On Wednesday October 1st Ireland is to lose one of its longest-established music venues as The Stables and Yukon Bar close. Owners Tommy and Miriam MacManus have, after 43 years at the helm of their Dominick Street venue, decided to call it a day.
They pulled no punches when they said the closure is down to a changing environment in the music industry and licensing trade. Pubs throughout the country are suffering, and that is acutely felt in Westmeath where 20% of pubs have closed in a decade. In the past eight years alone 47 locals have called time — that’s one every two months.
Changes to the trade, changes to the music business and changing patterns of customers since the recession has lead to a difficult trading environment, and having enjoyed many years as the foremost live music venue in Westmeath and the Midlands the couple have decided to take retirement from the pub business.
“The pub game has changed utterly,” says Tommy. “Music is also no longer what it used to be. People expect it to be free and don’t want to support the artists, either at gigs or by buying their albums, so the time was right for us to step back.”
“We need a life for ourselves and now is the time to do it,” remarked Miriam.
But sadness at the closure is offset by a lifetime of happy memories for the MacManus family, whose venue has been the epicenter of music in the midlands for a long time. Tommy and Miriam raised three children above the venue, and a variety of promoters — including this writer — booked gigs there for little or no reward, just the sheer thrill of seeing artists you admired and giving up-and-coming talent a leg up.
“In 43 years we can safely say we were never bored,” joked Tommy. “We met a lot of friends and we have had great customers, amazing staff, incredible musicians and promoters along the way. We have nothing but happy memories.”
(more after the pictures)
MUSIC CENTRE STAGE
From day one, music has been at centre stage for Tommy and Miriam, both big music fans. Indeed Tommy peomoted one of the first ever open air festivals in Ireland when he brought a selection of UK prog and folk acts to play open air at Mullingar Racecourse, itself long-since closed.
Opened in 1971 The Yukon Bar was originally called O’Briens Bar when Tommy first stepped in behind the counter. Tommy, who had mined in the Yukon in Canada as a youngster, re-named it The Yukon in 1976 after he and Miriam got married and made upstairs their family home. They did up the new family business, extending and renovating it and in the process adding a popular music lounge which for years hosted live music seven nights a week. But the biggest change occurred in in 1989, when The Stables was born after they converted the back yard and the remnants of old horse stables into a purpose-built music venue.
Twenty five years has been a long time in rock’n’roll at The Stables, and in that time the award-winning venue has hosted a who’s who of local, national and international music. Acts from all over the world have played there, drawn by an appreciative audience and genuine music lovers promoting the gigs, working at the gigs, working in the bar. Music was king and it was only the fact that Ireland qualified for a World Cup that a TV was installed — and even at that it only could get one channel!
As Tommy looked back on a lifetime in music this week, he laughed when he recalled that the first band was booked to play was a Cajun outfit called The Big Mistake!
With a small crowd there, Tommy and Miriam and original promoter Noel O’Farrell wondered if the name was prophetic, but thankfully things went from strength to strength almost immediately with their venue and they never looked back.
In its early days, the venue earned a reputation as being one of the foremost blues clubs in Ireland with all the great rhythm and blues players from home and abroad drawn to play there. Scouts from the major record labels were regulars as the venue became a Blues hub.
Soon there was live music most nights of the week, with the weekend ending (or the week starting) on a Monday night when the original Blues Band held court for many years. Noel and Declan O’Farrell, mainstays of the Mullingar music scene, hosted a Sunday night club, whilst bands of all genres played on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
As genres came and went during the 1990s, The Stables remained constant with bands still performing every weekend. In the front bar, weekly residencies from talismanic talents such as Marc and the late Jeremy Oliver, Declan Byrne, Dec Murray and the late Cani Bruton, as well as the O’Farrell brothers ensured there was music front and back at the venue. Comedians such as Jon Kenny and Pat Shortt were regulars as stand-ups and with their band The Cattledealers Lament. Local talent flourished and in its wake a whole town started to have live music on multiple nights. If there was a ‘Seattle scene’ in Ireland it was in Mullingar in the 1990’s.
