were then producing key work with the Bomb Squad, under a constant threat of censorship, the ideal and necessity of revolutionary music could not have been more real.
To question power was to be in effect anti-American where any dissenting opinion could be regarded as treasonous. The Bomb squad’s uncompressed, almost ‘rock’ production became a psychedelic black anti-censorship response to all this confusion. The message in strident beat of ‘contract’ track didn’t need a rap to underline the issue and Shocklee’s insistence that the samples remain unprocessed and ‘not soft’ created studio tension even in the Bomb Squad . Tonight its politically charged blast caught those of us who had not heard it since 1991 off guard.
In response to an inquiry by Murphy about the layers and texture on that intro, Shocklee expanded, ‘Everything that is in key is in harmony but at this time in my life I felt anything but harmony and the music reflected that.’ The Bomb Squad’s intention in Contract was to create a ‘call to arms’ to ‘make people stand up’ in light of the unrest left by the Regan administration. Revisiting the intro tonight he spoke of the agitation he originally felt in creating the sound of that LP. The sound was the texture of something ‘just not sounding right’. The texture, the fear of a black planet.
Murphy concluded the session expounding on the embedded theme of resistance forged by the squad in a 90s music format. Something that white Europeans only appreciated after necessary research on the militant agenda of radical muslims like Farrakan were investigated. In pre-internet times this was achieved by white fans by scouring hiphop album covers and print reviews to make sense of certain recurring names. After the reactivated radical black agenda of the 60s and 70s became entwined with the profile of groups such as PE, there followed an obligation by fans to also get with the programme. In the early 90s cassettes of Malcolm X circulated amongst hiphop followers in Dublin. The clandestine tape hiss layered over Malcolm’s high pitched sentences were a dramatic feature on a first listening and ultimately part of the audio experience. The act of listening to the tapes became complex as this multiplying effect registered not just the content but the travelled noise. A patina existed that was an inclusive audio marker hinting at just how many fellow travellers had previously held and copied the tape.
The ‘just not sounding right’ audio reference was Shocklee explaining the type of direction and structure taken in the lyrical content / noise of late 80s early 90s political rappers such as PE, BDP, Lakim Shabazz and others. These pro black voices often looked to 70’s Black militant orators such as Cleaver, Davis and Newton in their delivery. The artifact of the spoken word LP or cassette factored in the construction an agenda of resistance whether one approached it from the perspective of a producer or street fan. White fans collecting the Eldridge Cleaver LP ‘Soul on Ice’ was just the kind internal terrorist behaviour the PMRC warned of. Public Enemy didn’t invent the slogan ‘Fight the Power’ they re-claimed, re formatted and re ignighted it.
Before the work of this New York agenda landed in Ireland, previous texts of interest were found prehaps in the anarcho-punk band Crass. UK groups such as Crass and Mark Stewart and the Mafia worked an equivalent text and audio matrix that demanded a social responsibility in the act of listening for an audience. The 1988 preformance by Public Enemy in Ireland made a point of referencing republican concerns over a scratched Thin Lizzy beat as Chuck D spoke on colonialism, Thatcher and the importance of roots.
The final question tonight ‘Is this revolutionary agenda still relevent for the Bomb squad?’
In answering Shocklee adopted a polemical stance. ‘More so than ever’ he responded. Describing Public Enemy as an experiment, he wanted to see if by ‘injecting inspiration and anger’ into the body politic of a major label record company, could he creatively visualise freedom? ‘Freedom, musical freedom.’ ‘Everybody was fitting neatly into these little boxes and I wanted to take away a lot of those comfort blankets’. Feedback from that experiment is what keeps this producer in his own words, ‘humble today’.
