Extracted from ‘The Irish Pub’ (Thames & Hudson, 2008)
For more stories of County Clare, see here.
On 30 October 1914, Captain Alexander Vandeleur of the 2nd Life Guards was killed in action on the Western Front. News of his death must have been met with mixed reactions in Kilrush, West Clare. The Vandeluers had effectively founded the Shannonside town but a hardline eviction policy adopted by Alexander’s father during the summer of 1888 had considerably reduced their popularity.
Nonetheless, the death of the 30-year-old officer must have sent a chill through Miko and Lizzie Crotty. The newlyweds were exactly the same age as the Captain and would likely have known of him from an early age. Indeed, it was only weeks since Miko had obtained a vital document, signed by Alexander’s grandfather in 1832, by which he had gained ownership of the pub on the Market Square in Kilrush.
Miko Crotty was born to a farming family from Gower, West Clare, in 1885. When he was seventeen, he took a ship to America where he spent several years working on the railroads. Once sufficient money was amassed, he re-crossed the Atlantic, arrived at Kilrush and took a lease on the premises that still bears his name today. At the time it was a hardware store but by the time he acquired the premises outright from Bartholomew Culligan on 26 March 1920, Miko had converted it into Crotty’s pub.
Although Crotty’s occupied an enviable position in Kilrush, directly opposite the once thriving market house, it was by no means the only pub in town. Indeed, Kilrush recorded a staggering 68 pubs in a survey of 1921. That was a year in which Ireland’s troubles began to seriously worsen. One morning, Miko was apparently taken outside and shot in the leg by an IRA kangaroo court. Quite what he was charged with will probably never be known.
In 1914, Miko married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Markham. Known to music circles as “Mrs Crotty”, Lizzie would go on to become perhaps the greatest concertina of her age. During their childhood, Lizzie and her sister Maggie had often played together for local house dances, weddings, christenings and “American wakes”. But she was virtually unknown until the RTE broadcaster Ciarán MacMathúna turned up at the pub in the mid 1950’s, set up a studio in the kitchen and began recording her at play on her Lachenal concertina. When MacMathúna played such rhythmic tunes such as ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ and ‘The Reel with the Beryl’ on his radio programme, they ignited such widespread popularity that ‘Crotty’s of the Square’ quickly became a regular haunt for musicians. MacMathúna maintained this esteem was due ‘not only to the sweetness of her playing, but also to the sweetness and graciousness of the lady herself’. Long after Mrs Crotty’s untimely death from angina in 1960, music was to be heard emanating from the windows of Crotty’s both day and night. The pub still hosts traditional music throughout the summer. And, half a century after her death, the town of Kilrush hosts a weekend celebration of the life and music of Mrs Crotty every August.
The Crottys were destined to have no grandchildren and, following the death of their daughter Peggy, the pub went up for sale. Fortunately, the couple who purchased it both had strong Kilrush roots. Kevin Clancy’s parents ran a pub called The Way Inn in Kilrush. His father Pa had been a school friend of the Crotty’s son, Father Tommy. His wife, Rebecca Brew, also comes from a prominent Kilrush business family. In 1994, Kevin and Rebecca returned from a decade in Europe to take on Crotty’s pub. They have also become actively involved in Kilrush’s burgeoning cultural scene – Rebecca as one of the co-organizers of Eigse Mrs Crotty and Kevin with the Kilrush Musical Society.
Crotty’s Pub is effectively a square. In the bottom right is the main bar, featuring a pitch pine counter, a tiny frost-glass snug and a rare plate glass Smithwick’s Ale & Barleywine mirror. This was the room where Oliver Reed, Richard Burton and Cyril Cusack all drank when passing through town, or where you might run into the playwright John B. Keane or the folk music collector Ciarán Mac Mathúna. Miko managed to lure an Italian stonemason working on the Catholic Church to lay most of the floor, save for the somewhat uneven bar area. An antique Dold kit-clock resounds from behind the bar while bundles of old 1950s invoices hang upon wires in the front window. To the left, the aforementioned CIE storeroom makes for an intimate seating area beneath posters for the once esteemed Kilrush Opera Society. At the back left is the Crotty’s old kitchen, complete with Vice-Regal stove and shelves of china and crockery, which runs into the old Tap Room at back right. The walls are bedecked in fascinating memorabilia relating to the Crotty family as well as posters the Lisdoonvarna Festivals, The Chieftains at the Sorbonne and miscellaneous Fleadh Ceols.
The Clancy’s have since extended the pub to include the Crotty’s family kitchen and an old sorting room where CIE had kept parcels during the 1950s. They have also converted the upper floors into a guesthouse. They won the prestigious Munster Black & White Pub of the Year in 1998 and were nominated for the 2006 Tourism Bar of the Year. In 2005, the Clancy’s expanded the premises to include O’Dwyer’s newsagent next door with Angela Murphy at the helm of the conversion. The extension has done the pub no harm and Crotty’s is arguably the most popular of the twelve pubs that remain open in Kilrush today. Prosperity has arrived in Kilrush at last. The new Marina ensures a healthy traffic in tourism and, so long as the nearby power station keeps providing Ireland with a fifth of its electricity, there will always be a strong working population in the locality.
In December 2023, it was announced that Crotty’s Bar was to close after 114 years. Perhaps some fine souls will step in to the frame as its’ saviour.