Intoxicating history of Clare Pubs

Pubs have been part of the Irish scenery since the invasion of the Normans, providing food and drink to "bona fide" travellers and locals alike. Tony Mulvey, chief reporter, examines a new book which traces the ups and downs of the licensed trade in Ireland and looks at the history of a number of family-run businesses in Clare.

MUCH has been said and written about Irish pubs. They are world famous, central to a host of activities taking place in cities, towns and villages in Ireland, and they are also playing their role promoting this country as a holiday destination.

There has not been too much comment, whoever, on how and where it all started and to find out one has to go back as far as 1066.

It was not until after that year and the arrival of the Normans that tavern and inns began to be established in Ireland. The country’s first taverns were in the Norman strongholds in Leinster and the Pale, and they were set up as wine importation businesses where the primary business was in selling wine to stock the cellars of the local nobility.

Gradually these became places of social interaction and discourse, with food as well as drink available.

How the trade developed from there is unearthed in a treasure trove of facts, figures and fokelores relating to the major developments in the history of the pub from the Iron Age to the present day.
They are all contained in ‘The Story of the Irish Pub: an Intoxicating History of the Licensed Trade in Ireland’, the first published social history of the trade in intoxicating liquors in the country.

The 300-page book includes maps of each province to help readers locate the individual pubs that have been profiled by the author, Cian Molloy, a journalist specialising in social affairs.

The book also features the individual stories of over 100 pubs that have been in the same family for over a century. The Clare pubs featured are Bohan’s (Feakle), Browne’s (Parteen), Donnellon’s (Kilkishen), Power’s (Clarecastle) and the Roadside Tavern (Lisdoonvarna).

Before 1916, Irish pubs closed 25 minutes and 21 seconds later than pubs in England, Scotland and Wales because Ireland was on Dublin Mean Time.

Before the arrival of supermarkets, the Irish Licensed trade sold 95 percent of all foodstuffs and consumable household requisites used in the country.

Before 1960, St Patrick’s Day in Ireland was a ‘“dry day” when all pubs were closed as in the practice on Good Friday and Christmas Day.

Today there are just under 13,000 fully licensed premises in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, of which less than 200 are reckoned to be in the same family for over a century.

The first statute to control the number of pubs in Ireland was enacted in 1635 by which time Dublin was reckoned to have some 4,000 families an 1,180 public house, most selling their own home brew.

In 1787, Arthur Guinness became the first Irish brewer to produce porter, with other Irish brewers following suit. The story of large scale industrial brewers like Guinness is central to the history of licensing in Ireland from the mid 18th century onwards. The increased duties on spirits due to the Gin Acts of 1744 and 1751 led to increased beer consumption within the licensed trade but it also led to a boom in the unlicensed trade in whiskey, described as “poteen”, from the 18th century onwards.
Such was the level of competition between the brewers in the 19th century that appeals to sectarian sympathies and fears were made to licensees an drinkers.

In the 1920’s, Guinness’ own sales representative in Cork complained that sales there were suffering because priests were advising people to drink Murphy’s because it was a “Catholic porter”.

One brewery which benefited from being identified with Catholicism was the O’Connell Brewery founded in 1832 by Daniel O’Connell, son of the Liberator, who had £2,000 invested in the enterprise.
The story of the Irish pubs deals at length with the infamous “bona fide travellers”, who, under the Licensing Act of 1872, were served outside of normal trading hours.

According to the rules, to qualify for late night or all day drinking on a sunday in Ireland and Great Britain, one is require to have “travelled in good faith” for a distance of three miles, by public thoroughfare, from the place they spent the night.

Travelling in good faith meant that you could not be “travelling for the purpose of taking refreshment”, but you could be “one who goes into an inn for refreshment in the course of a journey, whether of business or pleasure”.

While people posing as travellers were regularly charged and prosecuted, it was difficult to prosecute licensees who had a handy escape clause in the law.

To find the publican guilty, the prosecution had to prove that the licensee did not “honestly believe” that his customer was a bona fide traveller when serving outside of normal opening hours.

However, with the growth in the use of the motorcar, all night drinking got out of hand and the law was changed in 1943 so that bona fide travellers could not be served between midnight and 6.a.m., and in 1953 the concept of bona fide travellers in pub licensing law was abolished.

A reference is also made to the price of the pint and shortly after national independence, Irish politicians started to complain about the price.

In the list of family owned pubs in Munster, Bohan’s of Feakle is the first Clare one mentioned.
It was opened in the 1890’s by Michael and Ann Fitzgerald who opened a grocery, bar and tailors shop. At that time the Land War was at its height in Clare, and seven miles from Feakle, the infamous Bodyke Evictions took place in 1887.

In troubled times the Fitzgeralds were fortunate to remain in business. The Fitzgeralds had three children but two of the sons, like their father, died of arthritic fever and in 1927 the pub was inherited by their daughter, Bridget.

In 1932 Bridget married Michael Bohan but she remained a licensee because of Michael’s job.
He was a policeman and was one of the first recruits to join the Garda Siochána. The licensing laws forbade Garda Bohan from being on the premises while on duty and when he married he was transferred from Feakle to Ennis.

For the next 22 years, until his retirement in 1954, Garda Bohan lived permanently in Ennis and cycled 18 miles home once a month to spend the night with his wife and family.

Following his retirement at the age of 52, Michael ran the pub with his wife. Michael died in 1972 and a son, Seamus, became more directly involved in the business.