Finally Shocklee spoke on the music industry as well as a society that is often a willing participant in American hypercapitalism. ‘We are becoming comfortable again, he said ‘starting to get back into a place that’s very dangerous by allowing the establishment to dictate what our lives are going to be as opposed to us dictating what our agenda is. Music is the only form of communication left that allows us to resist the establishment. Musicians are community leaders, artists are supposed to represent their fan base but today artists are starting to become self indulgent with no point of view and that’s why their fans are leaving them. The artists are starting to adopt the same attitude as their oppessors. Shouting on the corner has a limited success but art can change the way people think.’ Fans again are browbeaten in to supporting an agenda that celebrates the absence of a point of view.
Mentioning that he never liked Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ Shocklee says he only respects music that makes an impression on him and Thriller ‘did nothing for my soul.’ Dylan may have a ‘terrible singing voice’ but he certainly leaves an impression.’
Today we are focused on detrimental factors that hold back an artist from making a stand instead of exploring the dynamics of the expressive possibilities in the craft of music construction. Shocklee spoke of the two types of vibrations in the world, positive and negative, and as one shall not cancel the other, the mission is balance. There is a loss of perspective that comes with the lack of understanding of one’s rights. This was Shocklee’s philosophical coda in summing up his own position, not simply as a participant in the industry but as a rebel, never on pause.
Sloganeering? This description does not do the talk justice as the passion that fueled the final summing up was a genuine representation of the polemical agenda in the Bomb squad’s productions. This conversation was a worthy Dublin extension that was begun on a 1988 stage graced by Public Enemy.
Shocklee ended the night in a club a stone’s throw from the venue of PE’s 1988 gig. He Djed two hours of heavy bass-influenced Dubstep. It was a perfect end to the event. Meeting him and hearing him excitedly discuss the Heavy Metal influences on his early productions was a personal highlight (‘look at me, I’m over 6 foot, black, and I sold Black Sabbath records to metal heads!’) The second coming of the Bomb squad is awaited with more than interest from original fans, and from the reaction of the audience tonight, many new converts.
PE Irish Gig 1988. Paul Tarpey archives
Woofah Magazine cover UK
Does your mother come from Ireland?
RTE archives are in possession of a 1981 documentary called Does Your Mother Come From Ireland? It was co-produced and presented by Limerick traditional musician and US-based acedemic Mick Moloney. The film gets an occasional airing, the last for RTÉ being 11/11/2011. Information about the film is not readily available and the following is based on a single viewing. Corrections may be needed.
Does your Mother Come from Ireland is roughly 45 minutes in duration. The brief was to film the practice and maintainance of traditional Irish music in 80s New York. The film follows Moloney and cameraman Paddy Barron to New York and then back to Ireland where they record the 1981 All Ireland Fleadh in Buncrana, Donegal.
Opening with the vista of the New York from the air, and soundtracked by the Bob Seger rock anthem ‘Rosalie’, Does your Mother Come from Ireland? is a unique visual record of many contrasts specific to its time, an exploration focused on Bronx residents, the Tara Céili Band who were busy preparing for a return to Ireland to compete in the annual All Ireland Fleadh. These teenagers had previously won the title three times before and would be filmed winning it again. Historically this film is a record of a pan-Atlantic traditional music scene.
Embedded in the film was an outline of the cultural mission imitated by an Irish dispora concerned for the upkeep of tradition. The New York players were conscious of the possibilities of cultural isolation and insisted on the maintenance of a continuous link with the source of the music. The NY Irish community was known to harbour talented musicians and families noted for their traditional strengths but no one had investigated, in film, how their endeavours fed back into the cultural cradle in the ‘old country’ and Moloney’s film is a singular record of this.
The cast, including the celebrated fiddle player Eileen Ivers, were all young American-born musicians who were as proficient in the language of traditional jigs and reels as they were in typical New York pastimes. Footage of these youths playing baseball styled in that particular filtered haze, unique to filming in New York in the late 70s. It rendered the Irish Americans similar to those who shimmered in the otherworldly Coca Cola television ads familiar to on Irish Television audiences. When the film cut to the same youngsters in houses in the Bronx, diligently playing the sets in that would win in Donegal, it registered as a benign jolt.
