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Dublin: 16°C Saturday 2 July 2022

'I'd have it even darker than this': Dive bar magic and an ex-wife's shoes in Frank Ryan's

From a traditional ‘Guinness and the radio’ bar to something quite different.

BACK IN 2005, bar manager Tadhg Coughlan was looking for a job following the closure of the nightclub at Sachs hotel.

“I’ve been in bars most of my life,” he says. Before that he ran the bar in the live music venue at Moran’s hotel, where all the legendary up and coming bands like Thin Lizzy and the Boomtown Rats played, he says.

He was looking for work when he bumped into an old friend from his teenage days, Kevin Fitzsimons, a hotelier – who mentioned that Frank Ryan was leasing his pub.

Coughlan headed down to Stoneybatter to check it out. Back then, Frank Ryan’s was a traditional ‘old man’s pub’, he says. There were a few locals who sat at the bar drinking Guinness most days and the only music was the radio, he recalls.

He decided to rent the bar and knew he would have to make some drastic changes. “I had to make it into somewhere where I could work,” he says.

By turning off the white, electric lights it instantly created atmosphere and privacy. He chose candles in red holders, red fairy lights and beautiful ornate lampshades. The look is reminiscent of the 1920s and the lighting makes the whole bar feel like its enveloped in a red glow.

The only problem is that it can be hard to see where you are going. “I’d have it even darker than this,” says Coughlan, who must relish a good power cut.

He started burning some light incense then too. Including music as a theme in the decorations, he soon got rid of the old radio in place of his own playlist of soul, blues and jazz.

“I didn’t change the DNA of the pub,” he says. He refurbished the toilets, which were in a pretty bad way, while conserving as many of the original features as possible. He gestures to old signage, licence plates, plaques and Guinness clocks, which have been there since the former owner.

An archaic silver till still sits behind the bar, Coughlan reckons it dates back from around the 1950s, and that it was likely the same till the bartender used at the time. Back then the pubs was called McCann’s and in the 1960s it was Billy Lavelle’s, he says.

Back in the 50s and 60s Stoneybatter was full of pubs, he says as it was the largest market area in Ireland. Hence the phrase: ‘Going on the batter’ was born from the Stoneybatter area of Dublin, he says.

Frank Ryan bought the pub in the late 1970s. Coughlan points out some more items of memorabilia that have stood the test of time. From the ceiling hang pairs of men’s boots and just one pair of lady’s leopard print high heel sandals. The ex-husband of the owner took them to spite his wife when they separated, because they were her favourite shoes – or so the story goes.

Coughlan picks up bits and pieces in markets and second-hand shops wherever he goes. He was wandering around the shops and market stalls in Portobello Road in London, when he spotted a large saxophone mounted on a sign that said Jazz and Blues.
At the time he admired it but didn’t buy it, he says. But then back in Frank Ryan’s pub, he was sitting down when he noticed a gap in the wall where the saxophone-ornament would fit perfectly.

He immediately took to Google Maps to locate the shop, then logged on to Facebook where he convinced a friend in London to go in and buy it before organising shipment to Dublin.

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A soulful, dimlit bar which also features aspects of a traditional Irish pub, Frank Ryan’s has a unique appeal, and unsurprisingly has been used as a backdrop for filming movies and television shows while most recently in a Jameson whiskey ad, he says.

The Guinness has an excellent reputation and Coughlan insists that is due to him cleaning the pipes himself every 10 days, rather than relying on the brewery to complete the job. “You shouldn’t notice when the pipes have been cleaned,” he says. If you do it means that they are not cleaned often enough, he suggests.

Soon after he took over the pub, he started doing live blues and soul sessions every Thursday. Ed Deane on guitar, Noel Bridgeman on drums and Tommy Moore on base, he says. “Those guys are the real thing.”

He recalls a memory from his youth, a time where popular rock and soul music wasn’t even played on Irish radio, the airwaves were filled with country and trad. As such music fans relied on friends for information about records and gigs, he says.

When he took over Frank Ryan’s he never advertised but likewise depended on word of mouth. If it’s good people will tell their friends, he says, and that is how the pub quickly gained a reputation after he changed it.

Coughlan says he has photos upstairs of Thin Lizzy playing at Morans – the live music venue where he ran the bar in the 70s. He guides me to upstairs to rummage for a picture.

He can’t find that but there are two rooms stacked high with tonnes more paraphernalia, including a black metal Guinness train that a small child could sit in, as well as plaques, CDs, band posters, paintings and countless more Guinness clocks.

“One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure,” he says.

More: ‘It’s humbling’: How a little-used pool hall become one of Dublin’s most exciting music venues>

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