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The Irish Pub – On The Road

A poster made to promote The Irish Pub book.

Return to Contents of The Irish Pub

Ready & Set

 

When we first started, there was much laughter from our nearest and dearest. A nationwide pub crawl seemed too good to be true. But word was already spreading across Ireland that at least one old pub was closing down every day. The more we talked to people, the more we heard of great classics lately closed. I emailed a large number of contacts in April and asked them to recommend any fine old-style pubs and other neglected beauties which they might have come across. The response was formidable. By June 2007, I had a list of some 400 pubs across Ireland.

 

Good Pubs Are Hard to Find

 

All we required was two good pubs for every county. Dublin is awash with excellent pubs. Ryan’s of Parkgate Street. Kehoe’s. McDaid’s. The Royal Oak. John Kavanagh’s – The Gravediggers. Ad infinitum. We resisted them all; with The Stag’s Head and The Long Hall, we already had our Dubliners.

 

However, as we went deeper into the countryside, a new truth was revealed. There may have been 8,500 pubs in Ireland, I don’t know, but hundreds were closing every year. The number of bar grocers, for instance, had fallen so dramatically that there were already less than a handful in every county and in some counties, none at all. I imagined it as one of those quirky facts – an Irish pub closes every time you change channels on your TV. And another Irish pub opens somewhere else in the world.

 

At any rate, it soon became apparent that good pubs were hard to find. Most pubs had been revamped in the previous few years, certainly since the ’70s and ’80s, with anything remotely charming or unique banished, guillotined and reincarnated in various forms of 21st century ghastliness.

 

Round & About the Home Turf

 

Rickety stools, simple partitions and overhead strobes imbibe O’Connell’s with the charm old Ireland. Photo: James Fennell.

We started locally with County Kildare. James’s hometown of Athy had a fine collection of pubs – O’Brien’s nearly made the book (and Frank would appear in a Vanishing Ireland) but Clancy’s got there first. The BBC would later bring us back to Clancy’s to record a radio programme live from the pub. Other Kildare nominees were JJ Mahon’s in Kildare Town and Mrs Roche’s wonderful premises sinking into the bog outside Donadea.

 

My home county of Carlow yielded several options from Osborne’s of Clonegal to Molloy’s of Rathvilly to Dalton’s of Borris . In the finish, we settled on O’Shea’s of Borris and a magnificent cabaret establishment, Smyth’s of Newtown.  A trip to the coal-mining village of Clogh just north of Kilkenny introduced us to Eddie Somers and the pub his father opened seventy years earlier; Eddie died just months after our visit and his pub was sadly closed.

 

County Wicklow was hard to crack – The Dying Cow has a wonderful name and is a splendid establishment but MJ Byrne’s of Greenan was the one we went for. (A marvellous octogenarian by name of George Thomas escorted us there after we interviewed him for a second volume of ‘Vanishing Ireland’).

 

Mrs. O’s – or O’Connell’s – at the Hill of Skryne joined forces with Bermingham’s of Navan to win the County Meath nomination. ‘I have just been to Dubai‘, was the late Mrs O’s opening remarks when we arrived on a Friday afternoon, adding ‘in my imagination‘. She had been reading about the Arabian city as we arrived.

 

Northern Excursions

 

McGinn’s pub was bought in trust for Hugh McGinn over a hundred years ago. Photo: James Fennell.

During the summer of 2007, I lived at my new bride’s family home, Bishopscourt, in Clones, Co. Monaghan, while we awaited the arrival of our first child, Jemima. James visited on a couple of occasions. The first time, we managed to photograph McGinn’s of Newbliss and McCuskers of Clones. On the second trip, we secured an excellent hat-trick in the form of Gartlan’s of Kingscourt, Wright’s of Glaslough and McConville’s of Portadown.

 

The latter was a pleasant surprise and marked our first foray into Northern Ireland. I cautiously noted the young manager’s intention to expand the premises by installing a poker machine in the corner and plasma screens above the handsome Victorian snugs. I also made some treks into Co. Fermanagh. Blakes of the Hollow in Enniskillen had a very promising front room but, for the purposes of this book, was disqualified by the riot of plasma screens erupting on every other wall in the four storey premises. Another contender was McKenzies by Boho, one of the oldest thatched pubs in Ireland, a regular for the hill-farmers of the Florencecourt Hills. In December 2018, a decade after the book was published, Cillian Jake Morris advised us that Duff’s Bar in Ardboe is ‘most definitely the best traditional rural pub’ in County Tyrone.

 

I might have added Charlie’s Bar in Enniskillen on the back of this wonderful advert from Christmas 2023, although I note two TV screens in the background playing two different channels, which is close to unforgivable!

