30 years ago today: It was about Cork, the Irish experience and U2 — and the craic was lovely.


Previously: 30 years ago today: Skibbereen, Baltimore and our last days in the Irish countryside.

Day 114 … Friday, August 7
Baltimore → Skibbereen → Cork. Meet Tommy.

Day 115 … Saturday, August 8
Cork. U2 concert.

On Friday morning, Barrie and I rode a bus from Baltimore back to Skibbereen, then changed to another one bound for Cork City, completing the southern Irish circle commenced eight days earlier.

As midpoint of the band’s Joshua Tree Tour, U2’s concert would take place the following day at Cork’s Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and our newspaperman friend Tommy Barker had told us we could bunk with him.

Tommy was a newspaperman (Cork Examiner) roughly our age, with a girlfriend (now his wife, I believe), a van and a rustic cottage outside of the city. I don’t remember it having hot water; there was a well or spigot outside for washing up.

It didn’t matter at all. We’d been sleeping on haystacks in a barn in Baltimore and drinking stout as if we’d never find it again, so luxury wasn’t tremendously important at this stage of the game. We weren’t sober often enough to know or care.

On Friday evening, roughly a dozen of Tommy’s friends came over. Everyone brought a snack and a bottle, and as guests, Barrie and I naturally were treated far too well. There may have been a radio, but there wasn’t a television, and entertainment was provided by conversation. The “craic” in Tommy’s cottage was excellent.

For the uninitiated, the Gaelic word “craic” means the quality of life, the warmness of conviviality, discourse and entertainment – often, though by no means exclusively, as applicable to pub culture.

Later, after a few rounds, it was suggested that everyone sing a song, each in turn, individually, a cappella. I was completely stunned by the uniform high quality of the voices in the room. It came my turn, and although I’d resolved to sing a Fats Waller number, I passed, utterly terrified.

As usual, Barrie was resolute and undeterred.

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz …

Naturally, his Janis Joplin cover was the hit of the evening.

Eventually we went to a pub nearby, somewhat of a village roadhouse almost. I have no idea how far we were from the city at this time, only that last call came and went, and we remained seated, drinking pints of Guinness, with winks and nods all around.

Good craic there, too.

I have a final memory of this Friday evening at Tommy’s cottage. During the conversational portion of the evening, the natives had launched into a discussion about Ireland. Would the country ever improve enough that folks like them wouldn’t be looking to move elsewhere?

This obviously isn’t the place for a detailed examination of the history of the Irish Republic, apart from noting that at the time of my first visits in 1985, 1987 and 1989, the “Celtic Tiger” economic boom was nowhere near on the radar screen.

“Celtic Tiger” (Irish: An Tíogar Ceilteach) is a term referring to the economy of the Republic of Ireland from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, a period of rapid real economic growth fueled by foreign direct investment. The boom was dampened by a subsequent property bubble which resulted in a severe economic downturn.

Ireland in 1987 remained a place where many more people departed than arrived. The Irish diaspora originating in the early 19th century waxed and waned, but it never really ceased until the 2000s.

There always had been wealth in Ireland, from grand manor houses to verdant agricultural areas. In fact, even during the Great Famine, Ireland was a net exporter of food. This gives you some idea of the extent of Britain’s culpability in the tragedy, because the wealth either was owned by the British abroad, or by indigenous Protestants who held the local levers of power.

Once the the Republic of Ireland was established, albeit without Northern Ireland, the situation was reversed. Now the Roman Catholic Church dominated, enforcing a rigid social conservatism, and resisting change.

The economy remained stagnant, and revolutionaries and their heirs retained political authority. When Ireland became a member of the European Union in 1973, it became a prime beneficiary of development funds. Gradually these investments made a difference, although it wasn’t easy to see it yet in 1987.  

30 years later, Brexit has made it complicated all over again. In 1987, at Tommy’s cottage, Barrie and I were talking about our experiences in the Soviet Bloc, and finally someone spoke up: surely being in places like Bulgaria and Latvia had adequately prepared us for the scene in Ireland.

It made perfect sense at the time.

Tommy had to work at various intervals on Saturday, although he thought it might be possible for him to catch part of the U2 performance as a member of the press contingent. Just before lunch, he dropped us off in the center of Cork, and we determined a location at which to meet him following the show.

With five or six hours to kill, the pub crawl began. It’s even conceivable that food was consumed. I remember it being a fine summer day, so at some point it was decided that buying beer to go might be a more cost-effective plan and lead to a picnic.

I’ll never forget walking into some manner of jam-packed supermarket, seeing huge stacks of cans and bottles adjacent to checkout stations that were humming like hamsters on their wheels, and then realizing that almost all of the available products were either “extra strong” beers (more alcoholic than American malt liquor) or not beer at all, but hard cider.

As fast as Irish pounds could be exchanged for these beverages, they were flying out the door. It’s about a mile and a half from the historic center of Cork to Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and by late afternoon a sea of youthful humanity was headed in that direction, on foot, lugging their Carlsberg Extra Strong Export Brews or Bulmers Ciders, and often pausing to rest, pass out, vomit or all three.

To Barrie, it was the Trail of Tears or the Bataan Death March — irreverent imagery, though not unjustified given our own level of inebriation. We walked the walk, and the buzz eventually wore off, because there was no alcohol for sale inside the stadium.

My only major regret is that we didn’t arrive early enough to see the Dubliners, which was to become one of my favorite bands of any genre. The Dubliners were the first of three bands opening for U2, and we found our seats just as the last of them, UB40, was starting.

When UB40 was finished, the roadies made their usual resets as the customary canned rock music could be heard. Then there was a pause, and Beatles tunes began playing with the volume noticeably higher. At once, the crowd stood and began singing along with the Fab Four. It seemed a cross between the national anthem and a church service.

The finale was John Lennon’s solo cover of “Stand By Me,” by Ben E. King, at which point U2 took the stage, finished the song, and the concert had begun. Here’s the full set list from that sadly distant day.

Stand By Me (Ben E. King cover)
C’mon Everybody (Eddie Cochran cover) (last performance ever)
I Will Follow
Trip Through Your Wires
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (with ‘Exodus’ snippet)
The Unforgettable Fire
Exit (with Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ snippet)
In God’s Country
Sunday Bloody Sunday
People Get Ready (The Impressions cover)
(The Beatles cover)
Bad (with ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ snippet)
New Year’s Day
Pride (In the Name of Love)

Bullet the Blue Sky
Running to Stand Still
With or Without You (with ‘Shine Like Stars’ coda)
Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl
Out of Control (tour debut)

It never dawned on me until earlier in 2017 that there might be video and audio bootlegs of U2 playing live in Cork at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on August 8, 1987. Of course there are, although the audio link has been removed owing to copyright infringement. I’m sure it’s floating around somewhere.

Here is a video excerpt.

Less than a month after seeing U2 in Cork, I set foot in Sportstime Pizza for the very first time, unaware that by doing so, the next thirty years of my existence were being presaged. It’s almost exactly a half-a-lifetime ago since Cork, and I remain a huge fan of U2, and we were there at ridiculous expense at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in June, when the 30th anniversary tour of The Joshua Tree passed through Louisville.

The concert ended and we found Tommy at the appointed spot. I vaguely recall some manner of misadventure with the van — engine trouble, or maybe we ran out of gas, but at any rate eventually the cottage came into view and we had a nightcap of Irish whiskey before collapsing on the couches.

On Sunday, it was back to Rosslare for the boat to France.

Next: We say goodbye to Ireland with hurling and Guinness on a Sunday afternoon in Rosslare.