The brickie who gave ballads a home

Mick McCarthy, who has died in his 86th year, was once described by The Irish Times as "a publican, trade unionist, father-figure…

Mick McCarthy, who has died in his 86th year, was once described by The Irish Times as "a publican, trade unionist, father-figure of the Irish ballad-singing world and all-round pinch of salt of the earth". A bricklayer by trade, he is best known for his role in the ballad boom of the 1960s.

His pub, The Embankment in Tallaght, was one of Dublin's top live music venues. It provided a showcase for singers and musicians such as Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem, Danny Doyle, the Dublin City Ramblers, Pecker Dunne, the Furey Brothers and Davy Arthur, Jim McCann, Paddy Reilly and Planxty.

McCarthy's brother, Seán, an accomplished singer/songwriter, was a regular performer. Luke Kelly had a special place in McCarthy's heart, and The Dubliners had a residency that lasted almost 20 years. But there was more to The Embankment than ballads - McCarthy also staged plays and presented cabaret.

He scored a major coup when he persuaded Mícheál Mac Liammóir to perform his one-man show there, having reminded him that Oscar Wilde had entertained miners in the American west. The show was a spectacular success. He afterwards organised a fund-raiser for the Mac Liammóir/Edwards Foundation, which provided scholarships for aspiring actors.

Niall Toibin took his first one-man show to Tallaght and remembered McCarthy as a brilliant raconteur, telling stories of "his days as a shop-steward in Belfast during the war, when he brought the building workers on a US army base out on strike, and lived to tell the tale".

Mick McCarthy was born on April 20th, 1918, in Listowel, Co Kerry, one of the 10 children of Ned McCarthy and his wife, Maggie (née Roche). His father was the caretaker and groundsman of St Michael's College, and the family lived in the gate lodge.

He attended the Presentation Convent, and he completed his education at the local national school, where the writer Bryan MacMahon taught.

His mother was a member of Cumann na mBan, and the family home was raided by the Black and Tans; two of his uncles were imprisoned during the Civil War. McCarthy never lost his republicanism, although he adhered to the left and favoured persuasion over coercion - particularly in relation to Northern Ireland.

He played Gaelic football as a boy and in his teens took up the popular rural pastime of poaching. He also enjoyed the house dances run by one of his uncles. But, because there was a small admission charge, these were deemed to be in contravention of the Public Dance Halls Act and were banned by the Garda Síochána. A neighbour was in no doubt as to who was responsible: "Not a Sunday passes but the priests are ranting and raving about the house dances."

At 14 he found work with a building contractor and he later tried his hand at metalwork locally. When work dried up, he left home and travelled to Limerick, where he hoped to join the Army. However, new recruits were not being accepted, and he stowed away on a cattle-boat bound for Liverpool. From there he hitched to London.

After a stint as a messenger, he got a job as a tea-boy on a building site. A bricklayer took him under his wing and he learned "Flemish bond and an old English bond, how to spread mortar, how to use a hammer and chisel, and how to cut closures".

At the outset of his apprenticeship, he joined the bricklayers' union. With fellow-members, he was in the thick of things at the "Battle of Cable Street" - when anti-fascist demonstrators sought to prevent Sir Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts marching into the East End - and was injured and hospitalised. He was caught up in other battles, too. The political climate of the 1930s meant that strikes were hard-fought, with no quarter given by either side.

However, it was not all work and no play. McCarthy made the most of life in north London and socialised in the pubs and dancehalls of Cricklewood and Willesden. Mixing in boxing circles, he encountered some colourful characters, among them Jack Doyle. At the funeral of a promoter, who had died in violent circumstances, he commented on the large attendance to the boxer Billy Wilde: "A very big crowd." Wilde agreed. "I'd say about half of them from the Murder Squad."

Still in his teens, McCarthy married in 1936; he was just 19 when the first of two sons was born. During the second World War he served with the RAF in west Africa, where he excelled as a champion middle-distance runner. Returning to Belfast, he became chairman of the bricklayers' union.

By the 1950s he was, with Martin Brown, a partner in a building business in Dublin. Attracted to the licensed trade, he bought Kate Kennedy's Embankment in Tallaght and transformed a country pub into a popular entertainment complex. Having sold The Embankment in the 1980s, he ran The Lady Gregory in Jervis Street for a few years.

A theatre enthusiast, he helped Deirdre O'Connell set up the Focus Theatre. He readily made The Embankment available for benefit gigs. Ever loyal to the trade union movement, during the British miners' strike in the 1980s he organised a group of Irish musicians to tour mining communities. Later, in 1988, he helped the Dublin Council of Trade Unions to celebrate its centenary.

Predeceased by his wife, Kitty, and son Michael, he is survived by his son Lionel, brother Eddie and sister Auna .

Mick McCarthy: born April 20th, 1918; died April 4th, 2004