Smoke fills the room, sweat drips from every forehead, stray bikers wonder what’s going on and Scary Éire rule everything in their sights. Get into it or make your way back outside into the pissing rain on Capel Street. The concrete floor and indescribable sheeting used on the walls can barely be seen at the back end of Barnstormers; the regulars’ pints interrupted by this crowd of young yokes for the sixth week in a row. Meanwhile, A&R men, curious ex-punks and the rock hierarchy stand back from the crowd, taking it all in. ‘And I wish, and I wish, and I wish, and I wish, I wish I was out there listening to this,’ shouts RíRá at the crowd, the Scary Éire MC holding the room in the palm of his hand with ease, while DJ Mek cuts a menacing beat on decks behind, tri-colour draped down upon the tools of his trade.
‘They were fuckin’ amazing gigs,’ remembers Kilkenny native Captain Moonlight of Scary Éire’s in-famous six-week residency at Barnstormers, a ‘bloody hardcore’ bikers’ bar on Capel Street, known these days as Bleu Note. It was early 1992 and the men of Scary Éire (RíRá Mek, DaDa Sloosh and Mr Browne) were on the cusp of something special. So went the feeling of everyone who was there anyway. Flyers were handed around the city streets in the run-up to the gigs featuring a Kalashnikov-shaped logo for the band. Word of mouth was spread through Mek’s demo tapes, handed from one taken soul to another. Those who heard the band loved them. Those who loved them needed to go to Barnstormers.
‘Those gigs were arranged by our manager at the time, Collie Carty,’ remembers Mek. ‘I think he was mates with one of the owners. It was a mad biker gang joint – a pub at the front with a live venue round the back. They were all really cool people, walkin’ round with their Devil’s Disciples’ jackets and banda-nas and shit.’
RíRá takes up the story, ‘It was like playing in your own gaff with your mates around. I mean half the fuckers were on and off the stage with us. People would stroll on, skin up, and fuck off back to the bar. It was a fuckin’ madhouse. I remember one night the ceiling being torn, and they were jumping up grabbing at it until the fuckin’ thing was literally ripped down.
‘There were punks, bikers, b-boys, ska heads, fuckin’ allsorts. Those gigs were like a release for everyone in there, the band, the crowd, the bouncers. But through all the madness, nobody ever sustained an injury that hadn’t been self-inflicted. It was always positive and well meaning, and a fuckin’ great laugh. All that and the stink of stale beer.’
Many Tullamore natives, friends of Sloosh and RíRá’s, would also populate the crowd, along with Dublin’s nascent hip hop community as it was; most of whom had been drawn from around the country to find some sort of solace in the capital. Cormac Cullinan, formerly known as Cool C in his guise as Captain Moonlight’s DJ, was also present at the Barnstormers’ nights and says that he and Moonlight were ‘the only ones into hip hop in Kilkenny back then’, adding that even when he moved up to Dublin, there were ‘about 40 people in total into it: it’s hard to explain how odd it was at the time.
‘I remember one night, going into the bar in Barnstormers and getting this look of death and thinking -right, in the wrong place then’ and headed into the venue. It was that type of place, a really hard bar.’
The timing and importance of the gigs are still fresh for those who were there. The late ’80s and early ’90s was an age when Public Enemy played the Trinity Ball while it was still light outside, when only a handful of the city’s clubs even played dance music, when the only exposure hip hop got on national airwaves was when Eamonn Carr would hijack Dave Fanning’s 2FM show while the latter was on holidays. Then Scary Éire ‘hit the nail on the head’, says Moonlight.
Along with Marxman, the Oisin Lunny led Anglo-Irish hip hop group, Scary Éire had touched a nerve. By the time of the Barnstormers gigs, Lunny’s band were heading towards the US to record their only album for Talking Loud, where they would have a video shot by a young Spike Jonze and be produced by DJ Premier of the influential east coast Gangstarr rap group.
‘I knew Mek from a long time ago,’ Lunny notes. ‘There was an event a mate of mine was running at McGonagles and we invited Mek along: we’d never seen anything like it. The decks, the beats, he was above everything. Then when I saw Scary Éire I was blown away by them. They really nailed the Irish rap crossover. With Marxman, there were elements of it, but we were certainly broader and there were London elements as well, it was different in focus. Everything was spot on with them and when we were in the States, we thought they would be over after us six months later. I really thought they could go down huge in the States.’
Paul Tarpey, who would photograph the legendary Barnstormers gigs, adds, ‘Mek was always pass-ing out tapes. He operated as a one man Irish radio show for Dublin and beyond, spreading the culture in a way that you had to keep up with the beats and the lyrics. If a new slant appeared, he would work it into his sets and school the audience. At this time, he was the equal of any selector in New York or London. Moments like this just never happened before,’ Tarpey continues. ‘There was no DJ culture in Dublin, certainly nowhere else that had gigs like this on. That’s why people were so loyal, you had a few rock venues but Scary Ã‰ire hit on something and people wanted to see it.’
