Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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The Irish Pub, Turtle Bunbury & James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2008)

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P. F. Smyth
Newtown Co. Carlow

Newtown is a village with one pub, one school, one church and not a lot else. The church is one of the finest barn-type Gothic churches in Ireland with a spectacular ceiling attributed to an Italian craftsman on the run from the law. Although it still opens daily, the church’s big day is, of course, Sunday. That’s when Michael Smyth cranks up the organ and lets his knuckles ripple. For some in the flock, Michael’s distinctive style may still be echoing though their head from the night before. When not playing the organ in St Patrick’s, Michael is the proprietor and piano-player of P.F. Smyth’s, one of the last old style cabaret bars in the country.

P.F. Smyth’s is also one of Ireland’s longest family-run licensed premises, with records dating to the mid-1740s. The Smyth family descend from an English Protestant who settled locally in the mid 17th century. The present bar was built in 1821, during the watch of Robert Smyth, and incorporates the walls of a 16th century cottage. Robert’s son, Patrick Francis Smyth was born in the 1820s and operated as an auctioneer from these very premises. Astonishingly, P.F. Smyth, for whom the pub is named, was also Michael’s grandfather. How many people living today have grandfathers who were on first name terms with veterans of the Napoleonic Wars?!

Michael Smyth was born above the pub in 1926 and has lived here all his life. His likes include travel, the colour red and anything melodic from rousing Schumann to Percy French. He learned piano at the Leinster School of Music in Dublin but it was his parents who instilled his passion. His father Joseph was a fine tenor and, while managing Kennedy’s pub on Dublin’s Capel Street during the 1890s, sang for such literary greats as Bram Stoker and Sean O’Casey. Michael’s mother Annie was an accomplished violinist. An aunt taught piano in Paris; an uncle was the organist in Bagenalstown. But the musical flare extended beyond the Smyth family. Michael remembers how every farmhouse in the parish possessed a much-treasured piano during his childhood.

As a teenager, Michael played piano in the bar but, being barman, had to cease every time anyone wanted a drink. ‘And then this very old man said to me one time “you get somebody to serve the drink and you stay playing the piano’. It was arguably the best advice Michael ever received.

In time, Michael and his elder brother Patrick established ‘Smyth’s of Newtown’ as the premier music hall in County Carlow. By the late 1960s, they could no longer cope with the crowd. They extended westwards, creating a new piano lounge with the sort of pin-striped, red leather ambience you’d expect of a Roaring Twenties cruise ship. A flamboyant fermentia of Art Deco and the Drones Club, distilled with a keen Carlovian eye, this vast room seats 350 and, ‘if you didn’t come before nine on a Saturday night, you had to stand’. At its peak, six girls ran about taking orders and clearing the debris while the congregation swayed to the music. Although well off the beaten track, half a dozen distinctive signposts pointed the way from every adjoining county; planning permission courtesy of a County Manager’s wife who got lost en route one evening.

The Smyth’s jubilant reign came to an end with the toughening of Ireland’s drink-driving laws. The huntsmen who gathered in the days of the Kellistown point-to-point dared not stay long. The peaky hated farmers who frequented during quiet times also vanished. Although Saturday nights continue to raise a lively crowd, Michael believes the days of the country pub are numbered. ‘Paying rates, electricity, heating, public liability insurance … it just doesn’t add up’, he says. ‘It’s a tremendous pity because the people who come here are very civilized. None of them are ever drunk and that’s a fact. It was a great help to people who lived down lanes and in farms that they could come out here and talk and hear the news about what’s happening’.

Smyth’s busiest moments now come when mourners assemble for tea and sandwiches after a funeral in St Patrick’s Church. Michael plays the organ at such services, as he has for 35 consecutive years which is why Pope Benedict recently sent him a medal and a certificate. One such funeral was for his elder brother, wise, gentle Patrick, who died suddenly in 2004. Michael runs the pub with his younger brother Robert who was, for many years, a teacher in Paris and, before that, Algeria.

There’s something splendidly epic and ghostly about the piano lounge today, ruined brilliance drifting over empty red sofas, silent tables, stoic pillars. ‘We had a great time down through the years’, says Michael, bending his knees at the magnificent ebony grand piano he imported from Hamburg in 1972. A darkened clock gongs in empathy. ‘The piano’s lasted well’, he muses, unlocking the keyboard, ‘and it’s had a hell of a lot of playing’. His 81-year-old fingertips fall upon the ivory and a lilting saloon bar number swiftly echoes out across the floor. The tune is called ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ by Stephen Foster.

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CONTENTS

1. The Concept.
2. On the Road.
3. The Chosen Pubs.
4. Conclusions.
5. Personal Qualifications.

6. A History of the Irish Pub
.
7. Acknowledgments.

8. Media Coverage.

9. Bibliography.
10. Places to Stay.

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