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'I saw Ray Davies perform to 160 people here': How the Róisín Dubh became one of Ireland's must-play music venues

Once a folk pub, the Galway venue has hosted Ed Sheeran, The xx and many more.

“THERE IS MAGIC in the bones of the Róisín Dubh.”

So says Eoghan McNamara, better known as Gugai. And he would know.

The music booker took over the Galway city venue with his business partners in 2004 and helped oversee its return to form as the go-to music venue in the West of Ireland.

The Róisín first opened its doors in 1993 under John Mannion and Mark Reilly. According to Gugai, the duo had “done a tremendous job of making it one of the places to play for folk acts”. 

As the years went on, however, things ran out of steam a little bit as the owners focused on other ventures and aspects of the business. By the early 2000s, it had become a covers venue.

Around this time, Gugai was busy putting on gigs in different locations across Galway city but found himself hampered by not having a venue of his own. He approached Kevin Healy, formerly of the GPO in Salthill, to ask for advice on what to do next. 

“He came back to me and said, ‘Would you like to buy the Róisín Dubh?’ and I said, ‘If you aren’t going to take me seriously, I’ll just go and ask someone else.’ He said, ‘Sit down there.’”

And the deal was done.

Along with Simon Heaslip and Greg Healy, the pair took over the Róisín Dubh. First on the agenda was expanding the venue.

“In 2006, we completely renovated the venue,” recalls Gugai.

We made the back bigger, we put a beer garden on the roof and put a small venue upstairs. It was very pokey beforehand. It’s a much better venue now – despite people at the time telling us we were ruining it and sucking the soul out of it.

Since then, countless international acts have graced the stage of the Roisín: Ed Sheeran, The xx, Caribou, Ellie Goulding, Biffy Clyro, and Seasick Steve, to name but a tiny handful. 

Asked for some of his most memorable gigs, Gugai first cites two gigs by rock group Battles. “There was condensation dripping off the walls,” he says. “It was the loudest and hottest thing I’ve ever seen. They told me that it was one of their top three favourite shows ever.”

“I saw Ray Davies play to about 160 people. I think I was crying during one of the songs.”

And that’s before you get to Franz Ferdinand, Why? and The Zombies. 

Sound eclectic? That’s because it is.

The Róisín Dubh prides itself on welcoming people aged “18-70” and plays hosts to all sorts of nights, including the club’s signature night, Strange Brew.

The now iconic club night was started by Gugai in The Warwick Hotel in 2002 and continues to go strong after all these years. (Gugai now runs his own record label of the same name and looks after artists like Daithí, Elaine Mai, Squarehead and Paddy Hanna.)

“We have a huge variety of things and we work with lots of local promoters to use the upstairs room. We give them that room for free to put gigs on,” explains Gugai.

“There’s a good melting pot of people using it.”

We have hip hop nights, techno nights, indie clubs. The best open mic in Galway is on Sundays here. Little Cinema do a short film showcase there. We have a bingo night. Kevin, my business partner, runs the comedy side of things. 

What is it about the Róisín Dubh that keeps artists and fans alike coming back again and again? 

“It’s the venue, the customers, the staff. We try to treat people very well there. We like to make them feel at home when they get there. People like coming back to us. I don’t know if anyone has ever really had a bad gig at the Roisin.”

I know many people hold it dear to their hearts. A lot of bands who play there go to see gigs and go there to listen to music. They feel very loyal towards it.

In short, it’s all about the memories.

“The ones you can remember and the ones you can’t,” he jokes.

More: ‘Every weekend we have a brilliant buzz’: How Dali rose from the ashes of the legendary Pav>

More: ‘We just had to let it be’: The Belfry reopened a long-lost local shuttered for years>

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