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. In the Yukon Bar there was music on Mondays and Thursdays.
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 myself 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, or ran around the town with flyers.
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.
I was lucky to have been there when 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, Sinnerboy, 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, Jerry Fish, Mark Geary, Nina Hynes, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Ronan O’Snodaigh, Andrew Strong, Adrian Crowley, PJ Gallagher, Little Palace, Blink, Tommy Tiernan, Kíla, Pete Courtney, Handsome Family, Brendan Benson, Wilt, Jape, Muffin Men, Gemma Hayes, Don Baker, jack L, Devlins, Alphastates, Warlords of Pez, The Chalets, Ann Scott, Pugwash, Pat McManus, Pony Club, Gedge, Johnny Moy, Bass Odyssey, Ham Sandwich, Katell Keineg, Villagers, The Immediate, The Pale, Duncan Patterson, Pugwash, Rob Strong, La Galaxie, Joe Rooney, Steve Wickham, Kieran Goss, Juliet Turner, Redneck Manifesto 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 in the late 90’s 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 and countless others who nearly made it. 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 , whom we both loved and followed in Dublin, for our first gig at The Stables. We then enjoyed nearly a decade booking bands. Some got it, others didn’t. 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. Any “profits” were pumped into the next gig, or used as an up-front guarantee to book a bigger act. 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 for bands became a regular thing and the fortune teller was evicted to Tommy and Miriam’s front hall. 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 true 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. Every week Dec and I would drive the country putting up posters. We must have went though miles of sellotape and an ocean of bluetack. I was writing in a local newspaper so I had access to plug the hell out of my own gigs with positive write-ups galore. We made friends with estate agents so any vacant shops or houses with good “frontage” was exclusively ours. Our friend Justin Moffat made us stickers and ended up doing the door for a few years. Marty Mulligan came back to a venue he used to book to do the lights. I became a reluctant MC and we all smoked thousands of cigarettes. It’s hard to remember the smoke, but we never needed a smoke machine in the Stables put it that way. Roy Castle would have sued the shite out of us.
They were magic days. Never to be repeated. Truly times when the music was King.
A particular highlight for me was a gig attended by about a dozen people featuring a new band formed by Whipping Boy’s Fearghal McKee. I’d 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 song 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; they once travelled the length of Ireland in a snowstorm to make it to a gig; 808 State was nuts; Mic Christopher was a gent; Kila always amazing; Joseph Arthur breaking a guitar string, taking a time out and then finding his gig taken over by Liam O’Maonlai who happened to be in the audience: “Who the fuck is this guy?” Arthur asked a capacity crowd as O’Maonlai sang as Gaelige; Ten Speed Racer rocked the venue like few other bands could; Local bands like Innate on a good night were unstoppable; Turn were majestic; The Warlords of Pez and Cormac Battle of Wilt abusing seated audiences for not rocking; Watching Graham Hopkins or Paul ‘Binzer‘ Brennan drum with dozens of bands; A Pink Floyd tribute band blowing the power on the entire street with their lighting rig; Jape turning electro nights into moshpits; The night the staff from Whelans came down for a staff do; Metal nights which always had the most mannerly, decent audiences; Dance nights which were generally demented, wonderful occasions of love, hugs and shite talk; Coaxing local legend Jimmy Broder out of retirement then hearing a pin drop as he played; The excitement of picking what music to play as the crowd came in, before acts, in between them and afterwards; Davit Kitt spilling a pint over his backing track machine; Glen Hansard and Mic Christopher arriving in for solo gigs like two gunslingers high on sugar; the tribute bands led by ‘Flash’ or the Oliver Brothers – three of the most gifted guitarists ever; The Jimmy Cake in full flight; The parties in Ivy Villa, Charlestown & wherever we ended up; A gig-swap with Master of the Universe Aidan Walsh that resulted in a pile of Mullingar bands in Dublin, then a pile of Dublin acts coming to Mullingar lead by Aidan singing ookie-kookie-kookie; Patching up a lasagne that the MacManus family dog Belle had just tucked into just before a band arrived for dinner after their soundcheck; Presenting a particularly nasty artist with flowers left behind after a funeral party…
The best nights of all usually ended up in Tommy and Miriam’s kitchen upstairs, where bands truly became part of the extended Stables and Yukon 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, then recruited a local band, Cunla, to back him for a year or two. His sax player Mel Collins wanted to bring the kitchen home, piece by piece. Adam Clayton even babysat for the MacManuses!
