Thursday, 21 May 2015

About a little pub on Pearse Street

Who needs fiction? Some local places are haunted by real-life stories, larger-than-life characters and mysterious crimes. Take a modest little pub on Pearse Street in Dublin.

It's a famous street. Future Easter Rising leader Patrick Pearse was born there, when it was still known as Great Brunswick Street.

And the "Antient Concert Rooms" (later the Academy cinema and now offices) was allegedly the scene of a musical showdown between two leading young tenors - James Joyce and John McCormack - at the Feis Ceoil in 1904.

Pearse Street is one of the longest streets in Dublin. One end begins in the heart of the city centre, by Trinity College and Pearse Street Garda Station (check out the "Keystone Cops" stone heads of policemen on the arches over the doorways). It then runs east in a fairly straight line towards the Grand Canal Docks and Ringsend, aka Raytown.

Around the turn of this new century most of the street underwent a breathless transformation. McCormack, Pearse and Joyce wouldn't recognise the canyon of new buildings.

Even in the late 1970s they would have known much of the east end of the street, which was still a largely working-class district, alongside the docks and factories and Boland's Flour Mills, which closed in 2001 and still stands derelict today.

The Magnet

But back to that little pub about half-way down the street. In the 1970s it was  called The Magnet, an "early house" for dockers, postmen and locals.

An upstairs "function room" - such a strange term when you think about it - attracted many of the leading punk, pop and rock bands of the day: U2, The Atrix, Microdisney, you name it.

By 1980 a three-piece of working-class lads from Ringsend, The Blades, were local heroes, playing The Magnet on Tuesday nights. Cue interview with lead singer Paul Cleary...

Everything’s black and white and grey
Living from day to day to day
It’s a fatal resignation, when there’s nothing left to hope for
In a hopeless situation
I’m not waiting at an airport
I’m not waiting at a station
I’m standing at a bus stop

- The Blades, "Downmarket"
I've no photos of the pub, but the following news clip shows The Magnet in November 1980, when "Stompin' George" Verschoyle from Artane ran the rockabilly nights on Monday nights, with a diverse crowd of rockers and hell's angels and so on.

The YouTube video shows a band of splendid Teddy Boys from South Wales called Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers. While the sound quality isn't great it gives an idea of the tiny scale of the "stage" and the huge energy in the room.

Note the huge chasm between the reporter and punters over the word "disco". Night Fever my arse.

The Widow Scallans

Now fast-forward to 21 May 1994, exactly 21 years ago today. The pub is no longer called The Magnet but The Widow Scallans (with no apostrophe on the sign, and not to be confused with another Dublin pub, Ned Scanlon's - or plain Ned's).

So it's a busy Saturday night. A crowd downstairs is watching sport on the TV. Later accounts say it's a soccer match but it's coming up to 11pm, a bit late for the footie. Perhaps it's the boxing match up in Belfast between Chris Eubank and Ray Close.

Upstairs is crowded too. The gig is a Sinn Fein fundraiser for the families of republican prisoners.

Around 11 pm one of the doormen, Martin Doherty from Finglas, becomes suspicious of two men trying to walk in with a holdall. He tries to bar their entry but is shot three times. He will die later in hospital.

Another doorman, Paddy Burke, slams the door shut to stop the gunmen from getting in. They shoot through the door, seriously injuring him in the throat.

The gunmen run off to a waiting car and are driven away by a third man, leaving behind the holdall - and its bomb, which weighs around eighteen to twenty pounds.

As people attend to Doherty and Burke, the bomb's detonator explodes. Yet the main explosives fail to ignite.

The loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force later issues a statement claiming responsibility for the attack.
"The UVF would warn the IRA and the Dublin government that the Ulster people will neither be coerced nor persuaded and will remain masters of their own destiny".
The two bombers were members of the UVF. And the dead doorman, Martin "Doco" Doherty, was a member of the Provisional IRA. He was the first person to be killed in the Republic by the UVF since 1975.

Crime reporter Jim Cusack has since claimed that the UVF had stolen a large cache of the commercial explosive Powergel, then the RUC Special Branch got British Army ordnance experts to substitute "something that looked and even smelled like explosive but was harmless", and one of their double agents returned the cache to the arms dump.

For a bit of historical context: this was in the middle of peace talks: on 6 April that year the Provisional IRA had announced its first ceasefire; five months later on 31 August 1994 it would announce a cessation of military operations from midnight. The  UVF and UDA ceasefires followed six weeks later.

Then on 18 August 1994 one of Dublin's most notorious criminals, Martin Cahill ("The General" - subject of several books and feature films) was gunned down and died. Within hours the Provisional IRA claimed responsibility, saying Cahill had assisted the UVF unit in the attack on The Widow Scallans.

The Provos also alleged that Cahill had been involved in selling stolen paintings from the Beit collection to the UVF gang, and they in turn had fenced the paintings for money to buy guns from South Africa.

Another crime reporter, Paul Williams, claims in his 2011 book Bad Fellas that Cahill had nothing to do with the Widow Scallans attack, and that the INLA had killed him.
* * *

Today: where The Magnet / Widow Scallans used to be
Around 10 or 12 years later the Celtic Tiger boom is about to collapse. Many parts of the city are unrecognisable, and the former site of The Widow Scallans is no exception.

The pub has been knocked down, to build what estate agents would call "a four-storey over basement apartment block with nine residential units". It has a Spar or a Centra on the ground floor which soon closes down.

Earlier this year the receivers ordered the building's sale again. It's currently on the market for €2.4 million.

It is part of a mainly new streetscape stretching down from the new Science Gallery at Trinity to the area around Grand Canal Dock which has become a magnet for high-tech multinationals such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Airbnb, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Dropbox...

In hardly a decade of clearances and reconstructions, this old working-class district has been largely wiped out and turned into "Silicon Docks", with hardly a whiff of rock 'n' roll or subversion left.