 

 

The Cork & Kerry Trip

 

 

The Bullman. Photo: James Fennell.

Our first major trip took place in August. I met James outside Fermoy and we made our way along the villages of the River Blackwater and down into Cork City. Nicky fFrench-Davis escorted us on a grand tour of the Leesiders’ favourite haunts. The Hi-Bee was a fine contender and Cork impressed us both. The next day we photographed the charming interior of Callanan’s on the Quays where a half dozen old men had been playing 45s while we drank there the night before.

 

Onwards to the coast of West Cork where The Bulman of Kinsale and de Barra’s of Clonakilty caught the shutter’s eye. On the restaurant front, The Blue Haven in Kinsale was to the fore on the food front at this time. It was frantic on the south coast that August with holiday-makers spilling out of every doorway and thus it was impossible to see what many of those pubs were actually like when empty.

 

We called into more than 30 pubs between Clon and Bantry. The Tin Hut at Ahakista was amongst the most promising but it was closed. Others had potential but, in most cases, we were just too late. All of these pubs had been renovated in the past 15 years to cater to the changing demand of their patrons – namely, tourists. Ironically, the reason the tourists came in the first place was because they loved the way in which the bars were so quaint and untouched. Now many of these pubs seemed exactly the same – full of bluster and promise from the outside but empty of any real soul within. In Bantry, we had great hopes for The Anchor Bar, a gem in times past, but its new owner had failed to maintain momentum and it seemed to have acquired an ambience of woeful decline. On the plus side, we were generously accommodated in Bantry’s new four star Maritime Hotel with splendid ringside seats overlooking the harbour where Wolfe Tone came so close to launching a French invasion of Ireland in 1796.

 

Banzai in Beara

 

From Bantry, we headed south down the Beara peninsula to Adrienne McCarthy’s bar in Castletownbere, made famous in the late Pete McCarthy’s excellent book, McCarthy’s Bar. We arrived on August 14th, the 62nd anniversary of Japan’s surrender. The date was significant on two accounts. Firstly, James’s grandfather, the late John Walsh, was one of the first British soldiers sent into Nagasaki after the bombs had fallen. Secondly, Adrienne’s father was a POW in Japan at the time of the surrender. Indeed, Dr Aidan McCarthy was the senior Allied serviceman in Japan and so it was to him that the commandant of the POW camp surrendered his sword. Adrienne’s sister Nikki brought down this very sword for me to hold and, for a brief moment, the world seemed very small and manageable.

 

Onwards we drove – James, as ever, behind the wheel as I am still prone to drive at the horse and carriage speed of 20kmh – around the Allihies and back along the Kenmare River, calling in for a pint on the pier at Kilmacalogue. With so many tourists on the roads, we decided to skip the Ring of Kerry and proceed to Kenmare. It was fair day in Kenmare and it felt as if about sixteen million people were visiting the town centre. I called in to check out one of our recommended pubs and duly lost James who was swept away in his car to the distant suburbs. Once reunited, we opted to press on north. To our surprise, we ended up going all the way to Dingle.

 

Dingle All the Way

 

Stevie and Timmy Kelleher, who we met in Curran’s of Dingle. Photo: James Fennell.

With heavy hearts, we checked into Doyle’s Town House on John Street and took stock. Yes, we could blame excessive tourism for slowing us down to an extent. Nonetheless, we did not feel that we’d encountered any truly classic old style pubs since leaving Clonakilty. Every time we stopped and asked locals where the great old pubs had gone, wiser counsels suggested we were just too late.

 

Dingle is one of Ireland’s best-known tourist towns and that can be a bad tag for classic pubs. And yet I remembered taking two New Zealand girls on a tour of the town’s pubs one evening in 2003 and was convinced we’d hit upon some classics. Sure enough, the first pub we walk into was J. Curran’s, bar on right, outfitters on left, a straight up classic. While there we would befriend the Kelleher brothers, who we then photographed for the second volume of the Vanishing Ireland series.

 

Across the street from Curran’s, Foxy John’s doubled as a pub and hardware store. Down the road, Dick Mac’s still had the cobbler’s shoeboxes rumbling up the walls and snugs in every corner. Around the bend, two fiddlers were letting the music rip around the grocery shelves of O’Flaherty’s pub. Four classics in one town. James was in heaven and determined to photograph them all. I reminded him we only needed two per county, not four in one town. Nonetheless, he had photographed three out of four by the time we hit the road next day, north over the Conor Pass to Brandon Bay and beneath the Slieve Mish mountains through Tralee to Listowel.