The overlap between 80’s America, Ireland, Irish America and TV America on Irish television became more than just a subtext as the film progressed. In the 80s, US immigration restrictions ended the steady traffic that had replenished New York’s Irish population since famine times. The special Irish relationship finished and with this ending the cultural update injected from each new group of Irish immigrants did also. Those who delivered styles to the Bronx from sessions all over Ireland were now without visas. The consequences of restrictions forced a realisation that, for the culture to progressively continue, the response would involve an Irish return.
Moloney interviewed parents, teachers and other members of the community after the fallout from the decision of the US government to cap immigration. The annual visit to Buncrana was part of a solution.
Increasing awareness of the lack of immigrants arriving with new songs encouraged the parents and teachers to support the concept of the return. The passion and commitment of these teachers in this process was very evident.
Other vital insights arose in how the culture was being maintained. One involved Martin Mullverhill, a Bronx musician and teacher. He described quickly crafting an original Irish tune underneath the city (in tunnels perhaps dug by Donegal men). The subway composition flowed easily, ‘I had it finished by 205th St’ he said proudly.
Heading to Ireland and winning the Fleadh were happy events for the young American passport holders but those were not the main priorities of the trip. The youth were engaged in a type of journeying, travelling in the sense of a pilgrimage. An undertaking of a type of pilgrimage that sought rejuvenation and reflection. The humble showing of awards at home by the Ivers family testified to this as did a Bronx bar manager’s dignified imploing while helping to raise 5,000 dollars to send the Tara Céili Band back to the Old Country ‘ if anyone here tonight hasn’t the money to contribute, please stay and enjoy the music anyway.’
The hazy tone of the 80s New York landscape as a backdrop to the endeavours of the American Irish youth filled the first part of the film. The second part while filmed in colour stock may as well been shot in black and white such was the contrast of location at the Fleadh. Now far from the Bronx, the Tara Céili band are performing on a knocked-together stage in a grey parish hall. Their practised reels were clinically measured under the hornrimmed eyes of a stern adjudicator. The cigire. An impassive seated crowd also measured their performance.
A readjustment of viewing was needed as the romance of the previous communal preparations undertaken in the beauty of a New York summer was left behind. The music was the same but it was now heard in the environment of a monochrome Ireland, an 80s island that was home to many who wished they had the chance of returning with the american visitors.
Moloney’s Ireland presented itself through another lens. The landscape could have been taken from any Irish documentary film of the 50s. Things moved differently, people acted slower. An officaldom appeared to take over the camera as if the regulations of the Fleadh insisted on it. The adherence to Comhaltas rules and the rigidity that accompanied the reading of them registered even in its recording.
Impressively the Americans were observed at work by performing diligently and successfully in all categories . Afterwards they quietly moved outside with portable cassette recorders recording the open sessions in the unregulated public space of Buncrana. This act of capture was what the journey was about collecting evidence of native playing. The Americans were capturing the Donegal air to uncap and release on their return.
Historically the natives merited recording also. A long shot showed tents surrounding Buncrana. An atmosphere was evident in the attendant mingling of generations and visitors, each with their own agenda. Another shot on the street captured a suited family man, in town for the day, holding his own as he passed longhaired youths and neatly dressed musicians.
Fleadhs at this level were the social midway for the remaining Irish generation of the 80s. The campers in the background sought a music based outlet in this, a transitional time. For the longhaired youth the landscape of this Fleadh was open ground between the depressed dancehall scene and festivals that had yet to appear.
The demand for trad-based groups like De Danaan and Planxty on the festivals that had began to appear came from the transitional longhaired demographic filmed by Moloney. Panning his camera for background filler the filmmaker inadvertently documented a crossover.
