In ancient times, about which we can only marvel, there existed in Ireland a people called the Fianna, a band of semi-independent warriors who lived in the forests. In times of war, the kings of Ireland regularly sought their expertise. Their golden age came to an end during a mighty battle fought in the Gabhra valley of Royal Meath. Their commander, Oscar, grandson of Fionn MacCool, and his enemy, High King Cairpre Lifechair, killed one another during the fight. When Cairpre’s beautiful daughter Achall heard of her father’s death, she instantly ‘died of grief’; her body was laid to rest in a mound on top of a nearby hill.
Many centuries later, St. Columba, the man who introduced Christianity to the Picts of Scotland, founded a monastery on this same hill where Achall was buried. When Vikings later ransacked his island retreat at Iona, Columba’s followers returned to the hilltop monastery where they briefly hid a shrine containing their beloved Saint’s relics. They called the hill ‘Skryne’, meaning ‘shrine’.
Today, the two most notable buildings at Skryne are a weather-beaten 14th century church and a public house founded by one James O’Connell in the 1870s and inherited by another James O’Connell in the 1930s.
Born in New York, the latter James was a teenager when his family returned home to run their grocery bar in Ireland. His mother cried for a year after they returned, says Mary O’Connell, the present landlady, known far and wide as ‘Mrs O’. James was destined for the priesthood but, during the Troubles, he abandoned Maynooth and signed up with Eamon de Valera’s Irregulars. In time he met Mary Clynch from Dunsany and took her as his wife. His widow now keeps his photograph, resplendent in his uniform, close at hand.
‘We had a huge family’, laughs Mrs O. ‘A boy and a girl. Well, for me it was huge. But Glory be to God, I had no brothers or sisters and I didn’t know what hit me when I got married and settled here’.
By then, the grocery was the main business. ‘We had two cows for milk but everything else we got in’. A pony and trap from Shackleton’s would clamber up the bumpy path, laden with flour for the family, wheaten meal for brown bread, flake meal for porridge and bran mash for sick horses and suckling mothers. Rashers, sausages and ham came all the way from McCarron’s butchers in Monaghan. James rarely had a moment’s breath, save for his annual pilgrimage to the Galway Festival. ‘I remember him out in the yard, all the time, working through the frost and snow’. One of his weekly missions was to the train station at Drumree to collect fresh kegs of Guinness.
O’Connell’s is essentially a cinnamon-hued step back in time to a 1950s country bar. ‘We have a certain standard of living even though we have no carpets’, explains Mrs. O. ‘If it doesn’t suit you, then go on and don’t come back’. The grocery is virtually no more, but you can still see the shelves where everything was stacked, row upon row of chocolates, sugar and pineapple slices. Farmers, well known to one another, congregate beneath the tongue and groove ceiling, stomping their feet on the rough stone floor, warming their hands by the coal fire. Windows are framed by wooden panel shutters. This was the room where Neil Jordan filmed the pub scenes for ‘The Last September’, his adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen’s novel.
Beneath a Walsh & Sons wall-clock hang pictures of the county’s victorious football teams; the local club has had at least one player on all seven of the Meath team that have won the All-Ireland. Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ unfurls alongside extracts of local history, imaginatively designed bank notes from times past, pictures of Ireland’s Triple Crown champions, letters and opinions of locals expressing concern about the new motorways steaming across the once mystical landscape, hurtling across gentle streams, bulldozing hidden ringforts where dead warriors rest.
The pub is well known to the equine community, with the Ward Union, the Tara Harriers and Goldburn Beagles pausing for seasonal refreshments, and the race-going crowds calling by on their way back from Navan and nearby Fairyhouse.
Mrs O has never taken a drink in her life. ‘My husband said I was bad enough without the drink’, she says with a merry chuckle. She adores talking, discussing the news of the day, encouraging creativity and intelligent banter from her customers. She’s eager to establish connections, to prove that in Ireland there are only two degrees of separation. She rarely leaves the building, save for mass. She feels so strongly that men should be at home with their families on Sunday afternoons that she continues to close the pub for the so-called Holy Hour.
Mrs O, a native Irish speaker, has lately entertained two coaches of bewildered Japanese tourists who arrived unexpectedly, waving beer vouchers and tin whistles, with ‘genuine Irish pub’ written on their itinerary. Mrs. O knows times are changing fast. To wander just beyond the pub and stand in the grounds of the ruined abbey, letting the wind rush through your hair and beholding the sumptuous views, one feels a sense of extraordinary antiquity. Humans have stood on this spot for a long time, even since before poor Achall’s day. But only a handful of generations will ever have the privilege of enjoying sun-downers at Mrs O’s.
Mrs. O’Connell sadly passed away on 13th August 2012. The last time I saw her was when I was supposed to sit with her for an interview about old Ireland which was to be conducted by Terry Wogan for the ‘Wogan’s Ireland’ series. In fact, we were supposed to go up in a hot air balloon until the breezy weather put paid to that. I arrived at her pub to find the producers and film crew somewhat bewildered because Mrs. O was nowhere to be seen. As such, they axed the ‘old Ireland’ interview and obliged me to talk with Terry about the battle of the Boyne instead. After the film crew and all had left, I was relaxing with a pint of stout when Mrs O arrived. ‘Ah-hah, Mrs O!’, I said. ‘I’m afraid you’ve missed all the filming excitement’. She looked at me directly and not unkindly and said, ‘yes … conveniently’.