When Irish guys are smiling ...

Four veteran troubadours talk about life in the pubs

Carroll Brown

It’s a long, long way to Tipperary,  particularly if you’re in the United States and trying to make a living as an Irish pub singer.

But you do the best you can.

Harry O’Donoghue, Frank Emerson, Carroll Brown and Gabriel Donohue are wandering troubadours. For years, they’ve traveled the country’s network of Irish pubs and restaurants and sang the songs of the Emerald Isle  — of the troubles and the battles, the loves and the losses, the kings and the conquerors. The Pooka, the banshee and the fairy folk.

While O’Donoghue alone makes his home in Savannah, all four members of this green quartet are regular performers at Kevin Barry’s Irish Pub, which has been on River Street just shy of 30 years.

To a man, they say Kevin Barry’s is their favorite place to perform.

“First of all, it’s not a sports bar, it’s a dedicated music listening room,” says Brown, a resident of Charleston who’s been a recurring guest at Barry’s for 16 years (each gig is a commitment for seven consecutive nights).

“They will ask you to tone it down if you’re getting too chatty with your neighbor. The idea being, it’s a place to hear the tunes and to enjoy the evening. It’s a mini–concert.”

Engaging the audience – making eye contact, making jokes – is essential for Irish pub singers.

“Kevin Barry’s has two floors and four rooms, and there’s not a single television in the whole place,” Brown adds. “It’s Vic Power’s — the owner — theory that if live entertainment and good conversation, and a good choice of adult beverages is not enough for you, then you can go somewhere else.”

Emerson lives in Wytheville, Va., and he began his stints at Barry’s in 1981, just after it opened.

“In some cases, the audience is not used to being given a show,” he says. “They’re used to background music. And the pub singers, the balladeers, we’re used to doing a show.”

Still, Emerson perceives a country–wide shift away from interest in the old–style pub performances.

“I think people’s politeness and courtesy has gone down with the advent of cell phones. I’ve had people sitting in the audience, and I see the lights of the cell phones – people are texting and talking all the time when I’m playing. And it’s enough to drive you a little bit nuts.”

O’Donoghue, too, laments the rise of the sports bar and the decline of the good ol’ drinking–and–singing pub.

“The Irish pubs as we knew them 15 or 20 years ago are a thing of the past,” he says. “They’re gone.”

A native of Drogheda, on Ireland’s eastern shore, O’Donoghue worked as an electrician who strummed a bit o’guitar on the side. He began visiting the United States in 1980, and emigrated — to Savannah — seven years later.

“I made my living for years working the Irish pubs around the country, from Houston to New Orleans to Los Angeles,“ O’Donoghue explains.

“And they’re just not there any more. People don’t want to pay the money and expenses to get people like me. And back then, there were a lot more people like me, it seemed.”

Learning the trade

What does it take — besides a gregarious personality, a talent for tall tales and a smooth tenor voice — to become an Irish pub performer?

“If someone asked me,” Brown says, “I would say go out and buy a recording called The Makem–Clancy Collection. Some of the songs are for Irish freedom, and some are just frolicking Irish pub tunes. You just learn everything on that album, and then you grow your repertoire from there.

“Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers are the ones who really set the standard for what we in the Irish pubs do here in this country. They literally were playing for Irish immigrants and their children, and Irish transplants and deportees.

"And onstage, the songs would just be rambunctious and fun. Some of them, of course, would bring a tear to your eye, and then they’d go back to another fun one. They kind of set the standard.”

Donohue, born in County Galway, has been a musician for most of his life. In fact, he first visited Savannah — Kevin Barry’s, in particular — as a member of the Chieftains’ touring band.

He believes the Irish are natural entertainers.

“It’s inherited, I think, from our ancestors,” Donohue says. “It’s that hospitality thing that’s built into us.

“We have to thank the Clancy Brothers for taking that Irish pub atmosphere onto the world stage, and allowing us to learn from that and do what they do: It’s part poetry and part humor — it’s a mixture of the music, the humor, the audience participation. A coming together of all those things.”

In old Ireland, pub music tended to be in the corner, away from the lights. According to Donohue, it was the gradual influence of American folk and traditional musicians that brought it onto the stage proper and made it a performance art.

