Fiscal force tradition — Frank McNally on taxation ballads, alcohol-free bars, and the struggle to make a living from music

The turnover of pub identities in Dublin these days is dizzying

Writing about the 225th anniversary of income tax last week, I mentioned the apparent lack of related 19th-century Irish ballads. But as a reader has since reminded me, there is at least one notable example from the early 20th.

Made famous by Jimmy Crowley, Salonika is a satirical dialogue song in which two or more Cork women debate the first World War from a spousal perspective.

One is married to a soldier, the other to a “slacker” (a pejorative term for those who didn’t sign up).

In a typical verse, the pro-military wife asks: “When the war is over, what will the slackers do?/They’ll be all around the soldiers for the loan of a bob or two”.


Whereupon the spokeswoman for the opposition responds: “And when the war is over, what will the soldiers do?/They’ll be walking around with a leg and a half while the slackers they’ll have two.”

But mid-ballad, there is also a prolonged, three-verse protest against taxation, on which both sides seem agreed:

“Well first they taxed the sugar and then they taxed the tae/And then they brought conscription and took my man away/They taxed the pound of butter and they taxed the ha’penny bun/And still with all their taxes they can’t beat the bloody hun.../They taxed the Coliseum and they taxed St Mary’s Hall./Why don’t they tax the bobbies with their backs against the wall?”

Only after that anti-fiscal tirade do the competing voices get back to debating the pros and cons of war, via such subthemes as sexual liaisons in Blarney and the purchase of furniture from a Cork pawnbroker, Dicky Glue.


I was out recently in Dublin for what can only be described as a night on the tiles. But it was no ordinary game of Scrabble. For one thing, although my friend was multilingual, English was only her fourth language. So we played in French, her second, as a fair compromise.

Then there was the venue: a pub but not was we know it. The last time I had been on the premises, for a Cheltenham preview night several years ago, it was still called Francis McKenna’s.

It then dispensed the usual range of alcoholic beverages, along with (on that occasion) inside information from jockeys, trainers, and racing journalists about what might win at the impending Cheltenham racing festival.

But now called Board, it is the latest Dublin bar to give up drink, serving only non-alcoholic beers, wines, and cocktails, with pizza, while promoting itself primarily as a place to play games.

On the evidence of the night we were there – the place was packed, with a noticeably young clientele – this dry bar may last longer than the Virgin Mary on Capel Street, which ascended into history last year.

Mind you, the turnover of pub identities in Dublin these days is dizzying. As I only learned while there, between being McKenna’s and Board, this one also spent several years as something else, called MVP.


By complete contrast, I also paid a visit of late to The Brazen Head, after what must have been a gap of 30 years, during which nothing much had changed.

It still claimed to be Dublin’s oldest pub. Or as the website puts it: “Established in 1198, our gastrobar has been thoughtfully refurbished to retain the original features that tell the story of our deep history”.

Yes, reader, I too was surprised to learn that Dublin had gastrobars in 1198. But I suppose there were a lot of new tourists in town then too.

Anyway, on my latest visit, it had live music by a five-piece Americana outfit called the Rye River Band. And although there was no cover charge – whatever modest fee the musicians got was from bar takings – they were brilliant. The joint was jumping by the end.

Afterwards I stupidly asked the band if they played there often. “Every fortnight for the last 30 years,” I was told, confirming the length of my absence. This is another way in which, even when not changing identities, Dublin pubs can make you feel old. The Rye River Band are back this coming Saturday night. If you’re anywhere near the Brazen Head, go.


In a not-dissimilar vein, I was at a jazz session at the United Arts Club in Fitzwilliam Street on Sunday last. That had a modest door charge – €15 for non-members like me. But it was more than justified by the brilliant quartet of Nigel Mooney (guitar), Jim Doherty (piano), Honor Heffernan (vocals) and Barry Donohue (bass).

There can be few more civilised things to do than listen to jazz on a Sunday afternoon, over a glass of wine, in the upstairs rooms of a stately Georgian building (albeit one that’s a bit in-a-stately, pending refurbishment).

But even brilliant jazz musicians struggle to make a living in Ireland. I noticed in passing that the event was heavily subsidised by those well-known arts philanthropists, Jim Doherty’s family, which must have accounted for about 20 per cent of the audience. The jazz is on again this Sunday at 4pm. If you’re still in the area, you should go to that too.