Located on the periphery of Dublin City Centre, The Thomas House offers something a little different to more conventional bars.
An alternatively styled dive bar, featuring a decor of random accoutrements and a fish tank, the bar hosts gigs, DJs and a variety of gaming nights, as well as serving as a watering hole for before and after gigs in Vicar Street. So how does a relatively small and independent bar survive in Dublin, and what challenges does it face? I spoke to one of the owners, Gareth Cummins, about the challenges that the bar faces, the changes that they have made since taking over, and how they run the multifaceted enterprise.
“We’d been talking about it for years,” said Gareth. “Because we had been putting on shows and putting DJs into other venues across the city already, we always thought that part of the dream was to have our own bar and venue.”
Initially working in promotions, both at The Thomas House and with other venues, Gareth and business partner Kevin O’Kelly had very little experience on the other side of the bar. “We were promoters, DJs, marketers and looked after the bands – everything bar running an actual pub,” said Gareth.
Downstairs in the bar had always been used as a function room in some shape or form. Kevin and Gareth had previously invested time and effort into building a stage, also adding a PA and sound system into the basement, so the whole acquisition of The Thomas House lease “Kind of happened naturally with the place that we had already put most of our work into”.
There have been lots of ideas as to how to transform The Thomas House, but Gareth has cited money as something that they have always had to take into consideration. “We have always had to make it from the bar,” he said. “We had no backing.”
The expansion potential of the bar is limited – there are apartments and warehouses behind; however this does little to take away from the bar’s charm.
This is not to say that they have not made changes over the years, rather that they have been more gradual and organic than forced. They have taken out sections of seating and moved the bar downstairs to create more room, bringing the capacity in the basement area to 100 standing while upstairs expanded to 150. Also, as Gareth said, “Any changes you have to walk away from them, unless you have a thirty year lease”.
Originally the basement was intended to be a kitchen. “The money involved in dealing with getting the kitchen up to spec and the amount of space that would be lost renders this kind of expansion pointless,” said Gareth.
The Thomas House prides itself on remaining relatively independent, as Gareth explained: “You’re going to get big companies in offering you crazy money just to put their taps in but you kind of sell your soul by doing that”.
As one of the first wave of bars to bring in unusual international brands of beer, the owners never intended it to become a fully craft bar either. Their idea was to maintain a strong Irish presence, stocking Irish beer brands like McArdles and Guinness, but also giving foreign brands ‘more soakage’ in Ireland.
Even now, after reducing the range on tap and in bottles, the bar has twenty taps, with three or four rotating taps and around fifty different types of beer available in bottles. Pale ales and IPAs are huge sellers, with the heavier hoppy brands recently becoming less popular in favour of session ales and fruity, citrus-led brews. The bar still stocks one or two super heavy Belgian brands as they are often popular with groups.
Music is a massive part of the background to The Thomas House, and influences several aspects of its operations. Not only does the bar host gigs and DJ nights, but with Vicar Street right on the doorstep, it is a vital component to the bar’s success. “Vicar Street is the cherry on top. We base our rostering and ordering around what gigs are on,” Gareth explained. “We’re not 100% dependent on it but it has become a massive part of our trade.”
Using the skills garnered as a promoter, Gareth checks out what acts are playing and adjusts the stock and schedule accordingly. Of course, there are other perks to this as well, with celebrities such as Morrissey and Bill Burr coming in for visits after gigs.
Gareth is adamant that they never advertise on social media when the celebrities are there. “I hate that celebrity lampooning – ‘aren’t we the coolest place to hang out’,” he said. Rather, after checking with their guests if it is alright to take a picture, they sometimes post them on social media the next day.
An unusual element of Gareth’s social media experience has been his Ask Me Anything threads on Reddit on St Patrick’s Day, talking about running the bar during the celebrations. The posts inadvertently resulted in people from abroad hunting down the bar on their travels. “It’s not a marketing tool or a gimmick – I just sort of fell into it and it blew up and was insane,” he said, “and we definitely get customers out of it”.
In terms of social media he no longer finds Twitter to be as important a tool it once was. It has, according to him, become cold and humourless. Instagram works well for the business as other people can tag the bar and reshare stories. Facebook, although harder to get the right information to the right people organically, he believes, is the best for promoting events and sharing larger amounts of information – the more niche, the better – and works well with tickets sales through Eventbrite. Essentially, as Gareth eloquently put it, “Facebook is for your ma, Instagram is for your niece and Twitter is for your grumpy weird Uncle.”
The Thomas House is certainly a unique and independent bar, attracting people from all over the area and further afield. Although it has a very loyal gang of regulars, new people come to investigate it all the time. Gareth believes that it is an authentic pub that did not simply spring up over night. “It has a soul. It is a bit a rough around the edges. It is an alternative bar. It doesn’t play chart music. The drinks aren’t all bog standard beers.”