Christmas will never be quite the same again.
Once a week when Ireland was not on lockdown, I travelled from Sligo to Dublin to drink in an extraordinary pub and enjoy the company of an extraordinary man…. Tommy Smith, the last of the great Irish Bohemians.
Every Wednesday morning, I set my alarm for seven, showered, trimmed my beard, took off my seaboots and torn jeans and put on what I call my Going Ashore Clothes. Suited and booted, I took the eight o’clock bus from Rosses Point to Sligo Railway Station, bought a bacon roll and a cup of coffee, caught the five past nine train and sat back and enjoyed the three hour journey across Ireland. The train arrived at Connolly Station just in time to catch a Number 14 bus to Dame Street, a short walk from a little-known establishment which has been part of my life for almost thirty years.
Grogan’s is hardly the most imposing of Dublin Pubs. Tucked away in South William Street near St Stephen’s Green like a time capsule from the 1970s, it has no television, no radio and no music – a place for conversation and arguments. The last bastion of Irish Bohemian Society.
Phelam Drew, the actor son of the legendary Dubliners’ singer Ronnie Drew, is often to be found propping up the bar. ‘Grogan’s is like a touchstone to me,’ he recalls. ‘My mother and father brought me here. Every time I walk through the door, I can feel their presence.’
Back in the seventies, Christie Moore penned an even more succinct description in his autobiography ‘One Voice: My Life in Song’. He described Grogan’s as a place full of ‘Off duty pimps and brasses and robbers and thieves, poets, actors, dancers, chancers, saints and spoilt priests with actresses amongst others.’ He remembered that he wore like a badge of honour ‘being an accepted member of that clientele.’
So let me tell you the story of Grogan’s, a pub which helped to shape the modern Island of Ireland.
The story of the last haunt of Irish Bohemia really begins with two remarkable men: Dublin Barman Paddy O’Brien and Tommy Smith from County Cavan.
In the fifties, McDaids on Dublin’s Harry Street was Ireland’s undisputed Literary Mecca, the haunt of greats like Anthony Cronin, Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, JP Dunleavy, Ulick O’Connor and Myles Na gCopaleen. Paddy O’Brien worked behind the bar and he had a reputation for being able to control the egos of the likes of Behan, Kavanagh and O’Connor.
But even Paddy ran out of patience with the literati.
When Tommy Smith and his business partner Paddy Kennedy bought Grogan’s in 1972, O’Brien was quick to jump ship and take up a new post as their head barman.
Unfortunately for Paddy and even more unfortunately for McDaids, the writers went too.
Liam Brady, an IRA veteran who had been interned in the Curragh Army Camp, led the charge across what was then a rubble strewn car park and is now the Five Star Westbury Hotel. In the words of the artist Robert Ballagh, the writers followed their favourite barman ‘like a flock of seagulls following a trawler’.
The first thing Tommy Smith did when he took over Grogan’s was to ban music.
But like every rule there were exceptions.
Liam Brady, a renowned fiddle player, would sometimes rise a tune while Kathleen Behan, the Mother of all the Behans, had a rare dispensation to sing once a week in the bar.
Music wasn’t the only entertainment which Tommy banned. The previous owner had taken out adverts in the Evening Herald to boast that the pub had a television. When Tommy took over, the TV was chucked into a skip. He maintained that with no music or race meetings on a box on the bar, the sound of talk and chatter would be more than enough to fill the pub.
In years to come he saw chatter of a more silent kind as a threat to the ambience.
When WiFi arrived in Dublin a visitor managed to log onto the Internet using the signal from a nearby cafe.
I arrived for a pint to find Tommy inside the door with a sweeping brush in his hands.
‘I don’t know how this HiWi is getting in,’ he shouted. ‘But it’s going out.’
Like Brady, Ballagh and most of the Behans, Tommy Smith was a lifelong Republican but deeply anti-sectarian and a staunch pacifist. Under his stewardship Grogan’s became a pub which made a major but unreported contribution to peace in Ireland.
During the seventies the Irish Civil War of the twenties was being fought again in Belfast, Derry and Dublin. Hardly a week passed without another body being found on the streets.
Alongside the counter in Grogan’s lounge there’s an alcove. It became known as the War Office. And it was to the War Office that Tommy Smith summonsed the leaders of rival Republican factions to bang their heads together. He told them they wouldn’t get a drink and a united Ireland unless they left their guns at the door and made peace.
After the Good Friday Agreement was signed in April 1998, the former Taoisech Albert Reynolds rang me at my home in London.
‘Hello Sligo,’ he said. ‘I hear you drink in Grogan’s?’
I hesitated because I knew Albert was a teetotaller.
‘Next time you’re in Dublin give Tommy Smith my regards and thank him for all he’s done. And by the way, lay off the jar yourself.’
I can still see his smile today.
