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'It was literally a dump': The stories behind 3 of Ireland's unlikeliest music venues

A quarry, a church, and a barbershop? Yep, some of the best places to catch live music around the country.

IRELAND IS HOME to countless brilliant, unique music venues. Bars, theatres, stadiums and fields that have served as the backdrop to some of the country’s most memorable gigs.

But what about non-traditional music venues? Where do you go if you want a truly one-off experience?

We spoke to the people behind three of the unlikeliest music venues in Ireland.

Live At St Luke’s, Cork

St Luke’s Church in Cork has had quite a storied history. First consecrated in 1837, the site was home to a modest, but thriving church for many years. As the congregation swelled, a new church was constructed and completed in 1878.

Less than a decade later, that building was destroyed in a fire and had to be rebuilt from scratch. A new church was opened in 1889 and is still standing today. In 2003, the church was deconsecrated due to dwindling numbers, which saw the congregation fall to just thirteen people by its last service.

St Luke’s was subsequently bought by a private owner before being acquired by Cork City Council. Restoration work commenced in 2010 and massive refurbishments were completed to the interiors.

For years, it lay idle, until local music promoters Joe Kelly and Ed O’Leary of The Good Room approached Cork City Council about hosting a series of gigs there in 2015

Kelly had attended a performance by St Luke’s Male Voice Choir in the church the previous Christmas and saw untapped potential in the venue. O’Leary had never stepped foot inside the building before it closed.

“It’s a huge building, but you’d almost miss it going up the road,” explains O’Leary.

The pair decided to scout the venue together and were immediately enthralled.

“We were looking at each other going, ‘This is an incredible space’. It’s more of a cathedral than a church. You’ve got huge marble pillars and the roof is so high. It’s a spectacular building inside.”

Plus there was already a stage meaning it was tailor-made for live music.

“We just put our heads together and said, ‘Look let’s just try a run in August and see how it goes.’ The council were the same. They just wanted to see something happen with it. They want their buildings to be used for this thing exactly. Anything that’s good for the community, anything that’s good for the arts, that’s providing jobs and income in the economy. That’s what they want to see happening with these sorts of assets.”

The Live At St Luke’s series started in August 2015 with eight gigs from the likes of Mick Flannery, Mary Black, Panti Bliss and Little Green Cars taking place that month. They were a resounding success and the series has been going from strength to strength ever since.

O’Leary says the venue has a certain wow factors for punters stepping inside for the first time.

“I sometimes stand at the door and I wait to hear the wow,” he says. “You audibly hear them saying, ‘Wow.’ Because it is a very impressive building when you get inside.”

Likewise, O’Leary says he has overheard musicians who have played there saying, “Wow that was amazing” as they stepped off stage.

“Lisa Hannigan has said it’s her favourite venue in the country,” says O’Leary. “We really focus the show around the artists. From the second they come in the door, we make sure they feel welcome and they feel looked after. And that adds to it. Not just the performance, but the whole day of proper Cork hospitality adds to the experience of St. Luke’s.”

“Sometimes even if there is the option of playing a bigger venue, they just want to do that special show. And that’s what we go for with the venue.”

Over the years, St Luke’s has seen international acts like Badly Drawn Boy, Bryce Dessner, Gabrielle Aplin and Maverick Sabre pass through its doors, as well as a whole host of homegrown acts.

When asked for some of his personal highlights, O’Leary cites performances by Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill and Talos.

“There have been some really memorable ones,” he says. “It’s not just the sound, it’s not just the acts, it’s not just the lighting. It’s the whole thing. When it comes together like that and you just get everything working together – those are the ones that people walk away from like, ‘Wow’.”

Abner Brown’s, Rathmines

Gone full hipster - drinking craft ale at a concert in a barbershop #AGreatQuiet

A post shared by Peter Farrell (@peterfarrell27) on

Dave Judge had never considered a career in music. The owner of Abner Brown’s, a small barbershop in Rathmines, was content doing his own thing until the recession hit.

“To cut a long story short, I had a lot of property and lost it all during the recession and I had to go back cutting hair,” he explains.

With limited means at his disposal, he decided to do up the shop, buying old vinyl records, a guitar, and a €30 couch from Oxfam. He sent a photo of the set-up to his wife and said, ‘Maybe I’ll get someone playing on it some day.’

That very week, a Canadian music writer named Blair Packham happened to be visiting and he volunteered to play. A rockabilly musician overheard the gig and asked Judge if he could play the following week. Soon enough, the shop was hosting gigs every week.

“Within four or five weeks, the place was jammed with people on a Saturday watching music,” says Judge. “We couldn’t cut hair so that wasn’t really good for business.”

