Running over 200 miles from its source to the sea, the Shannon is the longest river in Europe west of the Loire. The town of Athlone lies about half-way down and has been expanding ever since smart-thinking Normans threw a bridge across the river here in the 12th century. In June 1691, the town was the setting for a crucial showdown when William of Orange’s army of 25,000 soldiers pitched their canons along the eastern riverbanks, aimed them at the town and unleashed cataclysmic mayhem. Athlone’s besieged citizens valiantly strove to prevent the enemy crossing the bridge but, when the Williamites identified another fordable point just downriver, it was all over. On 30th June, the Williamites crossed the Shannon and took possession of the town.
‘Do you think this might be from the battle?’, asks Michael Loughman, holding up a decrepit musket salvaged from the Shannon close to his pub.
It’s certainly a possibility. The streetscape where Gertie Brown’s stands is named Custume Place after an Irish dragoon sergeant who led ten men on a suicidal mission across the river to disrupt the siege. Surely the riverbed that divides Athlone must be full of bits and pieces that once belonged to Custume and the countless others who also died during those bloody eleven days.
Michael believes a thirsty soldier from 1691 might have struck lucky with a tankard of ale right here on the site he purchased fifteen years ago. In fact, he’d wager there’s been some class of a drinking den here since the Normans were here. For all that, he would struggle to beat Sean’s Bar across the river which, crowned ‘Ireland’s oldest pub’ by the Guinness Book of Records, claims to have been serving passing pilgrims since the early 10th century.
Michael Loughman was born in West Tipperary in 1948. (I have written about his Loughman and Harrington relations elsewhere here). His father, an electrician, moved the family to Athlone in the 1950s when he was employed to work on the Rural Electrification Scheme in Westmeath. Like his mother before him, Michael opted for a teaching career, homing in on maths and technical drawings. From 1969 onwards, he spent his summers working as a bartender in New York’s Upper East Side. By 1993, Michael and his wife Mary, also a New York veteran, had earned sufficient money to buy a pub of their own.
Before the Loughman’s purchased the three-storey Georgian building in Athlone, the pub was called ‘The Hooker Bar’, after the traditional sailing boats found in Galway. From 1905 until the 1950s, the pub belonged to the Browne family, one of Athlone’s great boat-building firms. The Browne’s specialised in sailing craft and lake-boats and had a long association with the Lough Ree Yacht Club. An advertisement in an Athlone Guide from 1896 reads: ‘Michael Browne, Fisherman, The Strand, Athlone – Yachts, Mermaids, Thames Skiffs & other Craft for Sale & Hire’. As licensed salmon fishermen, the Browne’s could legally net salmon at some of the ‘salmon draws’ in Athlone.
On the death of Frank Browne senior, the business passed to his son Teddy, the last of the boat-builders and a cousin of the American novelist, James T Farrell, author of ‘Studs Lonigan’. Teddy’s wife Gertie was a formidable woman who would put swiftly manners on any customers who got out of hand. After Teddy’s death, she continued to run the bar and shop for some years before selling to Joe O’Meara of Connaught Street. ‘Gertie would sit up at the top window’, says Michael. ‘When she moved, the whole place went silent’. The name ‘Gertie Browne’ appealed to Michael so much that he named the pub in her honour. The ‘R’ in the name ‘Gertie’ is reversed on the sign. ‘Sure I put the ‘O’ in upside down and nobody said anything about it’, mutters Michael.
Gertie Browne’s is the sort of Irish pub you’d expect to find in New York. It’s got all the right traits – tongue and groove walls, pitch pine counters, rattly windows bulging with old box cameras and soda siphons and framed by raggedy curtains, original posters for Keegan’s Irish Whiskey and nipple ointment, shelves rising up walls and framed pages from, of all newspapers, the New York Herald.
As it happens, the Loughman’s recreated pretty much everything from top to bottom. Athlone carpenter Mick Casserly designed the telephone box and the grocery drawers, but most of the timberwork has been salvaged. The bar’s pitch pine timber came from a convent in Moate. The tongue and groove panelling came from the town’s Victorian military barracks; in certain places, they are replicated by cutting recessed four panel doors in two. Church furniture is reincarnated as benches and stools, while the heat from an old Congress stoves rebounds off old whiskey barrels and a sprightly Monington & Weston piano.
The decoration is genuine, personal and above all, Athlone. A room to the side is named for John, Count McCormack, the world-famous tenor born in the town in 1884. The walls are decorated with his records and songsheets, memorabilia from his life and photographs of the Athlone Woollen Mills where his parents worked. Bleached steer heads, po-faced gargoyles and images of the Connaught Rangers preparing for action in the Zulu campaigns are reflected in bright brassy lamps. Bills for the long-gone Ritz cinema hang alongside photographs of Michael’s late father and other drinking comrades past.
A photograph of the Titanic hang in tribute to Margaret Rice, a housekeeper from Athlone, who perished in the tragedy along with all five of her sons. But there is humour here too, such as a map depicting the Athlone Underground.
Mary Loughman was keen to serve food but her husband refused to countenance the presence of salt and pepper cellars in the bar. A compromise was reached when they expanded their operation to incorporate the ‘Hatters Lane’ restaurant in a separate part of the building. The name of this successful Hollywood theme restaurant recalls the milliners who used to operate from here.
For sure, concedes Michael, ‘the restaurant brings in the business’. Michael believes that, whilst Irish pubs are going through a major transition at the present, it is simply a thinning out process that will level off in due course. ‘But maybe it won’t be so long before the government are giving out grants to people who want to open a pub’.