There were sad times too. Plenty of regulars & a few staff passed away, dear Tanya Vanderloo, the Phantom Downes and Paul Hughes among them. Musicians like Mic Christopher, Jeremy Oliver, Vinny Baker, Tony Newman, Woodstock Bob Boardman, aka ‘Beverly’ and Cani Bruton were huge losses, as was broadcaster Uaneen Fitzsimons and fellow promoter Derek Nally who both helped Dec and I in the early days.And John Martyn, who was due to play there but died. There was plenty of bands who got away too, especially Doves and Snow Patrol who were only available to us on wet Wednesdays. Never booking Robin Proper Sheppard of Sophia and The God Machine will always wrangle away at me. Not being able to afford a guarantee for Neil Halstead of Slowdive, Mark Gardener of Ride and yer man from Crowded House were real kickers, as was the missed chance to have Mike Scott play. There were loads of others who wouldn’t play to 150 people. Some of them are currently playing to less! And no one from Pink Floyd’s management team ever got back about our David Gilmour solo enquiry either!
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 and 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, Lisa Hannigan, Tomo, Vyvienne Long and Shane Fitzsimons made The Stables their ‘home’ venue for two years, before they went on to achieve massive worldwide success with the “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. We couldn’t afford the guarantee The Frames were looking for, so Dec and I somehow sweet-talked Glen into doing a few solo gigs. He had never really done solo gigs, preferring to concentrate his energies on The Frames, but he did a clutch of magical nights. He later 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. I believe he has also done a few solo shows since.
The rectangular music room was hailed by regulars on The Stables 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 above, people don’t want to pay for music anymore, and that mindset is hurting the regional live music venues. It’s not that live music is a luxury, it’s just that people don’t expect to have to pay for it – to support the artist, to support those around him or her.
Declan and I first started to notice a slide in 2007 and we began to withdraw, ultimately leaving the business when we got truly shafted by one of the big concert promoters in Ireland. It was ironic really, that the independent guys got done by the big guys, but there you go. We had made up our minds before that. Dave Mocky McGlynn and Frank Byrne bravely carried the torch for a while, as did Tommy’s son Andrew, but the gigs slowly began to peter out. We were glad to be out at the time because a local act, The Blizzards, were massive. They were a band we both had a say in in their early days when we saw these kids playing ska. It was great to see a local act ultimately do the business as we went out of business. We had nothing left. Completely cleaned out by a ruthless promoter whom we had dealt with on our terms and theirs for many years, and we both had different lives, children, jobs, mortgages. You know the drill.
Ever year though we are reunited at Electric Picnic where we help out with the Mindfield area and look after The Word stage for our friend and colleague Marty Mulligan. To see Justin Moffat do well in music management has been another huge source of pride for us. We used to wreck Andrew MacManus’s head about posters and he’s now a successful designer. Dec’s brothers have forgiven him for the slave labour!
The Stables was on the go for a decade before we took over and there are many, many memories from that time too. And, of course, The Yukon Bar itself was an institution. It was a pub of character populated by characters. In America they’d call it a dive bar, but in Ireland it was an authentic drinking parlour. It’s TV had one channel, its jukebox was packed and it was a sitting room for its many, many regulars. Declan Murray took it over for a while and gave it a fresh look. When Tommy took it back a year later he returned it to its former shabby chic.
The Yukon was the first pub for many in Mullingar. Tommy, always keen to expose people to music, would serve you at a relatively young age so long as you weren’t a messer. Many visiting acts to The Stables commented that it was a rough pub, but despite the rugged edges of some of its patrons there was never any trouble. It was a self-policed pub which the Gardaí rarely visited. Its regulars were all respected by Tommy and they ensured every customer had respect for Tommy and his staff. It was the real deal. Pints, shorts, cans of beer and cider and a place where fancy coffee was a spoon of Maxwell House with a drop of Baileys.
When music stopped at The Stables earlier this year, the old magic carried on in the Yukon front bar with four nights of music a week. But for Tommy and Miriam there was not enough trade to sustain the landmark premises.
Sadly, the live music scene in Mullingar (and probably plenty of medium-sized towns like it) has changed utterly. Pubs in Mullingar will gladly pay old Stables reliables like Damien Dempsey, The Walls, Paddy Casey and others 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 one pub or another. The acts who charge at the door have few takers. It’s a town increasingly being left off Irish tours. But there is still a thriving local scene (at least in rehearsal rooms and garages) with cracking bands coming through – The Academic the latest. Peter Doran, influenced by seeing Damien Rice, is known all over Europe. Arrow in the Sky, Cronin and more besides.
The Cavern Club ultimately made a comeback in Liverpool, but it’s hard to see something like The Stables make a comeback in a town like Mullingar.
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 and their kindness in letting others have their way with their venue, the midlands would certainly be a culturally poorer place.