National Awards from IMRO and Hot Press followed a decade of hard graft by promoters Ronan Casey and Declan Murray, together with engineer Frank Byrne, and dance music promoter Andrew MacManus. On any given Friday there could be 300 people ramed into the 150 capacity venue to dance to a leading DJ and on the Saturday another 300 to hear a singer/songwriter. Others who helped out in this time were Marty Mulligan, Justin Moffat and David McGlynn. Family members did the door and no band left unpaid.
At the end of the 1990’s acts such as The Frames, Damien Rice, Mundy, Paddy Casey, David Kitt, Damien Dempsey and others started to bubble in Dublin and this transferred to Mullingar where they were drawn by an appreciative crowd, a paying gig and music-loving promoters.
Acts such as Des Bishop, Oscar-winner Glen Hansard, Jon Kenny and Pat Shortt, Paddy Casey, The Walls, Mundy, The Frames, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Hayseed Dixie, Eric Bell, Sharon Shannon, 808 State, Lisa Hannigan, Bell X1, David Kitt, Saxon, Ricky Warwick, The Saw Doctors, Joseph Arthur, Luka Bloom, Mary Coughlan, Duffy, Duke Special, Sack, The Jimmy Cake, Ten Speed Racer, Watercress, Therapy?, Hothouse Flowers, Turn, National Prayer Breakfast, 4 Of Us, Handsome Family, Raw Novembre, Ronnie Drew, Josh Ritter, PJ Gallagher, Tommy Tiernan, Kíla, Pete Courtney, Handsome Family, Brendan Benson, Villagers, The Immediate, The Pale, Duncan Patterson, Rob Strong, Joe Rooney, Steve Wickham, Kieran Goss, Juliet Turner and even a few moonlighting members of Dire Straits as well as members of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and The Smiths have all played storming shows in the Dominick Street stronghold. Members of U2 and Sinead O’Connor were in the audience for gigs. Christy Moore and Joe Dolan also visited. No one bothered them. They were all there for the same thing. Niall Horan went there underage to see local bands play to sell-out crowds. Bloc Party, Snow Patrol, and countless others went in un-noticed. TV shows used the venue and the good times looked like they would last forever. Thousands of bands and singer-songwriters played there, too many to list, too many to remember!
For Declan and I we started to book the venue because we kept meeting each other at gigs in Dublin. We had been in bands in Mullingar (he a guitarist, I a heavy metal drummer) and both had a soft spot for local heroes Raw Novembre. We thought it mad to be always meeting at the same gigs in Whelans or wherever so after a few weeks of putting things together and getting a PA we booked Sack for our first gig at The Stables. We then enjoyed nearly a decade booking bands. Some got it, others didn’t it. We were all a family, a music loving family. We tried to be decent and feed bands, pay for diesel and give them most of the door. There was no changing rooms, and a band had to pass the manners test so they could be accepted into Tommy and Miriam’s sitting room and kitchen, which served as the backstage area.
There was no VIP area, The nearest thing we had to one was a snug where five nights a week fortune teller Billy Martin read cards and palms. Bands were often shocked to arrive on a Friday to see a queue for a fortune teller and not them! But soon, queues became a regular thing. We had a 150 capacity which we broke most nights as people flocked from all over the midlands and north west to see acts that usually only played the big venues in Dublin and maybe the Roisin Dubh in Galway or Connolly’s of Leap.
It was a labour of love. Dec did the sound on the nights and I did a mix of the door, the lights and the general running around. Family members (usually Dec’s younger brothers) were drafted in to help with the flyers and posters on the night and we used guerrilla marketing to full effect. Our friend Justin Moffat made us stickers and ended up doing the door. Marty Mulligan came back to a venue he used to book to do the lights. I became a reluctant MC and we smoked thousands of cigarettes. It’s hard to remember the smoke, but we never needed a smoke machine in the Stables. Roy Castle would have sued the shite out of us.
