Katie Hamer continues her Cardiff A-Z by discussing Cardiff band, The Hennessys!
So, what makes folk band The Hennessys special? Well, as founder member Frank Hennessy sings in one of their most popular songs:
‘I’m Cardiff born and Cardiff bred, and when I dies, I’ll be Cardiff dead’.
Who wouldn’t be impressed by this band’s conviction for their home city?
As I’m a fan of alternative and Indie music, I decided to investigate the band further. I enjoyed listening to their music, which is deceptively simple, but strangely catchy. In one humorous and memorable lyric from their album ‘Cardiff After Dark’, they jest about a new logo for Cardiff: a huge pint of Brains Dark. They provide a running commentary on life in Cardiff, and it’s uniqueness. As the cover for this album suggests:
‘There is no substitute for the real thing, [the Kaairdiff Accent], hence this recording. If you want to listen in it’s true surroundings, get yourself a flagon of “Dark”, a Clarksey (Clarks Pie), and a tanners worth of chips in an echo.’
Their songs are a social commentary, full of wit, but also displaying a huge amount of affection for their home city.
Frank Hennessy, who wrote many of the band’s more memorable lyrics, was indeed born in Cardiff, into the thriving Irish community. From a very early age, his family encouraged him to perform. At age 13, his father gave him a guitar, which he took to with ease, and from then on, he became immersed in music.
In 1966 Frank, with his band yet to be named The Hennessys, won a youth talent contest in Cardiff. This led to them having a regular gig at St Joseph’s Catholic Club in Whitchurch Road.
A few years later, they moved to Ireland, where they again achieved recognition. What came as a surprise to them, though, was that they were seen to be a Welsh band, and not a Cardiff Irish band as they had expected.
This helped the band to realize that their Welsh roots made them special. They took to performing Welsh language folk songs, which raised their profile even further within the folk community.
Frank Hennessy could see that there was a gap in the market for Welsh folk songs written in English. On the bands return to Wales, he wrote some of their best-known songs: ‘Tiger Bay’, ‘Farewell to the Rhondda’ and ‘Billy the Seal’, as well as ‘Cardiff Born’.
‘Farewell to the Rhondda’ deals with the decline in population in the valleys due to pit closures. ‘Tiger Bay’ is about migration from Cardiff to North America, not always to a better way of life. ‘Billy the Seal’, a more light-hearted number, is the true story of a seal, who took up residence in Victoria Park, Cardiff around about a hundred years ago. If you’re ever in Victoria Park, you’ll see a statue in commemoration of this seal.
Frank Hennessy has also written songs for special occasions. He penned a song for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Cardiff in 1982. For their audience with the Pope at Pontcanna Fields, The Hennessys sang: ‘John Paul, we welcome you with all our hearts’, undoubtedly a proud moment.
More recently, in 2005, Frank Hennessy wrote a song to mark Cardiff’s centennial year as a city, and 50 years since it became the capital of Wales. The song, titled ‘Always Beautiful: A Song for Cardiff’ includes memories of the Old Arcade pub, Caroline Street (a.k.a. Chippy Lane), and the Animal Wall at Bute Park. I would dearly love to listen to this song, but haven’t been able to locate it anywhere. If anyone reading this knows where I can listen to it, then please let me know!
The band has seen some line-up changes, but still perform today. Most notably, they have performed their song ‘Cardiff Born’ on the streets of Cardiff on St David’s Day. This song has evolved over the years, to keep up with the changes in the city. Whereas the majority of musicians will write a song, and then perform the same version for ever after, The Hennessys have shown a sense of fun by adding new verses. For instance, recent versions of ‘Cardiff Born’ include a verse about how the Daleks are now roaming Cardiff Bay.
The band don’t perform as much as they did in their hey day, but Frank Hennessy is still very much part of the folk scene of Wales. He’s been hosting his BBC Wales show, Celtic Heartbeat, for twenty years. Broadcasting every Sunday evening, it’s full of information on new artists, upcoming gigs, as well as having some classic folk tunes on the playlist.
From everything I have read about Frank Hennessy, and his band, I can sense that they are proud of their Cardiffian heritage, and to be part of this city’s culture. Who wouldn’t be?