Extracted from ‘The Irish Pub’ (Thames & Hudson, 2008)
‘Because, Sir, an ox cannot hold a pistol!’ So retorted trigger-happy Richard Martin, MP for Galway, justifying his pioneering defence of animal rights. ‘Humanity Dick’, as George IV nicknamed him, was one of the most charismatic men in Ireland in the early 19th century. In 1822, he cajoled Westminster into signing into law the first act in the world for animal welfare, from which grew the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Humanity Dick’s association with Galway is today recalled by a modest plaque on the wall of Tigh Neachtain, the oldest pub in Galway City – and an ISPCA collection box on the bar counter. Jimmy Maguire, the soft-spoken owner, believes his pub formed part of a medieval townhouse built by the Martin family. The Martin’s originally came to Ireland with the de Burghs in the late 12th century and were one of the celebrated Tribes of Galway. Their heyday arguably began when crusader Oliver Martin found himself sharing a prison cell in Austria with Richard the Lionheart. By the 16th century, the Martins were amongst the most prosperous families in the west of Ireland, making claims on Connemara for what would ultimately become a colossal estate of 200,000 acres. Indeed, the avenue leading to their headquarters at Ballinahinch Castle was 30 miles long.
‘The Martins were very good to their subjects’, insists Jimmy, eyebrows rising on the word ‘subjects’. ‘Particularly during the Famine when their generosity more or less triggered their bankruptcy’. As the power of Ireland’s Protestant landlords declined in the 1850s and 1860s, so a new generation of Irish Catholics began to gain a footing in the social hierarchy.
Jimmy’s grandfather Sean Neachtain was one of four sons born to a poor fisherman from near Spiddal on the shore of Galway Bay. During the 1870s, three of these brothers emigrated to three different continents and all found work on goldmines. One went to South Africa, another to California and Sean himself went to Melbourne which, since the discovery of gold 20 years earlier, had become one of the richest cities in the world. Sean returned to Ireland in 1894, a reasonably wealthy man, and purchased the four storey building which carries his family name today.
Jimmy believes a pub was already in existence here when Sean bought it. An oriel window overhead certainly dates to the late 18th century. Perhaps it was one of those Galway ‘tippling houses’ which, as author James Hardiman complained in 1820, were ‘most indecorously kept open during the hours of divine worship’ so that the ‘evening of the sacred day [ie: the Sabbath] was not infrequently profaned by drunkenness and riot’. The extent to which Sean altered the bar is unknown but much of the interior decoration dates from his short reign.
Sean died prematurely following a heart attack in 1904. His widow Kate was pregnant with what would be their only child, a daughter whom she called Sarah. Kate Neachtain ran the pub until her own death in 1934 when Sarah and her husband, James Maguire, took over. James came from Clonmel and was a descendent of one of the Ulster soldiers who remained in the south after O’Neill and O’Donnell’s ill-fated march to Kinsale in 1601. Sarah ran the pub until the late 1970s when her only son, Jimmy, decided to drop out of college and take on the business. Jimmy was born in the pub and had his childhood bedroom upstairs, clambering up this same staircase when he came back from school with a satchel over his shoulder. ‘And here I am’, he marvels. ‘Still here’.
‘Very little has changed’, says Jimmy. ‘I love old things and the way it was when I got it suited me fine’. In 1992, he extended the premises into an adjoining building, fitting it with ‘sanctified’ panelling from a convent in Newtown Forbes.
A stained glass door opens into a labyrinth of snugs, alcoves and long rooms, shimmering with pitch pine panelling, leather seats, timber tables and frosted glass partitions. The bar offers one of the best selections of single malts in the west of Ireland. Among the highlights are the Tyrconnell malts, specially bottled for Jimmy by the Cooley Distillery. Galway Hooker Pale Ale is another good seller. A further room to the back is walled with maps from Captain G.A. Bedford’s extensive survey of Galway Bay in 1847.
Jimmy is passionate about history. He regales his audiences with the tale of Captain Thomas Poppleton, husband to one of the Martins, who became friendly with Napoleon while serving as his gaoler on St. Helena. The word is that some decades back, a maid was dusting a mantelpiece at the Poppleton home in Oughterard when she slipped and sent a porcelain snuffbox cracking on the fireplace. Inside was a tiny scroll with a detailed map of St Helena, showing its landing base, garrison strength, gun placements and such like. Surely, says Jimmy, this is concrete evidence that Poppleton was planning to engineer Napoleon escape. Jimmy sometimes assures his customers that Poppleton took the French Emperor into Neachtain’s for a secret pint on his way to St Helena. In fact, he blinks, Christopher Columbus most probably drank a rum here when he called by on his way to the New World.
Towards the end of the 18th century, Humanity Dick founded Galway’s first theatre when he built a 100-seater at Kirwan’s Lane for his actress wife. The republican patriot Wolfe Tone was one of the leading actors. It is thus fitting that Tigh Neachtain’s should have such a keen theatrical bent, much stemming from the travelling actors of the Footsbarn Theatre who made the pub their unofficial Connaught headquarters in the 1970s. Posters on the walls bear testimony to the Footsbarn’s many performances, as well as Galway’s own Druid Lane Theatre and the Irish-speaking Taibhdhearc theatre. The pub possesses framed posters for every Galway Arts Festival since 1978 – the only complete collection in existence.
Tigh Neachtain’s is strong on both literary and musical customers with well-attended traditional sessions a regular feature. It helps, of course, that the pub is located on one of the busiest streets in a city that is alive all year around with a commotion of students, visitors and citizens alike, the atmosphere kept sharp by the music ringing in on the Atlantic breeze. ‘Times have changed thankfully’, says Jimmy. ‘We’re all the time busy now. But sure doesn’t it take the tedium out of the day?’