In later years, Tommy joked about the presence of Special Branch men at the door in those very different times. He recalled, ‘They were there to keep an eye on us but they enjoyed the odd pint themselves.’
Novelist Dermot Healy introduced me to Grogan’s in the spring of 1992. Like Tommy Smith he had grown up in Cavan so he felt very much at home. Dermot was two years away from publishing his best seller ‘A Goat’s Song’ which was partially set in Rosses Point where we were neighbours. We were with another Sligo-based writer Pat McCabe who was reading from his new novel ‘The Butcher Boy’ at Dubray’s bookshop on Grafton Street.
‘We’ll shoot out for a couple of pints,’ said Dermot. ‘Pat’s very fond of his own voice and he’ll still be reading when we get back.’
We adjourned to Grogan’s where Tommy was drinking tea with yet another Sligo neighbour of literary renown, Leland Bardwell.
Dermot and I had a couple of pints and all four of us returned to the bookshop where Pat was still spouting.
‘I told you that he had the Grogan’s’ gift of the gab,’ he said.
Tommy also opened his doors to artists and to this day on any afternoon you can find household names like Robert Ballagh, Liam Delaney, Brian O’Neil, John Behan, Dermot Seymour, Camille Souter and Alice Maher taking a break from their studios to swap brush strokes.
Their work adorns the walls of the pub along with the work of relatively unknown painters.
Unlike some Dublin galleries which take commissions of up to 60 percent Tommy never charged a penny and often bought a piece from a struggling young artist who was short of a few bob to buy a pint. Their work went into Tommy’s personal collection which included paintings by some of the greats of Irish history, people like Harry Kernoff, Percy French and Jack B Yeats.
Poet Paula Meehan remembers how Grogan’s became ‘a home from home for many of us, a post restante where letters, messages, books, manuscripts were sent and collected, a place to which to steer travellers met on the road who were heading for Dublin, a way to keep in touch with old pals, an employment exchange in the gig economy and occasionally a welfare bureau for the needy.’
One of the most celebrated recipients of Tommy’s welfare was another poet, Michael Hartnett.
Hartnett was one of a number of regulars whom Tommy would discreetly help out when they found themselves short of the price of a pint.
Paula recalls that Tommy ‘had a mercurial and eclectic mind for history, visual art, poetry, politics, and local gossip. An empath and a shrewd judge of character, he looked through appearances to your true nature.’ Her husband Theo Dorgan, the founder of Poetry Island, said he was ‘a true republican gentleman, a democrat of the old school, a believer that all should be treated equally, with respect for their dignity and a welcome for their talents.’
Despite banning music Tommy always welcomed musicians.
Singers Glen Hansard, Damian Dempsey and even Bob Geldof and Bono have been known to call in for a pint secure in the knowledge that they won’t be asked to perform.
When Glen and Markéta Irglová won an Oscar for ‘Falling Slowly’ which featured in the film ‘Once’ their Academy Award stood behind the bar for several weeks before he remembered to take it home. And the regulars were drunk for several nights on the cash he left with the barman so they could share in his success.
We’re still waiting for a few bob from Bono and Geldof.
But Tommy still made a few exceptions to his ban on music and Glen Hansard was one.
Glen together with actor Amy Schumer and director Judd Apatow sang a rousing version of ‘The Auld Triangle’ for a newly married couple who had come to the pub for some post wedding drinks – a performance that made headlines around the world.
Tommy recalled the day, ‘Somebody’s wedding and an Oscar winning performer? Why not?’
Another exception was the King of Tory Island, Patsy Dan Rodgers.
The Last King of Ireland had made the arduous journey from his remote outpost in the Atlantic to help Tom Mathews launch my first novel, ‘The Drumcliffe Pilots’.
The book was illustrated by Grogan’s regular Liam Delaney and carried a front cover endorsement from one of the old McDaid’s crew, JP Dunleavy.
Michael Dunleavy described it as a ‘hefty volume worth its weight.’
Though as one wag in the bar remarked: ‘He didn’t say worth its weight in what?’
Patsy Dan never ventured off his Island without his trusty accordion.
That afternoon was no exception.
Tommy Smith made a speech in which he thanked me for keeping up the Grogan’s tradition as a haven for writers. Then he said, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen we are in the presence of Royalty and I think we have to break with another tradition. Give us a tune Patsy.’
And in a staunch Republican pub the last King of Ireland played long into the night.
Three years after Tommy took over Grogan’s the Irish government launched a major clampdown on Republican groups.
In March 1976, the Cork to Dublin mail train was robbed near Sallins in County Kildare. The gang escaped with more than two hundred thousand pounds… about a million euro in today’s money.
Five members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party were arrested: Osgur Breatnach, Brian McNally, Mick Plunkett, John Fitzpatrick and Wicklow-born Nicky Kelly, a Grogan’s regular and a great friend of Tommy Smith.
