Pat's Bar - The Early Years

Gerry McCartney plays it again in the first Belfast venue to host 'sessions'

It's been interesting to note from the reflections page on the Belfast Folk website, just how wide or, perversely, how narrow, the interests within the various strands of 'folk' music can be and how closely one particular route, once trod upon, can be followed throughout one's life.

In a way, it's reminiscent of an everlasting pilgrimage, which, in itself, is particularly apt in that this pursuit of a musical Nirvana is the nearest thing to religion that I personally possess. So far, in this section, all the contributors appear to be from the singing side of the equation. I would like, therefore, to offer my own reflections over these last 30 odd years from the, more or less, strictly musical 'call of the wild'. But first, a plea for indulgence. Because of the small circle of people involved in the folk scene in the early days, some repetition of names, events and venues will, regrettably, be inevitable when set against other memoirs already posted on this website. I'm afraid there's no way around it, so, on with the motley.

In 1962 I broke my femur in a motorbike accident and ended up, after getting my walking back in sync, in a summer camp at the foot of Slieve Donard where our youth club had two large bell-tents permanently pitched each June to September and to which we regularly hitched every weekend for the crack. Our main hobbies at that time appear, on reflection, to have been 1. Being sick on scrumpy and 2. Encouraging young ladies to view the flora and fauna of the Mournes from the inside of those canvas bordellos. But there always seems to have been a guitar in permanent residence in one tent or the other and, as one or two of the guys strummed a few chords, manys the night was spent howling at the moon and screeching out 'Teenager in Love', 'Hello, Mary Lou' and 'Dream, Dream, Dream'. God be with the days when all songs were in C, A minor, F and G7!

Well, after a lifetime (I was 17!) in school choirs, church choirs, partaking in féiseanna, etc., this was almost revolutionary and, from there, after learning rudimentary chords, tentative steps were tippy-toed into the exciting new world of small groups doing the Shadows two-step to the tune of Apache, none of which were successful in any way whatever. One night at a dance, I think it was in the Orpheus, York St., I heard Billy McFadden of the Clipper Carlton Showband playing a couple of Irish dance tunes, one of which, as I remember, was the 'Harvest Home hornpipe'. I had never heard Irish music played on guitar before and it nearly blew my mind.

That was it basically; I was captured there and then. After that it was all practice, practice, practice until one Sunday evening I turned up with a Gaelic language singing group in the glittering, celebrity-studded venue of the Continental Rooms around 1964 where I first met, among others, Den Warrick, John Moulden, Terry Brown and Dave Scott.

Up to that, I had been learning Irish in a Gaelic club, the Cluain Ard, where Leslie Bingham was already ensconced and who was, even then, still trying to play the whistle! The McPeake Céili Band also played there each Sunday, some of whose members were James McMahon, flute, Tommy Gunn, fiddle, along with James and 'Old Francie' McPeake who, disconcertingly, happened to be 'Young Francie' then - look, don't ask, OK? Shortly after, my late sister, Rosemary, and I started gigging in the Imperial Hotel on two evenings a week after which Dan Morgan, prop., was obliged to hand over three pounds per night (Sam Bracken, you wuz robbed!) and I have to say, in fairness, that the tears in his eyes, as he parted with the money, may just have been a mere trick of the light.

Rosie dropped out after a while and I continued on for a little longer with singer Gerry O'Kane. One night - around mid to late '65 - he suggested we go down to Pat's Bar in the Docks area as he'd heard a rumour about the possibility of a session there. I had never been to a pub session, per se, before and, once I was sat down, I thought it was just fantastic. Already in situ were Billy Bothwell, Crawford Howard, a Bangor solicitor called Billy Oliver and several others whose names unfortunately escape me. And - surprise, surprise - Seamus Brennan, with whom I had been at school, was the barman. Things were lookin' goo-ood. It was an all-singing session at that time but I was welcomed in so I played a few trad music solos on my then 12-string guitar. When I discovered (pretty damn quickly!) that, if you were a musician, you didn't have to pay for a drink on these premises, I made sure that I became a fairly permanent fixture.

