The music, the stress, the long hours, and, of course, the memories — Pat Conway recalls his time working at the Lobby and how he misses it, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
“We could see them in their thousands, streaming down the quays past City Hall,” says Pat Conway,shaking his head and laughing.
Stirring his coffee, he’s recalling the night Glen Hansard took to the stage for a sold-out gig at Cork’s Heineken Green Energy Festival in 2000, back when Conway was still at the helm in the Lobby Bar on Union Quay. Hansard was playing with The Frames, and Damien Rice was supporting them.
“At the end of the gig, Glen said, ‘Right then, we’ll see you all back at the Lobby.’”
Conway already had a full house; Josh Ritter and Declan O’Rourke were packing out his 100-capacity venue.
“I drafted in a couple of regulars and put them on the door,” he says.
“We moved everyone over to the quayside, because it was dangerous, there were about a thousand people standing in the street.
“Damien Rice went over and busked for them. Glen arrived and played a couple of songs with Josh Ritter and when we closed, they stayed until about four in the morning, busking outside.
"That’s a night I’ll never forget, mainly because of the stress, but also because it was just great music.”
Having run the iconic venue for 18 years, Conway has memories a-plenty: The time The Band bassist Rick Danko came to Cork, the night after filling Madison Square Garden, to play two nights in the cosy confines of the Lobby. “I could have sold out two weeks, if only he would have stayed,” he says.
Or the Jazz weekend that James Brown’s band played:
“People were asking me how the hell I managed to get them, but they contacted me. There were 14 of them, backing singers and everything, two drummers. I put in a stage extension and the backing singers stood on chairs.”
Conway arrived on Union Quay in 1988. The Lobby became Cork’s go-to venue not only for moments like those he’s been reminiscing about, but also for nurturing emerging Irish talent.
Damien Dempsey, Declan O’Rourke, and Sinéad Lohan all cut their teeth on the venue’s small stage.
Subsidising low turnouts for emerging singer-songwriters with bigger acts and promoting events in larger venues like the Half Moon Club and the Everyman was part of his labour of love, as was having faith that investing in young acts would eventually reap fruit.
“An act starting out doesn’t make much money and I wouldn’t have either,” Conway says.
The venue’s popularity with bands, says Conway, was largely down to the respectful atmosphere they received, an atmosphere in part created by Conway’s cover charge for the upstairs venue, an unusual move for a pub at the time.
Local singer-songwriter John Spillane, himself a regular Lobby performer, penned ‘Magic Nights in the Lobby Bar’, an ode to the creative muse that seemed to imbue the place, with verses dedicated to well-known troubadours like Ger Wolfe and Rick Lynch.
Apart from Coughlan’s of Douglas St, which Conway says has carried forward the Lobby’s gig ethos, the former publican says Cork’s current music scene badly needs small venues where young acts can hone their craft. Himself a former Munster rep for event promotions company MCD, he says the recent domination of increasingly large interests in the Irish scene is a “dangerous phenomenon”.
The Lobby closed in 2006, having fallen under the scrutiny of the city fire officer; Conway was told his maximum capacity was 45, making gigs with a cover charge unviable. A listed building, it wasn’t suited to solutions such as external fire escapes.
“To be honest, I was happy to get out of it at the stage that I closed the doors,” Conway says with a shrug.
Now, in a move that he wryly admits is “more like therapy than a purely business perspective”, Conway is bringing back the magic nights of the Lobby, with a series of gigs from former Lobby regulars in the “gorgeous” surroundings of the 19th-century Goldie Chapel at Nano Nagle place.
The venue seats 100, and the gigs, which begin tonight, coincide with the centre’s Changing Faces of Cork exhibition.
“I’ve no interest in bars anymore, I’m getting too old for it,” he says.
"I’m hoping that if these go well, I’ll put a longer programme in place for later in the year.”