Music to your beers - how Connolly's of Leap became a cult music venue
Famous singers and Hollywood A-listers have passed through the doors of Connolly's of Leap. Tanya Sweeney finds out how a little pub became a cult music venue
When musician Javier Mas - a long-time collaborator of Leonard Cohen - walked into Connolly's of Leap, he was taken aback at how the beloved music venue is set in an old Irish house. "He was like, 'Do you live here? This place is crazy'," laughs owner Sam McNicholl.
To say Connolly's of Leap is an extraordinary, magical place is understating the case somewhat. The venue is positively soaked in history and lore, and since its re-opening in 2015, has been making serious waves in Ireland's live music scene, this week winning IMRO's Munster Live Venue of the Year Award.
"The day after we announced Connolly's was reopening, Cillian Murphy's wife [Yvonne McGuinness] rang us and booked the venue for Cillian's 40th birthday party, which was at that time still a year away," explains McNicholl. "I think that for Cillian and Yvonne, Connolly's has always had a big place in their hearts. I think something in their relationship is tethered to the place."
Sure enough, in May 2016, the Hollywood actor celebrated his milestone birthday there with a coterie of pals, among them actor Jack Reynor and radio presenters Cathal Murray and Dermot Whelan. Cillian and his entourage stayed in the Leap Inn for several nights and they also hired a bus to take them around the area.
McNicholl won't be drawn on the big celebrity names that have visited Connolly's since it reopened. "People are people," he shrugs. "The locals are sometimes more charismatic and crazy than some of the biggest celebrities we've seen. We don't discriminate in any case - every man is a gentleman until proven otherwise."
In any case, Cillian and Connolly's of Leap go way back beyond the re-opening of 2015. "Cillian came to my Dad's funeral in 2011 [McNicholl's father, Paddy, had run Connolly's in the 80s and 90s]. Cillian told me, 'When we were kids, your dad was like a God to us'. He was a mythical figure, running a venue in West Cork where anything went."
Born in 1990, McNicholl grew up in the hallowed venue, like the two generations before him. His grandparents bought what was then The Central Bar in 1952 and Sam's mother Eileen was born in the building. Music is threaded into the venue's very soul. His grandfather Mick was a ballad singer and sessions took place on weeknights. McNicholl's parents bought the bar in 1985 and changed the name to Connolly's of Leap. When it came to music, Paddy was a law unto himself. "For him, music was like beyond an obsession," smiles McNicholl. "His entire life was music. Even my last memories with him were all about music."
Originally from Portrush, Paddy was involved in an early incarnation of Clannad, founded a label, Rescue Records, and ran a music festival, the Causeway Coast. A colourful character, he soon got to know the likes of Loudon Wainwright and, later, legendary singer John Martyn. That the place was steeped in musical lore only served to attract a new wave of musicians down the years. By the 90s, Paddy was running 230 gigs a year and Connolly's had become a favourite of artists like The Frames, Donal Lunny, The Pale and Something Happens. Back then, getting to West Cork from Dublin was a 10-hour 'pilgrimage', but one they gladly undertook.
"It was a wild combination of Eileen's hospitality and then Paddy's technical knowledge," says McNicholl. "The gear, the drums, everything was of an insanely high quality, and then the venue was in this very rural, rugged place. There was a feeling that musicians were on the other side of Ireland. Whether you were famous or not, you were treated well. Someone told me a story of some musicians who were too drunk to drive home and ended up sleeping in their car, and my Mum put some blankets over them as they slept. They were the tiny moments that people didn't tend to forget."
For McNicholl, Martyn's visit in 2003 was a highlight. "[Martyn] was there for a month," recalls McNicholl. "He hadn't played in six or seven years and was living in West Cork, so he chose to do rehearsals there, and then filmed a BBC special there. My Dad took me out of school for the day, saying, 'you'll learn more here'."
In 2007, aged 17, he was thinking of leaving for London to study at the Academy of Contemporary Music when his parents asked their children how they would feel if they sold the bar licence.
"Rural Ireland had been decimated by the recession and the drinking culture just wasn't there," recalls McNicholl. "My brother and my sister - I'll never forget it - they just looked at me and were like, 'Well, what do you think? If anyone's going to do anything with it, it's you'."
The licence was sold and McNicholl moved to Australia. Then, Paddy fell ill in 2010 and died five months later. McNicholl moved home and decided in 2012 that Connolly's needed to be re-opened as a venue. Yet the path to Connolly's dazzling rebirth did not run smoothly. Re-securing the license became a bureaucratic quagmire for a start.
"If I'd known how hard it was going to be, I probably wouldn't have stuck at it," he smiles.
As to what his dad would make of the new iteration of the famed venue, McNicholl, who himself is a member of a band, Talos, smiles: "I think he'd be over the moon. He'd love the young Irish bands we're booking. He was all about shining a light on people who get up and do their thing and want to be themselves, so I hope in some small way we are continuing with that." connollysofleap.com