Not long after, Billy Bothwell came out of his singing closet to declare that he was learning the mandolin and, at some juncture, he offered it to me to try it out. I couldn't get to grips with it at all, given the difference in stretch and its totally alien tuning vis-à-vis the guitar. However, around that time, coincidentally, I was beginning to realise the limitations of the guitar in the playing of Irish music, so I myself was quite eager for a change, as I was becoming frustrated with trying to play more complex tunes on the 12-string and finding them extremely difficult, if not impossible.

I therefore experimented with a borrowed tenor banjo for a few months until I had succeeded, in part, in getting around this whole new approach to the music, which was, by this stage, inexorably developing into a passion. It was also around that time that I first heard the Dubliners play and Barney McKenna's tenor banjo virtuosity sowed the seedling, once and for all, which, even now after 30 plus years, is still flourishing. I then went back to the mandolin with added enthusiasm and began to learn and play tunes in a more focussed manner along with Billy B., mucking in with other newcomers in Pat's who were, at this point, Tommy Maguire, accordion, Sam Bracken, guitar, Gogie McCullough, whistle, Joe Taylor, bodhran, Smoky Lamont, ditto when allowed, and Leslie Bingham, on a newly acquired flute. And without any conscious decision being taken by any one person, the music slowly began to take precedence over the singing resulting in several of the original people disappearing from the scene, although there was still more than ample scope for singers to continue to make their mark.

Other musicians who played in Pat's around that time, on an occasional basis, included Tommy Gunn as above, Tommy Baxter, both Fermanagh fiddlers and John Rea, hammer dulcimer, who also happened to be a tugboat captain in the nearby docks and to whose boat we repaired after closing time on quite a few occasions. And, don't forget, closing time was, in those days, TEN O'CLOCK!! Can you believe it, Mr. Meldrew?

As the 'folk boom' was in full swing then, a few Seegers from America drifted through the bar as well as the Furey Brothers and their father, Ted (oops!). Bodhran Byrne, harmonica and autoharp, featured regularly and a young Paddy Keenan, piper, with his brother Johnny, banjo, wandered in to play one evening. Brian O'Donnell, late of UTV, brought the one and only Sean Maguire down for a couple of mighty nights, in company with Sligo flute player, Roger Sherlock. Davy Dillon, whistle, of BBC fame was also a regular attender. Two of the mainstays for a long while, in the small side room, were Joe McIlherron, accordion, and Brian Lavery, aka 'The Milky Bar Kid', on the G-banjo. John Windrum, now Morrow, played tenor with them pro tem,. Den Warrick featured as did whistle player, Tom McHale, both of whom made an LP around that same period. Big Denis Calvert, whistle, and Len Graham, singer, popped in the odd time and Cathal McConnell, flute.

Providing further support, in between their pontificating on the right way to hitch a bowline to a sheepshank while the 'cheeks of their asses went chuff, chuff, chuff', were the previously mentioned singers Dave Scott and John Moulden, not forgetting the 'Ranzo' kid himself, Terry Brown, and, of course, my sister, Rosie, who wanted nothing at all to do with these dry land sail-eye-ors.

One day a friend asked me if I had a group, as he needed one to front a Dubliner's concert in the Ulster Hall. I, of course, said yes and then proceeded to scrabble around for musicians to fill the gaps - like, I mean, all of them, as the 'group' didn't actually exist! Eventually, Billy Bothwell, Sam Bracken, Rosie, and myself appeared in the Ulster Hall under the banner of 'Pat's People'. We used the title a couple of times after that, until it was nyucked by a crowd of low-life deviants who patented the name and disappeared in the direction of Canada several years later. But I still have the pins in my voodoo doll and its eyes have just started to blink.

