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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
story of my pub

'If we build here, we'll have to build around you': How The Cobblestone became a traditional icon in a changing Dublin

Smithfield has seen whole urban landscapes come and go – but the Cobblestone is still there.

FOR THE LAST thirty years, Tom Mulligan has been running The Cobblestone in Smithfield. Over the past few years, the pub has gained a reputation for being one of the city’s leading spots for traditional music. Acquiring that rep took was something of a slow burn.

“Being honest with you, we became an overnight success after about twenty five years here,” says Mulligan. “If you go back five or six years, that’s when it all started to happen.”

Mulligan took over the pub in 1988 having left a job in the insurance industry. “I just got into it by accident,” he recalls. For many years, the pub opened at seven o’clock in the morning and was a self-described “market pub” with locals forming darts teams and pool teams.  

With the redevelopment of Smithfield on the horizon, Mulligan sensed it was time for a change. The son of a renowned fiddler and piper from Co Leitrim, Mulligan grew up steeped in traditional music. His siblings include well-known piper Néillidh Mulligan while his children and grandchildren are all avid musicians in their own right. With that in mind, he decided to turn The Cobblestone into a music pub.

“We started off with music on a Friday and Saturday night and it just developed from there,” he says. These days, the pub hosts sessions and gigs seven nights a week with seasoned and up-and-coming musicians alike flocking from around the country to play there. Mulligan reckons it’s the intimacy of the venue and the quality of the musicians that have contributed to its supposed ‘overnight success’. 

“Out the front, nothing is amplified. People can get involved. If they come in with an instrument, they are welcome. If a singer or dancer comes in, they’re more than welcome. Most people who play here have come up through the ranks of that. When we started off, we started off with lesser known musicians and a lot of them evolved into near enough musical icons.” 

“There’s hardly a week that goes by where some musician comes in here and doesn’t impress me.”

And it’s not all about the sessions. Indeed, the pub also puts on a number of classes each week for budding musicians, dancers and singers.  

“It’s not necessarily all about selling drink and making money. We do quite a lot of things in education.”

While The Cobblestone is resolutely authentic and quintessentially Dublin, Mulligan says that tourists form the backbone of his business. Without them, he’d be lost. 

“Most people’s businesses take off around Christmas whereas ours nearly went into freefall because there were no tourists,” he laughs. Indeed, tourists helped dictate the pub’s drinks selection. 

“A lot of people were coming in and saying, ‘We can get Budweiser in America and we can get Miller in America – have you no Irish beer?’”

The pub now stocks beers from Irish breweries and microbreweries like Four Provinces Brewing Company, 9 White Deer Brewery and Galway Hooker Brewery. The big hit, however, continues to be Guinness. 

“It’s an iconic brand, you couldn’t but have it,” he says.

It’s no surprise that the pub has proven such a hit with visitors. After all, it has been recommended by the likes of The Guardian and The New York Times.

“There was a time the New York Times was in here and they did an article on the pub,” recalls Mulligan. “They took a photograph outside and there are a few derelict buildings alongside it. A few years later, they had a piece about various capital cities and they used this photo to represent Dublin. Bord Failte and a few places weren’t too impressed!”

Some notable visitors have graced The Cobblestone with their presence. A few years ago, Steve Martin was accompanied to the pub by singer Mary Black and treated fellow drinkers to a performance on his banjo. On another occasion, Billy Connolly recorded an episode of a BBC travel series there.

“Something like that would have added to our promotion,” says Mulligan. 

All of it has helped turn The Cobblestone into an irreplaceable institution.

“I was talking to the landlord recently and he said, ‘You’ve made a success of this place despite everything. If we build here, we’re going to have to build around you,’” says Mulligan.

I suppose it is a kind of icon.

More: ‘We had one particular guy called Paul O’Connell who used to work the door’: Nancy Blake’s in Limerick> 

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