 

In Listowel, the late John B Keane’s pub was of note and will certainly garner my attention on another occasion. The Listowel Arms accommodated us commendably and next day we returned homewards, pausing at PJ Guerin’s of Castleconnell where the aforesaid PJ Guerin gave me a grand tour of his marvellous premises. Unfortunately we missed a new pub in Murroe opened by Peter Clohessy, former Munster and Ireland rugby player, which has received sound reviews.

 

James deposited me at Morrissey’s of Abbeyleix where I became much involved when an old man toppled backwards off his stool and smashed his head on the ground so hard we were obliged to summon an ambulance. The unfortunate bar girl insisted she had only given him the one whiskey but, as she said, you never know how much someone already has on board when they arrive in.

 

The Midlands

 

Named for a former owner, a pub has stood on the site of Gertie Browne’s since at least the 17th century. Photo: James Fennell.

Our next major trip was a three day soiree into Roscommon, Longford and Westmeath. James drove north from Athy. I came south from Monaghan. We both called into every town en route, looking for quality pubs. I struggled in Longford. Magans of Killashee had potential but the owners had installed a massive plasma screen behind the counter that would ruin any photograph. I also missed out on a potential classic called Philip Hourican’s, later owned by Paddy and Maura Reilly, in Rathmore, Aghnacliffe. Valentine’s was a notable new ‘old style’ bar in Longford town if we were stuck while promising work was underway at Sean Donohoe’s in Granard.

 

James experienced a similar blight on his trip west of Mullingar; everything had been tarted up. We united in Athlone where Sean’s Bar, apparently the oldest in Ireland, came highly recommended. The fact Sean’s made such a meal of being the oldest ultimately dissuaded us and instead we settled on Gertie Brown’s across the river as a good example of a contemporary bar done in the old style.

 

The following day we photographed Killeen’s of Shannonbridge and Lizzie Murray’s old style bar at Tang close to the eastern shores of Lough Ree. That evening we stayed as guests of the superbly located Abbey Hotel in Roscommon where Aine and Mary Claire Grealy gave us some top tips. A walk through that town took us to JJ Harlow’s, an old Bianconi hotel once regarded as amongst the finest bars in Ireland and esteemed for its coffee. The manager was friendly and the pub still retained enough of its old self to merit photographing but, as days went by, we heard sombre tales about the decline of Harlow’s and how the surrounding streetscape had been flattened in the dead of night to make way for a new development … we decided perhaps we would leave it be. Roscommon’s entrant to ‘The Irish Pub’ was thus a small crossroads pub called Coyle’s at Four Roads which has been in the same family since 1847.

 

Ulster Fry

 

Ten elaborately carved wooden snugs run the length of The Crown, one of the most fabulous pub interiors in Europe. Photo: James Fennell.

In September, James and I joined forces at Gilford Castle in County Down and made our way north through the Glens of Antrim to the northern coast. We had heard good things about the pubs of Cushendun but, when we arrived, we were saddened to see we were already too late; the recommended bar had been converted into an eyesore.

 

The Bushmills Inn impressed as a new interpretation of an old style bar. As a hotel it also gained points which were in no small way attributable to its then owner-manager Alan Dunlop whose attention to detail was the best I had  encountered in Ireland outside of Justin and Jenny Green’s Ballyvolane House in County Cork. A weekend at Bushmills would be well spent if one was to stay here and take in the Giant’s Causeway and the Bushmills Distillery. (We sampled the 16 year old and became converts on the spot; whiskey featured on our itinerary for the remainder of our pub touring days).

 

The only real gem we found on the north east coast was The House of McDonnell in Ballycastle, which was as close to a grocery bar as we ever found in Ulster. It also hosted traditional music at weekends.

Returning south to Belfast, we stayed two nights with Roger and Olive Nicholson of the Ravenhill Guest House. Belfast was excellent fun, somehow reminiscent of Dublin in the early ’90s, That said, there was still a hint of danger – many pubs prohibited entry to anyone with caps, tracksuits or tattoos showing. There were many possible contenders for the book. The Crown was an inevitable victor, being one of the most fabulous pubs on the planet. It was still under wraps when we visited, part of a major restoration job by the National Trust, but James returned in December and captured over thirty fantastic shots. We would both return again in the autumn of 2008 when The Crown hosted the Northern Ireland launch of our book, ‘The Irish Pub.’

On our second night in Belfast, we were joined by Rohan Boyle who helped us deduce that the one to photograph was Kelly’s Cellars, a suitably stark contrast to the glitz of The Crown. Between the jigs, we drove east to Donaghadee and snapped Grace O’Neill’s, established in the 17th century, and then south past the endless caravan sites of the Ards Peninsula to Dumigan’s, a rustic two-room number in Portaferry.

