Anniversary of iconic gig: ‘Nirvana were quiet as mice when they were in Cork’

Anniversary of iconic gig: ‘Nirvana were quiet as mice when they were in Cork’
sir henrys (uncredited pictures courtesy People's Republic of Cork)

IT was a Tuesday night that has become immortalised in Cork’s history and an experience just a few lucky people shared – the night Nirvana played Sir Henry’s.

This month marks the 29th anniversary of the famous gig, which took place on August 20th.

The then relatively unknown band arrived into Cork early on the Tuesday morning, three days after they recorded the video for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ which had yet to be released.

The band were in town to support the much more acclaimed Sonic Youth, but Nirvana nearly didn’t make the cut to perform in Cork that night.

The late Des Blair, a local well-respected music promoter, booked Sonic Youth, but as former manager of Sir Henry’s Sean O’Neill explained, Blair was coerced into booking Nirvana as a support band.

“Des didn’t want to take them first because it was extra money – it was about an extra £100.

“That sounds small in the great scheme of things but at that time, and for a Tuesday night gig, it was a lot,” O’Neill told The Echo.

“They were on the same label and their record label wanted Nirvana to play as well.”

It was just a couple of years after O’Neill landed his “dream job” in Sir Henry’s when Nirvana performed in August 1991.

sir henrys (uncredited pictures courtesy People's Republic of Cork)
sir henrys (uncredited pictures courtesy People's Republic of Cork)

Despite the fact that local anecdotes might suggest a far larger gathering at the gig, the reality is that Nirvana drew a much more intimate crowd.

“I can guarantee you there were only about 20 or 25 people watching the gig. People were still arriving and the place was quiet.

“Now, everyone and their auntie saw the gig! It takes on its own life.”

Whilst he only caught one or two songs during the Nirvana set, O’Neill’s wife saw much more of them and despite not being a rock and roll fan she was impressed by what she heard.

“I was busy doing the guest list, the door, looking after backstage and things like that.

“My wife paid more interest. When I met up with her after she said ‘did you see the support band?’, I said ‘not really’ – I didn’t know much about Nirvana. I knew they had one album. She said they were brilliant.

“I thought God they must have been brilliant if my wife thought they were good as she’s not a rock and roller,” he laughed.

Just a few weeks after that gig, Nirvana’s second album Nevermind was released which heralded the band’s meteoric rise to fame.

American singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain (1967 - 1994). Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images.
American singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain (1967 - 1994). Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images.

Although the trappings of fame would prove tragic for Cobain, O’Neill said there was no evidence of drug use when the band came to Cork.

What O’Neill did experience was a polite group of guys who caused no trouble when they stayed in the city.

“They were quiet as mice when they were in Cork.

“No TVs out the window or anything like that! Kurt Cobain was very shy. Dave Grohl was probably the most talkative.”

O’Neill, who says he still has a poster of the gig in his home, says his enduring memory of that night is buying the band fast-food after the gig.

“My claim to fame is I bought them all burgers and chips after the gig.

“We sent them for a meal to Café Mexicana beforehand. We gave them money to cover it and apparently both Sonic Youth and Nirvana only bought a bowl of nachos and spent the rest on wine so they were starving when they finished the gig!

“Myself and Des went over to Bill and Bobs at the time, now Hillbilly’s, and ordered loads of burgers and chips for the bands and the crew.”

That night made an indelible impression on those who saw Nirvana perform, but the visit also resonated strongly with Cobain, who later found out he had ancestors from Cork.

In an interview with Guitar World in 1993, the 26-year-old said he felt like he was in a “daze” strolling around Cork city.

“I’d never felt more spiritual in my life. It was the weirdest feeling and I have a friend who was with me who could testify to this I was almost in tears the whole day.

“Since that tour, which was about two years ago, I’ve had a sense that I was from Ireland,” he said.

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