Thursday 12 December 2019

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Cork remembers post-punk icon Finbarr Donnelly

Wednesday, 12th June, 2019 4:29pm

When it comes to music, Cork loves a bit of nostalgia, doesn’t it?

Go online and you’ll find countless rabbit holes to disappear down, from long-abandoned forums discussing some of the wilder youth metal gigs in An Crúiscín Lán, to long-form broadsheet eulogies on the acid-filled heights of Sir Henry’s in the 1990s.

Cork’s post-punk scene, which developed back in the late 1970s, has thankfully not escaped retrospective celebration either. The fast-paced career of Nun Attax, who formed in Cork city back in 1978, was impressively chronicled in the audio documentary ‘Get That Monster Off the Stage’ by Paul McDermott a few years back.

On Tuesday 18 June, former members of the band will mark the 30th anniversary of their singer Finbarr Donnelly’s passing with a special gig at Cyprus Avenue.

Finbarr Donnelly, chiefly known as ‘Donnelly’, has been recognised in recent years by some corners of the music community as one of Cork’s first true punks, fondly remembered for his imposing, unrefined stage presence and a level of innovation previously unseen on our shores.

The band has played gigs on his anniversary every five years since 2009, and next week headliners …And Nun Came Back will again perform some fan favourites, as well as new material by former guitarist Ricky Dineen’s new project Big Boy Foolish, and Twin Siblings.

Playing their first gig in a community hall in Mayfield on Valentine’s night in 1979, Nun Attax became part of the now-famous music scene that convened at the former Arcadia ballroom, across from Kent Station.

Sitting down with former Nun Attax members Ricky Dineen and Keith ‘Smelly’ O’Connell, the former says: “We were probably too young and naïve to realise what was happening at the time. We were only 19 or 20.

“We were into the punk rock scene, and starting a band felt like the natural thing to do. Myself, Smelly and Philip (O’Connell) were all from Churchfield, and Donnelly was originally from Belfast but living in The Glen. We were all working-class northsiders, you know. We just bought instruments and started playing them.”

The venue affectionately known as ‘the Arc’ became a hotspot for independent music, partly thanks to its ‘Downtown Kampus’ music nights spearheaded by then-UCC student Elvera Butler, and hosted the likes of U2, The Cure and The Specials.

But with limited scope for progression in Ireland, Nun Attax, who had reformed as Five Go Down to the Sea?, set up camp in London in 1983, a move which culminated in several potential record deals being scuppered by their own self-destruction. Despite this, they did release an EP on Alan McGee’s then-fledgling Creation Records (which later produced The Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream) in 1985.

Ricky and Smelly remember one particular ill-fated meeting with the label Cherry Red.

“We ended up robbing the white ball from the pool table on the way down the stairs as a sort of f*ck off,” Ricky laughs. “It’s ridiculous really. A record deal was what we were striving for over there - not to tell them to f*ck off!” says Smelly.

In 1989, things looked to be taking a positive turn when a later incarnation featuring Ricky and Donnelly called Beethoven bagged NME’s Single of the Week with their track ‘Him Goolie Goolie Man, Dem’, released on Setanta Records.

However, just weeks later, on 18 June 1989, Donnelly, then just 27, died in an accidental drowning incident in the Serpentine Pond in Hyde Park.

Somewhat intriguingly, the lack of physical releases from the band means tangible traces for those who weren’t there at the time are few and far between.

Through various iterations of the band, it is the sketchy yet blistering early work of Nun Attax which has most emphatically captured the hearts of Cork punk aficionados down the years.

And while Leeside alumni like Sultans of Ping, The Frank and Walters and Fred might more readily roll off the tongue, Nun Attax song titles like ‘There's A Fish On Top Of Shandon Swears He's Elvis’ and ‘Knocknaheeny Shuffle’ are as quintessentially Cork as they come.

The band members recall one particularly unique aspect of the group’s sound; in 1981 they added Úna Ní Chanainn, a cello player, an unusual fit in more ways than one.

“We were at a play one night and Úna was playing at it. I don’t remember who but someone asked if she wanted to join because the bass sound of the cello might work.

“We were all mad working-class norries and she was from Glanmire I think,” Ricky says. “There were some gigs we played with lads dancing and falling around, and suddenly here she was onstage with her expensive cello, her prized possession. She just didn’t care about the stuff that used come out of our mouths,” Smelly laughs.

Recalling the “volatile” Donnelly, Smelly says: “He was insane. He was liable to do anything.”

“He was fine during rehearsals, but he used to go off on his own then, especially in London,” remembers Ricky. “We wouldn’t know what he was getting up to. He was a big bloke, so he was intimidating. People used to be afraid of him.

“He was a very intelligent guy, very well-read. You’d always have a good conversation with him. He was an angel really!” he cackles.

Remembering being out with Donnelly on the day he died, Ricky adds: ““We were going out that day talking about recording, and talking about the pub later.

“If you went out for the craic with your friends on a Sunday afternoon and one of them didn’t come back, it’s surreal like. Even though we were both 27, you’re still young.

“It changes your whole life because we went from planning our future, thinking we were going to be in England for a while, to the next minute being on the flight back to Ireland.”

There was not to be any further iterations of Nun Attax after Donnelly’s death. Ricky and Smelly both returned to Ireland, with Smelly giving up music entirely. After struggling with substance abuse, Tuesday’s gig will be his first in 35 years.

“I was with Ricky one day and he went upstairs, came back and said ‘there you are’. I looked at this piece of paper and it was early lyrics written in Donnelly’s handwriting. He said ‘why don’t you play the gig?’, so I said I would. That was it.”

“I’ve surprised myself. You have it there (points to head), but it doesn’t come straight to your hands and feet. It reminds me of being a kid again, when you’d go into your room and get lost for hours. It’s a great stress reliever, I’ll definitely keep it up after the gig.”

The pair have clearly maintained a close friendship, as they joke about how the rehearsals have been going so far. “I was shaking going in, but the help was unbelievable. Not from him though!” Smelly points at his bandmate.

Remembering one gig in Tralee in the early years which ended with Donnelly “firing a cymbal”, Smelly says it’ll be good to do a gig sober. Ricky adds: “We hope to get some old faces, as well as of the younger people as well who mightn’t know about us – or who might come and say ‘Jesus, was that the sh*it they used to play in the ‘80s?!’”

Donnelly – 30th Anniversary Retrospective takes place on Tuesday 18 June at Cyprus Avenue. Tickets are €10 and are available on Eventbrite.ie or at the Old Oak bar.

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