Rebel Yell: the Cork renaissance?

Cork’s ‘little hum’ of creative confidence is building to a crescendo, its artists say

Cork has always had plenty to shout about when it comes to its musical heritage. From Microdisney to Mick Flannery, Seán Ó Riada to Rory Gallagher and beyond, the Rebel County's output has proven exemplary over the years.

This is one of the reasons why any references to Ireland’s “second city” is met by scowls and bared teeth by any Leeside resident today, particularly given that Cork’s creative scene is thriving in 2015.

A recent festival, the Quarter Block Party, celebrated some of the city’s artistic talent last weekend. Taking over the North and South Main Streets, it showcased the “music, theatre, art, discussion and positivity” that abounds around Cork at the moment.

The festival was co-organised by Aisling O'Riordan, who has set up new music promotion company Southern Hospitality Board (SHB) with Caoilian Sherlock. O'Riordan was previously the PR and production manager of the Pavilion live venue and she set up SHB last summer after "the Pav" closed down suddenly, leaving several gigs without venues on its roster. Its success buoyed them to continue with their venture. She also sings and plays guitar and harmonium in Morning Veils.


"I think the scene has been steadily growing and building over the last few years," she says of the wealth of acts around Cork. "We have great bands and great musicians and DJs and rappers; there's something for everyone. And the acts have more drive to get out and tour the rest of Ireland and the UK."

Bigger scale

The first Quarter Block Party was such a success that tentative plans have been put in place to bring it back on a bigger scale in 2016. “It’s lovely to have something like this in Cork,” O’Riordan says. “You do have festivals, but a lot of them happen from summer onwards. I’m hoping that we can expand and grow it.

“We booked all Irish bands this year, so maybe it’d be good to look outside of Ireland next time.”

The aforementioned bands, O Emperor and Altered Hours, share a rehearsal space just off MacCurtain Street in the city centre. Although the former are all Waterford natives who decamped to Cork for college, they have made the city their base, and many local indie and rock bands stop by their self-built studio to record and share ideas.

Their space is also where their second album, Vitreous, was recorded, along with new tracks from their upcoming EP, Lizard. After recording their debut, Hither Thither, in Dublin, their self-sufficiency kicked in for its follow-up.

"[The studio is] a fairly humble affair, but it's been serving us well," says drummer Brendan Fennessy. "The bands we know around here all seem to take a pretty relaxed approach to the whole process and there's no weird competitiveness or anything.

“It does really feel like there’s something great happening here at the moment; in fact, it seems the whole artistic community is thriving.”

A little further down MacCurtain Street, there is plenty going on at the Everyman Palace Theatre, a microcosm of the city’s theatre scene that takes in everything from opera to comedy to drama. Long-established theatre companies, such as Corcadorca, are rubbing shoulders and collaborating with innovative newcomers such as multiplatform/audio compositors Eat My Noise, and the relatively new BrokenCrow ensemble are brokering conversations with the city’s arts community.

The Everyman Palace's artistic director Julie Kelleher has worked in various roles around the country over the past decade, but returned to her native Cork in 2008.

“At that point, I really made a commitment to Cork, partially because I’m one of those annoying proud Cork women,” she says, laughing. “But mostly because it means a lot to me to be able to stay at home and be able to build a cultural life and be part of a cultural community in Cork. I deserve that, and I think everyone else in Cork deserves it.”


The diversity of the Everyman's programme – it has recently clocked up Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards nominations for co-productions of Der Vampyr and Dreamland, among others – is key to its ongoing success, Kelleher says.

The variety is indicative of the “little hum” surrounding the city’s creativity at the moment, according to Kelleher, who believes that there was a turning point in the city’s arts scene around 2011 and 2012.

Kelleher points to a few key people on the Cork scene, including Mary Hickson at Cork Opera House and Tom Creed, formerly of Cork Midsummer Festival. Kelleher also mentions the "opening of the theatre development centre in 2011, which I'm also on the committee of. It coincided with the reopening of Triskel Arts Centre, too, so there was kind of a perfect storm around 2011, 2012, which definitely upped the ante in that sense.

“I think even the crossover between music, visual art and theatre started to come together at that point.

“Since then, there’s been a gradual development of all of those changes and shifts, and I think local art is beginning to blossom and open out.”


Tom Creed was the director of Deep, a prime example of the crossover between the music and theatre worlds. The play, an engrossing examination of Cork's clubbing history set around the now-defunct nightclub Sir Henry's, was written and performed by playwright and theatre-maker Raymond Scannell.

