Get yourself down to the International Bar of a Monday evening to experience an alternative side to the cultural life of the city.
As we all know, Dublin is a nocturnal animal. The city is just better after dark. The riverside lights up, Temple Bar starts humming and McDonald’s on Grafton Street fills up with people who missed the last bus home and have to wait for the first bus. But what the night-time city does best is poetry and music. If you head to the International Bar on a Monday night you can get both. The event features a mixture of open mic and featured acts, songwriters and storytellers, traditional poets and their slam cousins. One week I decide to record my impressions and have a chat with Aidan Murphy, the event’s friendly and energetic host.
Aidan’s kindly talking with me just before setting up, so I keep things brief. First off, how long has the Monday Echo been with us? ‘It’s been going since October 2011. I took over from a guy called Stephen James Smith. I actually didn’t want to do it in the first place. When Stephen was quitting, he asked me if I wanted to take over. I initially said no, and then he kind of talked me into it and I said I’d give it a go. My main interest was just keeping the quality as high as it was, and keeping the night going.’ It’s certainly been going a good while now. ‘Yeah, it’s been going great – especially the last year, the crowds have been huge. It’s been a really nice vibe.’
Speaking of huge crowds, Slam Sunday – a monthly spoken-word competition also hosted by Aidan – was even more packed when I checked it out the day before. ‘Yeah, that was mental.’ Is it always like that? ‘It’s been gradually getting like that for about the last three months. It had been sitting room, then this month there wasn’t any floor space left.’ I hadn’t realised there was such an appetite for poetry out there. ‘Yeah, slam poetry’s becoming pretty popular in the city now. I think it’s reached a kind of critical mass, where there’s enough events going on that people know that there’s some kind of scene. So people are beginning to write stuff, and seeing that it is a thing that you can do.’
Aidan is a musician himself, but at the Echo he’s content to stick to announcing. ‘I think I’m on stage enough already,’ he grins. ‘I go round other pub mic nights in the city and play at those. I don’t really play at my own one because I’m hosting it – there’s enough people coming through that I don’t need to fill time.’ In fact, no-one’s on stage for too long at a time, the idea being to keep things digestible. ‘TED talks are a great example of that – they’re all 20 minutes, because I think that’s about how long people can concentrate for. With the sets here it’s a limit of four songs, and poets usually have ten minutes. You saw on Slam Sunday, that’s a three minute rule. You still hear a lot of material, but the format kind of keeps you interested.’
I ask Aidan if he does any poetry. ‘No. I pretty much got involved with these kinds of shows when I took over this night. I basically went out to most of the poetry nights that were going on round the city, just to see what was out there. I had to learn by just inviting people along, walking up and saying “Hello, can you come play at my show?”’ Apparently Dublin’s slam poetry scene is older than I am? ‘I suppose there’s always been a scene as long as there’s been a city. I think every generation presumes that they’re inventing something ‘cause they’ve never seen it before.’ Well, that’s true. One final thing: what’s up with the clicking? ‘It’s an American tradition. If you were at a gig and something was going really well you’d be shouting and clapping, doing all that stuff. But because it’s the voice, it’s so low-volume you’ve got to find some other way of showing appreciation. Clicking gives the audience a voice; they’re able to feed back what they’re enjoying.’
There’s certainly plenty to enjoy tonight. I sit on a battered couch against the wall, or sometimes on top of the couch for a better view. There’s absolute silence during the sets; this is a strictly enforced house rule. The sense of intimacy is enhanced by the lack of amplification, and every poem and song gets an enthusiastic response from the sympathetic crowd. This is definitely a performer’s venue.
The night kicks off with some sung poetry, with Eddie Keegan doing the a cappella honours. It’s easy to see what Aidan meant about how performed poetry is as old as the city itself – this is the kind of thing you can imagine our ancestors doing round roaring winter fires. Next up is Derek O’Looney, a music duo with guitars and harmonised vocals. Their songs are fun and tuneful. After that, Alicia Byrne Keane performs some slam poetry. I’m at a loss as to how she can remember all the words and deliver them with such speed and precision. The poems themselves are funny and sharply observed. Brendan Cleary follows up with a more traditional brand of poetry, reinforcing my feeling that spoken word is a continuous tradition stretching back through the generations.
Next up is Haley Heynderickx, a native of Portland, Oregon. She delivers a set of beautiful, idiosyncratic songs for voice and guitar, all her own apart from an excellent cover of “It Ain’t Me Babe”. She’s a tough act to follow, but the weekly Monday Echo Raffle proves up to the task. After the prizes have been dispensed and the excitement has died down, Kevin Barrington takes the stage and delivers a set of confrontational, spot-on poetry. Finally, Temper-Mental MissElayneous (pictured above) closes the night with a burst of slam energy. Occasionally accompanied by a skilled jazz saxophonist, she unleashes a torrent of hip-hop machine-gun fire on the stunned audience. She only stops because there’s no corner of modern life left to dissect.
And that’s the end of the show for another week. Time to go home, happy in the knowledge that come next Sunday evening I’ll be one of the few people on planet Earth thinking ‘Great, tomorrow’s a Monday.’
The Monday Echo is on in the basement of the International Bar every Monday night of the year. Doors open at 7pm and the show starts at 8pm. Slam Sunday takes place on the first Sunday of every month in Accents Coffee and Tea Lounge (performers sign up at 6:45, show starts at 7). Admission is free to both events.
The International Bar
23, Wicklow Street
Tel: (01) 677 9250
Accents Coffee & Tea Lounge
23, Stephen Street Lower
Tel: (01) 416 0040
All photographs courtesy Monday Echo Facebook page