Blacking Vocals – Frank McNally on the wisdom of singing bans in pubs

An Irishman’s Diary

“In fairness, the singers were good customers. Along with songs, they were murdering large quantities of drink.”   Photograph: Dara MacDonaill

“In fairness, the singers were good customers. Along with songs, they were murdering large quantities of drink.”   Photograph: Dara MacDonaill

 

I was slightly concerned over the weekend to learn that one of my favourite Dublin pubs, the Gravediggers in Glasnevin, has introduced a credit card machine. That in itself does not mark the end of civilisation. My worry was that it might be the thin end of a wedge by which this famously purist bar admits other technological intruders, like televisions and piped music.

No danger of those, I’m glad to report. The proprietors assure me that having TVs on the premises remains as unthinkable as when it first opened, a year after the adjoining cemetery, in 1833. Apart from conversation, still strongly encouraged, a ring-board remains the pub’s only concession to entertainment. Crucially, the fatwa on singing continues too.

That was lifted once, in the mid-1970s, around the time of the oil crisis. Not that there was any connection between those events. Letting customers sing was part of the general decadence of that period. The results were unhappy and the ban was soon restored.

This in time led to an incident now inscribed in the pub’s oral history. It may even have happened. The story goes that in 1985, after Luke Kelly’s funeral, surviving members of the Dubliners and other mourners, including U2, repaired to the Gravediggers for refreshment. 

Throats were cleared and a singing session for the ages might have ensued. Instead, the then proprietor, Eugene Kavanagh, reminded everyone of the rule, and that there were no exceptions. Otherwise, he added, pointing to a group of regulars: “They’ll want to sing tomorrow, and they haven’t a note in their heads”.

***

The wisdom of this was underlined in another Dublin pub on Saturday. It was a very different kind of establishment, one with wall-to-wall screens. And I have to confess, TV was the only reason I was there: to watch the rugby.

But the bar also happened to be hosting a hen party, which despite the earliness of the hour – mid-afternoon – was in Vienna Boys Choir mode. Well they had similar pitch, at least. Their ability to hold, or indeed agree on, a note was where they fell short. The sheer violence they were inflicting on a series of harmless songs must have been a crime under the public order acts.

I thought the management would intervene. After all, they keep the TVs on low volume out of respect for those with sport allergies. Yet the choral massacre continued undisturbed. 

In fairness, the singers were good customers. Along with songs, they were murdering large quantities of drink.  

Unlike me: I was dragging an expensive pint of craft beer out as long as it would last. Which wasn’t as long as usual, thanks to the choir. One of us had to go, eventually. The pub didn’t seem to mind that it was me.

***

If your new year resolutions survived the weekend, congratulations. January 12th is the date, traditionally, when such things start to lapse. Once past that hump, you’re already ahead of the curve. As for my main resolution – to learn Italian by phone app – I’m still averaging 30 minutes a day.   At this rate, I’ll be reading Dante’s Inferno in the original by Easter.

Also at the weekend, and still on the theme of self-improvement, I spent a similar period running around a field, or several, in darkest Kilkenny. The occasion was the Leinster Masters Cross-Country Championships, where I was again on a team in the fiercely competitive Men-Old-Enough-To-Have-More-Sense category.  

A well-wishing absentee had jokingly referred to us beforehand as “thoroughbreds”: a description we judged more than usually apt when the venue at first appeared to be Gowran Park racecourse.  

On closer inspection, it turned out we would be running on a farm beside the course, on land whose livestock were less noted for athleticism.

The ubiquitous cattle hoof-prints, hardened by dry weather, made the race a Dantesque experience, especially for those of us who were practicing Italian verbs as a distraction technique.  

On the plus side, we only had to do three laps, not Dante’s nine.

Afterwards, lunch in the village was accompanied by a well-earned pint. Not caring for the usual draught beers, I asked if they might have bottles of a named German import, and was pleasantly surprised when they did. Then I realised this was only because it comes in a non-alcoholic variety – for designated drivers – which is what they served me. I wasn’t driving, but drank it anyway. It tasted like a new year’s resolution although, happily, it’s much too late for this one.

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