Four of the five, including Nicky Kelly, signed confessions after being beaten by the Gardai.
Fearing he was being set up for a show trial Nicky fled to America and was jailed for 12 years in his absence.
In May 1980 Breatnach and McNally were acquitted on appeal on the grounds that their statements had been taken under duress. The same month, the Provisional IRA admitted its members carried out the robbery.
Nicky returned to Ireland in June 1980 expecting to be acquitted. Instead he was incarcerated in the maximum-security Portlaoise Prison and spent the next four years proclaiming his innocence, including a 38-day period on hunger strike.
The campaign for his release became a symbol of the eighties with ‘Free Nicky Kelly’ graffiti appearing overnight on walls throughout Ireland. Both North and South politicians from all parties joined Amnesty International and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties in the battle.
In Grogan’s, the writers, poets, artists and musicians rallied to his cause and Christy Moore sang a song called ‘The Wicklow Boy’ and the chorus resounded in pubs and bars around the Island of Ireland.
‘Give the Wicklow Boy his freedom
Give him back his liberty
Or are we going to leave him in chains
While those who framed him hold the key?’
Nicky was released on ‘humanitarian grounds’ in 1984. But it was 1992 before he won a Presidential Pardon.
The train from Sligo was delayed by floods at Carrick on Shannon. When I eventually arrived in Grogan’s Nicky was drinking tea in his usual seat by the door.
‘You’re late this week,’ he grunted. ‘But Tommy’s kept the Cabinet Office for you and I’m sure the others will be in soon.’
In the 21st Century the War Office has been renamed. And it’s in the Cabinet Office or Grattan’s Parliament as it’s also known that we meet.
If we have our own Taoiseach it’s undoubtably Tom Garvin, the retired professor of politics and history from University College Dublin. The cartoonist, poet and veteran rock and roller Tom Mathews is Finance Minister. Before he got his free travel pass, Tom preferred to walk around Dublin rather than pay for buses. He kept his eyes firmly on the ground and told us he picked up hundreds of euro a year in discarded change.
Our Agriculture Minister, stand up comedian and poet John Moynes, is another regular. When farmers protesting about government cutbacks blockaded Dublin with tractors John announced, ‘Who needs farmers? I get all my food from Marks and Spencer.’
We have several Ministers for the Arts. Painters Liam Delaney, Brian O’Neill, Robert Ballagh and Charlie Cullen are regulars in the Cabinet Office.
Joycean scholar Eamonn Boylan is Minister for Transport. He drives but doesn’t drink.
Our Countess Markieviz is the playwright Trudy Hayes who is better known as the Dowager Duchess of Dalkey. Trudy usually joins us on a Wednesday and brings me a bun from Bewleys Oriental Cafe on Grafton Street. She has been known for providing lodgings for homeless writers. I guess that makes her Minister for Social Welfare.
I assume I am Foreign Secretary because I spend six days a week abroad in the West.
You can recognise members of our Cabinet because in the Socialist Republican tradition of Grogan’s we wear red scarves. Sometimes there are more than a dozen of us huddled around the Cabinet table.
‘I don’t know what you talk about,’ Nicky Kelly once told me. ‘But it’s got to be a load of rubbish.’
And often, after we’ve adjourned in the afternoon and I rush for my train, I have difficulty remembering what we were talking about but I know that I enjoyed the conversation and the craic.
I say ‘after we adjourned’ but Tom Mathews often pops back. He explained why in an interview with the Irish Times about a new collection of his poetry which was launched by our mutual friend, the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney.
‘It’s the only pub in Dublin that lets me fall asleep and the bar staff wake me up at last orders and ask if I want one for the road.’
The highlight of our year in Grogan’s is the annual Christmas Art exhibition – an eclectic mix of works by young and old painters, sculptors and photographers.
By the Christmas of 2019 Tommy Smith was dying of cancer. But, supported by his grandchildren, he made it into his usual seat by the door.
Hollywood actor Patrick Bergin performed the opening ceremony but all eyes were on Tommy as he discussed politics and the chances of a general election over a pot of tea with Nicky Kelly.
The election took place on Saturday, February 8th and the following morning the exit polls showed massive gains for Sinn Fein.
Tommy lay semi-conscious in his bed in Our Lady’s Hospice in Harold’s Cross surrounded by his family. His son Donal whispered in his ear: ‘You can go now. Your work is done.’
Tommy opened his eyes, smiled and passed away.
As I write on a Tuesday evening in Sligo after months of virtual lockdown, I wish I was taking the train to Dublin in the morning.
My red scarf is now around my face rather than my neck.
When the Coronavirus has gone and I return to Grogan’s, in the words of Christie Moore, ‘I will wear it like a badge of honour.’
And I’ll join other members of the Cabinet at the annual Christmas exhibition to raise a glass to Tommy Smith …. the last of the Irish Bohemians.