Then, as was commonplace in the sixties, we had a strike. We withdrew our labour and goodwill from the pub floor. The price of drink had been steadily rising, so we had asked for an increase in the kitty or, as the Chief Shop Steward informed me at the time:

'In solidarity with our working musician colleagues elsewhere we, quite justifiably, demanded a reasonable increase in emoluments to raise our level of alcohol purchase commensurate with an exponential increase in our bodies' tolerance of same.'

I think he was just looking for more gargle. But the cold face of capitalism turned its back to us and refused all our just requests. We were left with no option but to cut the cord. So, with heavy hearts, all the musicians, customers and Joe Taylor legged it around the corner to the Liverpool Bar where they were only too happy to accommodate our requirements. Alas, in truth, the atmosphere in the Liverpool was in no way comparable to that of Pat's but we'd burned our boats and had, as a consequence, to thole it. Fortunately, thank God!, within a week or so, feelers were extended, emissaries dispatched and 'meaningful' negotiations were entered into once again.

This time, Seamus had brought his big guns to the negotiating table in the shape of his father, Pat, and after a long, exhausting and intensive 15 minutes of hardnosed bargaining we agreed to return to the bar for an increase in the kitty from £3 to £5. The workers had won but, rather than let this newly acquired wealth go to our heads by flaunting our success in displays of unseemly triumphalism, we just got on with the job of playing music, although we had to caution Sam Bracken one evening for slipping his girl friend a victory kiss.

There was also, at that time, a regular two way transfer of punters from Dock St. to O'Donoghue's in Dublin given that we were then, I think, the only trad pubs operating in each city. This culminated in a bus run to Oriel Park, Dundalk, and the now legendary football match between the two bars. Can you imagine the likes of it happening now, where the keys of a major league football park were more or less handed over to about two hundred slobbering drunks from Dublin, Belfast and Dundalk and then allowing them the use of the pitch and all the facilities? Sir Alex Ferguson, Martin O'Neill, youse haven't a bleedin' clue! So, come back, Seamus Brennan, your organisational skills are sorely missed.

Apart from the standard of the football, of which I have, at best, a decidedly hazy memory - well, it was a long and thirsty journey from Belfast to Dundalk in those days - the one abiding scene that springs to mind is where one of the Belfast lads went down injured, the stretcher was rushed on to the pitch and on which, up top, was a full crate of Guinness. One swig and our hero was back in the thick of it. No Oscars for overacting in those days - and, of course, they don't make the black stuff like that any more!

Don't ask me about the score, however - the non (football) playing musicians, of which I was one, were already blattering away in nearby Mark's Bar and batin' drink down their necks, long before the final whistle sounded! Team loyalty, howya doin'? And to prove this occasion was not a mere figment of an alcohol-laced imagination, the 'official' team photograph will be put on the website before very much longer.

I find now that the single most abiding memory I have of that period, as a result of putting these recollections to paper, is the overwhelming feeling of camaraderie in the Pat's of that pre-Troubles era, fuelled in equal parts by youth and, I have to confess, drink and an enthusiasm for life stoked up by that heady combination. I therefore feel it important to say, at this moment, that the friendships I made then still endure, to the extent that I still see, banter and play music with an extraordinarily large number of the same bloody fraternity! That's not bad, in my opinion, after more than three and a half decades.

Well, having experienced the music and crack of the Dublin squad and the Dublin scene on an intermittent basis, I was beginning to get itchy feet - and fingers! - as it had become quite obvious that the music picture was very much more vibrant in Dublin than in Belfast. So, one day I came across an ad in the Irish Times for a position in the Fair City. I applied, got the job and, with my mandolin under my oxter, went off to Dubbellin in the Green, in the Green. That was in January 1968.

So endeth my first era in the early days of Pat's Bar. But, as will be revealed anon, it wasn't exactly a permanent break. And, as I was also to find out shortly, contrary to what some politicians were telling us at the time - and the BBC weather map, now that I recall - you see when you passed Newry, you didn't fall off the edge! What was even more surprising, you could come back.

By Gerry McCartney

Reproduced with kind permission of Belfast Folk.