The Boys and Girls of Knocka: “The Salt-of-the-Earth, Genuine People”

The massively popular ‘Boys and Girls of Knocka’ group has teamed up with local singers, songwriters and musicians to put together a special CD release to raise funds for local projects, focused on the thoughts and recollections of Knocknaheeny’s people and their relationship with the locality. Mike McGrath-Bryan chats with some of the people involved.

The northside of Cork has always been the heart of the city: home to historic trading areas and iconic landmarks, thriving and tight-knit residential areas, and distinguishably working-class arts and culture, from cult post-punk heroes Nun Attax and current black-metal darlings God Alone, to arts facilities like the Firkin Crane Theatre, and rapper GMC’s Kabin project. Concurrent to this fertile ground for artistic development has been an interesting phenomenon, that embodies the potential of the wider social media milieu and its ability to bring people together: The ‘Boys and Girls of Knocka’ group on Facebook. Over the past few months, it’s swollen from a few members from the co-founders’ circles, to over seven thousand members, and plays home to a rich array of historical photographs and material pertaining to the Northside. It’s a study in the reach granted by social platforms to communities, while specialising in local interests and content.

It’s on this group, co-founded by entrepreneur James Twomey and musician Glenn O’Callaghan, that the idea for a song memorialising the old sights and sounds of the area, before they’re lost to regeneration, came about. Sourcing musicians and songwriters to put together an extended-player featuring a song that reflected on the area’s history came slightly easier because of the group’s numbers, says Twomey, as he discusses the group’s community origin. “It was originally Glenn Cal, myself and himself set up the page originally, to collect our old friends from Knocknaheeny, because he lives now in Sligo and I’m in Aherla. We grew up in a big circle of about forty lads, different sorts of groups, as kids and teenagers. As you grow older, guys drift away, so we said it would be great to have everyone in… One lad in particular invited his wife onto the page, and that night, we had about sixty people in total, everybody knew everybody, but the next morning, we woke up and we’d nearly two-thousand people (laughs). I couldn’t believe it!”

Twomey and O’Callaghan weren’t long coming up with the idea for a song chronicling the area’s history and culture, in the Irish folk tradition. O’Callaghan, known onstage as ‘Glenn Cal’, had no problem getting the idea off the ground, and building the lead song for an extended-player for the community. Coming from local entertainment royalty, as the son of Ardmore Avenue’s own country singer Dave Cal, O’Callaghan had the firsthand knowledge and feel for the area to pen a homage, but has also struck out on his own as a singer-songwriter, touring with vocal group Westlife among others, and was able to bring that experience to the table early on. “Myself and James were talking about it, and he put me in touch with Myles Gaffney, a fabulous songwriter from the Northside. I’m living in Sligo now, so I collaborated with Myles at the start, with some ideas, but I’m delighted that he ran with it, but there was a great idea, and the song turned out brilliant. It’s great to have it up there. There’s a few videos up there, of songs of my own, and they got a good reaction, and it’s a great platform because there’s a lot of people on there. It really took off.”

Once Glenn had the idea and the concept behind the CD’s lead song set in stone, it was over to singer-songwriter Myles Gaffney to put together the most important piece of the whole thing: drawing on local knowledge and memories of the Knocknaheeny area through the filter of the community, and its experiences. For Gaffney, the song, which came simply to be titled, ‘Knocknaheeny’, was a painstaking labour of love. “I decided to watch and follow the page, and monitor comments from residents past and present. If a topic, place or subject was mentioned by various people a number of times, I would note that down. The first verse had to describe Knocknaheeny, and where it is, to let the listener know what the song is about, and where the community is. The second verse was to describe the people that came to inhabit Knocknaheeny, the basic houses that were built. Single-pane windows, with metal frames with four bare walls, no thrills, no frills. Proper working-class area and housing.”

“The chorus describes Knocknaheeny for what it really is. Friendship, love, neighbourhood, and a working-class community, very content with what they have. The salt-of-the-earth, genuine people. We know Knocknaheeny sometimes gets bad press, and dragged through the muck, but it’s a very small minority who portray this image. Cnoic Na hAoine, which means “the hill of Friday”, is contained in the third verse. On a Friday, before Knocknaheeny was built, monks would travel up the hill to pray in the fields looking down onto the harbour. Seventeen terraces were built in total between two main roads, Kilmore and Harbour View road respectively. Clubs and schemes are also mentioned. Verse four tells of a true working-class area as seen throughout Ireland. A post-office, chipper, chemist, library, school… basic needs for a community to function.”

Once the historic details were down, Gaffney got straight to the nitty-gritty of arrangement, recording and production. And if the weight of the material and its significance to the community was heavy, Gaffney unmade the burden of producing the song by staying in keeping with his own processes, lending it his own voice in the process. “As I’m a traditional Irish songwriter and artist, the production and recording was basically the same as any other songs I’ve written and recorded. Guitar, bass, banjo and squeeze-box were the instruments I chose for this song, to create the sound I was hearing in my mind. I wanted it to be a singalong song, easy to sing, easy to learn.”

