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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Mr. Michael Smyth

Michael Smyth of "Smyth's of Newtown" 1926-2013.

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 Newtown cemetery.

 Michael Purcell recalls the fun times, the music and the man.


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).

"Smyth's of Newtown

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 concert pianist.

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 20 times.

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.

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.

Source: Michael Purcell 2013

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