Shy publican supports songsters

By Rhonda Dredge

Irish poets pride themselves on their art of composition and the publican of The Drunken Poet is modest. 

Sometimes Siobhan Dooley tends the bar alone with a bunch of 30 or more regulars. 

She has the company of a bard’s gallery up on the ochre walls as she works. 

Seamus Heaney looks a bit dishevelled in pride of place next to his ironic poem about toys and carpentry, An Ulster Twilight. And Brendan Behan, author of The Borstal Boy, is suitably outraged about something, while Siobhan’s favourite Patrick Kavanagh is getting on a bit in years. 

“I really like Patrick Kavanagh,” she said. “He was a real country poet. He could write about a plough. He talks about how harsh the country is.” 

These poets and writers of the ’50s and ’60s frequented Dublin’s pubs and earned a free pint for their words and this Melbourne publican of Irish descent is carrying on the tradition by supporting Melbourne songsters.  

The Drunken Poet, opposite Vic Market, has just won top pub in Melbourne out of 50 assessed by the Happiest Hour competition and it has been named one of the top 10 Irish pubs in the world by the Irish Times.

Siobhan is not doing any PR, however, except honouring the tradition. The pub’s popularity is spreading word of mouth.

Tom Forsell, who plays regularly here with the Moonee Valley Drifters, said Siobhan put on live music because she loved it, making a distinction from other venues that “like” live music but are really after the buck. 

“The pub has a good ambient feel,” he said. At a Sunday arvo session, one regular is sitting at the back reading Dostoevsky’s A Gentle Creature while the Drifters play originals in the window. Just let my life dream. It’s you I’m wishing for.

Lyrics are difficult to write. Siobhan knows that and invites bands to play their own original songs. The bands may not be commercial but she pays them above the going rate.

“A lot of venues pay bands based on takings at the door,” she said. “I don’t do that. I’m not going to sell my soul. I’m just putting on popular music.”

The bar glistens as the light from the window creates highlights on glasses against the rich woodgrain. The fit-out is new but the recycled timbers and padded leather benches work to create an old-world feel.

“I’ve also got some good Guinness on tap,” she said.

Siobhan is from Kilkenny and bought the bar 12 years ago, after working in event management in the United States. It was a Goth bar then and she had to replace every piece of wood.

Her slight form speaks of an energetic organiser with command of the venue. “I think it’s such an intense passion. I live music … the characters … there’s a lot of them. It makes us stand out.”

Every day except Monday The Drunken Poet puts on free music. Two bands play and Siobhan handpicks extra talent for occasions, such as International Women’s Day on March 8. Ayleen O’Hanolen and the Tuckshop Ladies played this year.

“A lot of girls come by themselves,” she said. “The literary side softens it a bit. So many different types of people come here and talk to each other – tradies, academics, Koreans who live nearby. It’s very eclectic.”

Some Australia poets have also made it into her gallery. Banjo Patterson looks rather stiff. Henry Lawson is there, as is Les Murray who has performed in the bar and Paul Kelly. 

“I’m quite particular. They have to embody the ideal of a drunken poet.”

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