Also appearing on the record is guitarist and songwriter Anthony Cotter, now a part of Ballincollig’s phenomenally successful White Horse Guitar Club ensemble, based out of the town’s folk venue of the same name. With his song, ‘Superman’, Cotter brings a more personal look at childhood in Knocknaheeny, reflecting on the emergence of bullying in schools, and stressing the importance of resolving conflict peacefully and maturely. “I based it loosely on this kid from school who was bullied so badly he brought a bread knife to school in his bag. It’s deep enough, but gets the listener to question the bully, and calls out it’s not right, but also that it’s not okay to fight back with violence. I had a superb childhood in Knocknaheeny myself, and with my involvement with St. Vincent’s H&F Club, we give back to the community. Some clubs make good players at adulthood, we make good people.”

The CD launched at Hollyhill Library earlier this month, with members of the community gathering at the facility to mark the occasion with the musicians and social-media folk involved. The record has been received warmly, with outlets all over the area stocking the physical CD, and enthusiastic local radio play. Gaffney is now looking toward what can be done to put the song in the inherited memory of young Norries. “The song has got a great reception, and I’m glad to say people like it. The next step I would suggest is to get the song into the schools. The children of Knocknaheeny are the next generation to carry on the song. The children can make this their own unique song, just for them. Father Greg in the church is a good man to give a song, so he might sing it at Mass (laughs).” Twomey echoes Gaffney’s sentiment about the song’s potential legacy, and the importance of pride of place. “It’s been brilliant, to be honest with you, there’s a song about Knocknaheeny now, that was never there before. And it’s the history of Knocknaheeny. I hope it’ll go on for generations, now, like ‘The Boys from Fair Hill’. We gave Myles the jigsaw, and he really put it together with his music as the glue.”

Proceeds from the four-track CD will go to support various community projects for the locality, and are part of an overall drive by people from the area to overcome the aforementioned social stigma that often affect working-class areas around the country. ‘Boys and Girls’ group administrator Don O’Sullivan outlines what the group seeks to accomplish, and hopefully take forward into further projects. “With the funds raised from this CD and other projects, that we will be planning whether through sponsorship or local fund-raising, we want to be in a position to help small groups locally, that are struggling to find funds, and to raise funds with them. In the case the majorettes or a dance group can’t go to their competitions or events, we want to be able to send them on that bus, either by paying for the bus or giving donations to help the children perform in their category, and let the children enjoy the activities that they trained so hard for.”

“We have seen groups who might not be well known and don’t really have the experience, or the know-how to raise funds, and we will be there for them, and to provide. When we were growing up, every child in the parish was involved in something. GAA, dancing, sports of all types, and that has seemed to slow down over the years. We want to give that injection of self-belief, that it can be achieved again as in years gone by, and that is where we will step in, as our children are our future. We are in talks at the minute with professionals in running workshops for the youth, and these are not cheap, but we hope to have the funds in place to give back to the youth. We just want to keep it, from what we saw growing up, to give to this generation with the chance we had.”

Speaking further on projects happening locally, O’Sullivan is evidently proud of what they’ve accomplished with this piece of music, but also spurred on by the possibilities of what can happen next, calling attention to access to the arts, but also a very special cause that will be fundraising soon, in the spirit of community. “We will be working together in the future on other projects. I think where we are now, we can get planning outdoor events locally, give the public free gigs, as we know how expensive it can be for families to go to a gig. From experience with the schools, there are some music clubs there, and it’s just tapping into that pool of energy, and nurturing the youth to have them play, or even extra tuition from experienced musicians, if they want to take up writing or singing or playing an instrument. St. Mary’s on the Hill N.S. are trying to raise money at the moment for a sensory garden for children on the autism spectrum. It is a lot of money for this, they are looking at 25k to get it up and running, so we could hold a concert in the school with the singers, and raise a few quid with that, or even other projects to help them out with the sensory garden. Our slogan for the page is: Putting Unity Back into the Community.”

‘The Boys and Girls of Knocka’ Facebook group is open to join on the platform now. The group’s Christmas concert happens at Hollyhill Library, on Saturday December 15th at 1pm, including musicians featured on the new CD, on sale from the Library, Singleton’s SuperValu, and CarryOut at Top of the Hill.

Myles Gaffney headlines at Cyprus Avenue on Saturday December 29th, tickets onsale now from cyprusavenue.ie, and The Old Oak. Anthony Cotter and the White Horse Guitar Club play Cork Opera House on Thursday January 24th 2019, tickets onsale now from the venue box office and corkoperahouse.ie. Glenn Cal’s new solo EP will be releasing in the new year, with songs available to hear in the ‘Boys and Girls’ group now.

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