Making music and magic happen
Sam McNicholl’s dreams and determination meant that cult music venue, Connolly’s of Leap, could survive a third generation of giving artists from all over the world a central stage in West Cork.
Connolly’s of Leap is a fascinating place; it’s a home, a bar and a cult music venue all rolled into one. Local and international acts, singers and A-listers have all experienced the magic of this magnificent place. History and heritage are at the core of the place and Sam talks fondly about the pride and passion that his family had that has made the venue what it is today.
As we sit in the upstairs of the main music auditorium, it is so much bigger than the outside façade leads you to believe. It looks just like a welcoming Irish family pub, with a lovely orange door and handmade sign above. You know you’ll get a warm welcome, a good pint of Murphy’s stout, some craic with the locals and perhaps some music the odd night. What you won’t expect is all of that and much more; a wole auditorium dedicated to music, a stage that has been graced by local and international acts and a surround sound system that rivals that of any larger Dublin entertainment venue.
It’s like a museum of music and the walls tell the history, adorned by posters from over the years – 4,765 to be exact. They are testament to the rich and eclectic mix of acts that have made this West Cork venue so iconic over the years. But what also give this place a sincerity and soul is that it is also Sam’s family home and has been to two generations before him.
His grandparents bought it as The Central Bar in 1952 and it quickly became known for music. His grandfather Mick was a ballad singer and weeknight sessions were a common feature. Sam’s mother Eileen was born in the building and she then bought over the bar in 1985 with Sam’s father, Portrush born Paddy, whose life revolved around music. He was involved in the early days of Clannad, founded a record label and ran a music festival, the Causeway Coast.
He was outgoing and persuasive and forged relationships with legendary singers and newcomers who were attracted by the sheer passion that was being pumped into the venue, which had then been renamed, Connolly’s of Leap. Artists made the trip to Connolly’s from all over to experience the wonder and watchful eye of Paddy, who was hosting over 200 gigs a year by the mid 90s and facilitating record recording sessions though his expertise as a sound engineer. He even made a live cassette tape of the gigs for the artists to take away and listen to in the car when they left.
“My father always placed high importance on quality and all the equipment and instruments were the best of the best. This continues today with our lighting and sound equipment which is of a higher standard than some larger venues in Dublin,” Sam says.
“The warm welcome and nurturing nature of mum’s hospitality was also a hit with visitors and the fact that they were effectively being welcomed into our extended family home made people feel at home away from home,” he adds.
There have been some colourful characters here over the years and he recalls some memorable stories that raise and eyebrow or a force a smile.
“My brothers, sisters and I would always get excited about who would be in the house or about to start a gig,” he remembers.
Paddy and Eileen sold the bar’s licence in 2006 and Sam moved to Australia and three years he lost his father, Paddy after battling a short illness. He moved home and in 2012 he wanted to resurrect the bar’s licence, but the law was against him.
Finding a legal loophole to gain a new licence, Connolly’s made history by setting a legal precedent in court.
“In Ireland, if you have a seven-day bar licence, and you sell it, after five years you can never relicense that place again,” says McNicholl. “So, we were creative and found a legal loophope and applied for a theatre licence, which indicated long criteria for fire-safety regulations. A lot of paperwork and procedures in place, but it was worth it,” he says.
Some renovation work was needed but nothing has got in the way of the sense of nostalgia that surround you in the venue; the iconic posters from over the years are still there – representations of the bands who have been there including John Martyn, Lightning Bolt, The Pale, Something Happens, Donal Lunny and The Frames. Since its re-opening in 2015 it has won IMRO’s Munster Live Venue of the Year Award.
The acts keep flocking to Connolly’s because of its strong reputation the live circuit. The people of Cork have their old haunt back. Paddy’s inbuilt passion and focus on quality still lives on today through Sam, and is the welcoming spirit of his mum, Eileen who remains at Sam’s side. All things that Sam feels he would be “over the moon” about.