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O’Shea’s of Borris, County Carlow

Michael O’Shea ran the premises as a grocery, select bar and hardware store until his death in 1985. His grandchildren run it today. Photo: James Fennell.

Back in the good old days when King’s were powerful people, Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, took a trot around his kingdom in pursuit of a suitable place to pitch his castles. One of his chosen sites was Borris, a gentle hill at the foot of Mount Leinster, near the banks of the River Barrow.

In 1731, Dermot’s descendent Morgan Kavanagh built the rambling mansion of Borris House where the Kavanagh family still reside today. It is by no means an easy business maintaining a family estate, particularly one as old and epic as Borris. For the incumbent heir, inheriting a big house can, to paraphrase Elizabeth Bowen, land one somewhere between a predicament and a raison d’être. The temptation to simply sell the lot and move to the Caribbean is overruled by the spirit of all those generations who have gone before and somehow managed to hold the fort.

Precisely the same conundrum faces the O’Shea family who own and run one of the village bars across the road from the stone walls of the Borris demesne. The building has been operational as a grocer-bar since the 19th century. In 1934, a tough-talking farmer’s son from nearby St. Mulllins purchased the premises and erected a new sign over the door. ‘M. O’Shea – Select Bar’. Known as ‘The Bossman’, Michael O’Shea had served his time as an apprentice barman in Ferns and nearby Graiguenamanagh during the 1920s and decided the work suited him. In fact, he decided a lot of work suited him. Tea, wine, spirit and provision merchant. Family grocer. Hardware, timber, coal, iron, wool and corn store trader. Cushendale Blankets agent. The Bossman did the lot. His ledgers are held above the bar today, each transaction precisely recorded, a peculiar chronicle of who bought tomatoes, bread, oil, coal, and how much they paid for it. Most of the goods were kept in a hardware store next-door; more commonly sought goods like nails and tools were kept behind the bar.

Pastes, glues and twines gaze invitingly above a walkway leafing through to the Tap Room where musicians play. Photo: James Fennell.

The Bossman’s wife Anastasia had a custom of giving away free bread and milk to the poor hill people when they came down from Mount Leinster. It wasn’t a tradition the Bossman warmed to. ‘Granddad wouldn’t let her work in the bar because she’d always give away stuff’, recalls their granddaughter Olivia O’Shea. ‘She’d have a full kitchen every time you went in, serving them all food and not charging any of them’.

Anastasia died in 1982 and Michael followed three years later. Their son Jim and his wife Carmel duly took over. It was during this era that the pub became the establishment of choice for Denny Cordell, trainer of horses, greyhounds and, above all, rock legends. In cahoots with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, Denny produced records for acts such as Procol Harum, Bob Marley, Joe Cocker and The Cranberries. After Denny’s unexpected death in 1995, his wake was held in O’Shea’s. ‘They played every version of ‘Danny Boy’ there ever was’, recalls Olivia. The nearby Gowran Park racecourse hosts a day in his honour every September. Year after year, the craggy faced rockers who knew Denny make their pilgrimage to O’Shea’s to commemorate the music man.

The pub has also been frequented by some of the most powerful minds of the 21st century, who swing by after (and occasionally before) their performances at the nearby Festival of Writing and Ideas at Borris House, which began in 2012.

The rough-topped, candy-striped bar begins virtually at the entrance and runs in an L-shape around the inner wall. Directly overhead hang a miscellany of classic hardware goods – luggage straps, sieves, oven-gloves, a suggestive Wellington boot. Brass piping meanders along the overhead ceiling, seemingly held in place by thick black painted wrought iron pillars. To the right, behind an old weighing machine, stands a wall of shelves holding carpenters bits – masonry nails, breeze block nails, staples, split-links and chipboard screws for every hole and socket. Shelves are stocked with batteries, lightbulbs and other compelling items that might suddenly catch one’s eye while pontificating over a creamy pint.

Its quieter at the minute but so is everywhere’, says Olivia who now runs the business with her brother Michael. ‘We used to have had a lot of people who’d come in for three or four pints and go home. But with the drink-driving laws, they don’t come anymore’. Olivia believes the challenges ahead will be many but, with tradition in their blood, the third generation of O’Shea’s publicans will somehow hold the fort.

An old weighing machine marks the Nailer’s Quarter, with a wall of shelves holding the screws and nails. Photo: James Fennell.

Photo: James Fennell.