Commemorative Portrait of Artist Robert Ballagh Imagined As Beat Music Star for the Remnants of Limerick’s original beat Club
Opening in 1966, Limerick’s Club a Go Go was a much-loved membership only ‘ beat Club’ frequented by a dedicated clientele. The club was notable for holding DJ only nights alongside live gigs by visiting beat groups. Recognising that the look of the culture was equally as important as the sound, fashion competitions occasionally took place as well.
Club a Go Go was unofficially known in Limerick as ‘the Go Go club’ and held its reputation as a vital hub until its closure in the early 70s. For this duration its members created a social model that refused to be bound by the rituals of the traditional dancehall and its associated codes. The Go Go club promoted a collective scene of equality instead of an updated version of showband-led rituals.
The city centre two-storey premises remains in Post Office Lane and has functioned as Cummins picture framers for almost 40 years.
Each year Kevin Cummins greets former patrons of the club returning to a space they once had a stake in. The Go Go club now registers as an international outpost that was wished into place by 1960s Limerick teenagers who had begun to see themselves as Irish who could engage with an international culture in a local environment. The application of ‘beat’ style was political in the sense that it evoked youth led empowerment in social structures that were organised and run by the members themselves.
Interviewed in 1971 The Dj Danny Hughes was quoted as saying (such) a club is very important to its members because they know they can mix about with people they like to be friends with’. Hughes goes on to associate congregations found in outposts such as the Go Go club contributing to ‘ the changing face of Ireland’. (From ‘Danny Hughes on Discos’, an interview in the Evening Press 1971)
Looking further than the designated horizons of Irish dancehalls, the Go Go began to reference and apply foreign sounds and styles to cater for its unique membership. The implied modernism in this act treated patrons as active participants in a social project as the club became a space of their own design. To this day its members respect the memories of this concept and the space it was acted out in. Visitors hope the original décor is still in place to greet them in what is now Cummins workshop. Some have been known to introduce themselves always using a version of the phrase, ‘I’ve come looking for my youth’.
Today the interior functions as the framing workshop and a stained glass studio, but hints of the Go Go remain as the original toilets near the entrance. Spectacularly some of the original psychedelic markings are still to be found on upstairs walls now separated by an added floor. This is the actual Go Go graffiti. When Kevin retires, it is very possible that these original traces will disappear and with this in mind he has become a curator of the space. He now manages an ongoing oral archive of stories of the club collected and shaped by both locals and visitors from abroad.
To pay tribute to this activity using the tone of quiet memory invested in curating the concept of the space, I collaborated with Kevin Cummins and the print maker Eoin Barry to create a commemorative act of portraiture that would be framed by the Go Go club.
This act is linked to the creative opportunity afforded by the multi-locational exhibition ‘ The Act Of Portrayal’, part of the University of Limerick’ 40th anniversary celebrations. The remit for this event allowed artists to choose work from the National self-portrait collection for interpretations to be exhibited alongside the originals in venues across the city.
Members of the Limerick Printmakers were among those invited to participate in this process. With the Go Go club in mind I chose to work with an image of the artist Robert Ballagh, because he once played as a beat musician in Limerick circa 1966. His band was called the Chessmen and with Ballagh on bass guitar they played at Royal George hotel in O Connell Sttreet, a short distance from Post Office lane. Ultimately Ballagh’s vocation was a visual artist and he left The Chessmen in the late 60s to become, as he said of himself, ‘Ireland’s only pop artist’.
To create the work for the Act of Portrayal titled ‘A commemorative portrait of the Irish Artist Robert Ballagh imagined as a beat music star for the remnants of Limerick’s original beat Club. (Club a Go Go 2013)’ Eoin Barry looked at some of the remaining visual elements associated with the club and sought visually to reimagine a history that would represent the psychic hold it has on the generation who continue to visit the site.
He began by studying the original traces of the club’s psychedelic markings, and then examined mark-making in the process of stamping that Ballagh used in his printmaking. Eoin also referenced Ballagh’s use of screen-printing for his initial acts of portraiture. Ballagh has admitted that an early portrait commission drew on the conceptual practicality of Warhol’s silk-screening photographic images directly on to the canvas because, starting out as a professional artist, he was unsure about ‘doing faces’.
Referencing a combination of these factors we decided to silk-screen Eoin’s version of the Ballagh from the National Self-Portrait collection directly onto what was the original toilet door of the club. The intended effect is one of and image of an imaginary beat star left behind in the Go Go club by a fan. By coincidence the bearded face in this image now gazes at an original Ballagh print hanging across from the door. This lithograph is from Kevin Cummins private collection. It depicts a cigarette packet commissioned by an Irish Company as a gift to its salesmen in the 1980s.
For the resulting photographic series based on the construction, Kevin suggested that the workshop space should be visible. This was made possible by using the mirror behind the toilet door to reflect the wider space. An image of Kevin at work as a framer now appears as a reflection in one of the three photographic images.
With this in place, with an emphasis on the classical illusion facilitated by the mirror, our construction alludes to a type of busy pictorialism often found in the more familiar pieces by Ballagh. When undertaking portraits he has been known to encourage biographical readings of the subject suggested by the relationship of particular objects to the sitter.
For display in the Limerick Printmakers I photographed three images to be finished as silver halide prints. Kevin, who has framed many prints of Ballagh for customers over the years, framed them himself.
The intended narrative around this commemorative portrait is built on a desire evident in how the memories of Club A Go Go are managed. Urban Irish people in the 60s acted out such a desire with its roots in post-war creativity and ambition. This is what made the space of the Go Go Club important. The youth in Limerick embraced, as Ballagh did, an equal appreciation of both outsider music and the plastic arts as expressionist material they could claim as their own for their own land. As the years pass the psychedelic traces on the walls confront visitors like relics. They were designed and applied for the space by the patrons themselves. This was a generation not bound by the narrowness of the national dances of De Valera’ s self-contained vision. This was a Limerick-based mod identity, looking for inspiration towards Britain and the US.
It is to commemorate this idealism that some people continue to return, now often living in those same countries, 50 years later.