“IT was a place where you’d have a queue of a hundred or hundred and fifty people waiting to get in the door. The best nights were when bands were playing on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”
That’s how manager Kevin Fitzpatrick describes St. Kentigern’s social club in Fallowfield when Irish immigrants settled in the area around the 60s and 70s.
It was built as a parish hall in 1965, adjacent to the Catholic church of the same name, and was there for the community to use for parties and dances. It sold its first pint in 1971.
But now fifty years on, it’s a different story and it’s harder to keep the business going. Kevin says: “That was then, and the clubs were busy then. It’s changed a lot to today.”
‘St. Kent’s’, to those who are more familiar with it, is a name that most taxi drivers would know if you said it.
It’s also known as a charity club because of the money it has raised through hosting various fund-raisers over the years. Nearly £1,000,000 has been raised since Kevin, 41, took over running it in 2002.
He moved over from Ireland in 1992 and ran a couple of other Irish pubs in Manchester; ‘The Midway’ on Stockport Road and ‘The Ceili House’ in Levenshulme.
It was Fr. Tom Connolly from St. Kentigern’s Catholic church, who approached Kevin to run it. But it wasn’t easy to get him.
Fr. Tom says: “I first met Kevin on a social occasion and I was very impressed by his personality, his character. The Ceili House, where he was working, was doing so well and he was popular there and so well known.”
St Kent’s club wasn’t doing so well though and as Fr. Tom recalls, Kevin’s response to moving there was a memorable one: “He said ‘Father, you can’t afford me.’ I felt inspired then and so I said ‘well Kevin if you came, we could afford you.'”
But the financial struggles were something Kevin had to consider: “It had potential but the social club trade wasn’t what it used to be. The 32 club, The Ardree and The Grove Club had closed down.”
He adds: “A lot of Irish people were moving home because of the ‘celtic tiger’ [the financial boom in Ireland] and people with families had moved out of the area, they had houses and mortgages and that was the most important thing.”
So Kevin took a look at the books. He was conscious of putting money into it if it had no future. But he also asked himself if it was time for a change and something to sink his teeth into.
“I had plans and I wanted to be able to go ahead with them,” Kevin says enthusiastically, “But most of all I wanted to make it work, put the music back into it, get the people back in the door, no matter their ethnicity or cultural background, and make it a home for people.”
He decided to give it a year and see how it went, but a “few pound” had to be spent to bring it up to date. The tills were still the old style where the numbers shot up, more bottle coolers were needed behind the bar and a variety of beer brands and drinks were essential.
The Irishman started to bring in Irish country music acts which led to another modern change in the club.
“I had to put in air conditioning because the sweat was running off people from the dancing.”
The club has a small bar at the front for regulars; “It’s a second home for them,” says Kevin. But it’s the two function rooms which bring the most business – music acts, birthday parties, wedding anniversaries and get-togethers after a funeral.
Getting people in the door was always, and still is, the main aim. Kevin says: “The function rooms are always free to use – no charge to hire – because I’d rather have the people in. When the smoking ban came in, in 2007, I only built a little shelter because I’d rather have them in drinking than smoking.
“People might think I’m mad and might think I’m stupid,” Kevin smiles, “but if people come in and they use the club and I get a good bar sale over the year, it works out.”
Bit by bit the club was changing and modernising but maintained the Irish charm, and heart, that Kevin poured into it.
Advertising the club and what it had to offer was key when he took over. “I got it into the parish bulletin and into the Manchester Evening News,” Kevin says, “and they flocked from all over.”
Within the first year Kevin had multiplied the profit by 10 and maintained that over the years. But it wasn’t all plain sailing.
Turning serious, Kevin remembers a time when he thought his time at St. Kent’s could be up: “It was difficult enough around 2009 and 2010. It was a scary time because you’re thinking, ‘Will I move on here? What am I doing wrong or what am I not doing?’
“The pub, club trade – it’s gone. You’d hear about another one closing – up and down the country. In the paper you’d read that fifty pubs closed in the last week. It’s the end of an era in people going out.”
Never one to give up, Kevin persisted and found ways to cut costs without cutting the service and reputation of the club.
He says: “Turning off lights that weren’t needed, turning off the coolers an hour before closing rather than at closing. I did that and it helped. I had to cut some of the opening hours though too so now, for example, I open at 2.00pm mid-week.”
