Cork's Sir Henrys: More than just a nightclub

THE singer prances about the stage, twisting his face into a devilish grimace as he belts out the blues standards. He’s part Mick Jagger, part James Brown and all Joe O’Callaghan. It’s a Monday night in the mid-1980s in Cork and Hot Guitars are playing in Sir Henrys.

Cork's Sir Henrys: More than just a nightclub

And, despite his beard and generous mane, O’Callaghan is far from being the hairiest man in the place. Any one of a hundred or more bikers and other hirsute regulars would pip him for that title.

This is a scene that was played out for the best part of eight years of an incredible residency at the Cork club for Hot Guitars. It’s also one that has never been given its rightful place in Cork music history.

But now a project being run from the Boole Library in UCC looks set to change all this. Later today, an exhibition opens at the library dedicated to showing off every era in the story of the famed nightclub. The pictures, flyers, posters, storyboards, etc, go right back to the club’s opening in the 1970s. Material has come from the Lucey family who owned the premises, from other people involved in the enterprise through the years, and from hoarders and punters who saved those souvenirs or took those rare photographs in the pre-digital age.

And what visitors will see in the limited exhibition space is just the tip of the iceberg. “If we wanted to put up everything we got we’d have to hold it in the Crawford,” says Martin O’Connor, one of the three main people organising the exhibition.

A Limerick-born librarian at the Boole who had attended many gigs in Sir Henrys in the early 1990s, the idea for the project followed a Twitter debate on a piece on the Sweat dance night published in this newspaper. Stevie Grainger, a DJ who played in the back bar of Henrys for many years, tweeted that the club’s history was very much focused on the dance side of things in the 1990s.

Others weighed in with opinions, and a light went off in O’Connor’s brain about a project that combined both his librarianship training and the leisure pursuits of his youth.

Eileen Hogan of UCC’s School of Applied Social Studies came aboard with her academic interest in popular music culture.

“A lot of the people who contributed weren’t involved in the music scene but were the people who used to go to gigs. And they are the bottom line — they are the people that made Henry’s so good,” says Grainger.

Overwhelmed by the public response and the social media buzz, the Boole decided to set up an archive of the material. “Special collections are not just about the old musty stuff,” explains O’Connor. “Today’s contemporary culture is historical in another 30 or 40 years. There are similar projects going on in other university libraries across the world; for instance, Yale has taken in the Ramones archive.”

UCC is the first Irish university to commence such a project, but others are expected to follow suit. The Cork archive will also go beyond the confines of that now-demolished building on South Main Street. Plans are afoot to gather material on other venues, from the Arcadia in its showband and punk heydays to the Lobby, the Phoenix and Nancy Spains.

Sir Henrys was opened in October 1977 as a restaurant at the back of the Stardust complex on the Grand Parade in Cork. It gradually evolved as a venue for bands and even had a spell as a rock café selling burger-based meals in an obvious emulation of the Hard Rock Café chain. Proprietor Jerry Lucey, who passed away in 2012, had a long history in the entertainment business, also being owner of the Majorca ballroom in Crosshaven, Co Cork, and the Redbarn holiday complex near Youghal.

The circular bar later generations would have been familiar with was added in 1985, by which time the venue was already established as one of the city’s main music venues. Some of the UCC’s exhibition’s best material from this era comes from Jack Lyons, a man who began his association with the music business as a friend of the Who in the 1960s and was involved in running bands at Sir Henrys in the early ’80s. Also working as a postman at the time, Lyons was a familiar figure around town on his red Honda 50, pasting up posters advertising gigs.

He began to write little reports after each concert — how many people were there, how much money went to the band and the club, etc. These were typed up on an Olympia portable typewriter that Pete Townsend had sent Lyons in 1976 to encourage his writing. Innocuous administrative exercises at the time, they are now an archivist’s goldmine. Even the guestlists that survived are a fascinating who’s-who of the ‘in’ crowd of Cork’s music scene, and the archive will also contain such documents as the TV licence the club had to get to play Betamax and VHS-recorded concerts on its big screen.

Unfortunately, licensing issues have ensured that the UCC exhibition won’t have any aural material, but those famous Sweat compilation tapes and an oral history of interviews recorded by the grand-daughter of the original owner will make it into the archive.

The Sweat club of the 1990s was one of the world’s best house music nights, but also attained a reputation as a place where some people consumed the drug ecstasy. Presumably this is one of the reasons why the Boole organisers received requests to have some pictures removed from the Facebook page.

Otherwise, the online buzz about the exhibition has been incredibly positive, with Facebook, Twitter and a Sir Henrys blog underlining how new media can provide an ideal forum for delving into memories of the past.

The Sir Henrys Exhibition is open at the Boole Library until Sept 27

-When Nirvana played Sir Henrys:

-A history of the Sweat dance night:

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