 

The Sunny Southeast

 

Geoff’s appeared in the cover of the book.

We united at the Aldi car park in Tullow and steered east through Carnew to Gorey, County Wexford, where French’s seemed the pick in a wooden rugby’ish sort of way. The coastal road to Wexford deceived us for we could never actually see the coast and the various ‘contender’ pubs we passed along the way were all closed.

 

In Wexford town, there were several options, such as one on The Bullring where 1798 rebels thought they’d hit the jackpot. The winner was The Sky in the Ground, virtually created from thin air in 1996 and about as convincing an ‘old Irish’ pub as you will find. We were subsequently berated for not having included Sammy Sinnott’s’ in Duncormick which dates to the 18th century and was hailed for its Guinness, traditional music and storytelling.

 

From Wexford Town we lost ourselves in a maze of bumpy roads, some straight, others curly, bordered by thick green bushes, sprawling potato fields, thatched homesteads and the occasional copse of strawberries. We paused at The Lobster Pot near Carnsore Point, a stroll around Dunbrody Abbey, a pint at King’s in Arthurstown. The ferry conveyed us across Waterford Harbour and into the ancient Viking stronghold where we were accommodated in magnificent style at the Arlington Lodge on John’s Hill.

 

Waterford had several promising pubs, including Downe’s on Thomas Street (from the de Bromhead stable and boasting its own squash court), but we took much inspiration from Geoff’s Bar, which our publishers ultimately chose to put on the cover of the book. The most successful pub in Waterford, Geoff’s was a victory for the traditional pub because almost the entire interior of this old style bar (free of any television) has been constructed or installed in the past decade. We photographed it first thing the following morning and then captured a simple thatched country pub called Kennedy’s on the road to Dunmore East before about turning for home. One particularly alluring establishment we passed was Delaney’s near Windgap where, many years ago, I recall an old man singing the longest ballad anyone has ever, ever composed. Delaney’s was shut.

 

From Kerry to Derry

 

Michael Finucane’s, Quay Street, Ballylongford, Co. Kerry

The last of our great pub crawls was also our biggest challenge. We had seven days to get from Ballylongford in County Kerry to the city of Derry and we needed to take in every county along the west coast en route. On a Saturday morning I bid Ally and Jemima adieu, drove to James’s house at Burtown and parked up. Four hours later we were in Ballylongford, photographing Michael Finucane’s pub, formerly home of 1916 rebel leader The O’Rahilly. That evening we called into O’Shaughnessy’s of Glin, a typical landlord village now overrun with chip-shops, including the memorably named ‘Superfry Glin’. The O’Shaughnessy’s were celebrating their annual coursing day and entertained us warmly for a couple of hours. The late Knight of Glin joined us and we stayed at Glin Castle for the night’ I inadvertently eloped with the Knight’s TV remote control the following morning.

 

A ferry took us across the Shannon to Killimer, County Clare, and we struck lucky at Mrs Crotty’s pub on the main square in Kilrush. From there to Kilkee and up the coast to Spanish Point and Lahinch. We stayed as guests of the Falls Hotel in Ennistymon which was, at that time, about as ropey a place as we were accommodated during our entire trip. Our friend David Kennedy lives locally and joined us for a Sunday evening tour of Ennistymon’s manifold establishments. This had been one of our greatest hunting grounds for characters for ‘Vanishing Ireland‘ – indeed we met the publican Tom Frawley and the Tulla fiddler Michael Murphy during this return visit – but the pubs did not quite work. Nan Healy’s brown Guinness tavern was a definite contender, but she did not wish to have her pub photographed. By now, we were becoming increasingly fussy for we only needed another six pubs maximum before we had achieved the maximum quota of forty which Thames & Hudson required from us.

 

Connemara, The Burren and Delphi

 

The bar at Tigh Neactans boasts one of the best selections of single malts in the west of Ireland. Photo: James Fennell.

Monday morning found us rambling around the Burren to Ballyvaughan where I interviewed Peter O’Lochlainn about his wonderful whiskey bar and his grandfather, one of the first Sinn Feiners in these parts. Onwards through Kinvarra and Kilcolgan, popping heads into public doors as we passed, and around Galway Bay into the city itself. This time we secured bedrooms courtesy of the Forster Court Hotel on Eyre Square, an excellent location, with high-speed broadband thrown into the bargain. We ventured out on a Monday night and found a city buzzing with students and tourists and indigenous merry-makers. Several musical pubs caught our imagination, but Tigh Neactain’s had precisely the old world wooden charm we sought. Our choice was doubly rewarded next day when owner Jimmy Maguire gifted us a bottle of his very own Tyrconnell whiskey.

