Friday, February 14, 2020

Tommy Smith and Memories of Grogan’s

Tommy Smith’s recent death surely marks the end of the Grogan’s we knew and loved. It can hardly remain the same – he was the soul of the place, the presiding spirit. I attended his funeral service in Mount Jerome last Wednesday where a huge crowd paid tribute to the man. While establishment Ireland (including the President) attended the estimable Keelin Shanley’s obsequies in Gleanageary Church, the artistic community and royalty from the political left gathered at Mount Jerome to honor an arguably more influential figure in Irish life. He was a selfless supporter of all the arts and a life-long republican both in the French Revolution sense and in the narrower Irish sense. Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams were amongst the congregation and the final act at the service featured that old socialist war horse Des Geraghty delivering a rousing version of The Parting Glass – with audience participation. Robert Ballagh and Finbarr Cullen delivered fulsome and entertaining eulogies and there was plenty of music. Tommy was great lover of poetry so it was fitting that our female laureate Paul Meehan was there to celebrate him with a moving reading.

I first came to live in Dublin in the late 1970s after completing a degree in English and Philosophy at UCC and spending a few years working on the oil rigs without any great notions of making a career of it. I landed a job with Altergo – an IT company on Pearse Street that trained foreign students and developed software for IBM-based systems. A propitious time to get involved in that industry. I was introduced to Grogan’s by a writer friend and it immediately became my city-centre pub of choice. On my very first visit I went to use their classic old style urinals (now gone alas) and found a very tall man stretched the length of the ledge on which one stood. Knowing my literary figures I recognized him as the poet John Jordan – a prominent figure in poetry circles at the time. He was clearly the worse for drink so I let him be and took myself to the nearby cubicle. It confirmed for me however that I was in the right pub – this was surely the epicenter of Dublin bohemian life. Another writer who frequented the place was Des Hogan – an outsider figure now (and a not very likeable person back then) who never quite recaptured those early glory days after the publication of The Ikon Maker. He was obviously a rabid note taker because he was forever pulling out dozens of small bits of paper covered in writing from various pockets to find a particular phrase or piece of information he wanted to impart. He had a very evident belief in his own talents – one not generally shared by the more discerning around him. Visual artists were also there in abundance - with Tom Matthews a seeming permanent fixture – and of course the walls were adorned with a rotating collection of work which we’ll politely describe as eclectic. 

The American artist Charlie Brady was a great favourite of Tommy’s. While the art on the walls was of mixed quality – the exception was Charlie’s work. Even though he was a made man with regular exhibitions at Taylor Galleries and a hardy annual at the RHA he always had a piece hanging in Grogan’s for sale. And he kept his prices democratic. I doubt he ever sold a work for more than £1,000. My wife exhibited in the Caldwell Gallery where Charlie’s wife worked (although Charlie showed at Taylor Galleries) so we became friendly. He lived near me in South County Dublin so at a certain point in the early evening he would say “c’mon Sullivan we’re going home” and I would obediently drive him to his doorstep. Which was just as well as he was frequently in no condition to walk – nor was I in truth. The last time I met him in Grogan’s he was sitting at the bar with a medical friend having just received a diagnosis for terminal cancer. When I went up to chat he told me in a somewhat bad-tempered way to “go home to your wife”. A non-sequitur I put down to his fraught circumstances. In an awful irony, the frequently impecunious Charlie had been left a large legacy ($800,000 I believe) by an aunt in America a few months before his fatal diagnosis. Charlie is long gone but his image remains in the bottom right-hand corner of the stained glass work in the main bar. It was hard to get barred from Grogan’s but I do remember Mannix Flynn receiving the rough edge of Tommy’s tongue when the now respectable and sober councillor was going through his manic phase. Flynn was proceeding from table to table informing drinkers that “we kill quickly”. Tommy sent him on his way with little ceremony. They must have made up because I saw a suited and booted Mannix at the ceremony in Mount Jerome. A number of years ago I almost suffered the same fate as Mannix when I was importuned to play the accordion by an over-friendly member of the traveling community. The tall and very stern lady behind the bar was having none of it as the following clip demonstrates:
Music was not allowed although it’s said that Brendan Behan’s mother got a dispensation. 

Tommy Smith was of course the soul of the place. In addition to running a very efficient pub and making sure all were looked after he was always on for a chat. Frequently he would deliver the drink and himself together – sitting down to discuss Shinnors or Michael Hartnett or the latest show at Taylor Galleries. Conversation was the primary charm of Grogan’s in those days. You could walk in for a pint at four in the afternoon (my preferred time) and chat away to anybody in residence – the scale was just right for cross-pub banter. These days with TripAdvisor touting its attractions it’s got so popular that for much of the day it’s no longer the loose agglomeration of like-minded folk that it used to be. I suspect that Tommy’s death, the ATM machine, and the renovation of the bathrooms are harbingers of a new order. I hope not. As long as the TV is not introduced I’ll keep the faith.

John P. O’Sullivan
February 2020