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When a gang of Ireland’s finest musicians, media stars and political types gathered in the Central Hotel for pre-Christmas drinks, there were fun and games aplenty. reporting: Stephen Bailey, Stuart Clark and Roisin Dwyer. Photos: Mick Quinn and Graham Keogh. Costumes: courtesy of The Dublin Costume Company.

Stuart Clark, 03 Dec 2004

To view the photo gallery from the party click here

And so it came to pass that a gaggle of musically inspired luminaries assembled in Dublin’s Central Hotel to shoot the breeze and ponder chin-strokingly the year that had been, while allowing the hotpress snappers to bend them into various compromising and unflattering Santa-hatted positions. Well, that was the plan.

The plan worked. There was a great buzz in the Central as the big names gathered for what may well become a new Christmas tradition – drinks and pix with the hotpress crew! Snow Patrol, Neil Hannon, Paddy Casey, Maria Doyle Kennedy, The Revs, Mark Geary, Jerry Fish and George Murphy – who has sold over 50,000 records in Ireland already – all milled around.

Amanda Brunker – currently one of the hottest properties in television – played a stormer, showing just why so many people have fallen for her ample charms. She definitely won the award for ‘Biggest Hair Of The Day’, arriving in straight from the ‘dressers with a do that she admitted was “very Crystal from Dynasty.”

“If I’d known there was a Mummy Claus outfit here, I’d have got my legs waxed as well,” the former Miss Ireland added ruefully.

Ivana Bacik, who had a busy year, almost grabbing a seat as an MEP along the way, took it all in.

“I’ve no problem debating with any politician, but meeting Neil Hannon makes me nervous,” she confessed. “I’m a huge fan.”

Suitably abashed, Hannon agreed he’d vote for Ivana next time round, and, in between creamy mouthfuls of eggnog, we all toasted Comrade Bertie – the last remaining Socialist in Ireland.

Photographer Mick Quinn cracked the whip and whoever could fit gathered for a series of pictures. hotpress studio manager, Graham Keogh, grabbed additional snaps on the side.

Paddy Casey had just arrrived in from Scotland. He’d bumped into Declan O’Rourke on the way to the Central and it said everything about the spirit of the occasion that he dragged the new shining light of Ireland’s singer-songwriting scene along to participate. O’Rourke promptly settled in like he’d been supping at the top table for years!

Jerry Fish had changed flights to join in the fun. The wine, ale and lattes were beginning to flow as smoothly as the conversation. Jerry was first to notice that Franzl – the Viennese waiter – had the day off. Thus, mince pies and Buckfast were off the menu. But there was plenty else to be going on with…

Jerry enthused about the pleasures of his new life beyond The Pale. It seems the privileged sheep of the Wexford border hills will be the first ones to hear his latest material. Happy sheep they’ll be, if it’s anything like his recent Live At The Spiegletent release.

“I think the album proves that independent artists these days enjoy an unprecedented amount of creative freedom,” he reasoned. Can’t argue with that.

Creative freedom has been on George Murphy’s mind too. His music is heading in a rockier direction, he explained – which is why he’s been working with former members of The Woods Band and Little Sister Sage.

During 2004, Alphastates moved from the fringes of the local indie scene to the status of serious contenders on a national scale. As we sipped our pints, singer Catherine Dowling enthused about the band’s new-found drive and confidence.

“We suddenly realised we can do this,” she said, pondering their growing success. Not all that surprising a realisation, given that David Holmes has been on the phone asking to do a remix, and a nice lump-sum was recently deposited for their work on the soundtrack to a Belgian film.

With their Irish soul funk revue, Republic Of Loose were one of the bands of the year here. Nevertheless, lead singer Mick Pyro talked about tightening his belt this Christmas (“the money’s not in yet”). But on a more upbeat note, he enthused about the band’s recent headline dates in the “UK and Scotland” (sic).

Across from us, Annie (Mick’s sister) of The Radio sat discussing the price of hams with Laura Isibor, who is at once radiant and unassuming. The Radio effectively came out of nowhere in the autumn with a superb debut, Kindness, that established their leftfield pop credentials. Isibor is another kind of phenomenon entirely: a young, female Irish songwriter with nary even a single to her credit, for whom the world is truly her oyster. The question for both artists is whether they can capitalise in 2005 on what they have achieved to date. A tough challenge.

The main photo shoot done, Stuart Clark gathered a smaller group to one side for the HP-7 round table summit. Peter Murphy spirited Gary Lightbody and another of the Snow Patrol crew away to a separate interview room. It was all go on the first floor!

Declan O’Rourke, now entirely at home, and resplendent in gold and ribbon, lay under the Christmas tree.

“I’m in training for the Santa Olympics,” he explained reasonably. “I’m not sure, but I presume there’ll be mince-pie eating and sherry guzzling races, time trials getting down regulation size chimneys, reindeer baiting, that sort of thing. It’s all above board – I’ve seen the website.”

