LEGENDARY Cork folk group Stoker’s Lodge will reunite this Patrick’s weekend for the first time in 30 years.
Singer, songwriter and storyteller, Jimmy Crowley, and his handpicked backing band were at the apex of the Irish folk scene in the 1970s and ’80s.
They broke new ground by collecting, performing and recording Cork urban ballads, and by singing them in Cork accents.
Their albums include the iconic The Boys of Fair Hill and Camphouse Ballads, and hits such as ‘Salonika’ and ‘Do You Want Your Old Lobby Washed Down’?
Stoker’s Lodge, which first performed at the late Phoenix Bar, was named after the gate lodge to the Stoker estate in Frankfield, Cork (yes, related to Dracula author, Bram Stoker), near where Crowley grew up.
The group flourished under producer Micheál Ó Dómhnaill, of the Bothy Band, a seminal influence. The public couldn’t get enough of them at festivals, and on television in Ireland, the UK and America.
The original band consisted of Crowley, Chris Twomey, Johnny Murphy, Mick Murphy, and Eoin Ó Ríabhaigh. I have vivid memories of them almost bringing the ceiling down in the wonderful, if wobbly little Group Theatre, on South Main Street, which now also alas gone the way of much of old Cork.
When Stoker’s Lodge disbanded, Crowley continued his career as tradition bearer, ethnographer, Irish-language enthusiast, and songwriter and singer. Each of his 14 albums challenged conventions and each was different to its predecessor. Their eclectic range of styles covered everything from electric experimental and Irish language to ballad opera and swing-jazz, and they collaborated with renowned artists, such as Declan Sinnott, Christy Moore and Dónal Lunny.
In search of more experience and inspiration, Crowley spent several years in the US, but couldn’t keep away from the city of his birth and the individual character of Cork.
For Cork teenagers in the 1960s, everything was about pop music and rock groups. Yet, right from the beginning, Crowley was more fascinated by the old stories and the old songs that could still be heard in the city.
Ballads sung on street corners, children’s skipping chants, even a snatch hummed by a workman passing by in the early morning — these were like gold dust to him.
“I was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker when I left school, and the songs I heard in that workshop have gone entirely now,” he says. “If I hadn’t written them down, they’d be lost and gone forever.”
Songs about long-dead sporting heroes, famed hunting dogs; poignant laments for a lost love. Witty versions of some escapade or other that took place perhaps 50 years before. All of these Crowley heard as he served his time, his ear ever open for an unusual tune, unfamiliar phrases.
Of course, he was laughed at by his contemporaries. While they were piling into the cinema, queuing for a pop concert, he was roaming up and down the back streets with a bundle of song sheets under his arm, trying to persuade anyone and everyone of the importance of our folk culture.
“I knew the old ways were going fast and I wanted to record them before they were lost entirely,” Crowley says.
Eventually, Crowley left his trade and become a full-time musician. This was looked on askance by his friends. But there is steely determination underneath Crowley’s gentle, bespectacled exterior. “I suppose you could say I’m a throwback to the old bards and ballad-singers. There’s not too many of us about these days. Most other performers have a day job, to keep the wolf from the door, and there have been times when I’ve thought about doing that myself,” Crowley says.
“It’s not easy relying on your voice to get you through. But whenever I think of going into teaching or some other line of business, I feel the tug of the old life pulling me back. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” he says.
Crowley would go to the ends of the Earth for the merest hint of another old Cork song. These are not the over-polished party pieces that you get from famous names. These are the real stuff of everyday life, tiny events in the world picture, but earth-shattering to those who experience them.
They are the songs and stories of the streets and laneways of old Cork, and its surrounding countryside, the small, rich minutiae of lives lived in crowded, familiar neighbourhoods.
“I got this one only the other day, ‘You’re The Doll In Cash’s Window’. Ger McCarthy had the tune, and Pat Daly got me the verses,” Crowley says, his voice full of joy that another old classic has been found and saved.
It was Chris Twomey, one of the founder members of Stoker’s Lodge, who first awakened Crowley’s interest in Cork’s folk heritage, when he introduced him to the classic song of a terrifying pooch, now known and loved everywhere as ‘Doyle’s Armoured Car’.
From then on, Crowley was on a mission to search out, and save from extinction, those fragile treasures of folk memory which must be sung to survive, practised so they can be passed on to future generations. And it was Twomey’s untimely death, last year, that spurred Crowley and his former companions to come together once more (with Pat McNamara stepping into Twomey’s shoes) and see if the old magic was still there.
“And you know, it was. It might be even better, given all the experience we’ve had in life in the meantime.
“It’s as if we always knew there was still work to do, still songs to sing and pass on. There’s such an awakening of interest in the special Cork character now, and an appreciation of its uniqueness, which is the way it should always have been,” Crowley says.