Connollys of Leap is one of Co Cork’s most iconic music venues.talks past legends and future plans with owner Sam McNicholl.
THERE’S something about walking into Connolly’s of Leap (pronounced Lep), Co Cork. It’s not a big venue, with its capacity of just 150, but its 400-year-old walls are steeped in the stuff of Irish music legend, plastered with mementoes from bands that have passed through: signed gig posters, photos, the Pink Floyd hammer banner draped behind the small stage.
Sam McNicholl settles himself on a sofa upstairs on the mezzanine, looks around, and points out a colourful portrait painted on one wall. “That’s my grandparents on their wedding day. And down there, on the right, is the room my mother was born in.”
Sam’s mother Eileen, born to Mick and Sarah Connolly, the proprietors of the building known as the Central Bar since 1952, moved to Dublin as a young woman in the early 1980s and met, as Sam puts it, “a silver-tongued northerner and a bit of a hippie”: Paddy McNicholl. Together, they returned to the West Cork village to raise their own children, Joshua, Sam and Mary, and to transform Connolly’s from a rural wayside bar to a venue with a reputation far exceeding its size.
“It was mum and dad, a duo,” Sam says. “Dad brought the music. He brought the bands, the posters and the crazy rock and roll memorabilia, but mum was more the bar and the country element.”
A musician and sound engineer, Paddy McNicholl fostered an atmosphere that saw Connolly’s become a haven for bands as much as for punters throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s. “No sleep ‘til Connolly’s of Leap,” the saying went amongst Irish bands on the road.
The Frames, The Pale, Garth Hudson from The Band, Donal Lunny, John Martyn: too many moments to count on that little stage, and watching enthralled, peeping between the railings at the stage, a little Sam, whose earliest memories are of trying to slip through from the living quarters to the venue unnoticed.
“When the bands were really loud and really crazy, you could feel it in the building,” he says. “I remember trying to run in past my mum, carefully so my dad wouldn’t see me. A few times I got caught really late – I’d usually be right up there, looking down through the bars. When I was a kid, I remember everything being much bigger. Everything was huge.”
Paddy McNicholl died in 2010. “The illness came, and he went; it was pretty quick,” Sam says.
Now, Sam has been at the helm in Connolly’s since it re-opened two years ago. It’s been a tough battle and a steep learning curve for the 27-year-old, who also has his finger in many musical pies, including as percussionist with Talos.
“If I’d known how hard it was going to be in the beginning I probably wouldn’t have done it,” he says. “It nearly killed me. Well, not nearly killed me, but I’ve definitely nearly had a few nervous breakdowns; just learning the hard way.”
Not surprisingly, Connolly’s has a storied history. The Frames were recording an album in the English countryside in a house formerly owned by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmore.
A sound engineer let the band in to see Pink Floyd’s old touring paraphernalia stored in an adjacent barn, whereupon a young Glen Hansard took it upon himself to liberate one of the hammer banners from The Wall tour. “I couldn’t wait to play Connolly’s of Leap again to give it to Paddy,” Hansard likes to recount, rounding out by saying conspiratorially to his audience, “Don’t tell anyone I stole it.”
The famous crossed hammers still grace the stage and feature in the venue’s logo, too. Hansard has played Connolly’s in its new incarnation, with long-time Leonard Cohen collaborator Xavier Mas and a 45-minute set of Cohen songs.
Leap itself is a town given to mythology: its name is derived from the Irish Léim uí Dhonnabháin, or O’Donovan’s Leap. Legend has it that an outlawed chieftain named O’Dononvan once jumped the gorge behind Connolly’s to shake off the British soldiers that were pursuing him. “Dad loved that story,” Sam says. “That’s where the saying ‘Beyond The Leap, Beyond The Law’ comes from.”
Despite his busy role running the venue, Sam still gets well into the gigs. When white boiler-suit clad Dublin electronic band Meltybrains? played Connolly’s last year, their energetic high-jinks included the keyboard player playing an entire track hanging upside-down by his ankles from the mezzanine.
Swept away by the moment, Sam entered into the spirit of things by shimmying up a pillar. But unlike in Paddy’s day, where what happened in Leap could stay in Leap, social media captured the moment.
“My older brother wasn’t very excited about pictures of me climbing being on Instagram,” he says. “He told me to take it down; he was saying ‘Don’t advocate for people actually climbing the bar.’”
Most teenage boys have had their electronic devices unplugged by an exasperated parent at some stage. Sam and his friends were lazing in front of the TV one evening when Paddy burst in.
“Normally even when he was angry with me he’d be calm, but he came in like a bull and ripped the plug out of the socket,” Sam says. “He said ‘There’s culture happening right now in your house and you’re in here watching this f**ing television. Come out here now’.”
Sam followed his irate father out of the living quarters and down to the bar, where Ronnie Drew was singing ‘Raglan Road’. It was an unforgettable moment.“I was so young, but I could still feel how amazing it was: his voice and the way everyone hung on his every word.”
Curating Connolly’s as a living shrine to Irish music as well as a thriving small venue is part of the juggling act.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Connolly’s most recent announcement, an architectural competition for designs to renovate the site, was met with consternation by those scared the venue would be altered.
But Sam is adamant that whatever comes out of the Irish Music Venue architecture competition, the venue part of the building will remain intact and be a “mood board” for plans to expand the outhouses and renovate living quarters.
“I’d love for it to fall into a quite natural design; we want somewhere to have open-air shows in the summer months, and maybe somewhere to do food.”
“What I would love would be to see the Other Voices model here: a stage permanently set up with full audio-visual recording, and a studio in one of the out-houses so we can have the gig happening live and film and record everything. We want bands to be able to stay here too, either in cabins or the house, and have it almost as an artist’s retreat. That’s the dream for me.”