The summer of 1990 is fondly recalled in Ireland by those of a certain age, and especially so in Cork.
That three-month period was dominated, to a large extent, by Ireland’s exploits at the World Cup Finals in Italy and, at home, by Cork’s quest for an unlikely All-Ireland hurling and football double.
But easily the biggest crowd to gather in Páirc Uí Chaoimh during 1990 came not to hail Cork’s hurling and football heroes but, rather, a diminutive American performer with the physical cut of Joe Deane and who presented more with the attitude of a Kieran Donaghy, as a self-styled bling-dripper.
On Saturday, July 7, 1990, a crowd cited by the organisers at 60,000 filed down The Marina in brilliant sunshine to see Prince, by then one of the most cavalier figures in contemporary pop music; beyond his potty mouth and burlesque live shows, was a gritty and smart writer and producer.
Basking in the global after-glow of Sign O’ The Times and LoveSexy, he was, by the summer of 1990, one of the most interesting writers and performers of the period, even if he routinely sailed close to parody.
Michael Jackson — then unquestionably The King of Pop — had performed back-to-back shows at the same venue a couple of years previously and killed it. And yet the more subtle aspects of his sublime set, and there were many, were lost in the wind whipping up over the Atlantic Pond. The vast, unforgiving spread of Páirc Uí Chaoimh had splintered many a big reputation over the years and, heading down to The Old Bowl to review the show, I wondered if, perhaps, Prince was a bit too flaky and intermediate to deliver on such a stage?
Parts of the run-up to the Oliver Barry-promoted event were bizarre. Much had been made of Prince’s lasciviousness and it was suggested that he was likely to defile the holy ground with his filthy talk and randy carry-on. There was loose talk of a simulated sex show, lesbian backing singers, and strippers, and many speculated about what exactly Prince might get up to in front of the City End.
One of the local newspapers put the issue of Prince’s live performances to the then chairman of the Cork County Board, Denis Conroy. A long-serving grandee from the Carrigtwohill club, Conroy acknowledged the concerns of the GAA on the matter of Prince’s sexual peccadilloes.
“We’re going to have to sit down with Prince and discuss this,” Conroy told the Evening Echo.
There is no evidence that such a meeting ever took place but quite what Prince made of Cork, a city then on its knees, remains undocumented. What we know for certain is that, 30 minutes after he finished a lack-lustre 16-song show, he was out of town on a private jet to London, never to return.
From a Vincent Power piece in The Cork Examiner of July 9, 1990, we learned that Prince spent six hours in a suite in Jury’s Hotel on the Western Rd on the day of the show, during which he “relaxed throughout Saturday afternoon by listening to CDs of Stevie Wonder and Anita Baker” in rooms that were decorated “on Prince’s instructions, with five magnificent floral arrangements, prepared by local florists to his exact requirements”.
We were told, too, that “the entire block of rooms where Prince, his band and tour handlers relaxed was protected by his troupe of kung fu bodyguards”.
Downtown, meanwhile, things were far less tranquil. The pubs were rammed from early and, at one point, Prince himself, “in the back of a bullet-proof Jaguar Sovereign with blacked-out windows snaked through the crowds that thronged the city-centre”. Another Examiner piece by Ralph Riegel claimed that “walking through Cork on Saturday afternoon must have been like trying to struggle through Mecca during the holy season”.
But the atmosphere was all very good-natured and the sun brought the best out in the visitors.
Like Michael Jackson before him, Prince couldn’t find it in himself to speak with the locals.
An uncredited Examiner piece on the Monday after the show mentions that, although he “gave the thumbs up to his Irish debut on Saturday evening … responses come in mono-syllables and one whole sentence seems a major effort”.
The promoter of the show, Banteer-born Oliver Barry, was rarely stuck for a word or a quip, however. He had a long association with Páirc Uí Chaoimh and, as far back as 1976, had been staging live music at the stadium, originally to help ease the debt incurred by the Cork County Board during the build.
Siamsa Cois Laoí — a day-long folk and trad event — ran for several years, headlined variously by Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, and John Denver, supported by hardy local annuals such as The Furey Brothers, The Wolfe Tones, and Bagatelle.
Barry was one of the primary investors in Century Radio, the country’s first national independent radio station which opened in 1989.
In a feature in the Irish Examiner in July 2013, Barry agreed that securing Michael Jackson in 1988 to Páirc Uí Chaoimh was but ‘one of the crowning glories of his career’.
On the night itself, Prince took the stage just after 8.30pm. Opening with ‘The Future’ and quickly segueing into ‘1999’, he struggled to connect with the crowd and, pretty quickly, they were off entertaining themselves. Half-an-hour in and the first flushes of “Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé” broke out from the cheap seats.
“This town needs an enema,” Prince told the audience at one point.
Comparisons with Jackson’s set at the same venue two years previously were inevitable, understandable, and ultimately just wrong. Jackson had played every beat for his audience, while Prince just confronted his. And lost. Fifteen songs on and one single encore later and he was gone, leaving plenty of gold behind him.
From my seat in the uncovered stand in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, I thought the whole thing was just plain dull and I said as much in my review. With Prince long gone, I surveyed my surroundings and, in the best traditions of many a Cork half-back, lowered the blade and had a right cut off of him.
Colm O’Callaghan is ceannasaí cláracha gaeilge, education, and science at RTÉ Television. A longer version of this piece first appeared on theblackpoolsentinel.wordpress.com blog.
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