FOR any city’s music scene to thrive, it takes the fortuitous alignment of a number of factors. As well as the willing punters and burgeoning local talent, you also need the focal point of a special venue and the emergence of a facilitator who combines vision and knowledge with serious organisational skills. Sprinkle it all with a few maverick leaders and stir it up with the frenetic energy of an international cultural revolution, and you’ll get a taste of what happened in a corner of Cork in the late 1970s.
The story of the Downtown Kampus at the Arcadia ballroom tends to get told less than the other Cork cultural beacons it’s sandwiched between — the showband era and Sir Henrys — but it was at least as important and thrilling for those who were there.
Like many of the great things that happen in Cork, outsiders played a big part, and the decision of Tipperary teenager Elvera Butler to leave her native Thurles to come and study at UCC is as good a place as any to begin the tale.
While in Cork, Butler became students’ union entertainments officer. Frustrated at being limited to term time for putting on gigs in the Campus Kitchen, she hit on the idea of renting the old Arcadia ballroom near the city’s train station.
“We started it in November 1977 and said we’d give it a try until Christmas,” says Butler of the Downtown Kampus. “The first few nights were dismal, but then it began to work.” Beginning with Dublin bands and some of the few local groups that existed in Cork at the time, the Arc on a Saturday night gradually became the place to go in a city that had little else to offer in terms of venues.
“It was a real mausoleum of a building,” remembers Butler, whose punk affiliations led to a strict no disco policy being imposed. “We had a base crowd of a about 1,000 people, and without the students in the summer you’d get about 800.”
The lack of an alcohol licence at the Arcadia also helped with a relaxed door policy, and there were plenty of regulars of school-going age to swell the ranks. Not being able to buy alcohol didn’t ensure a totally sober crowd. Many would get tanked up in nearby pubs such as Handlebars before heading to the venue. And while it was a more innocent age for most of the punters, along with tales of smuggled flagons of cider, you will hear occasional tales of hash-smoking, magic mushrooms and even amphetamine use.
Of course, Downtown Kampus was set up in a seminal time for the international music scene, with 1977 seeing the release of debut albums by such bands as the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Butler’s enterprise provided the focal point for Cork’s own new wave adherents, and like-minded punters lapped it up.
In the following years, easy access to the Arcadia’s readymade crowds was a boon to emerging bands such as U2, who played the venue about 15 times and also chose to bring record company reps there to showcase their wares. A steady stream of top British bands such as XTC, the Cure and the Specials also played memorable nights. They’d often be supported by local bands, happy to get the exposure, and the £50 fee. Butler remembers U2 being paid £80 for the XTC gig.
“All the support bands got paid — not like these days. And £80 back then was worth a bit — you could rent a house in Cork for about £20 a week,” she says.
As with Sir Henrys in later years, the Arc also helped break down the class barriers of an often compartmentalised city. It was here that the members of a working-class band like Nun Attax, who had come from what they termed ‘University College Churchfield’ would hang out with people from the real UCC, then a solidly middle-class institution, albeit with a semi-bohemian fringe element.
In that pre-internet age, it took an effort to be knowledgeable about the new wave of music that had come along. Pirate stations would eventually emerge in the city, but in the early days, Ricky Dineen of Nun Attax remembers nights hunched over the radio in his parents’ house in Churchfield, fiddling with the dial in an effort to catch the wavering signal from John Peel on BBC Radio 1.
The sounds Peel played — Captain Beefheart, punk and a lot of music where spirit was more important than technical ability — were enthusiastically received by Dineen and other people such as his neighbours, Philip and Keith ‘Smelly’ O’Connell. Forming a band seemed a natural step. “The punk thing was about doing your own thing and not following what went before, not doing the 12 bar blues that everybody else seemed to be doing,” says Philip, nowadays running fishing tackle business, Orkon Lures. “Loads of people around us were into Status Quo, but we thought they were a bunch of muppets.”
Around that time, the Churchfield trio were introduced to Finbarr Donnelly. Living in the Glen area of the city, Donnelly had moved as a teenager from Belfast with his family during the Troubles.
Both his wacky personality and deep knowledge of the era’s music made him a perfect choice as frontman for the band. Donnelly was the one who came up with the name Nun Attax with his friend Henry Condon (the recently-deceased founder of Red FM). They adapted the moniker from a geographical term and displaying the punk-era penchant for titles with the letter ‘X’. And so a Cork music legend was born.
