Sunday Miscellany: Magic Nights at the Lobby Bar

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed doing over the past two years is submitting essays to Sunday Miscellany. It’s a treasure of a show on RTÉ Radio One on Sunday mornings, which features essays written about a range of topics – history, memoir, family stories, poetry, comic pieces.

The essays must be short (about 800 words) so the challenge is to try to tell the story without losing anything. Each word must earn its place. Every time I submit to Sunday Miscellany, I learn something about what to do differently with my next piece.

Here’s an essay I wrote that was on Sunday Miscellany in October 2019, about the time I put on an Elliott Smith tribute gig in the legendary (now closed) Lobby Bar in Cork in 2004, a year after his tragic death.

As you’ll see, I picked a pretty bad night for it. I also had never put on a gig before, so I was going into the whole thing clueless. I have a list of things I’d do over again if I got to go back in time, but I learned from them too. Above all, though, what sticks out is how it all came together despite some major things working against it. I really have to thank everyone else involved for that.

You can listen to it here, and the text is below.

Magic Nights at the Lobby Bar

Some of my memories of the Lobby Bar in Cork are hazy now. What I remember comes in snatches: the painstakingly put together collages of photographs hanging on the yellow walls. The narrow stairs at the back of the bar, which led to the venue on the first floor, and the energy of the queues that would form on it before each show. The view upstairs out the tall windows to the city and the buildings beyond.

I started going to gigs at the Lobby just before I started college in UCC, at the turn of the millennium. As a music-loving teenager, I’d heard tales about this brilliant venue on a corner across from the City Hall. It was the kind of place that attracted well-known names like Christy Moore and Will Oldham – as well as local stalwarts John Spillane and Mick Lynch, and up-and-comers from home and abroad. It was the kind of place I needed to go to.

The venue ended up being one of my music teachers, introducing me to another brilliant artist each time I visited. Even if I didn’t get to go to a gig, just seeing the band’s name on a poster was enough to pique my curiosity about new music. We were lucky, those of us who went to the Lobby, although how lucky only became obvious after it closed.

The Irish music scene was going through an intense singer-songwriter phase when I was at the height of my Lobby-going days. So I got to see Irish greats, like Damien Rice, play at the venue. But much as I wanted him to, one of my favourite American musicians, Elliott Smith, never played there. When I was in secondary school he’d played in Dublin, but no amount of asking would get me the parental permission I needed to be able to go. So I entertained dreams of one day seeing his name on a poster with ‘Live at the Lobby Bar’ written under it.

In October 2003, Elliott Smith died tragically in the US. As a heartbroken fan, I wanted to do something to remember him by. There was only one thing to do. So, although I felt a bit of an imposter, I decided to put on a gig in tribute to him on the anniversary of his death, in the Lobby Bar.

Between college lectures, I’d go to the computer lab in UCC to send emails to musicians from Cork and beyond, asking them if they’d like to play the Elliott Smith tribute night. I had no budget and had never booked a gig before, but people said yes.

The reason why people loved performing at the Lobby was obvious – it was the ultimate ‘intimate venue’. The musician stood on a small stage in the curved corner of the room, inches from the audience. Behind them were large windows overlooking Union Quay, beyond which you could see the moon glint off the River Lee as it passed by in the night. To sit on a stool at one of the round tables and absorb the music was as great a treat as anything.

As the day of the Elliott Smith tribute gig dawned in October 2004, heavy rain began to fall on Cork. The worst flooding in years was soon to arrive in a deluge onto the city centre – and the Lobby was right next to Parnell Bridge, just feet from the River Lee. I was away from the city centre in UCC all day, relying on phone calls and hourly radio updates about the rising tide. As the evening approached, I heard that the water level had reached over three feet high on the South Mall – which was just across the bridge from the Lobby. I went home, preparing for the worst. Surely the gig would have to be cancelled.

Then came a phone call from a friend: come in, Aoife. The venue had stayed open and people were starting to turn up, ignoring the warnings to stay out of the city. Through some sort of strange luck, although it was located right next to the river, the Lobby Bar stood dry.

Sixty people braved it out to hear the musicians pay tribute to Elliott Smith that soaking wet night, some who had travelled all the way down from Northern Ireland. It showed me what people are willing to do for the sake of the music they love.

The Lobby Bar closed in 2005, 17 years after its first gigs. I’d managed to get there just a handful of years before it shut its doors. On the night of the Elliott Smith tribute, I headed home right after the musicians finished up. Overwhelmed as I was with how it had gone, it never occurred to me to stay, to soak up the atmosphere after such a precious gig. I didn’t even take one photograph.

I still think about that night, and what I must have missed. I imagine the moonlight shining on the swelling Lee which had over-spilled onto the streets, the sharing of memories of a musician tragically gone, the pints supped and glasses clinked, the new friendships made. I picture these moments in my mind as if I was there.

It amazes me now that despite everything, despite the biblical weather and the venue’s proximity to the rising flood, by some miracle the event came together. Perhaps it was down to, as the musician John Spillane would put it in his song about the treasured spot, the magic of nights in the Lobby Bar.


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