Sensing that the Saturday gigs were unsustainable, Judge decided to throw open the shop for nighttime gigs.

“There was no PA, no lights, no nothing,” he recalls. “It was all raw.”

Once again, Judge was inundated with requests from musicians to play in the barbershop and Abner Brown’s became one of the most sought after live venues in the city.

These days, the setup is a little bit more sophisticated. The shop hosts both new and established musicians as part of the IMRO First Cuts Showcase, which takes place once a month. (It’s currently on pause for the summer.)

Indeed, IMRO shortlisted it as one of the top five music venues in the country two years ago.

“We were up against 3Arena, Vicar Street, Whelan’s and The Academy, which is a bit mad,” he says.

Not bad for a space with a capacity for forty to fifty people, eh?

Some much needed music therapy... #wolff #jaxson #imro

A post shared by Ger Holland (@ghollandphoto) on

Over the years, the shop has hosted performances from the likes of Mundy, Dave Geraghty, Hot Sprockets and Ash. Judge prides himself on never having to make the first move when it comes to booking acts.

“I’ve never asked anyone to play,” he says. “They always come to me.”

The venue is so unique that it has drawn notice from musical heavyweights like Michael Stipe. A few years ago, Judge was talking to a customer who said he had shown his friend videos from Abner Brown’s and that he admired what Judge was doing. He said that he was a famous musician and Judge asked who he was. The customer replied, “Michael Stipe.”

At first, Judge was a little skeptical. “I was thinking, ‘Ah yeah, sure Bono’s me brother,’” he laughs.

A month later, Michael Stipe walked in unannounced.

“Unbelievable,” recalls Judge. “He had a look around, sat down and had a chat. Really nice guy.”

In just five years, Judge has found himself at the centre of the music game in Ireland.

In addition to Abner Brown’s, he also runs The Underground, a music venue in the lower level of Peadar Kearney’s on Dame Street. He offers practical advice to up-and-coming acts on the business side of things. (“When God gave them talent, he certainly took a little bit of cop on away and that’s where people like myself can come in and help out.”)

He also helps oversee Play The Picnic, a competition that gives unsigned acts a chance to play Electric Picnic. And to think it all started in a small barbershop in Rathmines.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” he says.

Ballykeeffe Amphitheatre, Kilkenny

While it may hold the distinction of being the only amphitheatre in the country, Ballykeeffe Amphitheatre had less than salubrious beginnings.

“Originally it was kind of a dump,” says Padraic Flaherty, one of the many volunteers who now helps run the amphitheatre. The site had been home to a quarry once upon a time but later became used as a dump for crashed cars and all sorts of rubbish. Local beet farmers also used to store their beets there.

“Other than that, the only people who used it were rock climbers,” says Flaherty.

Back in the 1990s, a local volunteer-run group called KBK Enterprises set their sights on maximising the site’s potential.

“Maybe just tidy it up a little bit and put in a few picnic tables,” says Flaherty. “Nothing majorly ambitious.”

A landscape architect named David Fitzgerald was brought in to assist the group and he realised that the site had good acoustics.

“We hadn’t heard of acoustics at the time,” laughs Flaherty.

Fitzgerald suggested erecting a performance area and, lo and behold, Ballykeeffe Amphitheatre was born.

The venue opened for business in 2000 and played host to smaller-scale performances from the Irish Defence Forces Band and the Dublin Welsh Male Voice Choir.

Over the years, they built up a steady profile as a one-of-a-kind venue. Their big breakthrough came in 2012 when they hosted The Saw Doctors for a sellout summer gig. That marked a turning point for the venue and they have since welcomed artists like Paul Brady, Jack L, Little Green Cars, Hermitage Green and Ham Sandwich to the venue.

“It’s something different for them, you know,” says Flaherty.

Outdoor gigs in Ireland are a tricky proposition at the best of times. How does the amphitheatre cope with our unpredictable weather?

“You’d become a born again Christian looking at the forecasts,” jokes Flaherty. “We put in a canopy to cover the stage area in 2010 so that the performers were sheltered from the elements.”

To this day, the amphitheatre is run and maintained by a group of dedicated local volunteers, though Flaherty acknowledges that they receive grant assistance from Kilkenny County Council and the Kilkenny LEADER Partnership.

From humble beginnings to the only authentic open-air theatre in the country, it’s been quite a journey for Ballykeeffe Amphitheatre. And they’re only getting started.

“Our profile has gone up and we can attract bigger acts,” says Flaherty. “You’re not trying to say, ‘It’s a hole in the field nine miles from Kilkenny City.’ It’s good that way.”

It’s great for the local community.

More: 9 unusual Irish movie locations you may not be aware of>

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Amy O'Connor

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