The Barnstormers gigs would see a loyal crowd come back week on week, with assorted randomers and curious ‘old rock heads’ as Moonlight says. RíRá himself says that the band would usually turn up during the day with their gear, set things up, ‘make sure it was all working as well as it could be, scribble down an indefinite set-list, and then drink until it was time to play.
‘Mr Browne didn’t even do soundchecks,’ he laughs. ‘He’d turn up on the night, have a few spliffs and a few beers and ask which mic he was using. I think he felt more in touch with the crowd by not knowing what songs we were gonna play. We never practiced as a band, not properly. Any attempt to practice turned into tireless drinking sessions. But it always came good on the night. We always knew exactly what part we each played, even when it was straight off the cuff.’
Before RíRá took to the stage, the crowd were baying for entertainment and assorted warm up acts, like local legends Dotsie as well as Ghost n’ Jay, would build the atmosphere before what one witness describes as a ‘pure fuckin’ monster’ set from Scary Éire . By the end of 12 songs and with the bar owner shuffling people out the door, their sweat turning to ice in the March breeze, all anyone could think of was the following week.
Mek takes up the story: ‘Every week, the crowd got bigger and louder. Record company dudes started flyin’ over to check us out: Adam Clayton would just stroll in and chill at the back, noddin’ his head. It’s kinda funny, lookin’ back at it now. Rock superstars, b-boys, crusty old rock dudes and hardcore hip hop heads all in the same room. There was somethin’ for everyone – you could walk in and hear Thin Lizzy, Schoolly D, Cutty Ranks, The Clash and Moving Hearts bein’ scratched up. Where the fuck else was that goin’ down in Dublin?’
Producer and DJ, Hazo was another disciple at the Barnstormers nights. He says it’s hard to realise just how cutting edge the whole thing was at the time, ‘There was a huge buzz around Dublin, which was a very different place back then, about these nights. It just sounded so mad, you had to go to them. The thing with Scary Ã‰ire was that in the ’80s, trad groups had tried to mess around with black music and it didn’t work, whereas here you had these gigs where Mek would start playing alongside a bodhrán and a flute and it wasn’t gimmicky. It was of its time certainly. House of Pain was gimmicky: this wasn’t.’
‘It was just a melting pot of so many different people,’ says Hazo, ‘the capacity was around 200 to 250 and you’d have skinheads, republicans, and everything else, all the undercurrents of Dublin meeting in this one place and that suited the band and what they were playing: there was just a huge amount of energy’.
Recollection can often be a problem, particularly when alcohol is added into the mix, but with the biker jackets and the human can of baked beans atmosphere, events seem to crystallise for most.
Says RíRá, ‘I think those gigs helped structure the band. We improvised a lot, kind of found our footing, while ironically being legless. I wouldn’t say they were the best performance gigs: but it felt like something really fuckin’ good was going on, even if nobody was sure what it was. You could cut the energy with a hatchet.’
Paul Fingleton of Dublin reggae favourites Firehouse Skank also braved the crush to catch a closer look the band. ‘Barnstormers, because of where it was and the people who would usually be there, it was kind of a step into the unknown. You were never sure what would happen: there was always some kind of ten-sion. Potential violence is one way of putting it, maybe: some people were off their heads. But it was something you had to go to.’ Politics, of course, was an issue that was never far away from Scary Éire, be it the rumour of Mek donning a balaclava during a DJ set in Club 92, the aforementioned tri-colour and the ‘ooh ah up the RA blah, blah, blah vibe’, as Cormac Cullinan puts it, that came from some of the Scary audience.
Cullinan, who now jointly runs the All City label and store in Temple Bar, continues, ‘There was that element alright. You wouldn’t ask somebody what their politics were, put it that way. But beyond the Kalashnikov and whatever else, Scary Éire were just on-the-nose. It wasn’t intimidating on those nights, it was just the best gigs you were gonna see.’
Such moments of course often have a bittersweet taste. While the four February gigs would be repeated the following year (along with other intermittent Barnstormers one-offs) Scary Éire would go on to album release hell with Island Records, then break up for over a decade, only to finally let loose the hulk-ing mammoth of a record that is The Scary Era last year. It was notable that during performances to pro-mote the LP, RíRá would often cite ‘the Barnstormers crew’.
The unique MC thinks back and adds, ‘I’m still in contact with people who were there. To be honest, whenever Barnstormers is mentioned, people make the sign of the cross, I’m not sure if they feel blessed or cursed? It’s kind of like they don’t need to swap stories, it’s a nod of the head, or a thumbs up. I’ve seen it recently: it’s some kind of arty jazz bar now I think’¦ I laugh when I pass it, you can still smell the chaos.’
Photos by Paul Tarpey, photographer and writer based in Limerick. See more of his work at www.cheebah.net.