‘There’s a place for the rural pub that isn’t serving food’


Two busy pubs run by second generation young publicans in the Mayo Roscommon border country suggest the demise of the rural hostelry may be exaggerated as locals over compensate for time under lock down.

The peaty aroma of a turf fire greets the visitor to Duffy’s bar in Kilmovee on a Sunday afternoon recently. Perhaps twenty customers of various ages gathered around the counter top and tables while a Donegal vs Kerry game played on large screens, the volume turned down.

New floor tiles and PVC-framed windows give the bar the look of freshness while the exposed stonework over the fireplace remind you the building is 200 years old. It was built as a shop until 65 years ago when it was converted into a pub, explained proprietor Brian Duffy, a second-generation publican leasing the bar from his father.

Having grown up in the pub alongside his four brothers and a sister today Brian Duffy lives 200 yards from his pub, a business which he says suits life with three young children.

Better known as the Four Ways, the pub has been enjoying strong trading due to a combination of low prices – “we have the second cheapest pint in Ireland,” said Duffy – but also an attentive management which takes customers home, for free, at closing time.

Southwards along the Mayo Roscommon border, an attention to modern creature comforts is also helping draw customers to the Three Counties in Cloonfad. “Heat is really important, you need a nice warm place,” explained Dolores Donnellan who runs the bar with her husband Pat. On a frosty night a band entertains parents from a local primary school in the lounge room off a busy bar.   

A decades-long presence under various names in the village, the pub’s current owner leased the bar to the Donnellans after a tasteful redecoration which includes new wooden flooring and paintwork in the lounge, crowned by a circular skylight above the dance floor.

In its new incarnation the pub has been drawing back clientele from across the patchwork of pasture and peatlands that blankets the surrounding borderlands of Galway, Mayo and Roscommon.

Its location at the junction of three counties made Cloonfad a weekend nightlife hub in the pre-Internet age when lines of cars stretched out of the village’s four approach roads as drinkers flocked to three pubs.

One, the Three Counties, remains but it’s enjoying a steady trade and there are local hopes that what was formerly the Griffin Inn will be reopened shortly by its new owners who are working on the building. Locals explain the new owners are foreign investors drawn to the location, at the northern end of the Galway commuter belt.

“It’s been great since we reopened, we’ve been getting good crowds and lots of parties,” explained proprietor Dolores, herself the daughter of Margaret whose bar Keane’s was a legendary establishment over decades. There’s been lots of goodwill too, say the Donnellans, from customers with good memories of evenings spent at Keane’s.

The heady days of the seventies and eighties may be gone but a steady trade. In the year the pub reopened “we’ve had people in from villages like Brickens and Williamstown and Kiltevna who said they hadn’t been in Cloonfad for ten years.”

“Between Christmas and new year we had parties every night, we had a sixtieth, a fortieth, a thirtieth and a retirement.”

Decennial birthday parties are a trend which the Donnellans have seen as rural dwellers socialise again. In Kilmovee Brian Duffy has a theory that the pandemic made punters reappraise their social lives. “Pubs and restaurants are busier than they were before the pandemic. After being locked down for a couple of years people don’t take the freedom for granted anymore.”

Rural pubs also have more options. As the manager of the nearby funeral parlour Dolores Donnellan opens her bar’s function room to cater for the after-funeral receptions. A relatively new phenomenon, catering companies are plentiful in the area – the Three Counties calls on companies in Castlerea, Glenamaddy, Tuam and Williamstown.

The emergence of catering companies also offers an alternative to an expensive investment in on-site kitchen facilities and defies a logic that rural pubs would have to serve food to be commercially viable. “There’s a place for the rural pub that isn’t serving food,” said Ms Donnellan. “Maybe it works in the town but now there are catering companies you can have the best of both worlds.”

Brian Duffy doesn’t see a commercial case for a kitchen. “I stay away from food. You’d have to spend 30 or 50 thousand on a kitchen and then you might only have one party or one funeral in a month so that’s a lot of money to earn back on your investment.”

