B-Side the Leeside: Nun Attax and the Knocknaheeny Shuffle

■ B-side on the Leeside chronicles some of Cork music's greatest records.

To read the first installment in this series, click here

This week, as a compilation from the post-punk legends is due for release, Ellie O’Byrne chats to a band member and two cohorts of Nun Attax about those heady days before it all ended in tragedy.

NUN ATTAX: Philip O’Connell, Keith O’Connell, Ricky Dineen, and Donnelly in 1981 on Pearse St in Dublin before a gig in The Magnet.  Picture: Colm Henry
NUN ATTAX: Philip O’Connell, Keith O’Connell, Ricky Dineen, and Donnelly in 1981 on Pearse St in Dublin before a gig in The Magnet. Picture: Colm Henry

Having achieved a cult-like status amongst Corkonian music fans, alternative post punk outfit Nun Attax, who formed in 1979, went on to form two subsequent incarnations, Five Go Down To The Sea? and, following a collective move to the squats of London in the early eighties, Beethoven.

All three bands had one thing in common: their charismatic and menacing frontman.

But with his hedonistic heyday set against the backdrop of the recession era of the 1980’s, vocalist and lyricist Finbarr Donnelly wouldn’t live to see the end of the decade.

The infamously high-octane performer, who was born in Belfast and who moved to Cork in his early teens, met his end tragically young, in a drowning incident in Hyde Park’s Serpentine Pond at just 27 years of age.

The bands, and Donnelly, have already been the subject of a radio documentary, 'Get That Monster Off The Stage', and an accompanying in-depth oral history by Paul McDermott. 

Now, a twelve-track compilation album, including one never-released song, the Knocknaheeny Shuffle, is being released.

For many who were around in the band’s heyday, the memories still flow easily.

Ricky Dineen was lead guitarist in all three Donnelly-fronted bands, was close friends with the singer and was even with him in the hours leading up to his death.

Jim O’Mahony was in Belsonic Sound, a band who were Nun Attax’ junior on the Cork scene and would later go on to own independent music store Comet Records for many years, as well as DJing as Jim Comet.

Jim Comet, who played in a number of bands around the same time as Nun Attax
Jim Comet, who played in a number of bands around the same time as Nun Attax

Fergal Keane, well known to readers as an RTÉ Radio 1 reporter, not to be confused with the former BBC Africa correspondent of the same name, played in a four-piece Cork band called Prague Over Here while studying in UCC. 

Having formed a friendship with the band, he lived with Donnelly and his bandmates in Rotherhithe in London for six months in the summer of 1984 while looking for his first job in Journalism.

RTÉ Radio presenter, Fergal Keane
RTÉ Radio presenter, Fergal Keane

The Cork scene at the time

Dineen: “Everyone I knew seemed to have formed a band and were gigging.

"Only for the famous Elvera Butler and The Arcadia, the whole thing would have fizzled out with people not being able to get gigs; when we first played the Arc, it was about our third gig and we were barely able to play.

“After the Arc shut, the old Bodega on Oliver Plunkett Street was one of the places that people went, and they were there for the music.

"Bands were popping up all around. It was a large circle of friends, really.” 

O’Mahony: “I think I joined Belsonic Sound in 1982, but I already knew Donnelly and Ricky because we all drank upstairs in The Phoenix.

"Basically, if you were a punk, a mod or a general degenerate or weirdo you’d drink upstairs and then all the communists used to drink downstairs. 

Keith O’Connell, Ricky Dineen, and Philip O’Connell on Parnell Place in Cork in the early 1980s. The picture was take by Ciarán O’Tuama who took many photgraphs of the Cork music scene, based around the Arcadia, at the time.
Keith O’Connell, Ricky Dineen, and Philip O’Connell on Parnell Place in Cork in the early 1980s.
The picture was take by Ciarán O’Tuama who took many photgraphs of the Cork music scene, based around the Arcadia, at the time.

"There was about five people in the Communist Party in Cork and they genuinely did all used to drink there; it was the weirdest mix of people.

"The biggest bands that would have already come out of The Arcadia were Nun Attax, Mean Features, Urban Blitz and of course Microdisney."

"Cork was a really depressing place at the time."

There were no jobs - Slattery’s coaches used to leave from the quay every day, just taking more and more people away. But the little scene we were in, the alternative punk scene, was actually great fun.

Keane: “I think I might have been in first year in UCC when I saw Nun Attax play in the college bar. That would have been very early on: 1979, I think.

"A lot of the intellectually snobby students would have looked down their noses at them but the rest of us were just blown away. They were just so anarchic and unusual, and more sophisticated than punk; they weren’t just a three-chord trick.”

Donnelly: A force of nature

Dineen: “As a performer, he was just totally crazy; you never knew what he was going to do. He could fit the whole microphone into his mouth.

"At one gig in the UK, he had a radio mic and he kept it going while he went into the toilets and had a piss. 

"Sometimes the gigs would totally break down and be chaotic and he’d be too drunk. He’d still put on a great performance, but he’d miss all the cues and we’d want to kill him and we’d nearly end up fighting on the stage.

“I was there with him on the day he died; the guy was full of life: ‘what are we going to do next? Come on, let’s go.’

"He was living to the fullest. It wasn’t self-destruction; it was exuberance.”

