The pub’s manager, Ray Blackwell, says it was about 10 years ago, while the singer himself, who remembers first playing the venue more than two decades ago, is also hazy.
“I had played once a month in MacCarthy’s bar in Baltimore for about six months in 1998, 1999 and when that finished, after a few successful gigs in De Barra’s I kind of drifted into a monthly situation, perhaps in 2001? I’m not sure.”
He says he settled into a monthly residency, playing the first Thursday of every month in 2003. “I have a great memory of Diarmuid (Sully) diving up onto the stage and cracking open a bottle of champagne on the first Thursday of April 2003, after I won the Irish Meteor Music Award for Best Act Folk and Traditional,” Spillane recalls. “I was flashing the gong in Clon as Diarmuid was splashing the champers, like!”
Spillane and De Barra’s have become synonymous with each other, with Spillane even writing a song about the venue for his performance there last week. Over the course of five and a half minutes, Spillane namechecks about 80 musicians who have played De Barra’s down the years It culminates with the refrain: “Clonakilty you’ve been good to me.”
Blackwell says De Barra’s has shared its ups and downs with the folk singer. “There’s no place like seeing him here. It’s a special show. People won’t come out to see you if you’re playing every other week, certainly in the same venue. But John is still bringing people out — maybe the reputation of his residency has travelled far. And hopefully he’ll be playing here for another 10 years, if not more.”
This month, De Barra’s is celebrating 30 years of music, during which time musicians from Christy Moore to Villagers, Sharon Shannon to Roy Harper (who returns to the venue tomorrow night), have graced its stage. It all began in the snug at the left as you walk in. The stage, after numerous relocations, is now in the extended back room, the walk to which takes in walls of photographs of performances down the years — Blackwell’s favourite is the one where the legendary fiddle player Pecker Dunne holds his instrument behind his head, playing it Jimi Hendrix style.
Bands travel from all over Ireland and further afield to play the Clonakilty venue. A day after headlining Live at the Marquee in Cork City to 5,000 people, Bell X1 made the trip down to play a short afternoon slot to just over 100 souls at De Barra’s. While Blackwell is at a loss to explain why such bands go out of their way to play in Clonakilty, Bell X1’s Dave Geraghty says it is exactly this which draws the band down south. “The fact that De Barra’s is nestled away in a gem like Clonakilty makes it all the better. It’s a magical town full of special people,” he says. “It’s one of those rare places where the music is in the walls, you know it the moment you walk in. This is not something that could be store bought.”
Geraghty adds that it feels “as if all the performers over the years have contributed a bit of themselves somehow. Ray and the rest of the gang know that they are custodians of this special thing and they always go out of their way to make everyone feel well looked after.”
Fred regularly make the trip west from Cork City to play De Barra’s and Justin O’Mahony says it’s the little things that have them returning. “They do something which no other venue in the country I can think of do — after a gig when you’ve finished packing up all your gear and you’re just about ready to hit the road, they bring down baskets of sandwiches for the bands. This is a very simple thing but it’s always just perfect, it’s exactly what you want at that stage of the night. As I say, it’s a simple thing but it just shows that they are a venue who are appreciative of artists coming in to play there.”
Richie Egan, whose band Jape won the Choice Music Prize last year, is a regular visitor to the venue. “De Barras has become known in music circles as a very special place,” he says. “There is a word of mouth thing that happens with audiences and musicians where a place obtains a certain magic and, like a snowball rolling down a hill, that magic grows. Each great night that happens in De Barra’s contributes to the next one. There are a few places in Ireland where that sort of love can be engendered and they are all equally as unique, or uniquely as equal.”
Blackwell says Noel Redding, the late bassist in the Jimi Hendrix Experience, helped put De Barra’s on the rock and roll tourism map. “The best analogy anyone gave me was: the people who lived here, they’d say that everything was black and white in Clonakilty and then Noel and Carol (Appleby), his partner, came and everything went to technicolor.”
West Cork and De Barra’s rekindled Redding’s love of music, having become disillusioned with life and music in LA. He had been living in nearby Rosscarbery when an electrician, who happened to be in a band, noticed him. Eventually Redding was coaxed back to the stage. “There was probably a spell there in the ’80s where Noel was playing seven nights a week around Clonakilty,” Blackwell says. “More than anything, he was treated like a human, like a real person.”
Spillane recalls seeing Redding play there a number of times: “I think I jammed with him onstage one night I was playing bass in a rock and roll combo at Olive Finn’s birthday party,” he recalls hazily.
Spillane also remembers seeing Christy Moore play at De Barra’s. “It was one of the most magical moments in my life when Christy sang me my own song, ‘Magic Nights in the Lobby Bar’, upstairs in the dressing room, before his gig one night. It was the first time I heard him sing it, and it blew me away!”
Claiming that the “walls had a deepness to them like soot”, Egan says that he fell in love with the place, even though the first time he played De Barra’s, he didn’t even go into the front bar.
Friendship and a love of music are the main reason he brings Jape (who play tonight) and his other band the Redneck Manifesto back to Clonakilty so often. “Ray, Ian, and all the staff are just incredible people, and our oldest friends Jens and Cristel (two of the pub’s most beloved local patrons) live so close by. It’s just amazing to be there every time, and I know you hear that a lot from musicians saying how much they love the place they just happen to be in, but with De Barra’s it’s really true.”
Though he can’t remember the exact date, Fred’s guitarist, who brought the band back to De Barra’s last night, says he’ll never forget his favourite gig in the venue, which he compares to the Colosseum due to the crowd overhead, seemingly judging.
“It just seemed to collapse into really jubilant mayhem with everybody, the band and the crowd, all involved together.
“Everybody was dancing, everybody was lying on the floor. One image from the night I will always remember is our lead singer Joe with a big tasselled lampshade on his head.”
After 30 years of music, Blackwell is confident that the show will go on. “All the great venues are closing left, right, and centre all over the country. There are probably no folk clubs left in the country, which is pretty scary; none that I’m totally aware of, anyway. I’m very conscious of how precious the venue is — or any venue. Venues come and go at the moment like fucking rainclouds,” he says, before adding bullishly: “We’re really off the beaten track and there’s camaraderie in that.”
Every act who plays De Barra’s seems to agree.