Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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


Holborn & Markievicz Street, Sligo Town

On Christmas Eve 1889, Captain O’Shea publicly named Charles Stewart Parnell as the lover of his wife Kitty, and father to three of her children. It was a sombre day for Parnell, the ‘uncrowned king of Ireland’, the champion of Irish nationalism for over a decade. The revelation shocked Catholic Ireland to its core and Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party disintegrated in its wake. By October 1891, Parnell’s body lay buried in Glasnevin. Among the millions who mourned his passing was the nationalist Thomas Connolly whose successful campaign to become Mayor of Sligo in 1890 was considerably boosted when Parnell attended a civic reception at his pub.

Thomas Connolly made his money on the American railroads in the 1880s and acquired the pub on 16th January 1890. Today, the double-fronted three-storey building looks across the River Garravogue at the shimmering walls of the Glass House Hotel. The area was reclaimed from the river by Sligo merchants in the 1780s. Present owner Gerry Nicholson, a direct descendent of Connolly’s sister, believes it was a shebeen of some sort from the outset. The pub was licensed to a Mr. Hennigan in 1861, a year after the railway arrived in Sligo. Many early customers had witnessed both the cholera epidemic of 1832 and the famine of 1847, two cataclysmic events that prompted a despondent journalist to declare ‘Sligo is no more’. Sligo somehow bounced back from these horrors and, by Connolly’s day, it had become a major brewing and distilling centre, with buoyant rope, linen and leather trades.

Connolly’s political career came to an abrupt end with his death from TB in 1896. His funeral was amongst the biggest Sligo has hosted. Connolly’s daughter became one of the first qualified dentists in Ireland but wretchedly she and her only brother also succumbed to tuberculosis. The riverside pub duly passed to Thomas’s bachelor brother Dennis, a veteran of the American railroad adventure. When Dennis passed away shortly after the Great War, he left the pub to the three Fox brothers, sons of his only sister, Ellie Connolly.

The Fox brothers did much to establish the pub as one of the leading grocery bars and wine merchants in Sligo. Of particular repute were their teas. Right up until the 1980s, the Donegal bus would rein up outside Connolly’s so that all on board could pop in for a cup. The six tea-bins from which these famous blends were served are kept beneath a series of wooden arched shelves behind the bar.

The Fox brothers also bottled their own whiskey. ‘It would arrive in huge jars and it was up to you to bottle them and decide on the strength’, says Gerry. The brass gadgetry involved in this process lines the shelves today, alongside the Avery weighing scales, the Sykes hydrometer, the moisturiser and the original jars. During the 1930s, Sligo was the second biggest port in north-western Ireland. Every week, cargo ships from Poland, Denmark, Scotland and such like would dock, laden with corn, tea, timber and coal. The hardy sailors frequently piled into Connolly’s to drink ‘rum and blacks’ alongside Sligo’s indigenous dockers.

Public order within the pub was maintained by Jim Fox, the eldest of the brothers, who had served with the Royal Irish Constabulary from 1882 through until the foundation of the Free State in 1922. The Foxes kept the pub so secure that in 1940, Mayor Mickey Conlon kept his chain in the pub’s safe.

None of the Fox brothers married. In 1956, following the death of Jim, the last of the brothers, the pub passed to Gerry Nicholson, son of their only sister Katie and her husband, ‘Red Tom’ Nicholson. In his youth Gerard had won a much lauded scholarship to Sligo’s Summerhill College in the early 1930s and was due to embark on a lucrative banking career. However, he turned down the banking option in order to help his uncles run the pub. His wife Maureen was a poultry inspector from Kells, Co. Meath, who came to examine chicken in Sligo but soon found herself examining Gerard and their mutual passion for horse racing. Gerard died in 1986 and Maureen ran the pub single-handedly until 1992 when her eldest son Gerry came home to take it on.

‘It was a crossroad decisions’, says Gerry. ‘Either I stay in the job or come back here’. Gerry was a Garda officer with ten years experience under his belt. He served four years in Buncrana, Co. Donegal, and later, after his fathers’ death, operated closer to home in the seaside resort of Bundoran. His time in the force gave him such confidence that he realised he could be his own boss. ‘I started here as a kid when it was all about the grocery’, he says. ‘We’ve had a great change since then and we’re still changing. You can’t compete with supermarkets so we closed that side’. Assisted by Frank Conway, the production designer from Jim Sheridan’s ‘The Field’, and Adie O’Donnell, Gerry gave the interior a revamp, shifting snug partitions and counters this way and that in order to create the desired finish.

Sligo is blessed with an above average selection of old style pubs. Thomas Connolly’s is a rare and wonderful premises from its marvellous Kilkenny flagstone floor up. Generous dark tongue and groove snugs run along one wall. Timber and glass partitions enable light to flood in while ensuring the spaces remain enclosed and private. Radiators are carefully concealed beneath timber benches. The long bar counter rolls up past the snugs and main bar area, curling towards at a pot-bellied Romesse stove at the far end. Miscellaneous pages from the original ledger books, The Chronicle and The Sligo Champion are framed alongside glass mirrors, tattered calendars and browning photographs. Although he concedes television can be ‘a killer’ in a pub, Gerry has screens above the bar for sport. He is an enthusiastic athlete himself – his father was Chairman of Sligo Rovers and a founding member of the Sligo Races in 1955 – and sporting occasions bring important customers flooding into the pub. On such weekends, they go through a barrel of Guinness every hour.

In 1986 Gerry met his wife Lucia who runs Nicholson’s Pharmacy nearby. ‘I sicken them and she cures them’, he laughs. Four generations on, Thomas Connolly’s continues to be run in a manner that its founder would surely acclaim. That the individual drinker is treated with the respect and courtesy of the old days makes a distinctively powerful impact.



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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