Graham Allen is a professor of English at University College Cork and The Madhouse System (2016) is his second collection of poems, following on from The One That Got Away (2014). Both are collections of poems that capture life in its wonder, pain, madness, hypocrisy, and joy. For some reason stones recur, I don’t know why. I bought this collection, having heard Professor Allen read, ‘Bright Star, Elegy for David Bowie’ on RTE’s radio 1 Arena program before Christmas. http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=b9%5F10655076%5F415%5F03%2D12%2D2016%5F
Allen’s elegy to Bowie completely gets star men and women, who if we are lucky enough, cross our lives. Bowie was one of the brightest but there are others; they are rare and they are precious and you never forget having met one. They are the ones who burn brightest, who will not be tamed, boxed in, contained, controlled, or kept in line. Yes they can, arguably, be a tad reckless, willing to break rules, tear down boundaries, upset the status quo, or ask why? but they are the bravest souls, the ones who dream our dreams and follow them. They are the ones who, “Burn your way back to the star stuff that made you/ Burn like the singular point of all energy/ Burn like an absolute image of release” (65).
Reading Allen’s elegy transports me back to the fair city of Cork in 1979/1980 and to the memory of a beautiful star man I had the privilege to know for a short while, by the name of Finbarr Donnelly. We are both 18 and Finbarr is lead singer of a band called the Nun Attax. Back then I am working in a record store on Patrick Street, they are really big back then! One of the guys I work with is a MASSIVE David Bowie fan and another is a MASSIVE Clash fan. The boys spend, probably, most of their wages going to every gig it is humanly possible to get to, almost always in the UK. Wages are also spent in Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Sex’ shop on the King’s road, because the right gear is vital boy!
1979/1980 was as grim a time as it is possible to imagine in Ireland, economically, politically, and socially. Trust me you really had to be here to know how bad it was. As 18 and 19 year olds we hated the darkness that permeated Ireland at the time, epitomized by the ever increasing Dantean circles of sectarian violence north of the border, we hated it all, the bombings, murders, shootings, knee-capping, tarring and feathering, but most of all the utter incompetence of governments on both sides of the divide to find any political solution. Father Ireland offered no jobs, no future, no hope. If you are gay, pregnant, or simply under thirty, Father Ireland only has the door to show you or a stick to beat you with. Mother England, however, offers us jobs, wages, hope, havens, futures and above all music!! We want to find the light not the dark, so we find music.
I met Finbarr because he used to come into the shop, he didn’t have any money, so we chatted and I would play any stuff he wanted to hear. He was so bright, intelligent, and funny. I love spending time with him. Weirdly, to me anyway, people were always saying, “you shouldn’t encourage him”, I haven’t a clue what they were on about. One day, I remember, Finbarr comes rushing in, enthusiastically, announcing he has got a job next door in Roche’s Stores, now Debenhams, I say I am delighted for him! Later that day I walk past Roche’s only to see Finbarr stretched out on the couch in the furniture display in the main window eating his lunch!! I am not sure he even lasts the day!!
The following interviews, by people who are closest to Finbarr, tell his story and paint a picture of him better then I ever can. They bring to life, Cork city, and by extension Ireland, in 1979/1980, and show why music plays such an important part in young people’s lives at the time. It is a vibrant cultural record of that time. I recommend a listen…..if only for the dulcet Corkonian tones….Get that monster off the stage…..
There are commentators who put forward the proposition that the record industry ‘invented’/ ‘created’ punk. I disagree. There has never been a youth movement since rock’n’roll that put the fear of God into the establishment, a movement they believed threatened everything they stood for, and is born out of genuine youthful disaffection. I worked in the music industry for years and I can testify they have never been, even remotely, capable of inventing a movement, they may jump on whatever movement happens to come along, but they are always behind the curve not ahead of it. Punk allows the star people to emerge.
This is how and where the youth of Cork city spent their nights…. The glorious Arc (thanks to Elvira Butler). I will always treasure the memory of the Nun Attax supporting U2 down the Arc, and blowing them off the stage, well they were our boys boy!! But even the future of music venues were numbered. The chained doors of the Stardust nightclub in Artane, Dublin on Valentines night, 1981, resulting in 200 injured and 48 who never came home, after a fire broke out in the club, results in soaring insurance costs, which means the closure of many of the few remaining venues, the Arc and McGonagles in Dublin succumb. I never knew until I researched some info for this post that Finbarr and his family had moved to Cork from Belfast, he had a proper Cork accent. Escaping was all we could do back then. By 1986, I had moved to London, Finbarr and the lads went too, by then they were Five go Down to the Sea.
A tribute to Donnelly and the boys by Phil Noonan.
My beautiful star man fell from the sky and his light went out in the Serpentine in Hyde park on a sunny summers day. He was 27. He shone like a diamond in dark times, I was so lucky to have known him and I will never forget him. “[He did] everything with love/[He did] everything with joy/ [He did] everything as if the world was still fixable. / [He raised his] head above the crowd/ Then [he] help[ed] the crowd to rise up to” (65). Thanks to Professor Allen for the memories.
Allen, Graham. The Madhouse System. Cork: New Binary Press, 2016.
Allen, Graham. The One That Got Away. Cork: New Binary Press, 2014.
Five Go Down To The Sea. There’s a Fish on Top of Shandon Swears He’s Elvis. 7th May 2009. You Tube. Web. 10th Feb. 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-PgkK-mR84s
Get That Monster off the Stage. Yahoo. Web. 10th Feb. 2017. https://soundcloud.com/paulmcder/get-that-monster-off-the-stage
Noonan, Phil. Donnelly. 29th Dec. 2010. You Tube. Web. 10th Feb. 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaQhQzFfRCE
Nun Attax. Looking For my Words. 13th Apr. 2011. You Tube.
Web. 10th Feb. 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oV2od0B41BE
The Madhouse System. Digital Image. Yahoo. Web. 10th Feb. 2017. https://images.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?p=the+madhouse+system+poetry+image&fr=yhs-mozilla-102&hspart=mozilla&hsimp=yhs-102&imgurl=https%3A%2F%2Fstreamsofunconciousnessfromwestcork.files.wordpress.com%2F2017%2F01%2Fthe-madhouse-system.png%3Fw%3D300%26h%3D300#id=0&iurl=https%3A%2F%2Fstreamsofunconciousnessfromwestcork.files.wordpress.com%2F2017%2F01%2Fthe-madhouse-system.png%3Fw%3D300%26h%3D300&action=click