The Bothy Band’s Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, a 1970s “folk pop star”, had been flown in by plane from Dublin. He was the producer of what was to become the quintessential Cork album, its title track an unofficial Leeside anthem to rival ‘The Banks’.
Stokers Lodge, on the brink of making it as recording artists, had been booked into a hotel for a week, their songs carefully selected and rehearsed.
There was just one snag. Ó Domhnaill, who had made his name with Skara Brae and was now in demand as a producer for Mulligan Records, had a word in singer Jimmy Crowley’s ear.
“Mícheál was one of the mildest men in the world, but he listened to the band and he said ‘c’mere to me, we have a problem here boy - they’re fucking cat’.”
Crowley’s recollection, transposed into his distinctive Cork accent, is that Ó Domhnaill gave the group the necessary kick up the backside - and the musical polish - to produce an album that make urban ballads in praise of Fairhill harriers and Timmy Delaney’s bowling exploits into hits on a national stage.
As Crowley recalls, Ó Domhnaill was uncharacteristically blunt in his assessment of what he heard.
“We started playing for him, singing the songs. We’d already selected ‘Salonika’, ‘Johnny Jump Up’, ‘The Coachman’, ‘The Boys of Fair Hill’, ‘Lloyd George’, and the boys played their hearts out,” says Crowley.
“‘They’re dog rough,’ [Ó Domhnaill] says. ‘I can see the merit, and how original the songs are, but you’ll have to work with me and I’m going to be the toughest coach in the world, morning til night, but it’ll be great.’
“The idea was that after a week we’d be fit to go to Lombard St studios in Dublin and record it, but he never at any stage attempted to change my accent or make the lads into anything else. He could see we were distinctive and we had something and wanted to sing these songs.”
The work started with the instruments played by the band, whose fluid membership at that time comprised Crowley, Christy Twomey, Mick Murphy, and Johnny ‘Fang’ Murphy.
“Things started to unfold. Christy had to get his concertina tuned up and my bouzouki wasn’t worth a shite. It was second hand and rough enough, hard to keep in tune, but I thought it was great,” says Crowley.
“Mícheál said ‘we might look at that Jimmy, the tuning’s going to be a terrible problem in the studio and delay us and cost us money’.” It wasn’t long before Crowley found himself outside a music shop, accompanied by Ó Domhnaill.
“We went into the shop and my mouth was watering. There were beautiful bouzoukis like Dónal Lunny’s and I took down a Manson bouzouki and started playing it,” he says.
“I said ‘jeez, some day Mícheál’. He said ‘do you really like it?’ “I said ‘I do yeah, it’s absolutely gorgeous. It just plays by itself’. ‘Take it away with you,’ he says. That’s what I played on the album and I still play it.” Mulligan Records, an independent label of which Lunny was a founder, had the financial backing of Diane Hamilton, daughter of US millionaire Harry Frank Guggenheim.
It was a golden age for Irish traditional and folk music, and Stokers Lodge seized their chance to be part of it.
“They were extraordinary - Mícheál Ó Domhnaill and Diane Hamilton, and Séamus O’Neill, who was lifted out of Gael Linn records,” says Crowley.
“I had been asked to do a few gigs for the Bothy Band, back them up and be their warm-up guy, and one day Mícheál said to me ‘how do you feel about doing an album, or a couple of albums?’.
“I said ‘are you serious?’ and he said ‘yes, Séamus gave me the go-ahead to sign you up’.
I just couldn’t believe it like.
“Mícheál was kind of a folk pop star and he flew down from Dublin to Limerick to meet us and booked us into a hotel for a week. He said ‘we’re going to stay here til we get this right now Jimmy’.”
Get it right they did, and following intensive rehearsals, Crowley and Stokers Lodge headed to Lombard Sounds in Dublin for 10 days of recording. Ó Domhnaill played harmonium as well as producing, bringing in Jolyon Jackson to add “burlesque” jazz piano on ‘Johnny Jump Up’. Cúil Aodha sean-nós singer and broadcaster Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin watched over proceedings as “spiritual adviser”, later writing the album’s sleeve notes.
“The craic was mighty. We were staying in the Harcourt Hotel and that was open late so Diarmuid and Mícheál would be in there with us and pinting away, but still talking business,” Crowley recalls. “Of course there was a lot of drinking going on, and late nights, but [the album] turned out lovely.”
The capital’s folk scene was to influence Stokers Lodge not only through its vibrancy, but due to the respect accorded to Dublin songs sung in Dublin accents.
Stokers Lodge, later labelled as Cork’s answer to the Dubliners, were never shy about promoting their Leeside roots, not least via Crowley’s distinctive singing style, which led one Dublin journalist to remark that “you could cut crubeens with his accent”.
