Cork Folk Festival: Forty years of music and fine fun

As they celebrate four decades of Cork Folk Festival, organisers William ‘Hammy’ Hammond and Jim Walsh select some standout memories, writes Ellie O’Byrne

A picture from 2011 of Lord Mayor of Cork Dave McCarthy in a currach with Timmy The Brit, Anne Brennan, William Hammond, Padraig O’Dinneen and Harry Moore. Picture: Richard Mills
A picture from 2011 of Lord Mayor of Cork Dave McCarthy in a currach with Timmy The Brit, Anne Brennan, William Hammond, Padraig O’Dinneen and Harry Moore. Picture: Richard Mills

Jim Walsh

Timmy ‘The Brit’ McCarthy

“Timmy The Brit passed away in September of last year. He was a character. We used to have meetings in his house on Windmill Road to organise the festival, with his kids running all over the place, and us trying to get the festival together. The first time I met him was before the first Cork Folk Festival in 1979.

There was a folk club up in the old Christians and one night this guy appeared in a white suit; Timmy was secretary of the Butcher’s Union and they’d had a night out and they arrived at the door of the club for a bit of music. He became less involved from the mid-eighties on, but he was regarded as the spiritual director of the festival.”

Bloody ads

“I first got involved by volunteering to arrange the printing of the programme for the first Cork Folk Festival. Noel Shine wrote the notes and I arranged the printing and chased down ads.

Timmy ‘The Brit’ McCarthy on the cover of the programme for this year’s festival
Timmy ‘The Brit’ McCarthy on the cover of the programme for this year’s festival

I remember one thing very clearly and that’s that several of the advertisers were butchers, because that’s what Timmy was. I can recall going around collecting ads that had bloodstains on the corners because they were scribbled down on a bit of paper on the butcher’s counter.

The Hiatus

Sliabh Luachra fiddler Julia Clifford. Picture courtesy of William Hammond
Sliabh Luachra fiddler Julia Clifford. Picture courtesy of William Hammond

“The festival ran from 1979 to 1987 inclusive, and then we lost our sponsor, who didn’t feel it was worth supporting any more. So there was no festival in ’88, although I had already booked two acts: Christy Hennessy, who was largely unknown then, and Noel Hill. We just held two gigs in the Phoenix on the Friday and Saturday night and we didn’t even call it Cork Folk Festival. Will Hammond suggested a way of getting the festival back on track again and we started fresh in ’89 and built it back up again.”

A River Runs Through It

“In 1987 we had a concert in the Opera House with Rita Connolly singing the Granuaile Suite. To publicise it, we had her rowed up the river in a long boat by the Navy, from down the Harbour. She got off outside City Hall. She was dressed up and standing in the bow like a goddess coming up the river.

Enjoying the folk festival on the streets of Cork in 2001. Picture: Des Barry
Enjoying the folk festival on the streets of Cork in 2001. Picture: Des Barry

“Another year, Paddy Keenan the piper walked out of The Phoenix to go across and play in Connolly Hall and jumped in The Lee and swam across and under the bridge and walked into Connolly Hall dripping wet. The manager didn’t know whether to let him in or not.”

Offline World

“Back in those days we really had to organise publicity: we had to get in the papers, we had to get on radio, and posters were really important: I remember travelling the country putting up posters. Nowadays, you can get a message out a lot quicker and easier to people.

“But there were a couple of things that worked in our favour in the ‘80s compared to today. One was that not everywhere had a bar extension, so people would come to the festival club as a place to get a late drink as well as for the music.”

Will ‘Hammy’ Hammond

How I got started

“I was a punter, probably even from the very first year: I liked set dancing and got involved when Timmy started a class in the South Parish off Sawmill Street. Timmy was the main man at the time. They were stuck for volunteers around 1983 or ’84 so I got roped in at one of the céilís and that lasted a couple of years. I joined the committee in ’86.”

Sráidbhaile

“By ’89, Timmy had moved the dancing to Sráidbhaile in the Grand Parade Hotel and that became the place to go: it was a centre of culture. The nights with Steve Cooney and Séamus Begley were just amazing. Timmy was in his element. He’d be on the floor calling all the dances: the West Kerry, the North Kerry, the Sliabh Luachra, and to incredible music.

Martin and Eliza Carthy, with Norma Waterson. Picture courtesy of William Hammond
Martin and Eliza Carthy, with Norma Waterson. Picture courtesy of William Hammond

He was at his absolute best there, surrounded by people he loved and all the dancers and musicians. That was really the festival in those days: the atmosphere was terrific.

The Céilí Mór

“The city manager called us up for the Capital of Culture 2005 to see if we could organise this massive event on the streets of Cork, to break the world record for the biggest céilí. We organised 9,000 dancers on the streets of Cork, on the Sunday of the Festival. We had Michael Flatley, Micheal O Suilleabháín.

The Kilfenora Céilí band and seven other céilí bands all the way up the South Mall. It’s an outstanding memory. The joy and the craic everyone had, and then learning that we’d managed to break the record: pats on the back all round. It was a great achievement.”

Venues

Every year we have a blank canvas and we ask ourselves who are the venues supporting music in the city. The Corner House and the Spailpín have supported us right the way through.

“I remember in ’89 when we started back up again and things were tight, Jerry Lucey in Sráidbhaile sponsored all the accommodation for the festival and gave us the venue for free. He was very generous to the festival down through the years, and Pat Conway was a great help over in The Lobby.”

Jerry Lucey in the Sraidbhaile of the Grand Parade Hotel
Jerry Lucey in the Sraidbhaile of the Grand Parade Hotel

International Flavour

“In ’86 we brought over The Real Sounds of Africa and we linked them up with Cor Chúil Aodha for a gig in Connolly Hall. We had the traditional choir, and then the Real Sounds, who came out in traditional dress with electric guitars and voodoo dolls and all sorts; it was unreal. Everyone danced the night away. Emmylou Harris was another amazing international act; the queen of American Country.

“Flaco Jimenez (the Louisiana accordion player) really enjoyed his time in Cork.

He stayed up playing music in the festival club in the Metropole, all night long.

"He was playing another concert the next day, but his accordion fell apart on him during the gig, he’d played it so much the night before. He had to ask to borrow another.”

- Cork Folk Festival runs from Thursday to Sunday, including the Folkfest@40 Celebration Concert at Cork Opera House on Sunday, with a roster that includes Iarla Ó Lionáird, Donal Lunny, and Martin & Eliza Carthy

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