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Tuesday 26 September 2023 Dublin: 15°C
# story of my bar
'The annoying pimple on the music establishment': A melting pot of tribes on Dublin's Thomas Street
How the Thomas House keeps the flame burning in an increasingly “sanitised” city.

THE FIRST THING you notice about The Thomas Bar when you walk in is… well, everything.

Every surface is covered in some kind of poster, flag or knick knack, riding the line between rock ‘n’ roll Americana and geeky kitsch. There’s a battle between the traditional light fixtures, straight out of your quintessential Irish pub, and the more lurid reds and blues that make the place look like the set of an old Italian horror film.

By the DJ booth, a bunch of 45s and roads signs are stuck to the walls. The bathrooms are covered in pages from old comic books “so when you shit, you can read a comic” as one customer says. And in the corner, there’s an old wooden vending machine that offers something called a ‘Nightender’ for a mere 20p.

It’s one of the most visually stimulating pubs in Dublin. And yet it never feels overbearing. This is a place where regulars have their own seat at the bar because it’s such a quality place to have a pint and a chat. And it caters to all sorts. On the afternoon I come in to talk to co-partner Kevin O’Kelly Jr, the clientele includes an older gentleman, two Italian tourists and a couple of achingly hip NCAD types.

O’Kelly Jr is a veteran of the Dublin music scene. For years he ran and promoted gigs with the Whelans group, but after a while he and his partner Gareth Cummins wanted to become their own bosses. The Thomas House was a way of bringing a venue back to Dublin that they thought was lacking.

“I spent an awful lot of my time as a young man drinking in Bruxelles, and going to places like The Rock Garden and McGonagles, where there was alternative music being played. Indie bands to garage bands, rockabilly to punk,” he says. “And obviously during the rave boom, some of those places started to disappear somewhat. They were starting to get taken over by the rave culture and it wasn’t really my scene.”

“[When The Thomas House started] there were very few places for people like myself, who liked punk or rockabilly or whatever. People in The Thomas House like a broad spectrum of music, but it’s very much guitar driven, so within the boundaries of reggae, ska, punk, indie. Stuff like that. We thought we would try and be a bit of a neutral ground so anyone who liked different types of alternative music could get a bit of everything.”

O’Kelly Jr has fond memories of drinking in Bruxelles and watching the mods, rockabillys and bikers interacting with each other. He wanted The Thomas House to be a similar melting pot of different tribes.

“I thought it had to be very much a social thing. I wanted it to be a mix of everyone as long as they came in and respected each other, drank, danced, had fun and be merry,” he says. “For me you come to a pub for the social element of it. You come in with a group of friends and you meet your future boyfriend or girlfriend or whatever, or you make new friends and experience new things. It’s the social element of a pub that I think is lost on a few people.”

But it isn’t just about sitting at the bar and discussing the merits of the new Morrissey album. The Thomas House has table-top nights, video game clubs and a host of DJs that run the gamut from hardcore to goth. And then there’s an 80-person venue downstairs, which has seen everything from young lads strutting around in purple granny blouses to intimate sets by members of the New York Dolls and The Libertines.

O’Kelly Jr says that a lot of people refer to The Thomas House as the CBGBs of Dublin, though he wants to stress that his establishment has cleaner toilets. “For a small place, we punch above our weight, and I think sometimes we’re the annoying pimple on the arse of the music establishment!”

“One of the guys from the New York Dolls said he was going to call his gig here the ‘no onions show’. Because when they were starting out, they played small places like this and people were so close to them that you could smell the garlic on their breath. The gigs we have here are sweaty, close and personal.”

It’s a dream come true for O’Kelly Jr and Cummins, but running a pub takes it out of you. And the threat of gentrification is literally right outside their door. When you’re running a bar in Dublin, one eye is always kept on the ever-skyrocketing rents. “It happens everywhere in the world and that’s what’s happening in Thomas St now. You’ve got to fight for your little patch. I wouldn’t say that we’re unique in complaining about that.”

“I used to live in Berlin, and they still have their artistic sense of individuality,” he continues. “Whereas Britain and Ireland seem to be becoming sanitised and every street has to be the same.”

That’s anathema for O’Kelly Jr who lives for the diverse groups of people that converge in The Thomas House. They have a bunch of Bohs football heads that journey from the other side of the Liffey to hear some punk and reggae, even though it’s St Pat’s territory.
“But that’s cool because again, it’s bringing everyone together. Football tribes…” He pauses. “And music tribes.”

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

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