Photo credit: William Murphy via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 https://bit.ly/301tXce)

The Cobblestone: music needs a place to be heard

Tonight, one of the most sublime of Ireland’s sean-nós singers, Sarah Ghríallais, will sing at the Cobblestone, the pub and performance venue in Smithfield in Dublin that has been in the news of late.

While the Cobblestone will be familiar to many as a pub where brilliant and authentic traditional music can be heard, not everyone might be familiar with its other spaces, where classes are taught, music circles are accommodated, and intimate concerts are held.

The Backroom at the pub doesn’t have a red carpet but it has hosted some of the great stars of tradition, like Ben Lennon, Noel Hill and Sean Keane.

Singers like Sarah Ghríallais, who is a standard bearer for the rich and glorious Conamara tradition, can be heard there too, in a city where, increasingly, spaces for music are being squeezed out of existence by the rush to replace community with concrete.

The Gríallais family are sean-nós royalty. Their singing is shaped by the long tradition of what Tony McMahon called the strong, lonely call that occupies the heart of the best of traditional culture. I heard Sarah’s son, Mícheál Ó Conghaile, take an ordinary song, Pota Mór Fataí, and make something tremendous and arresting of it. Her niece, Ceila Ní Fhátharta, is also extraordinary, her stunning voice embracing the full tradition of these beautiful songs.

Yet sean-nós is rarely heard in Dublin, and the closure of the Backroom at the Cobblestone would remove yet another venue for that tradition.

Tom Mulligan, who owns the pub, says that developers are seeking to build yet another hotel – a nine-storey one this time – around the Cobblestone, which will leave the bar intact but will remove the back room and the space upstairs. (Years ago, we squeezed into a packed upper room to hear Tony McMahon and Barney McKenna lift the roof off the place. It was mighty)

No doubt it is envisaged that these important cultural spaces should be replaced with some ghastly coffee bar to show everyone that we are smart and modern and cosmopolitan. It would be such an empty, small-minded move, and it is being strongly resisted.

Dublin City Council says that almost 700 objections have been lodged against the plans and the development applications unit of the Department of Housing says “the removal of part of the Cobblestone venue and its overall amalgamation and structural integration into a larger hotel use will likely detract from the intimacy and context of the historic structure as a traditional musical venue.”

Truth is, other spaces for traditional music seem to be quietly vanishing – the iconic Hughes pub behind the Four Courts closed during the Covid lockdown. It will be sadly missed.

Music needs a space to be heard. We’re all tired of Facebook live streams. The experience is just not the same, the connection made during live performances is missing. And traditional music, so often crowded out by over-produced, hyped-up, soulless noise, needs that more than most.

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