Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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The Irish Pub, Turtle Bunbury & James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2008)


The Bulman
Kinsale, Co. Cork

As the autumn of 1601 faded into winter, a fleet of ships carrying four thousand Spaniards docked at Kinsale on the south coast of County Cork. Their plan was to unite with the Ulster chieftains, O’Neill and O’Donnell, and oust the invading English army from Ireland’s shores for once and for all. Unfortunately for the Spanish, Kinsale is situated about as far away from Ulster as you can get. In an early example of rapid response, the English swiftly surrounded Kinsale and laid siege to the Spanish. The Ulster chieftains gamely attempted a rescue, leading their armies on a colossal march south through the centre of Ireland. On Christmas Eve 1601, the Spanish and Irish forces attempted to lift the siege. Their defeat was inevitable, bloody and calamitous. O’Neill and O’Donnell surrendered and, in due course, fled the country. Their exodus signalled the end of Gaelic Ireland.

When the Spanish commander Don Juan d’Aquila first landed at Kinsale, he and his officers were give refuge amid the stony walls of Ringcurran Castle by Barry Óg, Baron of Kinalea. Barry Og’s fate after the battle is unknown but his castle was flattened in the 1670s to make way for Charles Fort, one of the most formidable defensive fortresses on the Irish coast.

In 1820, Barry Og’s direct descendent Catherine Barry established herself as a publican just a stone’s throw from the family’s former headquarters. Her own descendent Aidan Barry believes a pub has stood on the site since the 16th century. Certainly the fine coastal location would have merited pause for refreshment from earliest times. In Catherine’s day, with the Napoleonic Wars such a recent memory, Charles Fort had one hundred mounted brass canons pointing out to sea. All vessels passing up the harbour were within a pistol shot of its battery. A good deal of the pub’s trade came from the various regiments garrisoned in the Fort. By the late 19th century, it had become an unofficial mess, while officers of higher rank often attended musical evenings in the Barry family drawing room upstairs. The pub was known as ‘The Thatch’, on account of its roof, until 1899 when Catherine’s grandson Patrick Barry replaced the original pub with the present building, and named it ‘Barry’s’.

When the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat in 1915, rescue efforts were co-ordinated out of Kinsale. In time Barry’s would become the establishment of choice for the celebrated Rocket Team Coastguards, so named for their tactic of firing rockets, with hooks and ropes attached, at distressed boats, which they could then pull to safety.

During the 1960s, the pub passed from Patrick’s grandson, Daniel Joseph Barry, to his three sons, Aidan, Pat and Donal. In 1969, the Barry brothers renamed the pub ‘The Bulman’ after the Bulman Buoy, a well-known nautical landmark, which directs boats to safe entrance into the harbour. The buoy was named for a merchant ship called The Bulman, which ran aground on the rocks with all hands lost. The Earl Mountcashell’s yacht was also ‘totally wrecked’ on the Bulman rock in 1846.

In 1976, the Barry brothers sold the pub to a local couple, Willie and Kaye O’Brien who ran it for thirteen years, living with their two children in rooms above the bar. During the early 1990s, new owners Chris and Lorrie Agar converted the former living quarters into a restaurant. The pub then passed from Fergus Sheridan to Oliver Flynn, under whom it received the last ever Black and White Pub of the Year Award in 2004. The following spring, the pub was sold to present owners Gerard and Margaret Gannon who completely renovated the pub. ‘The entire place was stripped, sanded, varnished and painted’, says manager Conor Ryan. ‘Everything was carefully photographed beforehand and put back exactly where it was before’.

Full-length exterior portraits of O’Neill and d’Aquila stand solemnly beneath flower baskets at either side of the main door. Light tumbles in from the ocean. Heat rises from fireplaces in rooms at either side. The bar counter is pitched at the perfect height for old men to lean upon. Colourful tiles salvaged from Catherine Barry’s original bar form a border around the base, yielding to Chinese slate on the wider floor. The bar is amply stocked with Cork’s well-known refreshments - Cork Dry Gin, Middleton whiskey, Beamish Stout and the increasingly popular Kinsale Irish Lager. An hourly gong resounds from an eight-day clock made by J. Hillser & Sons of Cork. A Titanic made from lollipop sticks is docked behind the bar. The timber ceiling features a coat of bronze by Don Meany and large decorative pieces - sculptures, moulded birds, giant hands, telescopes and anchors. Hanging like a drying rail above the bar, oars salvaged from the Summercove slipway have been converted into dimmer lights.

The Bulman is at heart a mariner’s pub. An Evershed & Vignoles transmitter from 1959 suggests ‘Full Steam Ahead’. Elsewhere, a Victorian sextant by Joseph Moore stands alongside four of Guillaume Blaeu’s extraordinarily accurate copper etched maps of the New World from the 1630s. Portraits of cloth-capped drinkers from times past hang alongside other frequenters such as the late Taoiseach Charles J Haughey. One particularly hardy Irish-Italian fisherman could apparently drink 30 pints a day and certainly looked 80 by the age of 50.

To the right of the bar is a small room of parquet floors, timber walls and ripped leather, known as ‘Miah’s Room’. Drinkers recline in colonial armchairs, lately reupholstered, surrounded by tongue and groove walls with old Hessian rope carefully placed between each plank to create nautical effect. Mighty beams traverse the bronze tinted ceiling above. Where one might expect a fan in a more tropical country, three dolphins circle a rudder, crafted into lights by Don Meany. Along the walls hang a Lifebuoy soap advertisement from 1900, a map showing the lighthouses of the locality lit up and miscellaneous paintings and photographs of sailing vessels, lobster pots and fishing nets.

To the left of the bar, an archway leads through to the music room, combining the original hallway and a family bedroom. Adjacent to a large granite fireplace, an Grand Piano from G A Buckland & Co acts as the focal point for round table sessions Wednesday through Saturday. ‘Everyone expects bars along the coast here to have music’, says Conor. A television is discreetly tucked away in a dark corner, hidden by old ropes and bits of sack so you barely notice it. ‘The TV never goes, on except for hurling or football on a Sunday’, insists Conor.

The view from The Bulman beholds the waters of Summercove, backed by the green and khaki headland where the battle was fought, the mighty bulks of the English forts still standing stern. This fine spectacle is well-known to the thousands who gather here in summer months to sip cold beers in the sunshine, bare feet swinging over the pier below. When night falls, The Bulman enters a new phase as candle light and flickering fires rearrange themselves to suit the rumbling banter along the bar and kick a heel at the dancing fiddles. From the blustery beyond comes the smell of the high seas and of the powerful history that has taken place on this small piece of land.




1. The Concept.
2. On the Road.
3. The Chosen Pubs.
4. Conclusions.
5. Personal Qualifications.

6. A History of the Irish Pub
7. Acknowledgments.

8. Media Coverage.

9. Bibliography.
10. Places to Stay.

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