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Thursday, 14th September 2023

Carberry’s, once a mecca for Irelands' finest musicians, alas is silent now

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By Sean Collins

Today the doors are locked, the lights are off and the place is shrouded in silence, back in the 1970’s though, Carberry’s pub on the North Strand was buzzing with conversation and laughter and the sound of live traditional music rang out down the street.  

Following the discovery of an old photograph (see above) in his father Michael’s collection an old friend, Terry Collins, once asked me whereabouts in Drogheda was Maguire’s bar? 

I told Terry he had photographed Mr. Maguire’s granddaughter on many occasions, at that time she was still alive and well and best known as Bean Ni Chairbre. 

Carberry’s was the mecca in 1970’s Drogheda, an old hostelry where history, music, and the cúpla focail seeped from the walls and particularly the ceiling in the bar which was papered with posters of the cream of Irish musicians who had payed there. 

The Bean an Tighe, Caitlin Ni Chairbre, with the help of her daughters Aine and Roisin, was a member of an old Drogheda family who had held a license on the premises for nearly a century. 

As well as being a publican, Caitlin was a Gaelgoir, Historian, Antiquarian, Scholar and the greatest ambassador Drogheda ever had. 

A licensed-premises was first noted on the North Strand or Back Strand in 1832, the merchant was named as Duncan Campbell. By the mid 1870s it was owned by John McCormack, and in January 1887 it was acquired by brothers, Michael and John Maguire. 

John Maguire was a master carpenter by trade but he was also the local agent for the “Inman Line” which ran steamers to New York and the “Cunard Royal Mail” steamers also trans-Atlantic. 

So, if you needed a ticket to emigrate as many did in the 1800s, Maguire’s was the starting point of your journey to a new life. 

Both John and his wife Maryanne died in the early 1900s, leaving the premises in the hands of their eldest daughter Kathleen who was now the licensed publican but she also had five siblings to help rear. 

Cairbre's pub as it is roday - the doors locked and the place silent. Will we ever hear the sound of music and laughter coming from its rickety doors again?

Kathleen was a strong and independent woman with staunch republican views. A report held in the British Archives [1922] describes her as a member of Cumann na mBan, also describing her brother Dominic as a lieutenant in the I.R.A. Dominic, a school teacher and Gaelic scholar, stood as a Sinn Fein candidate in the 1920 local elections. 

Kathleen Maguire later married Thomas Lyons and they continued to run the premises until Kathleen’s death in 1961. Their daughter Caitlin Lyons, a librarian by profession, married Patsy Carberry, and they became the new licensees. A golden era was about to begin in the pub, one that would attract visitors of note from far and wide. 

Carberry’s was the place to go in Drogheda in the 1970’s, especially if you were interested in Irish music and fond of good conversation. 

I vividly remember listening to the dulcet tones of Liz King and Jim McArdle, ably supported by Tom Sullivan on the accordion, who liked a drop of “Barnatten” in his whiskey, Mick Griffin and his father on fiddle and guitar, and another Mick Griffin, a Limerick man on bodhran. 

It was not my first time in Carberry’s, having enjoyed a wonderful Summer of Tuesday night sessions there, but it was the first time I was of legal age. My pal Frank Duffy was still under age but Rosario O’Connor had been legal a long time - she was much older than us! 

We recognized Liz King as the lead singer with ‘Square Penny” a popular local band who had once been on a tour of “Quebec”, how exotic was that? Well, it was in 1972. Once at the Ierne Ballroom, under her stage name of Sharon Kingsley she brought the house down with a belting version of the “Stones” classic, ‘Paint it Black’. 

At Carberry’s she sang songs from Kate and Anna McGarrigle, perhaps she heard them in Quebec. The McGarrigles performed a sell-out concert in 1976 at the National Boxing Stadium in Dublin, no O2s or Points then. Liz sang the songs so well, with strong support from Jim they could have been their own. I still enjoy the McGarrigals, Ogy does too. 

The Carberry family had always encouraged Irish music and Gaelic culture in their premises and I once asked a Carberry’s veteran where did all this music and culture start out from, he advised; 

“From what I can recall my first venture to the Back Strand or Carberrys was about 1965/66. I was at that time singing in a ballad group with my older brother Patsy, Pat Walsh’s and different guitar players collectively called The Dale Folk Four.

