The key to running a successful live music venue

Posted on: 2nd July, 2018

Category: Music Box

Contributor: Gary Hannon

Gary Hannon DJs a music show on He plays with the Clonakilty Jazz Collective every Monday night in the Emmet Hotel and once per month on Sunday afternoons in De Barra’s, both in Clonakilty.

There is an age-old need for people to be entertained and for musical artists to express themselves. This ensures that there will always be music venues. But how do you run a successful live music venue? Having reopened two-and-a-half years ago and after close to 400 shows, Connolly’s of Leap’s Sam McNicholl is the man to ask. They recently won the IMRO Munster Live Music Venue of the Year 2017, which was a public vote, so they must be doing it right.

After being closed for a decade, coinciding with the death of his father, Paddy, Sam along with his mother Eileen has re-opened the renowned venue. Sam says, “I didn’t realised growing up that I was probably being groomed to take over the place – it was just the way of life for them. And I’m trying to incorporate that into my life now as well. If I’m not working in Connolly’s, I’m playing at gigs elsewhere or at gigs elsewhere. [Sam plays with the band Talos, who recently signed a record deal in the US]. You’re either fully in it or you’re not. At the end of the day, my gallivanting brings more artists to West Cork and that’s the overall goal!”

So what is the approach to running Connolly’s? “We’re just following my parents’ old model of treat the artists well – treat everyone that comes through the door like family. That goes for the punters and the artists. I think people are very happy – even if they don’t come down – that the venue is back open. It just means something to people. It’s been a humbling, grounding experience to restart something. I always meet people from the industry that say, ‘I don’t know you, but I knew your Dad and we had such good times coming down to Connolly’s!’ and now they’re managing bands or fully in the music industry. It’s nice having a connection to this older tier.”

What does he remember from being young living there? “My earliest memory of Connolly’s was when The Saw Doctors were playing and I remember looking out the window and there were way too many people there – they were almost blocking the road. It was pandemonium! The guards were there. I remember thinking ‘This is mad!’  I was probably seven or eight.”

“I love being around artists. They are brave. Artists need to ‘walk the plank’, it’s an immersive thing – they need to be creative all of the time. It’s given me an amazing lifestyle. Connolly’s has allowed me to forge friendships with these people.”

What’s been his highlight so far? “Leonard Cohen’s guitarist for 25 years, Javier Maas said: ‘I’ve played all over the world and I’ve never played a music venue like this – that is someone’s house. It’s like something from a movie!’ I was really blown away by that. I never realised that I live in this unique situation.”

“It was closed for ten years, so there’s an entire generation of people that missed it. My generation can’t remember it at all.” To cater for that younger crowd, as well as live bands they have nights with DJs playing techno and drum n’ bass, spoken word, etc.

“People need The Third Space, we need expression. As long as there is that need, I want the venue to be here. It is about music and art in West Cork, it’s not about me. I think the venue’s place in the community is larger than the people involved in it. Connolly’s is all about family and it will always be that way.”

“I’m new to promoting. There is no manual, no rule book, no guidelines. I’m just learning all of the time. You’re always trying to see who’s available, next year, what works … You don’t think artists are organised, but they are! A lot of the gigs we just about break even. That’s what a vocation is – you do it ‘cause you love it, you do it ‘cause it is needed, and sometimes you make a break and you make a profit off an event. For the most part it just looks after itself.”

He doesn’t take it too seriously though. “For perspective, I talk to my brother, who works as a nurse in emergency rooms and palliative care, dealing with trauma and death, so it helps to keep me grounded.”

Nick Cave played in Connolly’s back in the early 2000’s – “Just him and a piano, not many people there, as it wasn’t advertised” – in light of that, has he any dream gigs? “Feist – who I am confident about getting – Laura Marling.  And if I was to dream big – Radiohead, or even just Thom Yorke. Sting would be great too!”

Sam has a distinctive look. He comments, “I think I’ve always been a bit ‘gender-blender’. My folks used to share basically one wardrobe. They used to share everything – shoes, jackets. There was just one kind of ‘look’ in the house. My fashion sense is from my parents. I haven’t cut my hair in 6 years. As for the moustache, I tried to grow a beard and it didn’t really work – it just kind of turned into a moustache. It’s kind of whimsical – I like to look silly and funny.”

The highlight for July is David Keenan on July 20.  Details of all upcoming events can be found at or on the Connolly’s of Leap Facebook page.

My gig of the month for July is Sharon Shannon in De Barra’s on Friday, July 20 at 9pm. Tickets €22.50 on sale from

If you have any comments or events, you can contact me by email


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