Another vibrant shot of overlapping cultures was a brief shot of a native Irish céilí band with a young drummer starkly wearing a Doors t-shirt. There was a minor cult for the ‘poetry’ of Jim Morrisson circa 1981 as the Doors’ back catalogue was being repackaged. But a Doors t-Shirt was a relatively rare and exotic item particularly for a teenage drummer in a céilí band in Donegal. Would one of the American contingent have gifted him the shirt? Perhaps gifted tapes also? The Americans were now known as regulars and tentatively part of this Fleadh community. It is conceivable that friendships were made and cultural exchanges of many sorts were perhaps a regular feature.
It is fair to speculate that the New York parents who facilitated their children’s activity to maintain the diaspora’s cultural link to Ireland could have inadvertently instigated a reciprocal musical process. Eighties Virtual America, especially the urban otherness of New York, was a visually a familiar sight from Irish TV programming which leant heavily on US import drama. A type of virtual American landscape began to merge with an Irish one. A topology that stretched from Walton’s Mountain to Kojak’s Manhattan with the beach of the Rockford files in between. The virtual West was passively received, indulged as a glamorous contrast to a recession-based Irish vista. An aural insight to the land of opportunity would have delivered a different sensation. This insight may have been on a cassette tape containing excerpts, musical and otherwise ranging from New York radio to trad sessions in the Bronx . Those cassettes may have been left behind in Buncrana.
The content of Does Your Mother Come From Ireland? whether primary, secondary, or speculative remains as entertaining and historically informative 30 years after it was shown and its concept is a credit to Moloney and his team.
Linked online communities as a cultural resource
There is a notable participatory drive organising pop cultural material representing Irish social history at present. Blogs and sites such as Come here to me, Brand New Retro, and Where’s Grandad? have activated significant online communities of interest to harvest memories and archives for a rich and socially-engaged commentary on popular events.
The expense of 20th century production demands account for why much underrepresented historical material has lain dormant or has existed only in private archives. Usually, if this research had been ongoing and compiled yearly its end product could have furnished a book, a long magazine article or documentary film with all the accompanying costs and commercial editing demanded by those conventional platforms. Annuals were reserved for official events and the pre-internet concept of the act of donated material organically creating an archive for publication would have been discussed in terms of private collections. Much of the material would have been classed as transient and without merit. Apart from reduced production costs, the resource primarily offered now by participating online communities is a correlation of interest in mapping the margins of Irish social history.
The advent of online publishing has not only shone a light on the structure of the nation’s cultural landscape from the ground up but, in categorizing material ahistorically, it has acknowledged the importance in this process of multi-authored digital participation. This is exemplified best in the site Brand New Retro where the structure of an alternate historical timeline is under constant construction with pop cultural contributions by a variety of authors.
The National Queer archive has begun to digitally share a wealth of its recently assembled material showcasing decades of Irish political activity. Political cuttings stand with the celebratory social images of the so- called outsider club scenes in a curated display of their dealings with the Irish establishment, an establishment let it not be forgotten, which had previously criminalized a section of its citizens.
Before these new repositories, possibly the only similar tracker for this material was the commercial chapters of Reeling in The Years which could be seen to be constrained by national broadcasting concerns (RTE) and its own brief where lyrics of the chart music of the day playing over news clips of the day is highlighted in each episode as a necessary chorus. RTE’s commercial and uncritical titling of its chapters on the programmes website is of note. The 70s! The Decade that taste forgot! Disco dancing… Eurovision fever… mohair suits… moonwalks… unemployment and emigration!
Ads and flyers for events from the 60s onwards, particularly those from Irish nightclubs in the 70s, are numerous and often the most memorable in these organic digital collections. The disposability and faux modernism of these ads, are today intriguing as the styles and event imagery can now be seen as versions of English and American fashions which reflect a nation’s surface desire to represent itself as a modern state.
