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Dublin: 13 °C Saturday 23 February, 2019
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'You could be sitting beside a biker or a priest': How the Spirit Store makes for a special brew

The Dundalk institution, still going strong after two decades.

FOR NEARLY 20 years, Spirit Store has played an important role in the cultural fabric of the North East. Over the years, the bar and music venue has welcomed everyone from The Frames to Snow Patrol through its doors and is frequently cited among the best music venues in the country.

It all started in 1999 when owner Mark Deerey approached Derek Turner about turning a small quayside pub, which had lain dormant for thirty years, into a music venue.

“With the size of it upstairs, it was really only a small folk club with only 60 capacity,” recalls Turner, who at the time had just moved to Dundalk from Dublin to open a recording studio. But they put their heads together and persisted, and Spirit Store officially opened in October 1999.

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The pub itself has a warm, homely feel, thanks in no small part to the fact that the downstairs area was once a person’s house. There have been three extensions over the years, which have seen the main venue’s capacity multiply from 60 to 230. Maintaining the building’s character was always of paramount importance, however.

“What we’ve tried to achieve with each build is to try and maintain the rustic, natural charm of the bilding and the quayside while still modernising the building as well,” explains Turners. “We have the original sash windows. There are little snugs and pokey places to sit quietly. I like that charm in a pub. I don’t like huge, vast, open areas.”

One of the building’s more striking features is its shocking pink exterior. The pub has always been painted in “bright, slightly garish colours,” says Turner. This latest paint job was completed a few years ago and inspired by the Giro d’Italia, which passed through Ireland in 2014. Dundalk was among the towns featured on the route and the pub decided to spruce itself up in honour of the occasion.

The leader of the Giro famously wears a pink jersey and Spirit Store took it upon themselves to seek out the Pantone shade of the pink in question. Once they located it, they painted it pink and it’s been that way ever since. Turner reckons the place is due for a touch up soon, but has yet to settle on what shade it will be.

As for the customer base, Turner says it’s “extremely varied”.

“You could be sitting beside a biker or a priest,” he says. “A young man, an old hipster, all walks of life. A lot of foreign nationals from the local factories would drink here. It’s quite a mixture of different people and different cultures.”

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Of course, Spirit Store is chiefly known for being one of the country’s top live venues and Turner estimates they have put on three and a half thousand gigs since opening.

They put on an diverse selection of events – everything from folk to comedy to BirdWatch Ireland. This is a deliberate choice, says Turner, who says that the programming has to be as eclectic as possible to keep things ticking over.

“We wouldn’t survive and thrive on the music community in Dundalk alone,” he says.

Music is still the venue’s bread and butter, though, and Turner prides himself on running a venue that respects artists.

“I always try to say to young staff members to treat every show as important as the next show,” says Turner. “It doesn’t matter if there are only ten people at the show. It’s very important to treat the artist very, very well.”

“If there’s only twenty or thirty people and it’s essentially a failure, it’s important that they feel welcomed by the audience and staff.”

Turner has some firsthand knowledge of what it’s like for artists having toiled in the music business for many years. When he was gigging, he recalls performing in venues like Connolly’s of Leap and Lobby Bar in Cork. Even if the gigs weren’t runaway successes, he says he felt respected by the venue and that’s what he wants to impart to artists now.

“I know what it’s like to be penniless on the road and trying to be creative,” he says. “We have an affinity with the artist.”

As a small venue, Spirit Store has been there for the beginning of many artists’ careers. For instance, Turner recalls having Conor O’Brien of Villagers and Bell X1 performing in the venue back when they were young whippersnappers. While both artists have since achieved enormous success, they have continued to perform in the venue where possible.

“It’s lovely to see the growth of artists and to be a part of it,” he says. “And it’s lovely when they come to back to you when they don’t need to.”

Turner says Spirit Store continues to nurture young artists today and points to hotly tipped folk singer songwriter David Keenan as an example of a musician who got his start in the venue.

“I gave David a gig when he was only fifteen,” he says. “You try to encourage them with their artform and there’s a stage there any time they need it.”

“We’re a rung on the ladder for creative young people in the area. We do our best to promote and help young artists.”

I like to think we’re a stepping stone.

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Amy O'Connor

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