With a license dating to 1884, Bermingham’s is the oldest existing pub in Navan. It is also the only bar of its type in Meath’s county town, built for a descendent of Robert de Bermingham, one of the warriors who accompanied Strongbow to Ireland during the momentous Anglo-Norman invasion. Patrick Bermingham was born in Dublin and apprenticed in the city’s Broadstone Bar. In 1884, he moved north to Navan and purchased the two-room grocery bar, returning to Dublin every week to collect fresh Guinness kegs from St James’s Gate. The bar’s interior, a Victorian treat, made his pub one of the most popular places in town during the glory days when Navan’s ‘Great Leinster Fair’, held every November 14th, was amongst the greatest agricultural shows in Europe. Navan was still a major centre of industry when Patrick opened his pub, with flax, flour, paper and oatmeal mills running the length of the River Boyne.
Patrick Bermingham did not long survive the opening of his new enterprise, passing away at the age of 35. For the next sixty years, his spinster sister, Jane Bermingham, ran the bar. Patrick’s name remains above the bar today, proudly gilded on the exterior, framed by stone walls, wrought iron rails and dark oak panelling.
In 1917, Jane effectively adopted a 5-year-old cousin, John Marmion whose father was a veteran of the Boer War. John grew up in the pub, working behind the grocery counter from an early age. Upon Jane’s death in 1948, he succeeded to the business.
A glass-fronted snug unfurls to the immediate left of the entrance. Three steps beyond stands the original grocery counter with the box drawers rising up the walls. Blink twice and you might see the ghost of a brown sugar bag float down from the top shelf. To the right is a small open plan space, where the wine cellar is kept in a glass fronted cabinet. Along the walls are a sketch of Ludlow Street from 1985 and a photograph of John Marmion, clad in the white grocer’s coat he sported for over sixty years until his death in 1985. His widow Margaret (nee Kerley) and son Michael own and manage the pub today.
The bar runs along the left side with the old grocery counter at one end. Surmounted on a wooden partition, a weather vane in the shape of a mounted horse leaps through the air, recalling a golden age, not so long ago, when the Navan and Fairyhouse Races were so popular that both racetracks had their own railway stations. Michael Marmion maintains a personal interest in the horses, riding out for local trainers on a regular basis. The railway link with Dublin arrived in the 1850s and departed a century later, although somehow the GAA manage to revive it for a weekend every time the Meath footballers make it into the All-Ireland finals in Croke Park.
The ceiling is dominated by a riot of handsome brass pipes striding overhead. Although they look convincingly Victorian, Michael actually installed these in 1999 as part of a system to convert the nicotine-scented air into a pure, revitalizing breeze. Acoustic sessions take place in the back room, beneath a giant poster of a Guinness Extra Stout label ‘Bottled by P. Bermingham’. A series of rare advertisements are reflected in an enamel mirror - Cairness Drogheda Ales, Pimm’s Double Ales (‘Does You Double Good’) and Bovril Biscuits. A shelf of ceramic pots and jars rolls over a simple fireplace, stacked with logs in summer months.
A poster for Watters Whiskey Pot Stills stands alongside oil lamps, kettles and three handsome clocks ticking patiently against the back wall. The oldest of these clocks dates to 1829, the year in which Ireland’s beleaguered Catholic majority finally won the right to vote. Within a few months of the act of Catholic Emancipation, a child was born and he was called Patrick Bermingham. Although educated in Navan, this was a different Patrick Bermingham to the eponymous publican. This Patrick was a latter day Irish-Australian apostle who came to prominence in the late 1850s when, along with two fellow Irish Catholics, he attempted to depose the English Catholic hierarchy in Australia. To achieve his aims, Patrick was wont to give extensive lectures in Italy and Ireland about how the vast infant colony down under was being run to the ground by useless English bishops and that good solid Irish bishops should be sent to the rescue without delay. Whether or not his accusations were just, Patrick was dismissed from Australia in 1867.
Patrick Bermingham, the Australian apostle, is one of the names you might hear in Bermingham’s pub today. Another Catholic of relevance was the recently beatified Blessed Columba Marmion, aka Joseph Aloysius Marmion, a kinsman of the present owner. Columba was 28-years-old when he abandoned his role as chaplain to a women’s prison in Dublin and entered the Benedictine abbey at Maredsous in Belgium. Boasting an exceptional intellect, Columba was elected Abbot of Maredsous in 1909 and, over the next 15 years, established the abbey as one of the great focal points for spiritual thinking in Europe. Maredsous was also famous worldwide for its excellent beer and pungent orange cheese, and perhaps some of that spirit permeated through the Marmion bloodline when John took the helm.
The Marmions open their pub from 5 o’clock every evening. ‘Pubs are not the goldmines they once were, but if we get twenty people here, then the place is buzzing’, says Michael. ‘This place hasn’t changed in a long time’ says old timer Conor Walsh. ‘Everyone knows everyone else, so its very friendly. You never have a row here. It’s a good pub, the best in town’.