They were magic days. A particular highlight was a gig attended by about a dozen featuring a new band formed by Whipping Boy’s Fearghal McKee. I met him at a metal gig in Dublin and we both fancied this band that was a cross between Slayer, Hawkwind and Neu!. Fearghal drafted them in and we staged a gig at The Stables with the new project rechristened Shadow Cabinet. It was mental. The band dropped E’s before they took to the stage and played the same sone for nearly two hours with McKee making up the lyrics before stripping and storming out of the venue. He slept in the Town Park that night and declared the gig one of the best he ever did!
There were thousands of others: Bands such as Watercress would fill the venue every Christmas and leave you smiling for weeks. 808 State was nuts. Mic Christopher was a gent. Kila always amazing. Joseph Arthur breaking a guitar string, taking a time then then finding his gig taken over by Liam O’Maonlai who happened to be in the audience: “Who the fuck is this guy?” he asked a capacity crowd. Ten Speed Racer rocked the venue like few other bands could. Local bands like Innate on a good night were unstoppable. Turn were majestic. A Pink Floyd tribute band blowing the power on the entire street with their lighting rig. The night the staff from Whelans came down for a staff do. Metal nights which always had the most mannerly, decent audiences. Dance nights were generally demented, wonderful occasions of love, hugs and shite talk. The best nights of all ususally ended up in Tommy and Miriam’s kitchen upstairs where bands truly became part of the family and we ate, drank, sang and smoked into the next day. John Illsley from Dire Straits — a multi-millionaire musician - was so smitten with the place he moved to Mullingar for a spell, and recruited a local band, Cunla, to back him. His sax player Mel Collins wanted to bring the kitchen home, piece by piece. Adam Clayton even babysat for the MacManuses!
But the greatest legacy of the venue was that it served as a breeding ground for thousands of local and national acts. Up-and-coming local acts had few opportunities to play anywhere, and no matter who the visiting artist was, a local act had to be on the bill. Bands could rehearse there, jam there and run their own gigs there. The Blizzards were famously signed on the strength of a Stables show in front of Oasis manager Marcus Russell. The Aftermath went Top 20. Many more were inspired by what they saw there, including the aforementioned Niall Horan.
In more recent times, Damien Rice, Paddy Casey, Damien Dempsey, Republic of Loose and Mick Flannery used the Stables to hone their craft when they literally couldn’t get a paying gig anywhere else. Rice’s first ever solo gig there attracted a good crowd,. As word spread, his next one two weeks later sold out. That same week he was playing to 20 people in a café in Dublin.
Rice made The Stables his ‘home’ venue for two years, before he went on to achieve massive worldwide success with his “O” album. Even when he started to fill Vicar Street he would still return to the Stables. Oscar winner Glen Hansard, now a global star, once played there for a bag of chips with the late Mic Christopher. He returned with The Frames on the ‘For The Birds’ tour, finishing it off with a legendary May Bank Holiday show with support from Damien Rice, Mic Christopher and local heroes Innate.
The rectangular music room was hailed on Facebook this week as “Mullingar’s Cavern Club”, a candle-lit shelter from luxurious pubs that always revelled in its dirty, rock’n’roll roots, serving music in its proper environment. When I was running gigs there we never tried to tart the place up. The crowds were there for the music. Candles on the tables, park benches and thousands of old posters was as fancy as it got. You can read the walls and the ceiling there.
Sadly, these were the days when music really meant something. As Tommy says, people don’t want to pay for music anymore. And that’s true in the regional live music venues. Declan and I first started to notice a slide in 2007 and we began to withdraw, ultimately leaving the business. We were glad that at the time, The Blizzards were massive. They were a band we both had a say in in their early days and it was great to see a local act do the business. Sadly, in Mullingar the live scene has changed. Pubs will gladly pay old stables acts like Damien Dempsey, The Walls, Paddy Casey and more a couple of thousand to perform at the bottom of a staircase in the corner of a lounge. There may be a few hundred people there, but only a handful will be listening. Music is a distraction, a loss-leader. New acts coming to Mullingar find themselves playing in a pub. The ones who charge at the door have few takers.
There is one final night at The Stables and Yukon Bar this Wednesday, October 1st, before Tommy and Miriam retire. They have left a huge legacy and without them, the midlands would certainly be a culturally poorer place.