Getting the club’s name known and keeping it there is always at the front of Kevin’s mind. He has his pick-up covered in promotional material for St. Kent’s – all to “spread the word”. ‘The place 2 b’ is now the club’s motto and moving with the times, he advertises on Facebook and Twitter as well.
Fr. Tom says that Kevin’s “dynamic” personality is what’s made St. Kent’s what it is today: “I could go on. There’s no end to what Kevin has done.
“He’s always looking for new things to do especially causes to animate the community and of course bring business to the club. He has kind of transformed the place.”
Raising money for good causes is something Kevin is passionate about. Through using Kevin and the club to host fund-raisers in the community, St. Kent’s is just £20,000 short of a million raised for different charities since 2002.
“Instead of having a raffle, Kevin will have an auction – and the people love it,” Fr. Tom laughs at how Kevin doesn’t do things on a small scale.
The latest charity night, in March, was for Betty Carry which raised over £21,000 for St. Ann’s Hospice. Betty has terminal cancer and wanted to show her appreciation to the people who make her illness easier to cope with.
She has a ‘bucket list’ of things she wants to do in the time she has left and one of those was to raise money for the hospice.
Betty and her husband Mick were in St Kent’s having a drink and Kevin was chatting to them. Betty says: “Mick mentioned my list and the fundraiser I wanted to do. Straight away Kevin was saying ‘ok, you’re having your night here, this is what’ll happen…’ and it snowballed from there.
“Because Kevin had done it before, he knew what was needed and let us have the room, and he provided the entertainment – band and DJ.”
Both Betty and Mick couldn’t believe the amount they managed to raise. They added that there is ‘nowhere else they know of where you can use a venue to the extent St Kent’s lets you’ – and how much Kevin helps.
Betty re-iterates what she said to Mick after the night of the event: “Kevin really deserves a pat on the back for what he does. It’s always the organisers of the fund-raisers that get their picture in the paper and he’s in the background. But without him it wouldn’t have happened.”
Fr. Tom echoed this sentiment: “The community has found a tremendous resource in Kevin. All sorts of groups of people meet there and he makes them welcome. If he’s there, it will happen.”
“His generosity comes back to him. People don’t forget, they are touched by kindness and generosity.”
But Kevin remains humble:
“It’s down to the people that ask me to use the club, sell the tickets, give something for a donation or auction items. Without the people it wouldn’t happen.”
For the future though, Kevin is constantly looking at ways to improve and keep the business going. He has found that having some of the ‘bigger’ bands doesn’t pay as their fees outweigh what he would make.
But with ties to the local Irish football club of St. Brendan’s, hurling club of Fullen Gaels and Lancashire Gaelic Athletic Association, St. Kent’s can host their monthly meetings or courses for referees.
And there’s the social side as well: “The last couple of years I have started doing dinner dances and that’s been going very well. Cost per head is good but still cheaper than a hotel.”
There are also the regular groups that have always been there like the salsa dance group, people for the Irish language courses, ‘ceilis’ for the local universities and bingo on a Wednesday.
Kevin remembers with warm memories when he first started: “I was welcomed by an over 55s club who came regularly and one of those was 80 years of age! Some of them still come but some have passed away now too. There’s an Irish Community Care group who come in on a Monday as well.”
The maintenance of the building is also something that needs constant care which means things like the free room hire may need to change too.
“I may have to start charging for the room to cover costs because for example the roof has just gone in on me,” Kevin says, “and it’s gonna cost me a few pound to get that fixed. It’s been patched up for the last forty years and now I have to do it right.”
It’s a never-ending job but Kevin seems to have the appetite for it. As we chat, he also has workmen fitting a new bar in the function room. “I’m going to give the club a massive push now after I get the bar finished and market it more. My head is puzzled sometimes with what I can do. I have no GCSEs but it’s a full time job.
“This year, so far, we are doing really well. If you want the main room it’s six months in advance and if you wanted it for a wedding you might need to book a year in advance. I’m lucky to have the support of the parish here and the community.”
Kevin seems to have changed the club for the better since he took charge 13 years ago. Even though it may never get back the queues of the 60s and 70s, he certainly knows how to cope in tough times. This is someone who’s not going to let the era of the social club die out completely.
By: Siobhan Maguire