From 1978 to 2003, generations of young people dancing like their lives depended on it — along with a host of roadies, rock stars and DJs — passed through the labyrinth of bars and dance floors that was Sir Henry’s nightclub in Cork city.
Evolving from a restaurant into a bar and then a night spot, the venue on South Main Street was home to every overlapping trend of the era from folk to blues, rock to rave, and everything in between.
Whether the main attraction was Nirvana (who played the venue just as they were about to break big time) or The Fall (who went through one of their innumerable break-ups live, on stage) many a visitor must have paused and asked the obvious questions: Where did this place get its name? Is there really someone called Sir Henry?
End of an era: The newly-elected Lord Mayor of Cork, Henry O’Shea, speaking at the throwing of the dart ceremony at Cork Harbour in 1914. The nightclub set up in 1978 on the site of his bakery in Cork’s South Main Street borrowed his name, along with the ‘Sir’ he acquired when he was knighted in 1916, just six weeks before republican rebels precipitated Ireland’s Easter Rising. Photo: Irish Examiner Archive
The son of a blacksmith from Kilbrin, Co Cork, Henry O’Shea emigrated to New York in the 1880s, where he worked in a bakery. There he met and married Bridget Blewitte, who was also from North Cork.
They returned to Cork and settled in the city with their first two children, Mary and John. Having worked in the trade in New York, Henry opened his own bakery at no 38, South Main Street — the site, many decades later, of the nightclub named after him.
The Cork nightclub named after Sir Henry was home to everything from rock’n’roll to rave, from Corcadorca’s A Clockwork Orange to Nirvana just before they became the biggest band in the world. Photo: Irish Examiner Archive
Henry became involved in local politics and was elected to the Corporation as a member of the newly-formed Redmondite United Irish League in 1898. His rise was swift and, in 1901, he became High Sheriff.
He played significant roles in the planning for Cork's Great Exhibition, and in organising the royal visit of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1903.
There were notable parallels between O’Shea’s life and that of another Corkonian, James Simcox. Both were prominent businessmen who owned bakeries in their home city. Àctive in politics, both belonged to a generation of middle-class Irish Catholics who were steadily growing in wealth and political power.
Both were advocates of greater political independence for Ireland, albeit in rival factions. And both served as Lord Mayor of Cork. (Despite persistent recent myths, O’Shea was never elected MP. The presumption may have arisen due to the slight ambiguity suggested by the name of the Irish Parliamentary Party to which he belonged in that period.
In 1910, the party had a virtual monopoly of home rule inclined seats in the Westminster parliament, but Cork city and county was dominated by William O’Brien’s newly-formed All-for-Ireland League which sought to unite nationalists and unionists in seeking greater independence for Ireland. This was the party James Simcox belonged to).
The 1901 census shows Henry O’Shea and family living in some style on Blarney Street. Although both were from North Co Cork, they had met and married in New York, and their first two children were born there.
Henry O’Shea’s record-breaking four consecutive terms as Cork’s Lord Mayor were bookended by events far beyond the reach of City Hall, but which were destined to overshadow or even obliterate his memory. After holding the office for a brief few days of the disputed previous term, he began his proper four-year tenure as Lord Mayor on April 19, 1912 — five days after the sinking of the Titanic.
His third term began, one hundred years ago, just as the as the First World War was about to break out. And his knighthood — the ‘Sir’ bit — was bestowed on him in March, 1916, a mere six weeks before nationalist rebels took the GPO in Dublin, and settled in for a siege in the Volunteer Hall on Sheare’s Street in Cork.
There are a handful of pictures of Sir Henry in the Irish Examiner’s priceless archive of glass plate negatives. The main photo at the top of this page was taken aboard a ship in Cork Harbour in the summer of 1914.