“The Clancy Brothers,” he explains, “learned a lot from Pete Seeger. He was one of the greats, and Woody Guthrie, of course. We learned from all those guys. The boat went both ways.”

Engaging the audience, Brown says, “is just as much of a defense mechanism as anything — you talk to the audience so you get their attention.

“In the Irish pubs, you stop everything and raise a glass, have a toast, and what it does is it stops everybody talking. They turn and look at you and you have their attention ... for about three minutes.”

Brown’s first gig, outside of church or family get–togethers, was in 1974. The back–and–forth, he recalls, was something he developed over time. “When you’re a kid, you just sing your songs,” he says.

With experience, of course, the rough edges are smoothed away.

“Part of the profession that I learned is to check your emotions at the door,” explains O’Donoghue. “People don’t want to hear my woes when they’re on vacation.

“Of course, sometimes they’re going to hear it anyway!

“For me, the songs have become tools, or vehicles. And all I do now is drive that vehicle. And I’m so used to them now, they’ve become my allies. Two or three songs into the performance, I’m in a bubble. All of the outside world, and my woes, have gone.”

‘I drive for a living’

These guys have known each other for years, from the pub circuit and Irish festivals. They all sell CDs — of standards, pub favorites and original tunes — on their respective Web sites. And O’Donohue, Emerson and Brown recorded an album together, A Christmas Postcard.

Individually, they sometimes perform in Ireland, and every year O’Donoghue takes to the high seas, as the featured entertainer on Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Boston–to–Bermuda run.

Their bread and butter, however, is going from coast to coast, from one Irish pub to the next.

Such as they may be.

“I tried a few other things before this, and this was the only thing I was moderately good at,” says Emerson. “And been lucky enough to make a living at, over 37 years now.

“Going from job to job to job can get very tiring. I used to say ‘I drive for a living, and I get to play music at the end of the drive.’”

The drive always ends happily when they roll up to Kevin Barry’s.

“Vic,” Donohue enthuses, “is the aficionado of Irish pubs. Sometimes he knows more than the entertainers do about the music. He’s a dedicated Irish pub owner. He doesn’t try to take any of the shortcuts — even during the Super Bowl, there’s no TV there. It’s a relic of Irish history, when you go in there.

“It’s just a great room to play in because the focus is on the stage. Most pubs you go into, the music is an afterthought. You get these corporate container pubs, we call them – they come over in containers from Ireland and get reconstructed over here. But there’s none of the love there, it’s all corporate and it’s very contrived.”

Over his four decades as an entertainer, Emerson says, coming back to Vic Power’s club, with its simple, uncluttered décor, wooden benches and dedicated listening room, is a treat.

“We all thank our lucky stars for him. Thank God he stuck with it. I know for a fact that in the early days, there were weeks where he didn’t pay himself, so he could pay the band.”

While Donahue isn’t scheduled to be back at Barry’s until May, St. Patrick’s week finds O’Donoghue, Brown and Emerson performing — separately and in various configurations.

In fact, all three of them will share the stage March 16 — the night before St. Patrick’s Day proper.

O’Donoghue, for his part, bristles at the suggestion that, for many, Irish entertainment begins and ends with St. Patrick’s Day.

“A lot of people who are of that attitude are people who belong to Irish organizations,” he says.

“They become so immersed, at this time of year, in all that they do, with their blessing of this and the greening of that, the St. Patrick’s Day traditions that they have, by the end of it they’re exhausted. And they’re done with it for a year.

“It’s people that just dip their toe in the water that continually come back on a regular basis. They’re the ones who don’t typically go overboard for the whole month of March.”

The decline in real pubs — the rising scarcity of opportunities for doing the job he loves so much — has made O’Donoghue wonder — just for a second – about hanging up his guitar and giving up his title of “Professional Irishman.”

“Sometimes you think about that,” he muses. “You know, the grass is always greener.”

Kevin Barry’s Irish Pub

Where: 117 W. River St.

Performances (at 8:30 p.m.):

March 10–11: Harry O’Donoghue

March 12–14: Carroll Brown

March 15: Frank Emerson and Carroll Brown

March 16: Harry O’Donoghue, Frank Emerson and Carroll Brown

March 17: Carroll Brown, Frank Emerson and Seldom Sober

March 18–21: Frank Emerson


About The Author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.
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