Donnelly, from his days with Nun Attax through to later bands Five Goes Down To The Sea and Beethoven, became a charismatic figure for his peers. The madcap antics and intimidating posturing belied a more complex character.
Few people on Leeside have had such an influence on the local music scene of their era, and nobody has been responsible for so many anecdotes. Before his tragic drowning in June 1989 in the Serpentine in London aged 27 (that infamous age for music stars), Donnelly left a trail of colourful stories in his wake.
For instance, in Paul McDermott's documentary for UCC 98.3fm, Get That Monster Off The Stage, writer Conal Creedon recalls meeting Donnelly with some acquaintances outside Eason on Patrick’s Street in Cork.
“He had one of those skulll loafs of bread under his arm, and was eating the white out of the middle, just leaving the crust,” remembers Creedon. “Next thing it started raining and he just put the crust on his head. It fitted his head perfectly. The conversation ended and the lads went off and Donnelly was quite happy there with the skull on his head.”
The Belfast native was also a brilliantly original frontman. Among those inspired by Nun Attax and their singer was Cathal Coughlan, whose Microdisney would become the most successful Cork group of that era.
“Donnelly was sort of this unholy cross between a Cork street person and a rock star,” says Coughlan “There was a certain amount of anti-stardom about the post-punk era, but that wasn’t where he was at. He was right there in your face with his twotone hair and stripey jumpers. But he would’ve also been knocking punk rockers who dressed ‘properly’. He was about total non-conformity, the total embracing of the chaos.”
Despite decent coverage in the music press, and flirtations with various record labels, commercial success ultimately eluded Donnelly and his cohorts. However, their impact and the legacy of the scene that spawned them isn’t something that can be measured in record sales.
On one level it was a series of ‘had to be there’ moments, where a relatively small group of Cork people latched onto something new and created an original space in their often staid city. On another, it simply was about getting together with friends and having fun to some great, great music.
At the very least, Donnelly left a legacy of fine song titles, among them ‘Knocknaheeny Shuffle’, ‘There’s A Fish On Top Of Shandon Swears He’s Elvis’ and the EP ‘Him Goolie Goolie Man, Dem’.
Along the way he also helped unleash the quirky originality that became a feature of the Cork music scene. “He gave the rest of us permission to be loopy,” fellow singer Mick Lynch reflected in later years.
Elvera Butler remembers Donnelly with affection, and is also among those who feel Cork also benefited from not being so plugged into the mainstream like the bigger urban centres of Dublin and Belfast. “That was a good thing in terms of a music scene being created. When the kids started forming bands they were much more creative; they didn’t need to adhere to what was happening,” she says.
Unfortunately this golden period was not to last. Tighter regulations and higher insurance premiums in the wake of the Stardust fire tragedy would hasten the end of the Downtown Kampus in 1981.
Cork’s economy was also stagnating, and bands could barely find places to play or rehearse. National politics was dominated by crooked Charles Haughey and bitter sparring had already begun between the Church-dominated old guard and emerging progressive elements of Irish society. As Cathal Coughlan says: “The time seemed right for getting out.”
By the mid-80s many of Cork’s youth would join Elvera, Ricky, Donnelly and the Microdisney singer on the emigration boat to England. It really was the end of an era, and would take some years for the city’s cultural stars to align again.
Elvera Butler: Thurles woman at the fulcrum of much of what went on in Cork at the time. Organiser, mentor and still fondly spoken of by Arc veterans. Afterwards ran events at the Ritzy in Brixton with her late partner Andy Foster. Now based in Dublin where she still has a hand in the music business.
Mick Lynch: Douglas lad who worked in the Arc and also played in bands with the likes of Cathal Coughlan and actor Liam Heffernan (Blackie in Glenroe). Had some success on the UK indie scene in the late 1980s with Stump, a group who continued the tradition of Cork quirkiness. Now back in his hometown, Lynch has been involved in various performance projects, including Dowtcha Puppets.
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire: Accomplished guitarist from Ovens who played with Nun Attax and Microdisney. Some say his guitar sound influenced the Edge, but Ua Laoghaire himself is wary of the story. Currently living in Berlin, it isn’t surprising, given his experimental tastes, that he plays with a trio who combine electronic music with sean nós and French traditional songs.
Joe O’Herlihy: Downtown Kampus soundman who helped build the venue’s stage from wooden packing cases from the Ford car factory. Recruited by U2, he has led the Cork mafia — also including Arc regulars Tom Mullally and Sammy O’Sullivan — at the heart of the band’s crew for decades.