 

And so onwards past Lough Corrib to Maam Cross and through the stunning mountains of Joyce Country. Once in Connemara, it was Coyne’s pub, on a peninsula north of Letterfrack, that took the prize; the family amused us with stories of undertaking and such like. The next leg of the trip from Leenaun through Delphi to Louisburgh was probably the most beautiful we encountered in all our travels in Ireland, the light leaping into every crevice and bump of the Sheeffry Hills. James’s camera shutter was working overtime. A celebratory pint in Campbell’s at the foot of Croagh Patrick and then on into Westport where our guide for the evening was Redmond Cabot, Esq. Red knows everybody in Westport and took us to a dozen contending pubs. However, while there’s definitely much fun to be had in the town, all its pubs have been done up of late, even Foran’s and Matt Molloy’s, so we called it quits and enjoyed a perfectly reasonable stay courtesy of the Westport Plaza Hotel.

 

Sligo Town

 

A morning cup with Red in his house south of Westport powered us north past Castlebar to Lahardaun on the western shores of Lough Conn. Leonard’s of Lahardaun – or Lahardane – was a worthy detour; the grocery-bar would go on to have a double page spread in the book.

 

Ballina’s recommended classics had either been modernized or converted to restaurants. We took a chance on a recommendation at Carrowteige on the very northwest shore of Mayo, which did not quite suit, but gave us there-and-back chances to enjoy the mighty coastal landscape of the Ceide Fields between Killala and Rossport.

 

Returning east beneath the Ox Mountains, the Beach Bar at Aughross allowed time for a pleasant pint and a seaside stroll before we drove on into Sligo. Here we enjoyed two nights as guests of The Glasshouse Hotel, a magnificent new construct at the heart of the town which, despite some teething problems in the restaurant and an ill-advised carpet, suggested a brave new dawn for the west of Ireland’s hotel industry. Sligo Town surprised with a barrage of excellent pubs but, with Hargadon’s temporarily shut, the pick of them all stood directly across from our bedroom verandas and bore the name ‘Thomas Connolly‘. We photographed Connolly’s next morning and then dashed north to Bundoran to meet and photograph The Criterion Hotel, the late Brennan sisters old world medley of Arnott’s chairs and Navan carpets on the main street.

 

The North-West Passage

 

By Friday morning, we had been through all six of Ireland’s west coast counties and photographed just six pubs. We also had enough pubs for our book. We could feasibly go home and call it quits. The hills of Donegal beckoned. Alas, the Donegal pubs we found had all been dolled up beyond ‘old world’ recognition. Nancy’s of Ardara was an old personal favourite but seemed somehow twee in the morning light. The Glen up by Creeslough promised much mirth and The Harbour Inn way up at Downies was good enough to photograph. But for the most part, the joy of Donegal was the magnificent scenery as we powered north into The Rosses and east past Errigal to the Fannad.

 

Big Bertha enjoying a pint at the Blackwater Tavern with her owner Jerome O’Leary.

One of the more disheartening encounters took place in Rathmelton where we had a long-range eye on a well-known classic called Conway’s. The pub was shut, and we gathered it was to be converted into a pizzeria. When we found the new owner and questioned him on the subject, he said country pubs were dead ducks and the only place for them now was in books like ours. It was disappointing to meet someone of such influence showing so little appreciation for the sort of traditions that made Ireland such a beautiful place to visit in times past.

 

Feeling a little blue, we rounded Lough Swilly at Letterkenny and chugged into Derry. We’d made it. It was a Friday night. As we were Derry novices, we asked our taxi driver where to go. He advised us to stick to our hotel bar rather than venture to the seven places I had lined up to visit. ‘It gets rough around here after nine’, he warned. With exhaustion already seeping into us, this caution put the fear up us and so, having shrugged indifferently at one or two on the list, we ate a pizza, taxi’d home and got stuck into a night of well-earned stout and whiskey at the hotel bar.

 

The following day we drove home via Omagh, Monaghan, Ardee and Dublin. The round trip was only something like 1,500 miles but seemed much longer. In hindsight, maybe we should have gone the other way, Derry to Kerry, but still, what a trip. There were one or two mop up operations in the coming weeks but, by and large, that was it. We had visited every county in Ireland bar Leitrim. We had undoubtedly missed a heap of brilliant pubs, including some I still haven’t heard about. However, we returned home with seventy pubs photographed and we published 39 of them in the book.