Keane: “He could be quite a scary looking bloke, but underneath it all he was the nicest fella.

"There was this incredible wordsmith talent that just came out of him all the time when he was on stage. But he drank an awful lot, all the time. 

"If they could have gotten that under control and if they’d had someone to manage them that he would have listened to, because he never did, I think they could have gone really far in that alternative post-punk scene. But Donnelly wasn’t going to listen to anyone.”

O’Mahony: “He had a really distinctive but a really good voice and just the combination of that voice over the noise of the lads was incredible.

"You always thought he would do extreme things while he was on stage; he wasn’t the kind of guy that would get the crown going in the usual way, but he might call someone a langer or slag off someone he knew for a couple of minutes. 

"The band were so tight as well; Ricky is an unbelievably creative guitarist and Smelly is a brilliant drummer, absolutely amazing.”

The maddest gigs

Dineen: “The maddest gig we played was in Dundalk in ’82; it was absolutely insane. We’re talking about 100 or 150 people, but the venue was pretty packed. 

"There were literally people hanging off the rafters and wrapping their legs around Donnelly’s head as we were playing. It was totally crazy. 

"If I remember correctly, the gig went down very well.

"Everyone was enthusiastically mad, but then I remember it turning nasty with a few people outside the door and we had to get away from them: probably Donnelly insulted them from the stage or something like that.”

Keane: “I had a job a few times collecting the money on the door when they played in places like The Phoenix because they knew I wouldn’t let people in for free. 

"Later on, they did a small tour that went to Drogheda, Dublin and a few other places.

"Ricky’s cousin drove a van and I went along as well. It was so much fun.

Donnelly never sang the same words twice as far as I remember but each one was better than the last one. You never knew what he was going to do on stage, but it was always really good

“They had some fantastic gigs after they moved to London in ’83 or ’84: I remember seeing them at some Polytech in London and they were supporting [I]The Jesus and Mary Chain[/I] and they blew them off the stage.” 

O’Mahony: “The gig everyone goes on about with [I]Five Go Down To The Sea?[/I] was a gig they played in The Phoenix.

"It was one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen in my life; it was absolutely unbelievable. The Phoenix was jammed and seeing them in a tiny space like that was fabulous.”

Recording White Cortina for RTÉ’s Jo Maxi

Dineen: “We were still 18, 19, so getting to go up to RTÉ to record for this Saturday morning show for teenagers was fantastic. 

"I don’t think my mam even realised what I was up to and then it was, ‘Jesus Christ, there he is on the telly, he must be doing something right.’ 

“We arrived and started bringing in our own gear but it was all unionised: these guys started going, ‘woah, what are you doing?’ and we weren’t allowed to bring in our own gear.

"They brought these big dollies and brought our gear in for us because it was their job. 

"We didn’t actually even need the gear really because we were miming. We were kind of star-struck to be in the RTÉ studio. 

There was a very popular kids show at the time called [I]Wanderly Wagon[/I] and the actual Wagon was parked up outside the studio and we all piled into it and we were very disappointed to discover that there wasn’t a magical world inside there.

Keane: “I watched them on Jo Maxi; it was unbelievable. They all looked so clean and young, and like they could play. It was really good.”

The Knocknaheeny Shuffle

Dineen: “The first single was Not A Fish and the Knocknaheeny Shuffle was recorded as part of that. 

"Like all our songs, it was written in the room when we were all together.

"We had Úna (ní Chanainn, cellist) at that stage, and Mick Stack, and they were incredibly good musicians. 

"We were all self-taught up until then so I’d come up with a riff and we’d play it and Donnelly would add lyrics.

"It was a similar thing with the Knocknaheeny Shuffle except we had better musicians around.

“We released four tracks on the single and they were going out in the UK too; whether we were right or wrong, we thought it was too parochial, too local. In retrospect, we probably should have put it on. And then we just kind of forgot about it for years.”

O’Mahony: “When they’d play, I’d just be waiting for the Knocknaheeny Shuffle; I loved it. When they released Not A Fish I was in The Phoenix with Donnelly and I was berating him for not putting it on the single. Eventually he got fed up and gave me his copy of the tape and said, ‘look if you love it that much, bring it home with you.’ 

"It was a treasured possession of mine; it was on a normal blank cassette.

"They decided they had to put the Knocknaheeny Shuffle on the album and John Byrne got onto Ricky and it transpired that the only surviving copy was the one I had at home.

"I found it upstairs in a drawer; I was expecting it to be in bits, but it was in absolutely perfect condition.

“At the time, yes, the reasoning for not releasing it seemed to be that it was too local. With Hip Hop and stuff these days, it’s a completely different thing; it’s almost encouraged to be all about where you’re from. 

"I would imagine it’s only a short space of time before someone samples the Knocknaheeny Shuffle and does some Hip Hop thing with it.”

For more information on Nun Attax, read the companion piece to Paul McDermott's documentary.

  • ‘Hiding From the Landlord’ a Nun Attax, Five Go Down to the Sea? and Beethoven compilation, will be released by AllCity Records’s AllChival Imprint on the 18th of April. 
  • A planned physical release for Record Store Day has been postponed until Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. Online sale: https://nunfivebeethoven.bandcamp.com/album/hiding-from-the-landlord

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