Michael Smyth of "Smyth's of Newtown" 1926-2013.
Michael Smyth died 10th September 2013.
Eulogy by Michael Purcell following Michael Smyth's burial in
Michael Purcell recalls the fun times, the music and the
With the passing of Michael Smyth, so also passes a chapter of
Carlow history. Among his many interests Michael loved talking
about our heritage and was fascinated by the centuries old Smyth
connection with Carlow. The Smyth family were first recorded
living in Carlow in 1653 when Robert Smythe from Yorkshire
purchased, from a puritan adventurer, 90 acres of land in "Botorduef"
(now Newtown, renamed after the Newtown family).
In 1742 Robert Smyth is recorded as holding a 5-day licence to
sell only beer in Newtown.
But it is as a "singing lounge" that many present-day readers
will remember Smyth's of Newtown, with Michael playing the
pianos or the Hammond organ.
Revelers' travelled from all over Leinster to entertain and be
entertained in the famous cabaret lounge.
Michael had a flair for encouraging the most reluctant of
customers to stand before the mic. If they were offering to sing
something he did not know, Michael would simply say "you hum it
and I will play it" and in a short time he would be playing the
tune as if it was an old favourite.
For over five decades
Michael, with a boyish enthusiasm and a fine ear, unerringly
accompanied both amateur and professional singers, he could also
manage to make croaky-sounding moaners, like meself, sound good.
An accomplished pianist, but unfortunately not gifted with a
singing voice, Michael loved nothing better than to let his
fingers ripple over the keyboards playing everything from the
classics to modern-day tunes.
His love of music was an essential element in the formation of
his character, encouraged by his parents from a young age, he
attended piano lessons in Dublin and later perfected his musical
skills with Dr. Karl Seeldrayers in Carlow.
Michael played piano at every opportunity, a visit to the pub at
any time of the day would find him playing in one of the
lounges. Usually when playing for his own enjoyment Michael
liked to play the compositions of Chopin, Beethoven or Mozart
and often included pieces by neglected composers.
Michael's favourites were the Irish bard Thomas Moore and the
great German and Austrian composers, between tunes he would,
with the incisiveness of a philosopher of music discuss their
life and times.
He would often introduce the playing of some classical piece by
exclaiming " I will now play the Newtown version of this famous
work" (for us, Michael became our very own "Arthur Rubinstein of
Newtown" ) he would then, with a gentle mischievousness, proceed
to play the piece with all the seriousness of a professional
When in form he could play Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.2,
filling in for the strings section to perfection.
In 2008 I gave Michael a Leonard Cohen CD, within a few minutes
he was playing his own version of Hallelujah in a style that
would have done Jeff Buckley proud.
Michael held a life-long appreciation of Choral music and
travelled long distances to hear choirs perform the classics.
He travelled widely and claimed that whatever city in the world
he found himself in he always managed to play a grand piano at
some venue or other.
He loved the United States of America, having visited there over
He became involved with the Tempe Sister Cities programme in
1990, and was a welcoming host to visitors from Tempe, Arizona,
when he would lecture them on American history and amaze the
visitors with his knowledge of the life and times of the US
Presidents from Washington to Clinton.
He would then play pieces from the Great American Songbook
covering all styles from Stephen Foster to Michael Jackson.
No matter where in the
world he wandered Michael retained a love for his own place and
parish and for over 50 years he was organist at St Patrick's
Church, Newtown. In July 2006 he was honoured by Pope Benedict
when he was presented with the Bene Merenti medal in recognition
of his service to the parish.
During all this time Michael continued to work behind the bar
but wisely left most of the management duties to his brother,
Paudge's death in 2004 was a severe blow for Michael and
although he never showed it, one got the impression that he
never really came to terms with the vacuum created by Paudge's
absence but with Michael any setbacks or problems were brushed
aside with the comment "it's all going through life".
Michael was interviewed by journalists and writers many times,
we are very fortunate that Turtle Bunbury included Smyths of
Newtown in his fine 2008 book "The Irish Pub" with superb
pictures captured by James Fennell.
In 1995 Carlow County Heritage Society recorded on video an
interview with the Smyth brothers and filmed Michael, dressed in
elegant "concert attire", playing for about an hour on the grand
piano as part of the society's Living Memory project.
In latter years the
handicap of failing health was not allowed to interfere with his
piano playing, he sustained his love of music to the end. When
he entered a nursing home Michael continued tinkling the ivories
on the upright piano entertaining his fellow residents at the
Hillview Nursing Home in Carlow.
A man who lived by the rules of truthfulness, honesty and
integrity, his courteous approach, quite humour and soft spoken
manner, allied to his musical talent served him well throughout
his long life.
Sometimes playing (illegally!) into the early hours during his
"concerts", Michael, with an impish glint in his eye, liked to
quote Thomas Moore -
The heavens look bright, my friends
Tis' never too late for delight, my friends
And the best of all ways
To lengthen our days
Is to steal a few hours from the night, my friends".
The very many grateful
friends left behind will not be short of memories, I am
privileged to be counted among them. M.P.