As we manhandled the randy waiter out of the way, the nonplussed Maria Doyle Kennedy told us what she’ll be getting up to over the Yuletide period, and we realised she’s more than just a gritty ace. Actually, we knew that already, but bear with us! Maria – actor, singer, songwriter and activist – has added another string to her bow, producing a film on the artist Patrick Scott, called Golden Boy. On the music front, meanwhile, she has a couple of new projects on the go.

To begin with, there’s a covers album.

“Whenever we do a cover at a gig, people approach me afterwards wondering can they get it on record, so we decided to put together a collection of our favourite ones,” she revealed. Skullcover will be out in December and Maria’s hoping to have a collection of original material on the shelves in early April.

Salutations were exchanged as the round table, chaired by Stuart Clark came to an end. George Murphy commandeered the piano and a sing-song developed in which the cream of Ireland’s musicians traded harmonies. As the late afternoon wore on, other commitments called. Mark Geary sprinted off to do a gig in Kilkenny, and people began to head for the exits just as Jim Lockhart of Horslips (and 2FM) and Snow Patrol collaborator Iain Archer – himself responsible for one of the albums of the year with Flood The Tanks – arrived!

“Have I missed it?” Iain asked. “Bollocks! Snow Patrol had a bit of an after-show last night in Doran’s and, well, I didn’t get to bed ‘til eight o’clock.”

And so with the paparazzi snapping at their holly-covered Cuban heels, the musical glitterati of Ireland shuffled off into the Dublin night, bemoaning the lack of Yuletide rickshaws. A refreshingly honest and relaxed afternoon’s revelry had come to an end with promises that drinks would be had over the holiday and dogs would not just be for Christmas.

Perhaps Paddy Casey’s words are the most fitting epitaph for the evening. “The Irish music scene’s healthier now than it’s ever been,” he said. Long may it last.

Paddy Casey:

Paddy Casey doesn’t do Christmas – not anymore! Or not the way he used to, at any rate. The enjoyment of any festive period is, we agree, dependent on one’s previous experiences of it and there was an occasion when the diminutive one woke up in a Mexican prison on Christmas Eve. Enough said…

We enquire if he’s feeling the effects, flying in after two straight weeks of gigging in Scotland.

“Nah not really,” he says. “I’m used to it now.”

And so he should be. Casey has had a spectacular fifteen months since his Living album first hit the shops. Sales are already in excess of 100,000 in Ireland – and now he’s released a new limited edition version, with a bonus disc of B-sides and rarities.

He’ll be gigging extensively over the Christmas period, including what will be his biggest ever headlininer, at the RDS on December 30th, where the girls will undoubtedly gather in their droves. Ireland has discovered a new sex symbol in Casey. And you know what? He may be small, but he really is cute!

George Murphy:

Picture this, if you will. You enter the 2003 You’re A Star competition, with a view to representing Ireland at the next Eurovision Song Contest. You don’t win but that’s OK – in fact it turns out to be a good thing. While the winner flounders – sorry about that Chris Doran – your career takes off. Before long, you’re being compared with legends of the trad scene. You do a record deal with Sony, you’re all over the media, your debut album sells like hot cakes, and you’re on stage with The Dubliners. And all this when you’re only… ah who cares how old you are.

George Murphy, this is your life!

One year on from the day when he first gained public recognition, Murphy is on first name terms with most of the musicians assembled in the Central Hotel – a testimony not only to his talent but also to his affability. Asked how he’s finding life in the spotlight, he’s unassuming but honest.

“The nerves are gone now,” he says. “I’m finding my feet”.

Look at it this way – he’s about to play two Manchester gigs with Phil Coulter, and his beloved United team will be there to watch. To repay the favour, United have invited him to watch their next game from the VIP box in Old Trafford.

Murphy may be mates with the Reds – but I’d say his mates are green with you know what…

Amanda Brunker:

To most men, Amanda Brunker is outraeously attractive. And probably to a few women too…

She’s blonde, fiesty, up for a laugh, and she has a huge future – among other things – in front of her. Some may even find her intimidating, so it’s to her credit that when she arrives she bites her lip and declares, “I’m not sure what I’m doing here… I’m not a ‘muso’!”

“Who cares?” we cry in unison. Van Halen never asked for credentials. And so she relaxes and becomes the life and soul – and, to be fair, the body – of the party.

Just back from New York, Brunker is full of talk of the X Factor and Louis Walsh. Which may not do much for her street cred – but when was that likely to worry someone so curvaceous? Fact is, the former Miss Ireland has had a hugely successful year, getting her first real break on television – and the more she circulates among the musicians, the more obvious it is that people really like her chutzpah and sense of fun.

A proposal for a Dinner Party episode featuring the assembled musicians is debated briefly, before we decide that the battle for control of the stereo would undoubtedly end in tears. Although that might just make for excellent television!

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