“What was happening in Dublin helped to kick-start Cork,” says Crowley. “The folk scene in Dublin was very healthy and they had been brave enough to promote hitherto forgotten indigenous stuff like Frank Harte and Liam Weldon, singing in their own accents.
The Boys of Fair Hill included songs Crowley had learned while an apprentice cabinetmaker at Buckley’s furniture shop in Cork’s Brown St, later demolished to make way for Paul St car park.
“I remember hearing ‘Boozing’ and ‘Johnny Jump Up’. They were singing them while they worked – they’d be singing Elvis too of course, but you’d hear the ballads regularly.”
He learned ‘Salonika’ from Cumann na mBan veteran Helena Ronayne, grandmother of the band’s Mick Murphy.
Crowley’s song-collecting passion drew him to the city’s Northside to record Hadda O’Callaghan, brother of the late Fair Hill poet Seán O’Callaghan, who composed ‘The Armoured Car’, ‘Lloyd George’, and the album’s titular ‘The Boys of Fair Hill’.
The cover of the 1977 album superimposes a drawing of Crowley by Cork artist William Harrington on a sepia photograph of members of Fairhill Harriers Club.
While Stokers Lodge did their bit to immortalise Fair Hill’s sporting legends, Crowley sometimes found he had a little explaining to do regarding his Cork credentials.
“A lot of people actually thought I was from the Northside, but I had to correct them and say ‘sorry to disappoint you but I was born in Douglas’.
His father, also Jimmy, was a tenor singer with a love of opera, particularly Puccini, and importantly, says Crowley: “My dad was a real Northsider, from Cattle Market St, so that covered my arse. They had a horse and cart, and my granny had a stall in the English Market - she used to sell tripe and drisheen.”
Of the songs short-listed for inclusion on The Boys of Fair Hill, one that narrowly missed out on selection, as it happens, was ‘Hilltown Groves’ a bawdy ballad extolling the virtues of Crowley’s native Douglas.
Two newly-composed songs did make the cut though: Con Fada Ó Drisceoil’s ‘The Pool Song’ and Crowley’s ‘A Sorrowful Lamentation’, one bemoaning the plague of pool tables in pubs, the other lamenting the rise in the price of a pint.
“Richie Ryan was the minister for finance and in the budget he made the pint of stout more expensive than the drop of whiskey, so I wrote a song about it,” explains Crowley.
“We had the song on the list and I said to the boys ‘I just can’t lads’. I was mortified.
“Eoin Ó Riabhaigh had joined the band soon after The Boys of Fair Hill and he said ‘I’m going to resign if you don’t have the guts to do it Jimmy’.”
The song was sung, and though the minister didn’t ever lower the price of the pint, “Richie just totally embraced it and he bought the album, I think,” says Crowley.
With the addition of Ó Riabhaigh on uilleann pipes, and occasionally Henry Benagh on fiddle, Stokers Lodge rode the crest of the folk wave, recording a second album, Camp House Ballads in 1979.
In demand at festivals and folk clubs, from Lisdoonvarna to Ballyshannon and Ballysodare, Stokers Lodge packed them in at venues expansive and intimate, at Gabe Hannon’s in Ballydehob, the Blue Shark in Kinsale, the Group Theatre on South Main St, the Opera House and the Savoy.
Over the years the band members drifted rather than split, reuniting in 2014 to mark the passing of Christy Twomey. Wherever their solo musical paths led, which in Crowley’s case included a sojourn in the US, their first album provided “a very good calling card”.
“The Boys of Fair Hill made more impression than anything else I ever did,” admits Crowley.
“There was nothing like it before or since.”
Still playing and teaching music, and in non-Covid-19 times he can be found at music sessions in Cork city. Long-time member of the Lee Valley String Band.
Founder member of the Lee Valley String Band in 1968 before joining Stokers Lodge, he passed away in May 2013. Mícheál Ó Domhnaill had also died in 2006.
Based near Macroom, the jazz guitar player, songwriter, and frontman with swing and folk group The Stargazers also collaborated with the Four Star Trio as ‘Stars & Gazers’.
Back from the US and living in Cobh, he is working on an album of English and Scottish narrative ballads with his partner Eve Telford, and a contemporary solo CD inspired by his own experiences and entitled Life. After a lifetime of Cork song-collecting which informs his weekly column in The Echo, his recent double album, Songs from the Beautiful City, from his book of the same name, is “my last Cork album ever”, he insists with some conviction. “I’ve done 27 songs on it and I have to stop. I’ve done my little bit for the beautiful city. It’s been good to me too - I’ve made a career out of it – but I just want a relief, to write songs that have nothing to do with Cork.”
- See: jimmycrowley.com