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Dublin: 7°C Sunday 29 November 2020

A colourful character, a progressive and a lover of arts. Goodbye to Tommy Smith of Grogan’s

Smith, who passed away on Sunday, was part of the fabric of Dublin life, writes Donal Fallon.

Donal Fallon Historian, writer and broadcaster

ON DUBLIN’S HARRY Street, McDaid’s public house emerged in the 1950s as the literary pub of the capital.

On any given day, one could walk through it and encounter Anthony Cronin, Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, John Ryan or Flann O’Brien deep in conversation or debate.

What had once been just another Dublin pub was transformed by the presence of John Ryan, editor of The Envoy magazine, who took up a kind of residence of sorts there.

If you wanted to write for The Envoy, you made your way to McDaid’s and asked for John. In the words of Brendan Behan’s finest biographer, Michael O’Sullivan, it was quite simply “Dublin’s literary Mecca.” 

The barman

Behind the bar was Paddy O’Brien, a Dublin barman whose reputation would reach mythical proportions, owing to his ability to maintain peace amidst some of the greatest egos and eccentrics one literary scene could produce.

O’Brien was broadly respected by McDaid’s clientele. In 1972, when O’Brien parted ways with McDaid’s, Tommy Smith swooped in and offered him a job as head barman in Grogan’s.

The rest is history, and Grogan’s has remained Dublin’s chief literary public house since even boasting a ‘Unesco: City Of Literature’ plaque on its front door. 

Tommy and the arts

Cavan born Tommy Smith, who died on Sunday morning, was a renaissance man who seemed to live several lives in one.

A passionate supporter of the arts, and Irish artists, in particular, he would hang art in Grogan’s pub commission-free, providing space to emerging and established artists on an equal basis.

In a city where galleries can take a commission of up to fifty per cent, this was a lifeline to many.

Celebrated artists like Brian McMahon (who first suggested to Tommy that art should hang on the wall) share space with teenage screen printers in Grogan’s, all of it contributing to the atmosphere of the pub.

As an art collector, Tommy amassed an incredible collection that includes many of the greats of Irish history, including Kernoff, O’Sullivan and Yeats. 

Together with his business partner Paddy Kennedy, Smith created an environment which could entice the old-guard of McDaid’s, while also attracting a new and younger generation of artists and writers.

A lover of poetry

Liam Brady, an IRA veteran who had been interned in the Curragh, was remembered as “leading the march across what was then a rubble car park (now the Westbury Hotel) to Grogan’s on South William Street.”

Liam, a talented fiddle player, would sometimes play in Grogan’s, while Kathleen Behan, mother of Brendan, had the very rare special dispensation of being allowed sing on the premises.

Tommy’s admiration of the arts extended to poetry, and the great poet Michael Hartnett became a regular in Grogan’s. Tommy was a committed supporter of Poetry Ireland and independent poetry and literary publications, and an eagle eye would spot Grogan’s advertisements in publications as diverse as The Stinging Fly and Totally Dublin over the years.

He was a quiet patron of many poets and painters.

Stained glass

Proof of Tommy’s commitment to the arts can be found at either end of the bar in the beautiful stained glass windows by Katherine Lambe, a recent graduate of the National College of Art and Design in the early 1990s when Smith asked her to capture the regulars of the bar.

Inspired by the majestic work of Harry Clarke, one window captures ‘the day people’ and the other ‘the night people’. If you look closely, you may find local politicians, artists, journalists and stage actors amidst the faces depicted in them. 

The magic of Grogan’s in many ways was – and is – in its simplicity. The absence of a television or radio (the man whose name is over the door today, previous owner Joe Grogan, had bragged in 1960s advertisements of the presence of a television in the pub) ensures that conversation flows.

Tommy maintained that people would not sit in silence and that in the absence of piped music or endless horse racing, the sound of chatter would fill the pub.

Smith and Kennedy kept much of the appearance of the pub as Joe Grogan before them had it, and there is a certain charm in the aged wood panelling and the like today, though the door dividing lounge and bar is no more. 

A republican

A committed republican over many decades, Tommy was unashamedly progressive in his politics, and deeply anti-sectarian.

He could recount stories from his childhood in Cavan of religious division along the border and within its towns and villages and was particularly inspired by the message of Tone and the United Irishmen.

During the years of the vicious republican splits in Dublin, when violence between various groups reached a crescendo in the 1970s, Grogan’s remained a space where all felt comfortable, one contemporary remembering it to me jokingly as the “war office”.

In later years, Tommy joked about the presence of Special Branch men at the door in those very different times, remembering “they were there to keep an eye on us.” The curious mix of republicans, branch men, painters, poets, writers, bohemians and more besides all contributed to the atmosphere no doubt.

Immortalised by Christy Moore

Remembering the Grogan’s of the 1970s, Christy Moore has written that “There were off-duty pimps and brassers and robbers and thieves, poets, actors, dossers, chancers, saints and spoiled priests with actresses, but you could not sing”. 

Smith was also actively involved in the Ireland Institute, the refurbished home of Patrick and William Pearse on Pearse Street, which hosts a wide variety of cultural and historical events.

His absence will be felt not only on South William Street but in galleries, theatres, meeting halls and bookshops across the capital, where he was ever-present.

Smith will be remembered for maintaining a public house in which a wide variety of Dublin characters felt welcome, but in the end, he will be remembered as one himself. 

Donal Fallon is a Dublin-based historian. He produces the Three Castles Burning podcast, an episode of which explores the history of Grogan’s. 



About the author:

Donal Fallon  / Historian, writer and broadcaster

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