Microdisney to the Sultans: Man on a mission to chronicle Cork’s rich music heritage

In advance of Paul McDermott's radio documentary on the Sultans Of Ping, he talks about his efforts to pay tribute to the music of his home town 
Microdisney to the Sultans: Man on a mission to chronicle Cork’s rich music heritage

Clockwise from left: music journalist and historian Paul McDermott; The Sultans of Ping in 2014; Microdisney in 1987

In the dark days following the unexpected death in May 2022 of Cork songwriter Cathal Coughlan, some fans of his music turned for solace to Paul McDermott’s radio documentary about Coughlan’s first band Microdisney. Iron Fist In A Velvet Glove, initially broadcast in 2017, has become a source text for anyone curious about Coughlan, Microdisney, the Cork music scene of the early 1980s – and, indeed, what it was like to live in Ireland during one of its deepest, economic troughs. With Coughlan’s passing, many sought it out again.

“I said to Cathal, ‘Let’s do a radio documentary about Microdisney’. He and Sean O’Hagan [Microdisney’s guitarist] hadn’t spoken about those days in about 20 years. They knew it would be in safe hands. But that it wasn’t necessarily going to be white-washed,” says McDermott, who lectures in radio production, journalism studies and media at Rathmines College Dublin.

McDermott has now fast-forwarded a decade to tell the story of the Sultans of Ping – leading lights in the early 1990s “Corkchester” movement and the composers of one of the greatest Irish pop singles of all time, 1992’s Where’s Me Jumper? 

It’s quite the tale. Dancing At The Disco, which airs on 2XM on Monday, February 6, features dizzying success, clashing egos, a Garda escort to Lillie’s Bordello nightclub and a feud with the Manic Street Preachers.

“If I remember correctly a few weeks before the Manics reviewed the Sultans single [in the British music press, giving it an emphatic thumbs down], Niall took a pop at them over the Richey Edwards’ ‘4 Real’ thing [the Manics guitarist had carved the words into his arm with a knife]. That was their way of hitting back.” 

 One aspect of the Sultans that McDermott wanted to convey was their ferocity as a live band. They became celebrated for their idiosyncratic indie sound. Yet in the flesh, led by confrontational frontman Niall O’Flaherty, they combined the ferocity of punk with an outsider quirkiness that was part of the shared DNA of Cork bands. 

The Sultans of Ping, at Indiependence 2014
The Sultans of Ping, at Indiependence 2014

Whether baiting audiences in Belfast or starting a riot in Limerick – leading to the Hot Press headline “A Sultan Battery” – the group weren’t shy about tweaking the nose of their fanbase.

“To so many people, the Sultans begin and end with Where’s Me Jumper? They always regarded themselves as a live band first and foremost. I can remember being in Belfast with them – I think it was with [North Cork band] The Shanks as support. We were up in Belfast – 96 or something. I can remember standing at the back of the venue with The Shanks.

“We were looking at each other saying, ‘Niall’s not going to get off that stage tonight’. He’s going to be pulled apart. He’s pushing this too far. They’re such a great live band. It always frustrated me – if you said to someone, ‘Sultans of Ping’they’d go, ‘oh yeah...Where’s Me Jumper? And fair play: it’s a hit single. There are a thousand bands that would love to have a hit single.”

 McDermott’s wider mission is to chronicle Cork’s rich musical heritage. In addition to Cathal Coughlan, he has made documentaries about the other two great lost geniuses of 1980s Cork rock – Nun Attax / Five Go Down to the Sea singer Finbarr Donnelly and Mick Lynch of Stump, both of whom died young.

Microdisney in London in 1987. (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)
Microdisney in London in 1987. (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)

As coincidence would have it all three appear on new a reissue of the legendary Kaught at the Kampus compilation from 1981 – which captured them in protean form at the Arcadia Ballroom on the Lower Glanmire Road.

“There’s a tragedy there. I’m firmly in the camp, albeit a small camp, that thinks Cathal’s loss was probably one of our greatest artistic losses. His work in recent years – that solo record and those two Telefís records [made with producer Jacknife Lee], only show that not only was his voice stronger than ever. He had more things to say than ever.” 

Microdisney’s Sean O’Hagan heaps praise on McDermott's output: “Paul is the cultural historian who had the foresight to document a period in Cork's musical journey which seemed to be the present, but of course crept on us as history. Us being the Fives, the Stumps and the Disneys, we, a collection of men now in our 60s who would never have captured a sense of what it was to be making new music in 1980s Cork.

“Paul was young enough to oversee from a distance and old enough to realise that this work had to be done. We have lost a few, but Paul was there to capture some living moments. I doubt if the Microdisney reunion would have happened if it was not for Paul's preparatory documentaries. We are a happy proud bunch now, partly because Paul has enlightened us to what we had.” 

Eoin Stan O'Sullivan. 
Eoin Stan O'Sullivan. 

McDermott is also working on a documentary about Stan O’Sullivan, of The Shanks and Stanley Super 800. It will explore O’Sullivan’s career in the context of his upbringing in North Cork and his background in folk music. He is also interweaving the stories of Donnelly, Lynch and Coughlan into an oral-history coffee table book to be published by Dublin imprint Hi Tone. 

It’s all part of his mission to preserve the memories of Cork’s musical heritage. The degree to which he has already succeeded can be seen on Cork’s Grand Parade, where a mural of Donnelly now looks out upon the city.

“I used to see Mick Lynch around town in Cork. I worked with him for a while: we used to do, load-in and load-out for gigs. It’s kind of weird – in my head, Mick Lynch was this huge figure. And yet, here we were pushing PA around venues. I used to think, ‘Jesus…someone needs to talk to Mick Lynch’. Why don’t people regard this as being important?

Oral histories capture not just the bare-boned facts of a particular time. But also the textures, the nuances, and the ambience. “I’ve always been fascinated with the cultural wallpaper. The flyers, the posters, that kind of stuff. Ephemera that is printed to be thrown away,” says McDermott. “You hang on to it. And then, 20, 30 years later, it takes on a greater significance.” 

  •  Dancing in the Disco – the Story of the Sultans of Ping airs on RTÉ2XM, Monday, February 6 at 6pm. The Sultans of Ping play Cork Opera House, February 11 & 12 

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