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House of McDonnell – Ballycastle, Co. Antrim

The House of McDonnell has been in the same family for an astonishing fourteen generations. Photo: James Fennell.

Extracted from ‘The Irish Pub’ (Thames & Hudson, 2008)



‘I was born upstairs when my aunt Mary owned the pub’, says Tom O’Neill. ‘In those days the midwife got about on a bicycle so they thought it better I be born here on the street than have her cycle way out – uphill all the way – to my fathers’ farm’. Forty years later when his aunt Mary McDonnell died without issue, it was Tom who inherited the pub. He was the eldest son of Mary’s only sister Helen. The new heir considered the name emblazoned on the broken glass above the door. It had been ‘The Store’ for a hundred years. Tom decided to rename it ‘The House of McDonnell’. ‘I’m an O’Neill’, he explains, ‘but my mother was McDonnell and the pub has been McDonnell for fourteen generations’.

Castle Street, upon which the pub is located, was effectively an avenue for a castle, since demolished, erected in 1609 by the first Earl of Antrim. The earliest licence for the pub dates to 1750, shortly before it was leased to a Mr. M’Gildowney. By the time Archibald McDonnell took over the lease in 1766, Ballycastle was enjoying a golden age of prosperity. The boom was spearheaded by an entrepreneurial gentleman, Colonel Hugh Boyd, under whose leadership the coastal town became home to a glass works, several salt and soap factories, at least two breweries, ten tanning yards, extensive quay and docking facilities and a major export trade in Antrim coal. Colonel Boyd died in 1765 and the local economy went into a slump. The harbour slowly filled with sand; the grandiose quay was washed away by stormy seas. During the 19th century, Ballycastle rediscovered itself as a seaside resort, boosted by the arrival of the railways and the erection of a new pier. Today, the town enjoys the dual benefits of being both a busy seaside resort and an ‘all year round’ market town, with a fair day every month and a market every Tuesday.

In 1898, ‘The Store’ passed to Tom’s grandfather, Randal McDonnell, a big, broad-shouldered man few dared mess with. Tom points at a mirror for McAllister Irish Whisky and recalls a time when the Ballymena distiller James McAllister fell out with his grandfather. ‘Randal clobbered him and put him in a barrel in the back yard’. The origin of the quarrel is unknown but ‘no supplies were brought from McAllister between 1914 and 1928’.

In the 18th century, Archibald McDonnell ran the pub as a spirit-grocery, with stabling for horses and coaches to the back. His descendent Randal McDonnell ran it as a spirit-grocery bar of the type more commonly found in the south of Ireland. In 1921, Randal closed the grocery section and installed a pitch pine bar the length of the room. To maintain a sense of intimacy, he inserted an oak and frosted glass partition half-way down. As Tom notes, the partition was an unintentionally symbolic move as 1921 was the same year the six counties of Ulster (Antrim included) were partitioned from the rest of Ireland. The original Victorian interior was otherwise left intact.

Bentwood chairs and a cast iron Edwardian table stand atop the tiled floor laid in the 1960s. Photo: James Fennell.

When Randall died in 1931, the pub passed to his eldest daughter, Mary, a spinster. For the next four decades, Mary ran the pub in the unobtrusive, pious and proud manner one would expect of a Ballycastle landlady. Tom indicates a dozen African hardwood bar stools he commissioned from a specialist joiner in Co. Down. ‘My aunt didn’t approve of bar stools’, he says. ‘She reckoned it meant people would sit around too long’. Customers seated on these African stools today have the added quirk of being able to rest their feet on a brass rail salvaged from HMS Drake, a British war cruiser torpedoed off Rathlin Island in 1917. Alternative seating consists of Bentwood chairs and three-legged stools scattered around. ‘Those old flagstone floors were never level but three-legs gets you steady’, explains Tom.

Most of what one sees in the House of McDonnell is old world from the classic black light switches and coat hooks beneath the counter to the keyhole clock that gongs above the bar. This was an old man’s pub and to a large extent it still is. ‘We don’t do refurbishment’, says Tom. The only change he has made was to strip stripped the walls of their heavily embossed anaglyphic paper. ‘It was on so thick, we nearly had to use a shovel’. In its place, he put on a wallpaper ‘almost identical’ to the William Morris pattern that was there in 1910. Decades of cigarette smoke has given the entire room a sepia hue from the nicotine stained photographs along the beams to an equine statuette above the bar called ‘The White Horse’. ‘The tobacco’s turned him bay’ laughs Tom. The room is lit by a variety of lamps – swan-neck, converted gas, old seamen’s lamps. Some of the daylight that comes through the window is filtered through overlaid strips of red Bristol glass, providing the slightest hint of a Bavarian ambience.

The back of the bar is a bottled miscellany broken by distillers’ mirrors – a pair of gold and silver embossed Wilson, an Old Bushmills, a massive frame from Coleraine, another from the unfortunate McAllister. Advertisements for Cantrell & Cochranes ginger ale and D’Arcy’s stout rise alongside prints of the St Albans Grand Steeple Chase of 1832. A rare flash of the contemporary is found in a wooden fiddler carved by local sculptor and chainsaw maverick Frank Browne.

Tom sits down on a bench in a small snug just off the main bar and runs his fingers over a series of rare Bass ashtrays set into the wall. ‘I remember when I was a wee man, there was a cast iron stove in here and a pipe running through the wall. It was just somewhere to boil a kettle or to sit beside if it was cold’. His great-great-grandfather David O’Neill was a ferryman, escorting both people and cargo over the turbulent waters between Antrim and the Scottish coast. One of his sons purchased the farm outside Ballycastle where Tom now lives with his wife. ‘We’re right on the coast here’, says Tom. ‘And there’s not too many customers out at sea’. Nonetheless, he is content with the crowd of regulars he gets. Every Friday night, the House hosts music, from Flamenco guitars and Breton drums to the simple, uncluttered traditional music of North-East Antrim. Tom is in no hurry to chase the crowds that flock to the coast in the summer. ‘Now that times have got more settled, we get a lot more visitors from the south and I do like that’. Above his head is the arms and crest of the McDonnell family who have now run this same establishment for 240 consecutive years. Their motto is ‘Toujours Pret’ (Always Ready) and it is Tom’s aim to be just that.




In 2019, a metal detectorist, who was searching for his friend’s lost wedding ring, found a stash of 84 gold coins worth $128,552, in Ballycastle, which are believed to date back as far as King Henry VII’s reign.