It shows the newly-elected Lord Mayor O’Shea standing in the centre of the frame, his top hat doffed, apparently addressing the gathered dignitaries during the throwing of the dart ceremony, in which Cork’s Lord Mayor fires a dart into the harbour near Roches Point to proclaim symbolic dominion over it. The traditional ceremony continues to this day, taking place every three years.
It hasn’t proved possible yet to confirm the identity of the vessel in the photo, but it is likely to be the first Innisfallen based in Cork, which was built in 1896. Other pictures in our archive show that that ship was certainly used by Simcox (yes, him again) for the dart ceremony just two years previously.
A closer look at the photo reveals that the table is laden with Champagne bottles, a decanter (presumably of Port) and, at the far end of the table, the tall slender outline of a typical German wine bottle, perhaps a good riesling. Fine fare on a summer’s afternoon out on the water in Cork Harbour.
It’s chilling to think that just as that pleasant afternoon celebration was taking place, events in Europe were moving inexorably toward the unspeakable horrors of the Great War. The gathering could hardly have predicted the Irish revolution.
Everything was changed by the 1916 Rising and the fallout from it. In short order, all variants of Home Rule were but a memory. The City Hall that O’Shea had just left in 1916 was burnt to the ground along with swathes of buildings all over the city, just four years later.
During this most traumatic period in Cork’s history, the fate of two other Lords Mayor, Tomás Mac Curtain and Terence Mac Swiney, wiped the various home rule aspirations of previous incumbents, O’Shea, Simcox and all, from popular memory.
While the political landscape changed utterly, life went on, as it tends to do.
The bakeries run by Simcox and O’Shea continued to serve generations of people in Cork for decades. And there were to be two further links between the families. In 1926, Sir Henry’s youngest child, Dolly, married Frank Simcox.
And, later, the businesses were amalgamated. Both eventualities would have come as quite a surprise to Corkonians back in 1912 observing the ‘battle of the bakers’ as the febrile local election was dubbed.
The links between the two men were outlined by an article written by one of O’Shea’s descendants, Stephanie Walsh, for the 2006 edition of The Holly Bough, the Christmas special published every year by the Evening Echo.
Another descendant, Colette McNamara (nee O’Sullivan), confirms the connection between O’Shea and the famous nightclub, in a post on the exhibition’s blog site.
“Sir Henry was my great-grandfather and the bakery was situated at the venue we all loved and frequented, back in the day,” she writes, recalling attending gigs by artists including Hot Guitars, Moving Hearts, Auto Da Fé, Hothouse Flowers and Jimmy McCarthy, as well as a memorable gig in 1983 featuring a DJ set by Ian Richards, when rave was just a glimmer in disco’s eye.
Henry O’Shea’s life was dotted with remarkable coincidences – even posthumously. Just like his bakery on Cork’s South Main Street, O’Shea’s Tivoli Restaurant on St Patrick’s Street was also destined, decades later, to become a nightclub, the tiny Underground. Its location is now the front of Merchant’s Quay Shopping Centre. Photo: Irish Examiner Archive
In yet another coincidence, another of Henry O’Shea’s business locations – the Tivoli Restaurant on the corner of St Patrick’s Street and Merchant Street – also became a nightclub towards the end of the 20th century in the shape of The Underground, a tiny and short-lived venue for local punk and pop bands.
The original Sir Henry could hardly have conceived the life and times of the kids who crowded into that place, and into Sir Henry's, generations after his time. But then (oddly, neatly) most of those youngsters would also have been oblivious of the man whose place was now theirs. Pleased to meet you, Sir Henry.
The iconic Cork music venue named after Sir Henry is being documented and celebrated in an exhibition and oral history project at the Library of University College Cork (UCC) this summer until Saturday, September 27, 2014. It’s being curated by Martin O’Connor of UCC library, Eileen Hogan of the School of Applied Social Studies, UCC, and radio and podcast presenter, club DJ and newspaper columnist, Stevie Grainger.
For more, see sirhenrys2014.wordpress.com, and follow @sirhenrys2014 on Twitter.
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