IN the late 1960s a teenage Jimmy Crowley could often be found sneaking into Jim O’Donnell’s dimly lit folk club in the below-stairs bar of the Group Theatre on Cork’s South Main St.
The singer who would later be labelled ‘the Voice of Cork’ was there to listen to Irish and Scots songs of rebellion, soaking in the politically charged atmosphere of the burgeoning national folk scene.
“I was underage and I was snuck in and I was trying to look tall,” he recalls. “For teenagers like me it was a blessing on a Friday night. It was just fantastic. Candlelight, a cellar, a small bar, perfect order. They sang Jacobite songs — Jim [O’Donnell] was really into the Bonny Prince Charlie thing — and they sang good Irish ballads. They weren’t just ‘Come Out Ye Black and Tans’, they were actually thoughtful, in the spirit of ’98 and the United Irishmen.”
His furtive nights at the Group Theatre led to Crowley’s first break. “Eventually Jim got wind of the fact that we had a little ballad group called The Die-hards and one night he said look it, we’re going to Dublin next week, and he asked us would we take care of the club for that night, and that started the whole thing. It went from there.”
Where it went from there was the formation of Stoker’s Lodge, and a career as songwriter, performer, and collector that kicked off with 1977’s The Boys of Fairhill, encompassing practically every known song of Crowley’s native city, from ‘The Armoured Car’ to ‘The Coal Quay Market’.
As John Boland of the Evening Press once wrote, “You could cut crubeens with his accent; he is as important to his own city as the Bells of Shandon.” But that trademark ‘Corkness’ threatened to stifle other musical possibilities, some of which Jimmy opted to explore during seven years in the US “living in exile, split up from my wife, and having to find my way”.
Skip forward half a century from the Group Theatre days and music has brought Crowley around the world and home again. Only the length of Oliver Plunkett St from where he started, he lands up at the Long Valley on Winthrop St to launch his new folk club at the Hayloft.
He sees a dearth of spaces for folk music to flourish in a city once a hive of ballads and protest songs. “There was a whole series of lovely clubs. There was a folk club called Captain Mackey’s that was fantastic, over in MacCurtain St. And the Munster Hotel, and there was a club in the CIE workers’ club, and Banjo McCarthy’s in Blarney St. There was Dr John’s Folk Loft; Nemo Rangers had another one, and the biggest club in these islands at the time was at the GAA club in Douglas. I started that with my brother Darby, Mick Leary, Timmy the Brit, and Malachy Daly, around 1974. There were great acts, because we could afford to hire people. Clannad played there, and Martin Carthy, Christy Moore, Paul Brady, and Andy Irvine would be regulars.”
From the late 1980s, the Lobby was a mainstay but though a reformed Stoker’s Lodge sold out the Everyman three years ago, Crowley admits things have changed on the folk scene. “There aren’t too many listening gigs. There’s the Singers’ Club at the Spailpín which is very good, but in Cork it’s either totally unaccompanied, purist, or else ’60s ballads, and there’s no folk club in between where you can work out on interesting arrangement to an old song or write a new song. I think there’s another element that’s being missed.
“I want to give people a true flavour of Cork and I want them to hear some of the songs that are in my book Songs from the Beautiful City which is the folk narrative of the harbour and city, and give people an authentic connection, a piece of entertainment that’s based on history and research, as well as promoting fellow bards.
“I’d love to believe there’s still an audience for it,” says Crowley, now living in Cobh. “There’s a good concert-going audience in Cork. But I would love to see the smaller venue club working as well, like in does in England and America.”
The Hayloft looks the perfect place to start.