However the Irish experience is far from straightforward as our adopted versions of foreign cultural movements since the Rock and Roll era did not strictly follow any of the imported movements’ own timelines. An Irish version of Studio 54 visualised in any rediscovered 1978 ad for a Dublin Nightclub should not now be regarded as a legitimate extension of a worldwide disco movement. But instead its manifestation in a post de Valera contemporary newspaper is now of historical interest. It is this gap that the contemporary sites address by compiling and positioning material to investigate the vernacular differences offered by Irish designers and tastemakers in the mainstream media of the day. While there was instant access and coverage of international popular events in Ireland since the Jazz age the embedding of movements instigated by them often occurred later. This gap highlights a continuous late starting Irish timeline for almost every pop cultural movement. Authentic histories of the Irish punk or Hip Hop scene for example must be considered within this time lag. Gary O Neill’s 10-year project Where were You? (2011) visualised decades of urban Dublin tribes and has a surprising number of out of time images of rockers and mods simultaneously moving amongst the adopted London stylings of Dublin’s early 90s ravers.
O Neill includes as much event mementos as possible to contextualize the donated pictures of his dressed up participants. This framing is important and the collected flyers dotting the pages may be the first officially published record of this type of material. Souvenirs like the laboured modernist ads of the 70s were not designed to last or feature in future conversations.
The workmanship design of the early ads in Where were You? and the websites in question combined with the accommodation of generic internationalism in design, which persisted in urban Irish culture right up to the 1990s, can be seen as an outright refusal by Irish event organisers and venue owners to represent anything resembling the variety of a conventional Irish experience to be considered in the actual event itself. In one late 90s instance an image of London itself promoted a Dublin Drum and Bass night. (1)
Apart from the obligatory element of otherworldness in promoting any youth-orientated event, this choice was perhaps evidence of a realisation that the social gap between the rural and the urban was so great for this young nation that any stylistic representation, be it a weak imitation of London or New York, was sufficient in identifying or branding an event. The absence of the Irish vernacular outside the country and Irish scene is why much of the evidence of Irish social events over the decades appears, as dislocated pale imitations especially when now looked at. collated in contemporary collections. However in exploring the adopted design for imported entertainment throughout the decades, as undertaken by the sites in question, it must be accepted that different approaches will arise for comparison.
Where are the ongoing archival projects that assemble material from current events? If the possibilities in the process can be accomplished immediately can we review and collate this process in real time? On this there is one example of note.
The accumulation of promotion material of contemporary Irish clubbing contained in the Facebook page shiteirishclubnights (S.I.C.N) is an example of real time archiving since its inception in 2012. The territory of the site is national with a concentration on promotional material generated by rural venues. (2). S.I.C.N is similar to the previously mentioned sites in that it positions recent promo material with minimum commentary and, as the collection built by digital donation it too builds a portrait of a contemporary Irish scene that is music led. These are the only similarities as the agenda of S.I.C.N proclaims that it exists to castigate the behavior associated within the scene it has focused on.
Since the 90s the rural-led non-designed club poster has used anonymous design to promote club nights all over the country for commercial ends. This agenda dispenses with any design concerns regarding any music-driven concept for the venue. (3) The rural flyer is now primarily delivered electronically with communities for individual venues sought from social media. In the mode of its design it recognizes the social media-led zeitgeist promoted by the RTE show Republic of Telly, rural car culture, and above all celebrity culture.
The archive/commentary of Shiteirishclubnights is led by these flyers engaging with them at their own level of intensity. (3) This Facebook page represents the energy of the post-tiger youth positioning the community as a vodka-fuelled homogenised entity that participates in events such as the yearly flash mob of Supermacs in Galway. (4) ‘Send us your shite’ proclaims the page as an immediate picture of an ignored culture swims into focus in real time. The administrators of the page castigate the events but carefully file the submitted information teasing out subjective threads in categorising events from Tralee to Athlone. They justify a rationale in following all things ‘tacky’ and blatantly despise these gatherings in their banner statement. Yet there is a seriousness held by the page in holding up a mirror to this ‘spring break’ behavior encouraged by promoters nationwide.
