Friday 17 January 2020

Time's finally called on a city legend

Once the famous haunt of an eclectic band of Dublin characters, the world's first Scruffy Murphy's will soon be gone, says Liam Collins

End of an era: The original ‘Scruffy’, celebrated publican Paddy Mulligan, outside Scruffy Murphy’s off Mount Street in Dublin
End of an era: The original ‘Scruffy’, celebrated publican Paddy Mulligan, outside Scruffy Murphy’s off Mount Street in Dublin
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

For a bright, shining moment Scruffy Murphy's pub became a place where you could meet almost anybody, and almost always did!

"Were you in Scruffy's last night?" or "Did you hear what happened in Scruffy's?" was the inevitable conversation opener among a certain group of people who circulated in that space where the political, media, entertainment and financial classes intersected.

Many of them were people who could get into football matches and concerts for free, and eat and drink at the many receptions and publicity events around town for nothing - but chose instead to descend nightly to pay for their drink, which was not always what they ordered, in case they might miss something or someone.

Then, just as brightly as it burned it seemed to fizzle out, and now this haunt of yesteryear, closed since it was last sold in 2016, is about to be demolished and rebuilt as an aparthotel, if given planning permission.

Off Mount Street, Dublin, in an elegant setting of what we now call social housing, Scruffy's in its 1980s heyday was one big room with a rectangular bar in the middle, so that the barmen were surrounded on four sides by thirsty customers.

The original Scruffy - Paddy Mulligan, of the Mulligans of Stoneybatter pub family - was a tall Dermot Morgan lookalike with a shock of white hair, a ready rejoinder with a thirst for brandy that saw him on the 'wrong side of the counter' too often. His chief barman was a laughing Tipperary man, Michael Burke, whose "how's it going Patsy?" became a familiar greeting around town for years.

I remember one night stopping to talk to the ballad singer Paddy Reilly who was having a pint with his manager Jim Hand. A guy I knew from my Longford days then stopped me and asked me if could I introduce him to Paddy, who had a hit with The Fields of Athenry at the time. Ever the gentleman, Paddy shook his hand and said hello, but when I went to complete the introductions Jim Hand said in his Drogheda drawl: "I don't want to meet you... I know too many people already."

Originally, Scruffy's customers came from the insurance companies around Mount Street and Dermot Desmond's NCB. But the arrival of Public Relations of Ireland (PRI), whose principals included sports commentator Bill O'Herlihy and Pat Heneghan brought a new component to the mix. They attracted their Fine Gael friends Frank Flannery, accountant Sean Murray and solicitor Enda Marren - a group known collectively as the party's 'national handlers'.

Another PRI executive Eileen Gleeson was of the Fianna Fail persuasion, and P.J. Mara, the colourful party and later government press secretary, and the Fianna Fail fundraiser and businessman Paul Kavanagh were also regulars.

Between them they attracted an eclectic mixture of government ministers, thirsty TDs in search of the night life and like-minded company, businessmen and journalists who wanted to talk politics, business, sport, women and - most of all - how to make money.

Oil mania was sweeping the city. People who never owned a share before were buying and selling oil shares like Atlantic Resources, Aran Energy, Eglington Oil at a frantic pace, often from the resident stockbroker Shane Ross, then in his drinking days. You could buy shares but not pay for them for 30 days and the wise ones bought and sold before the due date, pocketing the profits which they always claimed were enormous, but never admitting to the losses. (I invested £100 in Eglington which are now worth about £3.50 - if only I could find the share certificate).

And there were the public relations girls: Anne O'Callaghan, Mairead Byrne who later worked for the Labour leader Michael O'Leary and later again for Tony Ryan of GPA; Fionnuala O'Kelly, a Fianna Fail press officer who married Enda Kenny, the vivacious Gertrude O'Neill and many others.

Just up the laneway was Dobbin's Bistro, which operated from a Nissen hut with a sawdust strewn floor, then run by the gregarious car salesman Johnny O'Byrne. There was a constant stream of people coming and going between the receptions and lunches in Dobbin's and the drinking in Scruffy's.

Another regular, the financier Dermot Desmond, explained to Ivor Kenny what most wives don't understand about the after-work drink: "If you have a good day, you feel elated. You got hold of the market. You want to celebrate and you want to do it with the guys in the office because they are the only ones who can understand how we collectively did the deal. If you had a bad day and you were in the downs, you wanted to talk to people so that you get buzzed up for the next day."

The city seemed to exist on a high tide of alcohol, gossip and rumour. Being part of this raffish world, where everybody knew everybody and contacts whispered secrets was to be part of the 'in crowd', whether one was in business, politics or journalism. John Feeney, of the Evening Herald and then the most outrageous columnist in town, Emily O'Reilly, Sam Smyth, Mick Hand, Eamon Dunphy were among a throng of journalists mixing with public relations and advertising types, all coming or going at various times of the day or night.

There were also those who seemed to have plenty of money, but you could never quite figure out what they did for it. Eric, an American, who was sold a red Rolls-Royce by Johnny O'Byrne and moved in various inner-circles around the city, once claimed his briefcase containing £30,000 in cash had been stolen. The cash didn't matter, he said, but the papers it contained were very important. After the gardai were called, the briefcase was located in a dark corner - right where Eric had left it, and it hadn't been stolen at all. But Scruffy, anxious to unmask Eric as a spoofer insisted that it be opened in front of the gardai to verify his story - and sure enough there it was, £30,000 in cash.

It was also a place where triumph and tragedy existed side by side.

On Friday, August 30, 1990 the beautiful and vivacious blonde Patricia O'Toole (32), who worked in an insurance company around the corner, went to a leaving 'do' in Scruffy's... It was to be the last night of her life. She danced across the floor of the bar with the actor Alan Devlin and then, driving her Peugeot 205, went on a tour of the night-time city. She ended up giving a lift to Army private Sean Courtney, who beat her to death with a rock in the Dublin Mountains as she pleaded with him: "Don't ruin your life."

On a happier note was the 28-member Lotto syndicate in the pub led by Stefan Klincewicz who forced the National Lottery to change its system of 36 numbers and a winning jackpot of six. He worked out that if the jackpot was big enough and you bought every ticket there was a handsome profit to be made. With military precision and a friendly newsagent with a Lotto machine they tried to do just that on the May bank holiday of 1992 - spending over £800,000 on almost all the numbers, to win an estimated £1.7m jackpot.

The trouble was there were two other winners - but the plan didn't come completely unstuck, with all the various combinations of 4 and 5 winning numbers they are believed to have netted more than €300,000. Afterwards it was a bit like the GPO in 1916 - anybody who went into the pub was said to be in the syndicate.

And then it ended. I don't quite know why but I remember going in one evening and being beckoned upstairs by Paddy Mulligan and persuaded to sit through an Elvis Presley video not once but twice, as I think he had consumed so much brandy he couldn't remember the first time around.

The politicians and their handlers began to resent the constant stream of stories about their visits to Scruffy's and moved to somewhere quieter. Another group colonised the Horseshoe Bar in the Shelbourne Hotel. Others simply gave up and found a happy life somewhere else - maybe even with their families.

For Scruffy it all ended badly with debt and drink as it inevitably would. And even if his nickname now adorns pubs all over the world, the man who presided over the mayhem in Dublin died too young in the shadows of the limelight that once shone on that premises off Mount Street - a little corner of Dublin that now holds nothing but our memories.

Sunday Independent

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