Following his mother’s death in 1980, Seamus became the licensee. He has carried out many improvements and extensions and pride of place in the pub is given to a hurley autographed by members of the Clare team which won a number of National League titles when managed between 1973 and 1980 by Fr. Harry Bohan, Seamus’s brother.

Browne’s of Parteen was founded at the end of the 19th century by Delia Browne, grandmother of the present licensee, Gerard Browne who reckons that the pub was established about 1855.

Being located three and a half miles from Limerick, the pub benefited from the “bona fide” trade.
During one of De Valera's famous general election campaigns in Clare, the Fianna Fáil leader called to the pub for an election rally. After his speech he bought a drink for every man in the pub.

However, he overlooked paying the bill and the amount, 3/6d, remains outstanding in Browne’s old accountancy books.

During the 1920s the pub experienced a boom trade with the building of the hydroelectric scheme at Ardnacrusha.
Between 1925 and 1929 more than 5,000 labourers and engineers were employed on the Shannon scheme.

Following Delia’s death in 1929, her son John became licensee. His brother-in-law, James Gleeson, had been killed in the Meelick Ambush during the War of Independence.

John’s son, Gerard, has been licensee since 1968. He has extended the pub but closed the grocery counter.

Brother and sister, Patrick and Nancy Donnellon run the well known Donnellon’s pub in Kilkishen.
The pub was originally founded as a licensed grocery by their grandfather, Patrick Donnellon. He was the son of a tenant farmer but they were evicted from their small holding in Classduff, two miles from Kilkishen in the 1850’s.

However, the family survived and thrived and by 1870, when Patrick married Kate Corbett from Scariff, he was able to describe himself as a publican on his marriage certificate.

In 1922 the pub passed on to Patrick’s son, John Donnellon, when he married Ellen Flannery. They built up the business and added a bakery to the grocery.

During the war of Independence, the pub was ransacked by British troops who took all the spirit bottles from the back of the bar. However, the Donnellons had the last laugh as the brandy and whiskey bottles contained only coloured water.

The well known Clarecastle premises owned by the Powers has been in the family since May 30, 1872, when the license was transferred from Daniel O’Brien to a Patrick Power, a farmer from Ballyea. However, the license had been in existence since before 1866 as it was acquired by O’Brien by transfer in 1866.

As well as being a publican, Patrick Power, who was born in 1848, imported coal from Whitehaven and exported timber from forests in East Clare.

He also ran a farm and had an interest local politics, particularly the Land League. In 1885, his business faced a new challenge, not from the police but from the church. Two local priests formed a Temperance Society in Clarecastle which enlisted over 180 members at its first meeting.

However Patrick and his business survived this challenge. Patrick died in 1832, when he was aged 83, and the pub was managed by his wife Maria until 1945 when she passed it over to her son. Bernard Power and his wife, Margaret née Ryan.

At that time where they had already ended the grocery side of the business, Powers also removed themselves from the coal trade in the late 1960s. In 1968, the pub was extended and in 1975 a lounge was added. Bernard died in 1978 and Margaret ran business until she retired in 1992, handing it over to one of one of their sons, John, who now runs it with his wife, Eilish.

The Roadside Tavern in Lisdoonvarna is another famous Clare pub. It sprung up with Lisdoonvarna in the mid 19th century. The pub was established by a local landlord, Pierce Creagh.

It was bought in 1893 by Christopher Curtin, a baker by trade. He married Nora and they expanded the business to include a bakery. The arrival of the West Clare Railway heralded a new era for Lisdoonvarna as a holiday destination and it also allowed the Curtins to develop a sideline as wholesale butter merchants. Peter Curtin, the man now in charge, refers to one incident when the Local Defence Forces were stationed nearby on coastal duty during World War Two. The troops used to take advantage of the fact that Christopher Curtin started work at two in the morning.

On one particularly bad night two soldiers came into the premises and hid their guns and ammunition in the unlit oven and started drinking.

When Christopher lit the oven without checking what was inside, there was a big noise and the place was nearly destroyed.

Nora and Christopher ran the business together until 1944 when they handed it over to the youngest son, John, and his newly wed wife, the former Mary Monahan from Clonroad, Ennis.

They had difficult times ahead with the post war depressions years. Nevertheless, the business survived and Peter says that Roadside is now the only true pub in Lisdoonvarna, the rest are hotels and lounge bars. Lisdoonvarna, became a venue for traditional music in the 1970’s and some well known names entertained the patrons of the Roadside, including Christy Moore, Davy Spillane, Tommy Peoples, the Fureys and Sharon Shannon.

Peter’s father died a good many years ago and his mother died in more recent times. As well as the pub, now extended, Peter runs the nearby Burren Smokehouse. One of the best known family owned pubs of Ulster, Blake’s of the Hollow in Enniskillen, has ties with County Clare.

The pub has been in the Blake family since 1887 when Richard Herbert, a cousin of Patrick Blake, founded it. Richard was grandfather of Enniskillen-born Dick Herbert, the Shannon Aer Rianta electrician who lives in Pine Grove, Ennis. His wife is the former Nuala Smith from the Market, Ennis.

Blake’s of the Hollow - it nestles in the hollow of Church Street - is one of the most celebrated pubs in Northern Irelands partly because it retains most of its original and distinctive architectural features.
For generations, the pub has been noted for the quality of its wines, sherries and whiskies and the family has continued it’s tradition of whiskey bonding.

Courtesy of the Clare Champion
January 2003