Although no longer based in Cork, Scannell maintains that the city continues to make its mark on the arts stage.

“I think Cork has always had a strong sense of its own identity, its own otherness, and has possibly needed to assert itself in this way,” he says. “The neatest comparison is probably Manchester’s relationship to London in the UK.

“But it’s not really a comparison, because what makes Cork great is how it has forged its own voice for its size, relative to other European cities.

“I think the whole Dublin-vs-Cork rivalry gets a bit tiresome. I just see the scenes as different. It’s easier to create a unique phenomenon in Cork because of the size of the place – word of mouth spreads fast. Cork has always provided a healthy alternative to the mainstream. It all adds to the great diversity available to us on this maverick, fantastic island of ours.”

Another man who is well placed to survey the city’s music scene – particularly its clubbing and hip-hop division – is Stephen Grainger, known to most as DJ Stevie G.

Grainger was a DJ in the aforementioned Sir Henry’s in the 1990s, but more recently was a regular at the Pavilion. Like Aisling O’Riordan, he found himself at a loose end when the venue closed its doors last summer, but instead of licking his wounds, he embarked on a similarly productive venture by establishing Soul Jamz, a new record label to release both his own material and that of local talent.

“I think the big thing over the last 10, 15 years is both the technology and the mindset,” he says. “Back in the 1990s we were the ones sending off our music and hoping to get it released; you were dependent on other people. Now, there’s a real feeling, especially lately, that all the stuff is there for you to go and do it yourself, especially in electronica.”

Changing scene

The city’s scene has changed since the rave days of the early 1990s, too. These days, says Grainger, you’re more likely to stumble upon something special in a late-night bar or a small venue than in the “superclubs” of yesteryear.

“You can make stuff of a really good quality without going to a stupidly expensive studio,” Grainger says. “Other people, including myself, are saying: ‘Let’s make our own music, start our own labels, do it that way.’

“It’s kind of exciting really, putting your own stamp on the scene by releasing your own music.”

Grainger has been working with young local producers, such as Ian Ring (Young Wonder, Talos), on his Soul Jamz releases, and plans to release Africa-via-Cork hip-hop trio ApocalypsE later this year, but those names are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Cork's burgeoning electronica alumni.

The likes of Talos and Toby Kaar have made inroads in recent times, while Wife – the alter ego of Ballinhassig man and former black metaller James Kelly – is doing well internationally.

Whatever the genre or method of making music, theatre or art, everyone agrees that the positivity around Cork is abundant in 2015.

“People are helping each other, people are working together, everybody is playing in loads of different bands with each other and sometimes doing stuff that’s outside their comfort zones, just to push themselves a bit,” says Aisling O’Riordan with an enthusiastic nod.

“They’re being really progressive. I think Cork has always been on the map; I just don’t think it’s shouted as loudly as it is shouting these days. It’s all really healthy. It’s really positive.”



The Fatima Mansions

We could have easily selected the superb Microdisney, but let’s just agree that anything involving the genius Cathal Coughlan is generally a winner. They packed a lot into their seven-year lifespan, including supporting U2 on their Zooropa tour, famously insulting the Pope in Milan and releasing five brilliant albums, with 1990’s ‘Viva Dead Ponies’ being the pick of the bunch.

Rory Gallagher

It’s difficult not to mention Cork’s music history without nodding to Rory G. Yeah, yeah, we know - he was born in Ballyshannon, but one of the most celebrated guitarists in rock music was raised Leeside and formed Taste there in the 1960s. He remains a hugely influential figure in rock today.

The Sultans of Ping FC

Formed in 1988, split in 1996, left a beautiful legacy in the form of one still-amazing song. Actually, the indie-punk band’s debut ‘Casual Sex in the Cineplex’ still holds up, y’know, 22 years later. They’ve reformed sporadically over the years.



Ballinhassig native James Kelly (above right) first conquered the black metal world with Altar of Plagues, but has more recently moved on to emotional, melodic electronica. Adapting the alter-ego of Wife, the young musician made international waves with his excellent debut ‘What’s Between’ in 2013. Now based in LA, he’s one to keep an eye on.


This Tralee-born, Cork-based rap trio of African descent have been steadily fine-tuning their style since summer 2013; all three rappers have their own distinct approach and practice what they call ‘alternative hip-hop’. With the right guidance and production, they could do great things.

Elastic Sleep

Exciting female-fronted dream-pop/shoegaze band who are cross-section between sludgey krautrock, Joy Division and acts like Joy Zipper at their most pensive. Last year’s debut EP ‘Leave You’ impressed hugely. They play Whelan’s on February 20th.