Rory Gallagher and the town he loved so well

As Cork marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Rory Gallagher, Des O’Driscoll looks back on his early years on Leeside and in Derry
Rory Gallagher and the town he loved so well

YOU might have heard the story about the woman down the Arcadia ballroom. There she was, dancing away with a fine-looking fellah. Great dancer he was too. Next thing, she looks down and sees he has cloven feet.

While we haven’t been able to establish the veracity of whether Satan actually danced in Cork in the late 1950s, this was a commonly-told tale of the era. It’s one that underlines the changing society a young Rory Gallagher experienced growing up in the city.

A previously unpublished picture of Rory at the Cavern in in 1966

On one side you had the Catholic Church and the general conservatism that often goes with a fairly traditional culture; on the other, a new dynamism that plugged into events that were happening all around the world. The emergence of The Beatles by 1963 had fanned the flames of a new international youth culture that had been born in the 1950s. Rory Gallagher and his younger brother Donal had been first exposed to this as young children in Derry, the hometown of their father Daniel, where the family lived until 1956.

Visit our special Rory Gallagher commemorative section here

As well as the usual radio outlets of Radio Luxembourg and the BBC, on which so many Irish people first heard new music, the brothers location in the northern city put them a step ahead of southern youngsters.

The American naval base in Derry had its own radio station, and its strong signal ensured the Gallagher household got to hear US tunes of many different genres. Northern Ireland also had television before the South, and Donal Gallagher remembers a regular stroll with his brother at 6pm to the Diamond area of Derry city centre, where a shop had a demo version of this incredible new technology.

They’d push their way to the front of the regular crowd who gathered there, and stare through the shop window at the BBC’s very first pop show, Six-Five Special. The fact that they couldn’t hear anything didn’t matter to young Rory.

“He already knew the lyrics to loads of the songs,” remembers Donal. “So, he’d unconsciously sing out loud as the bands were playing on screen, and provide great entertainment for the other people gathered there.”

CHECK OUT THE INTERACTIVE MAP OF RORY'S JOURNEY BELOW

MOVE TO CORK

Rory Gallagher’s first encounter with the media came when he posed for a picture at this newspaper’s old office on Academy Street, probably around 1960; below, his membership card for The Cavern.

So, by the time Rory moved to Cork in 1956 at the age of eight, a combination of those Derry influences and growing up in a household where both parents loved music, ensured the seeds of his future career were well and truly planted.

Passion for music is one thing, but even in his childhood years Rory had the self-discipline to spend hours practising on his acoustic guitar. The Derry accent now replaced by a Leeside brogue, he’d enter talent competitions around the city and his big ‘breakthrough’ came when he won an event at Cork City Hall around 1960. In what was the first of his many encounters with the media, a delighted 12-year-old came into the offices of the Cork Examiner and Evening Echo on Academy Street to proudly pose for a picture holding his guitar on the roof of the building (see above).

As Gallagher entered his teens, the winds of change were blowing that bit stronger through the city. The economy was improving and emigration also began to slow, allowing more young people to stay and provide essential lifeblood for their home towns.

Of course, for Ireland, one of the few silver linings to come out of emigration has been the cultural links it fosters to the outside world. An incredible 15% of the population had left the country in the 1950s and, while they left heartbroken families behind, their experiences in the big cities of Britain and the US would make for great reading in the letters home.

Rory and Donal had already experienced this when a family friend, Bill Mellerick, had secured Bill Hailey’s autograph as reward for helping the rock ’n’ roll superstar escape a mob of fans outside the hotel where the Corkman worked in Britain. He sent the autograph to the Gallaghers and it became a prized possession.

Rory’s brother Donal and a fellow Cavern club employee, Paul, behind the primitive record decks that were rigged up in a crate from Harrington’s bakery. 

Returning emigrants also brought home their record collections, some of which would end up in the second-hand bookshops around Cork. Rory’s first album was The Buddy Holly Story, purchased from a bookshop on Shandon Street.

While the showbands in Ireland had thrived for many years, the emergence of the new wave of British bands from 1963 onwards had spawned a rival ‘beat’ scene in this country. It was a movement Gallagher identified with. He had bought his famous Stratocaster guitar in Crowleys on Merchants Quay in 1963, but for the moment it was the showbands that provided the best outlet to hone his skills as a musician.

Even that relatively benign circuit didn’t meet with the approval of the forces of old Ireland. When word eventually reached the North Mon school that Gallagher was in The Fontana band, a Christian Brother teacher felt it was enough of an affront to administer quite a severe beating to the teenager. He left to go to the more liberal St Kieran’s college on Camden Quay.

While he might not have horns on his head like that apocryphal dancer in the Arcadia, Rory Gallagher did have the longest hair in Cork. Maybe even in Ireland. Donal remembers occasional adults and teenagers alike shouting abuse as the duo walked through the city.

“I’d get boiling mad, but if I hit somebody a belt, Rory would get so angry with me,” says Donal.

Rory’s hair also caused an issue in 1965 when his band got a residency at a US airforce base in Spain. He had to cut those beloved locks to even be allowed into a country that was ruled by dictator General Franco.