There is a unifying national thread in the exercise. Music is still in the equation but its use is unsubtle in the venues. It is background noise for nights facilitated by celebrities and DJs in conjunction with their own hype teams and highly-paid celebrity guests. Prerecorded sets are common which lean heavily on over-processed trance based chart music. Nightclubs do not seem to priotorise dancing and appear to demote traditional socialising. These rural venues have become holding areas for almighty spectacles that extend the industry of the reality show. Pictures of the events are often unposed and show celebrities posing behind the bar or the dj booth almost crushed by a volume of youth.
On the site for context there is a link to an Australian review of the situation surrounding a dj set by one of the stars of the American MTV TV show Jersey Shore. It clinically lays out what is an actual international trend, which is a litany of what the site’s administrators call ‘godforsaken nights’. Many of the reality stars of Jersey Shore and Home and Away have performed in Ireland in this fashion over the last year.
Some nights charge up to 20 euros when an Irish model or actor from profile English or Australian soap operas appear. Rag week events compete with these with versions that include ‘All Ireland Shifting competitions and beer bong challenges recorded by a paparazzi photographer’. Like and share these events on Facebook for a chance to win a bottle of vodka, 10 Red Bulls or 10 beers.
Where previously nights paced like these happened once a year, usually around rag weeks in college towns, the intention, layout and editorial of the shiteirishclubs page suggests they have now become a regular landscape feature propelled by a complicit audience.
Some events appear to be imaginary. This is where the flyer uses an imaginary image and DJ listing, for example, the international dance event Tomorrowland. Promotion in this fashion suggests a famous brand is scheduled for an Irish venue. In another example American ‘party rockers’ LMFAO seem to be appearing in a midlands bar with the legality of the term ‘tribute night’ being one of the lesser concerns of the text on the flyer.
An attempt to contextualize and give a twist to the scene is found on the S.I.C.N site. It comments on the opening of the Abercrombie and Fitch store in Dublin, which is described as an occasion for ‘assholes that go to these godforsaken nights’.
Shiteirishnightclubnights short and brutal editorial reads ‘if you go to these you’re probably a cunt’. It is the polar opposite to the editorial if the American site Dangerous Minds, which reads in full,
Dangerous Minds is a compendium of oddities, pop culture treasures, high weirdness, punk rock and politics drawn from the outer reaches of pop culture. Our editorial policy, such that it is, reflects the interests, whimsies and peculiarities of the individual writers. And sometimes it doesn’t. Very often the idea is just “Here’s what so and so said, take a look and see what you think.” I’ll repeat that: We’re not necessarily endorsing everything you’ll find here; we’re merely saying, “Here it is.” We think human beings are very strange and often totally hilarious. We enjoy weird and inexplicable things very much. We believe things have to change and change swiftly. It’s got to be about the common good or it’s no good at all. We like to get suggestions of fun/serious things from our good-looking, high IQ readers. We are your favorite distraction.
In conclusion there is no regulation or linked editorial guidelines in Irish sites processing the ephemera generated by public and private material for historical research surrounding entertainment events past and present. Currently the online communities discussed generate and monitor the context and relevance of events as befits their singular agendas. While subjectivity and a political hierarchy exists in how each site can be accessed for research, it must be recognised that in any responsible engagement with a broader social picture, all portals currently serve a collective archival need now active through online participation.
Paul Tarpey March 2013.
(1) This was an image of Battersea power station in London used by the club Bassbin. This image can be seen on Bassbin’s Facebook archive page. Around this time Circa Magazine published an article on a short history of Irish club flyers (no reference currently available)
(2) Apart from the site Irishshowbands.com there is no equivalent example of a similar rural based repository.
(3) The idea of the famed delicate flyer as typified by the famous Irish example, which was used for the long running Dublin Club Strictly Handbag. It invited one to actually construct a miniature retro handbag from the flyer itself. This would be the polar opposite of the material and intention for these promoted rural nights.
(4) Not in the polished light of a recent Irish Times profile on Irish youth, which portrayed those who choose to remain as creative professionals.