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