Finbarr Donnelly: 'A Force of Nature'

Published on 20 January 2022 at 21:19

Ireland may have a slim portfolio of notable rock acts even for its size, but it more than makes up for it in the quality of stars it has produced. From the Brian Wilson-Jimi Hendrix hybrid that is Kevin Shields to the philanthropist/mystic storyteller Bono, Ireland has a rich history of powerful frontmen.


You would think with such meagre pickings it would be hard to find Irish stars who fall under the radar, but there is one candidate, Finbarr Donnelly, leader singer and songwriter of the cork Post-Punk band known as ‘Five Go Down to the Sea?’ (note the band went through several names both before and after, however this name is the one mostly attached to their recorded material). 


Donnelly’s main role in the band was as lyricist and arguably his standout role. His lyrics were surreal and recalled more than the great Flann O’Brien. With names such as “Elephants for Fun and Profit” and “There’s a Fish on Top of Shandon (Swears he’s Elvis)” exemplify this absurd lyricism. 


He followed the footsteps of two traditions. Firstly as the great isle of poets and scholars; Ireland, was known for producing the likes of Flann O’Brien and James Joyce. However the second tradition of post-punk poetry is often less referred to. 


Recalling ‘The Fall’s’ Mark E Smith and John Lydon, two fellow working class poets with a knack for surreal imagery and storytelling. While Donnelly’s lyrics may recall these great writers, the songs can be likened to the ‘The Birthday Party’s’ and ‘Bad Seed’s’ Nick Cave.


Donnelly’s voice shrieks and blasts away like Cave but is also reminiscent of the great horn players of the Free Jazz movement like Coltrane or Pharaoh Sanders.  His voice, while not exactly tuneful, is unique and helped to establish the band’s sound. 


One would wonder with a front man described as a “force of nature” on stage why they would slip through the cracks and not make it to the world stage? There are three key reasons for this.


The first is the band had slim pickings in terms of recorded material. Aside from 4 very short EP’s there was almost nothing of the band recorded. While they were ferocious in touring, a band's recorded legacy is really what gives them staying power. 


Several people both within the band and connected to the band said the band were unable to communicate with English record labels and unwilling to talk to A&R people at all. This resulted in short term contracts, every release by the band was on a different label and sold poorly. Their biggest success was “Singing in Braille” again with a title like that showing how creative Donnelly was as a word smith and had the muscle of Creation Records behind it, but it sold only 600 copies. 


Another major reason for the bands lack of success is their sound itself. While not denying Donnelly’s skills as a lyricist, the band backing him wasn’t particularly imaginative musically. 


Donnelly’s main musical partner in crime was guitarist Ricky Dineen, now while not a completely incompetent as a guitarist, he was nowhere near as creative as a guitarist as the great pantheon of post-punk guitarist. He couldn’t touch the greats like say the angular funk of Andy Gill of Gang of Four, the wacky soundscapes of hired gun Adrian Belew, the heavenly pastoral gentle guitar of Vini Reilly. His work was mostly Mekons borrowed slightly country sounding riffs. 


While the band would have a rapidly fluctuating line up, Dineen was a constant and also the band’s sound. Even when the band eventually expanded to include a cello there was always the abstract frantic blues that one would immediately associate with ‘Captain Beefheart.’ The music just could not prop up Donnelly’s lyrics to the same standard.


The arguably most important reason that ‘Five Go Down to the Sea?’ did not take off  is that they were simply behind the times. Post-punk had long since moved on and disappeared as a real musical force. They only really began in 1983 when the Cork boys went to London but by then all the best of post punk had simply retired, like ‘This Heat’ or moved onto different styles like ‘PiL.’ Post-punk had become “past-it’s-prime goth, rancid psychobilly, third-wave Avant-funk, fall-copyists” as music critic Simon Reynolds put it. 


They fell to the curse of many Irish bands; simply being behind their times. They could have possibly picked up a bigger following even 2 or 3 years earlier, but music had moved onto more interesting work like the early stirrings of house and techno, rap entering new territory and scrambling “C-86” bands.


Donnelly would tragically pass away from drowning in that oh so Rock-n-Roll mythologised age of 27. The band are at least worth checking out for his creative lyrics and if one were looking to scratch the itch something like ‘Gang of Four’ or ‘The Fall’ are worth the listen, just expect multiple listens to fully “get” or understand them. 


This article was written by the late Ciaran Ward, better known to friends as 'Wizzy', and the publication of this article is dedicated to his memory. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him. May he rest in peace.


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