- Giordaí Ua Laoghaire tells about the offbeat outfit who created some of the most innovative music on the Irish scene in the 1990s
Despite being in existence for six years, Nine Wassies From Bainne’s 1998 album Ciddy Hall remains the band’s only release, aside from a couple of obscure compilation tracks.
“I fairly knew it was probably going to be the only album,” their main man Giordaí ua Laoghaire reflects. Really?
“Yeah,” he nods. “Because of the struggle.”
In the Irish musical landscape of the ‘90s, Nine Wassies From Bainne were just too odd a proposition. Lyrically and musically, their songs overflowed with ideas.
Bilingual, Ua Laoghaire’s lyrics switched between Irish and English as easily as the songs switched from easy-listening passages to disorienting rhythms.
Hailing from Ovens, Co Cork, Ua Laoghaire grew up in a musical household situated between the city hinterland to the east and the Múscraí region to the west.
Musically catholic, he embraced everything from Led Zeppelin to Rory Gallagher, Mahavishnu Orchestra to Planxty, and Yes and Frank Zappa. And when punk came along he embraced that, too.
By the end of the 1970s he had joined the fledgling northside Cork city post punk band Nun Attax and enjoyed that ride for about nine months.
“It was quite exciting but it was kinda difficult as well,” he recalls. “So I jumped ship over to the more middle class Microdisney, who weren’t as much fun but at least would turn up for the rehearsal.”
By the time Ua Laoghaire left them at the beginning of ‘82 he had developed a reputation for his psychedelic guitar playing.
The decade saw him collaborate with Dublin experimentalist Stano and form the explosive, but short-lived, Cork band, Soon.
Moving to Dublin in 1988, he did some theatre work with the playwright Roger Gregg. The pair had first met at the beginning of the decade when the American was studying English literature at UCC.
Ua Laoghaire also played for a while with Breton singer-songwriter Katell Keineg and the summer of 1990 found him playing music for the Abbey Theatre summer production of The Shaughraun at the request of Donal Lunny.
“Eventually then I wanted to get my own stuff together and my brain had woken up,” he says. “It was really odd. In my twenties I couldn’t find the key for anything and suddenly I found the key and ideas started coming to me.
It’s very odd how that works. It often happens to people in their late teens and their twenties but for me it was in my thirties that I suddenly started getting all these ideas.”
As the songs flooded out he had a name to which he could attach them.
“I had been in the [Cork bar] Long Valley one night when somebody was joking with me about there being nine nice-looking old dolls [Cork slang for girls] from Bandon.
"And we were joking about ‘Oh, yeah. There’s nine wassies (wasps) in Bandon!’ And then this went on, this Cork stuff.
"And I was walking down the street outside the Long Valley thinking, ‘Nine Wassies From Bandon? That would be a mad name for a band.’ And then I changed Bandon to Bainne.”
In 1992, he received word that his former Microdisney bandmate Cathal Coughlan wanted him to support his band Fatima Mansions.
Ua Laoghaire asked a guitar student of his, Enda Doyle, if he’d play bass with him and the pair supported the Mansions on a nationwide tour. After whch they were joined by former Golden Horde drummer Peter O’Kennedy.
Throughout their existence the band would play regularly at Whelan’s in Dublin. The gig poster shown here mentions Gloaming vocalist Iarla Ó Lionaird as a support act.
“It was quite a fanatical following,” notes Giordaí. “Whelan’s was always full.”
Not all their gigs were quite as successful. A friend of Giordaí’s who was teaching filmmaking to the inmates at Mountjoy Prison invited the band to perform there in 1996.
It was the opposite effect of Johnny Cash - as we went on the more prisoners left. We only ended up with about 10 at the end.
“It wasn’t a glorious musical event but there was one or two moments that were okay.”
As they approached the making of Ciddy Hall, Doyle left the band to be replaced by Those Nervous Animals bassist Eddie Lee, who Giordaí knew from playing with Katell Keineg.
Ua Laoghaire admired him greatly.
“He was incredibly good,” he enthuses, and even though he felt the standard had improved there was still an issue he needed to address.
“Even though I was still singing, I found that problematic. Because I was writing melodies that I couldn’t sing,” he confides.
“I didn’t feel I could sing them that well. I was good at telling stories but I don’t think I sang that well.”
His paths crossed with a Cork actor called David William Murray, who as it happened performed with Roger Gregg.
“He wasn’t a trained singer,” observes Giordaí’.
“He had a good voice but he didn’t train it. So he sometimes didn’t hit the notes, but he was an incredible performer.”
Despite the following they cultivated at Whelan’s, Ua Laoghaire felt frustrated by the lack of industry interest and media support.
“It was very difficult to get any moves going in Ireland at the time,” he says resignedly.
“Regards a band called Nine Wassies From Bainne doing what we were doing it was really difficult to do. It was a real struggle.
“To get the album out was an achievement and then after that I was burned out.”
Linking the worlds of the Múscraí Gaeltacht of Sean Ó Riada and Sean Ó Ríordáin with the city’s spadgie rock attitude of bands like Five Go Down To The Sea and Mean Features, Ciddy Hall connected the Coolea Choir with the ‘Knocknaheeny Shuffle’ and fused it in a world of weird folklore, grotesque imagery and surreal humour.
The album saw Gregg cameo in a piece of sardonic audio theatre titled ‘Shop at Fleadhworld.’ Pat Kelleghar of oddball Cork band Manhole turned up to deliver a beautifully spoken word piece.
The ghost of Nun Attax and Five Go Down To The Sea frontman Donnelly hovered in the demented ‘Whahi Whahi Did’, and Dublin electronic musician Dennis McNulty of Decal delivered a remix of an existing Wassies track in ‘Níos’.
The most beautiful track on the album, and despite the anarchic mood of the record there are a few contenders, is an unlisted duet titled ‘The Ballad of Mosney and Bañana’, hidden in a baffling field recording of babbling brook and birdsong filling up the end of the CD. A decision that stumped the producer.
“Aidan Foley thought it was the weirdest idea I ever came up with,” shrugs Giordaí, “but he said, ‘If that’s what you want to do…’
“It’s probably the best song on the album and it’s the one that’s hidden. And most people, I mean those who have heard the album, most of them don’t know it exists.”
Cork music archivist John Byrne sees the Wassies’ main legacy in the innovative use of spoken Irish outside the traditional and folk genres.
“Bilinguality came easy to Giordaí,” says Byrne, who rounded up some of the images and memorabilia in this article, “and very often Wassie-music sounds like a virulent conversational trade-off between Irish and the adapted English language.”
Wassies probably never got the attention they deserved, but Ciddy Hall remains a stand-out recording from Cork’s musical history.
Where are they now?
- Giordaí Ua Laoghaire is making music in Berlin.
- Peter O’Kennedy works in sculpture, art and design in New York.
- Eddie Lee is playing and working in Sligo.