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'Jesus, we're a brilliant pub, but we're a terrible off-licence': The story of Galway's legendary Blue Note bar

Malachy Duggan explains why it’s the only pub in the city with its own 30-piece choir.

IN 1994, MALACHY Duggan fell in love.

Duggan had moved to Galway to study English and History, but he got cold feet after realising how much reading was involved. Instead he got a job in the iconic GPO nightclub. One night he was asked to go to The Blue Note, a pub on the west side of the river, to collect glasses. It’s a night he can remember with total clarity.

“I was just blown away with the place. Eighteen years old, walking in, California Soul by Marlena Shaw playing over the sound system. I’d never heard music like that before. And it had the most effortlessly cool people I’d ever met behind the bar. I said ‘Someday, this is going to be mine.’”

The combination of a relaxed, communal vibe and the music, which ranged from techno to soul, had Duggan instantly smitten. It wasn’t long before he began working in The Blue Note, but eventually he moved on to manage other pubs in Dublin and Galway.
By 2007, he had quit the pub business and spent a year “lost in the 9-5 life”. When the owners of The Blue Note asked him if he wanted to become a partner, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. “Any other pub in the world and I would have said no! But this one I just couldn’t.’”

When asked what The Blue Note was like when he made his return in 2008, Duggan answers diplomatically. “It… probably needed a bit of love. It probably needed someone to go in there who absolutely loved the place and give it a bit of polish to make the most of it.”

In order to re-energise the pub, Duggan started shaking up the roster of DJs. “Everynight was I residency when I took over,” he explains. “I said wait a second, there’s loads of young blood around this town. They were itching to play because the pub has got such a status around the country. And that made the older DJs up their game as well. They realised they didn’t have a regular gig every Thursday, they had to earn it or else the young lads will take their place.”

The Blue Note has a loyal customer base that transcends generations – many of its punters are the children of those who frequented the pub in the nineties – but by 2008, there was a hint of stagnation.

Emblematic of this was the off-licence, which took up the whole front of the pub. This meant you could only access The Blue Note through a side door. “It made the place feel like an inside joke because you had to know where it was,” he says. “Now an inside joke is funny, but you have to let other people in on it as well!”

“We had to take a long look at ourselves and say “Jesus, we are a brilliant pub, but we’re a terrible off-licence’”, Duggan continues. “So let’s get rid of that and do what we do. Bring people in, and get more people hearing the music. Let them in on the joke.”

In the last decade, The Blue Note has widened its reach. Duggan is delighted to tell me that college students are making the pub their preferred spot on Tuesday nights. And all the while Duggan keeps his door open for any kind of event that will bring more people into the fold.

These shows range from one-man Shakespeare plays to jams between a string quartet and vinyl DJs. There’s even a 30 piece choir, The Blue Notes, which regularly performs in the pub. Duggan is open to any idea. Anything different, anything new. It’s what excites him the most.

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“What I love about Galway is that the best things that happen in this pub start when I get a text going ‘pal, I’ve had an idea.’ That’s how the choir came about,” he says. ‘There’s so many people in Galway who get off their arses and create things. They’re the people that make Galway what it is.”

So is this an open call at The Blue Note for any mad idea you might have? “Absolutely! We’ll try anything. I don’t know where the next thing is coming from!”

Since becoming a partner in The Blue Note, Duggan has a wealth of fond memories – the celebrations on the day of the Marriage Equality Referendum, for starters. Sometimes he can hardly believe that he’s been able to share these experiences with a community of customers.

“At the end of the year, I kind of write a Christmas letter to everybody on Facebook where I recap the year and what we did. I’m amazed every year when I think of all the things that we’ve done. And it just blows me away that people are into it.”

More: ‘When they step into the room, there’s magic’: The Grand Social’s rise from the ashes of a superpub>

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