Kathleen Carberry with daughters Roisín and Aine. Photo: Terry Collins.

Fergus O’Dowd took me down and introduced me to the Bean who knew who I was on account of my connection to the Grogan family, my mother being a niece of Larry and Tommy. 

There were already a number of people with interests in Irish music, culture, language etc who were regular visitors to the pub and these included Sean Corcoran, Gerry Cullen, Brian Leahy, Cecil Pobjoy, Frank Mooney, Sean Murray, Nicholas Carolan, Dermot Lynch and his brother Peter. 

At that time there was little if any music in the bar but there was always a few tunes in the kitchen late in the evening. Many of the guys, it was primarily a male haunt in the early days, were at college in Dublin during the week so sessions were mainly at the weekends in the beginning. 

Summer was also a slack time musically as the custom was for the college guys to head to London to works in Walls ice-cream or sausage factories to subsidise college expenses for the coming year. 

The folk clubs in Soho were a regular visiting spot for these guys where the very best of worldwide folk talent was available in late night sessions and where many of the English and harmony songs that you hear sung around Drogheda were first heard, not to mention the visiting US artists to added to the local repertoire. LP’s of many of these singers and musicians found their way to the back kitchen where some were played to extinction. 

Alongside the music happens in Carberry’s The Old Drogheda Society was getting in to full swing and Sunday trips to various interesting sites were regular happenings with myself, Peter Lynch, Brian Leahy, Claire Corcoran, amongst others providing music from the back of the bus on the journeys. 

Ballad competitions nationwide were regular events at that time and various combinations of Peter Lynch, Aine, Brian, Helen Ryan myself singing songs that we practiced in the kitchen were heard in places such as Wexford, Mullingar and Oldcastle competing in these competitions, and occasionally winning a couple of quid in prize money. 

I cannot recall exactly when the music transitioned from the kitchen to the bar but I do recall, around the turn of the 60’S into the 70’s, a group of us, Brian Leahy, Jim McArdle, Frank Mooney, Peter Lynch, Sean Faulkner included, were playing a regular session in The Millmount Bar and we moved down to the Back Strand for what morphed into the famous Tuesday Night in Carberry’s. 

At roughly the same time there was an influx of musicians and singers into Drogheda, some of them teachers but also a group of guys who were working on the building of the new cement plant at Platin. The Platin contingent Initially played in Leahy’s Pub, [now Boyle’s Bookmakers] in Shop Street but eventually moved to the Back Strand with the rest of us which included Liz Leahy, Niamh Carberry, Claire Corcoran, Helen Ryan, John Crilly and Paddy Carolan and a flute player Mick Slattery who made his way from Tipperary via Platin to Carberry’s. 

While the Tuesday night session attracted some numbers to Carberry’s, in my recall it was the starting of Feile na Boinne in 1976/77 that really propelled the pub to the forefront of the traditional music scene in Ireland and indeed further afield. Indeed it was at the first Feile that Paul Brady got a “clip” on the jaw while trying to get order for singers in the Whitworth Hall, he subsequently joined in the early evening session in the pub.

Liz King and Jim McArdle were regulars in the Carberry's sessions.

All the known traditional musicians home or abroad eventually made their way to the Back Strand. Somewhere along the way Sunday morning sessions became popular and these were also legendary. Rose O’Connor from Dundalk would regularly bring a somewhat overcrowded car load of her children, and others to these sessions. 

An early version of the Dublin group General Humbert would drop down to these sessions also, be “locked in” from 2 until 4, when the pub was closed and then play on in the pub until around teatime. Appropriately as it was Sunday, Fr. Jim Kiely acted as spiritual director! The great English singer/guitarist Nic Jones popped in one Sunday morning and sang a couple of songs. 

Jim McArdle and Liz King along with Tom Sullivan were the mainstays of the Sunday morning sessions while the early Voice Squad of Gerry Cullen, Fran McPhail and Brian Leahy we’re always a joy to hear. 

