Hughes’s bar – remembering one of the best trad music pubs in Dublin

People knew they could just turn up at Hughes’s and enjoy a music session most evenings of the week.

Martin Hughes outside Hughes bar in Chancery Street. The pub closed in 2019. Photo: Mary Phelan

The pub evokes many memories of great trad music, where sessions happened organically without any planning or publicity.

The Liberty talked to Martin Hughes, the son of the late Michael Hughes, the last owner of the pub on Chancery Street, just behind the Four Courts. Martin tells me that his grandfather, also Martin, bought the pub back in 1953.

 “It was one of the first pubs to accommodate early morning traders, because in those days the fruit, vegetable and fish markets around the Smithfield area were thriving,” he says.  “It opened at 7am, and the place would be packed.” 

As the day wore on, the place changed clientele from traders to barristers and solicitors from the Four Courts, and as the evening rolled in, the musicians arrived. 

Michael Hughes took over the pub when he was just 19, having lost his father to tuberculosis. He ran it all his life until his death in June 2019.

Martin tells me that the traditional music scene in the pub started in 1985. Brendan Begley from Kerry, a box player, and a relation of the Hughes family, started playing in the pub with a few of his pals. They played twice a week, and he said it just took off. 

“It was quite unusual at that time to find trad music in Dublin pubs.”

Besides Slattery’s on Capel Street and the O’Shea’s Merchant, very few places had trad music and eventually the bar went from one night to seven nights, and sometimes there could even be two sessions going on at the same time, one at the front and another at the back of the pub.  

Martin says, “We were never a ‘venue’ – we just left the space open, and people knew they could come and play music.” 

Each night would have its own gang and they would play away.  The Sunday night session lasted 30 years.  Like that, the place became a real hub for traditional music.

A typical session in Hughes Bar. Photo: Courtesy Liz Berg

Martin says that between the “market crowd in the morning, the legal crowd at lunch time and the music crowd at night, it was quite a mix.”

He recalled some great encounters his dad had in the pub. In 1967 Richard Burton, who was shooting  the film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold at night in Smithfield – as they had built a Berlin Wall there – would come in to the pub for a few early pints. In 1973 Paul Newman was a regular during the shooting of The Mackintosh Man.

“We were always the kind of place that people stumbled across, we had no website or anything like that, and that’s the way we liked it .“

He said his dad loved the pub, because of all the different characters that came through the door.

“People waiting for verdicts from criminal court cases from the Four Courts would often drop in, and dad often knew the stories from the courts even before they became public news.”

They served traditional food, simple fare, and made the food themselves. In its heyday there were seven full time barmen working there.  Martin said “you literally encountered every type of human being on the planet. Fifteen or 16 people could be playing on any given night. And there again another night it could be really quiet. People realised that if you wanted to play a tune, this was the place to come.”

He adds: “The music crowd were just great. They were never any trouble – the only problem was they never wanted to go home!”

Brendan Gleeson, the actor and playwright and a musician himself, who used to frequent the pub since the 1980s and has very fond memories of sessions there, has made an hour-long film to be shown in the IFI on 1st March as part of the Dublin International Film Festival.

Martin said when Gleeson asked him if he could make a documentary of the pub he said it was an easy yes because he knew he would be in safe hands. “They knew what the place was about, and they did a beautiful job on the movie.”

They had a private viewing of the film in the pub in October, and an after party there, and Martin said, “it was like we never left.”

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