By this time, the music scene had already been developing in Cork. An early venue on MacCurtain Street was created when one of the Gallaghers’ friends got the keys to the army social club. It became the location of an informal club called The Crypt, complete with a borrowed coffin in front of the stage. It was all innocent stuff, more youth club than anything commercial — people playing informal jam sessions in a room with no bar — but it soon to the attention of Official Ireland. A garda raid brought the fun to an end and the coffin was despatched in a taxi back to its owners, Fordes’ funeral home.

READ NEXT: Irish Examiner readers pick their top five Rory Gallagher tracks

STONE MAD

Every youth scene in Cork through the decades has had its crystallising moments – from the Sweat nights and Nirvana gig at Sir Henry’s in the 1990s, to the Specials at the Arcadia in the early 80s, and even Gallagher himself at City Hall in the 1970s. For the youngsters of that mid-60s generation, the ‘I was there moment’ came in 1965 with the visit by the Rolling Stones to the Savoy, with Rory saving for weeks to buy a ticket. He was left slightly miffed, however, when his brother was left in the stage door by members of the band.

Soon afterwards, Donal got involved with dental student Robin Power in a club in Youghal, also named The Crypt, located above the Strand Palace Hotel. They booked some of the growing number of touring beat groups and it was a very successful summer venture, with the local crowd being boosted by organised buses from Cork and and an influx of continental students in the town to learn English.

Though they probably didn’t realise it at the time, the talented crop of young people involved in this new culture were doing something quite revolutionary. Not wanting t to go to the pub or hang out at the same places as their parents, they just created their own scene.

Donal ended up as a DJ in a new club on Leitrim Street in Cork. A labyrinth of a building, the walls of the former factory were daubed with luminous-paint slogans to up the cool factor. Catering for a mostly 15-to-17-year-old age group, The Cavern had a mineral bar, and a conspicuous absence of anything stronger.

Rory's membership card for The Cavern.

“Though I do remember some lads buying herbal cigarettes in the chemist and pretending they were high, just to look cool,” says Donal.

And like all true scenesters, there was a clear identification of being different than the people who spilled from the city’s other venues. Even the showband scene was sniffed at.

“The Dixies and some of the others thought of themselves as real rock ’n’ rollers. They must have thought we were real little shits,” says Donal with a laugh.

The few photographs that remain from the time indicate a crowd who were bang on trend in terms of fashion and haircuts.

“The girls, in particular, would be very well turned out,” remembers Donal . “They’d see the fashions in magazines like Jackie and Fab, and even if they couldn’t afford or find stuff, in those days people often made clothes for themselves.”

Females at The Cavern were protected somewhat by the new, more progressive culture that was emerging. Ensuring nobody broke the rules or got past the door with alcohol taken was well-known bouncer Hughie O’Flynn. A corporation worker by day, he donned a silk suit and diamond cufflinks to work the Cavern door at night.

On a few occasions, irate fathers showed up looking for their daughters, fearful they were hanging out in some den of iniquity with a bunch of beatniks.

“They’d be invited inside, offered a bottle of lemonade at the bar and shown around.”

Generally, the fathers would leave assuaged. They’d have seen a bunch of well-behaved kids sitting around chatting and sipping their minerals, or dancing to the live bands and DJs.

While music equipment was fairly rudimentary back then, Donal set up a primitive precursor to the fancy mixers in use today. Basically, it involved two record players rigged up inside a box from Harrington’s bakery.

Donal would often play records in breaks between bands, which in 1966 included several gigs from his brother’s newly-formed group, The Taste. This three-piece was a major step on the road to stardom for Rory. They worked on their performances at various other venues in Cork, and even got to play their own brand of the devil’s music at the Arcadia. Things would never be the same again.

READ NEXT: AUDIO: Cork born poet Louis de Paor's poem in honour of Rory Gallagher

Visit our special Rory Gallagher commemorative section here

#RememberRory events in Cork

Today at 1.10pm, Cork’s radio stations — Red FM, 96fm, C103 Cork and UCC 98.3FM — will simultaneously play Rory Gallagher’s ‘Tatto’d Lady’. Shandon bells will also play a few notes and, as well as a live rendition of the song from a tribute act in Rory Gallagher Plaza, Gerry Murphy will do a reading of Louis de Paor’s poem on Gallagher. Basically, Rory Gallagher will ring out all over the city.

From 1pm on Sunday, Camden Palace Hotel Community Arts Centre will inaugurate their recording and music rehearsal studios named in honour of Rory. Donal Gallagher, Rory’s brother, will officially open the space and there will be performances from various bands. Tickets: camdenpalacehotel@gmail.com

A tribute event in Cobh features a number of bands at Ryans Bar tonight and tomorrow.

Crowleys Music Centre on Oliver Plunkett St will have a tribute concert on Sunday evening.

On June 22-23, Cork Arts Theatre (Cat Club) hosts The G-Man And Me, a one-woman play by English playwright Liz Lucas celebrating life as a Rory Gallagher fan.

READ NEXT: Irish Examiner readers pick their top five Rory Gallagher tracks

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