It was not unusual on a Sunday evening in the 1970’s,  to have a game of rings going on to the left hand side of the fireplace with the locals, McLoughlins, the Rafferty brothers, Byrnes mainly involved there. A poker session with amongst others Fergus O’Dowd, Kevin Coyle, Willie Bryant and his brother Kevin, Tom McGuinness, Danny Everett, Peter Gillen and myself, while Jim McArdle, Brian Leahy and Frankie Lane, who used travel up from Dublin on a motorbike with his guitar strapped on his back playing and singing in the corner to the right hand side of the fireplace. A standout for me of these nights was for Johnny Healy to insist on at least one Johnny Cash number being sung - small but good memories”. 

Side by side with all the Gaelic culture other musical disciplines found a home in Carberry’s. The local balladeer, Wally Murphy and Esso Smith, a fine tin-whistle player, entertained many a worker’s morning session there. 

The “Caradas” group promoting the true Gaelic tongue, had a weekly session there on Wednesdays. A unique event in Carberry’s was the “Snuff in the Snug Festival”, twhich was an annual event for at least two years sponsored by those purveyors of quality tobacco snuff “McCrystals”. Organised by Patsy Flanagan who had given up marching and one Michael Reilly who has since changed his name to protect the innocent, and somebody called Alec, or was it Brendan from Waterford or was it Clones?. 

Inspired by their success they also had Annual reunions [tuxedos only] like all good pubs in Drogheda did. On one adventure this group of Carberry regulars took a wrong turn at the Tholsel and ended up in a cottage at Glenmore in the Boyne Valley. Res, Zip, Jaffa, Frog, Janette, Kiko, Deirdre, Dusty, Bug and that Reilly guy, so the local paper notes, but you can’t believe all you read in the papers or can you? 

In their spare time they all played with Carberry’s in the annual Summer League, with Richie Kelly and Dusty shining for the side with Ged, Horsey, Buda, Reido, Milish, Maggot, and a goalkeeper called Lynch whom the local paper said once dropped the ball, with a winning goal from Michael Kierans they won the Summer League with a cast of thousands. 

Another Carberry’s sporting occasion was the "Geebahobi Race" which was a runing race from the grotto in Baltray back to the pub. One of the statues, I forget which, was the offical winner one year!

Roisin particularly enjoyed this bunch when she joined them on a Friday night and they all boogied and rocked at “Joey Mahers”. 

In the nineties composer Michael Holohan, became a regular the only problem was you’d never knew who he would turn up with, a Nobel Laureate, a politician, a few poets of national acclaim, even a number of radicalised Augustinians. Creating inspirational music with the ongoing support of local poet, Susan Connolly.

Square Penny with Liz King n the foreground.

Phil and Brian Conygham found Carberry’s very receptive to their beloved and lamented Samba Festival, a mainstay of the town’s social scene for over twenty years. Drogheda was lucky Phil left “Fairhill” and fell in love on a beach in some exotic place, and with Brian samba..ed their way to Drogheda and Carberry’s. 

Paddy [Dan] Lenihan would recite a poem from Francis Ledwidge as only he could and Ide would keep us all in check. On Sunday mornings you could rub shoulders with the State Solicitor, or a Circuit Court President [no wolfing here], his buddy the Company Commander, and the entrepreneur Mossie McKenna and a bank manager called Peter O’Leary if he wasn’t playing golf. 

Jim and Liz were still playing the music with Hugh Murphy on Bodhran and “Buckshot” on the banjo. Gerry O’Connor and the lovely Eithne popped in when not touring with La Lugh. Jimmy Kelly returned from many years in exile, as a hero of the Drogheda community in London, and regularly sojourned there. Caitlin continued to call for “ciunas”. 

The Carberry legacy still carries on with the Cacks, the Dregs, Reynardine, the Watery Hill Boys, and Stonecold Hobo having roots in the pub. Donal Black, SJ McArdle, Niall McAvinia, Shane O’Brien and my old pal Zappa Cummins are still belting out an odd song. 

Sadly in 2001 Caitlin passed away, Paul Murphy in the local paper noted how she had adopted so many visitors through her door over the years, helping the stranger find Carberry’s and Drogheda, welcoming places.

Thanks Sean for the recall, Terry for the pictures. Remembering Caitlin Ni Chairbre, Liz King, and Roisin Carberry and all the generations…..there is perhaps a flicker of hope that these great days will come again.

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