Neither publican is convinced that new licensing laws, allowing pubs to open longer hours, is necessary for rural bars. Duffy isn’t planning on changing his opening hours while the Donnellan’s think the changes will have little impact on the rural trade.

Rural transport is a stickier issue which does impact both publicans’ trade. Cloonfad is very fortunate in having two hackney drivers, allowing customers to travel home after socialising. “It’s a huge benefit.” 

Kilmovee has no such service -so Brian Duffy offers free lifts home to his clients. “I might drop 50 people home some nights. It can be difficult because you have to have someone all the time minding the pub while you’re out.”

The lifts work like a rota based on destination. Towards closing time Duffy shouts out “In ten minutes I’m going to Carralackey and then later I’ll say I’m headed to Urlaur and then later after that I’ll be going to Ballaghadreen.”

Duffy has driven clients as far as Ballyhaunis and Gurteen in Sligo. The service is clearly appreciated, and keeps customers coming back, but Duffy is also aggrived by the poor value rural businesses get for their rates.

Some things remain constant. The juke box at the Three Counties remains well played while inter-bar snooker tournaments remain good for business in both Kilmovee and Cloonfad. The Three Counties was one of nine pubs that hosted the recent season of the East Galway pool league, played on Friday nights from September to December.

Rural pubs have closed – the Four Ways is the only one standing of the three pubs trading in the 1990s in a three-kilometre radius of each other – while a thriving demand for valuable pub licenses (in particular among expanding urban retail chains) has encouraged the closure of others.

Government plans to liberalise the licensing system – making licenses easier to get – could in theory revive the number of pubs but Duffy rubbishes the proposal. “It’s ridiculous…giving licenses for virtually nothing is something that’ll be very hard to regulate.”

Duffy worries that a liberalisation of licensing may lead to a drop in standards as all-comers open bars, undermining the viability of existing establishments. The pub trade is hard enough for those that are at it. You may end up with various kinds of sheebeens.”

That’s a fear that’s been well aired in recent months by the Vintners Federation of Ireland (which represents rural pubs) and other bodies representing pubs who think the “extinguishment” clause -that any new pub must purchase an “extinguished” license from a closed premise – must be preserved.

The VFI argues a licensing free for all will close rural pubs, depriving towns and villages of a social outlet for locals and visitors. 

Just as his bar offers a warm focal point on a winter afternoon the vibrancy of the local village in turn brings business to Brian Duffy.

Visitors drawn to nearby Urlaur abbey and lake venture to Kilmovee where 93 year old Martin Rushe still runs his shop. They also visit the local heritage centre which organises summer history tours to Cashel and the mass rocks, explained Duffy who regularly serves drinks to guests from local Air BnB houses.

The voluntary spirit creating local assets that also bring customers, said Duffy. “We’ve a heated swimming pool since 1979, there are towns that don’t have that. We’ve a 60 by 40 astro turf pitch and a meals on wheels service and there’s a lot happening in the community centre.”

He’s happy to give something back, recalling with pride the EUR18,500 raised for two charities with a virtual concert from the pub in February 2020, during the Covid lockdown of bars.

Rural pubs create local communities while also being sustained by them.  Teams visiting to play at the grounds of local soccer team Cloonfad United often call in to the Three Counties after matches.

Local musicians and dancers gather for a Tuesday night set dancing class at the Three Counties. There have been several Irish nights since September, organised by local dancing teacher Mildred Byrne, with local musicians like Connie Gildea and Paddy Joe Tighe travelling out from Ballyhaunis.

“There were ten or 12 musicians on stage here one night lately,” explains Dolores Donnellan. Set dancing classes for kids on Friday evenings bring parents too. “It suits parents because they don’t have to travel and they sit with them.”

Dolores is generous in letting local groups like the set dancers use the newly laid dancefloor in her lounge. Visitors in turn support the bar. “My approach is you bring me a bit and I bring you a bit.” A justification -or a motto, perhaps – for a new era for the rural pub trade.

Ballyhaunis Three Counties Cloonfad Kilmovee Four Ways Brian Duffy Donnellans Western People Mark Godfrey

Article appeared in the Western People on February 14, 2023.

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