In more carefree times, there was an unofficial commandment that stated: ‘Thou shalt not drive through Abbeyleix without pausing in Morrissey’s for a pint’. Considering Abbeyleix’s beguiling location on the main Dublin- Cork road, this law firmly established the premises as an institution of major importance.
The pub’s origins stem back to 1775 when local landowner Thomas de Vesey effectively founded the town by allocating property rights to his tenants. Within a year, de Vesey had been awarded a Viscountcy and a single storey house was built on the site where Morrissey’s stands today. During the ensuing century, a swinging shebeen operated here, with a reputation that stretched far beyond the humble bounds of Abbeyleix.
The present building was commissioned in 1875 by Edward Morrissey, grandfather of the legendary William J Morrissey who ran the premises from the mid 1920s until his death in 1982. Known as Willie Joe, the younger Morrissey was a famous character in Irish folklore. He was the town rep for the Cunard Line in an age when the Abbeyleix Carpet Factory kitted out the Titanic with its elaborate rugs and carpets. Although loath to admit it, Willie Joe was so deaf that one effectively had to order a drink with a pen and paper.
If his hearing was impaired, his sixth sense benefited accordingly. Murray Anderson was one of the men who bottled the wine for Morrissey’s. The story runs that the aroma got to him and he nabbed two bottles, wedging them deep into his coat pockets. Murray was making his way out the door when Willie Joe offered him a pint. The bottler declined, saying he was not feeling the best. Willie Joe urged the man to sit tight by the fire and warm himself. Murray reluctantly obliged. Before long the heat from the fire caused both bottles to explode in his jacket. Murray may have been drenched and somewhat embarrassed but it didn’t stop him fathering 23 children.
When Willie Joe died aged 87, the pub passed to his cousin, PJ Mulhall, a sprightly elfin-like man and everyman jack who, as well as being a ‘Tea, Wine & Spirit Merchant’, was district manager of the local First National Building Society, an auctioneer, a 100-acre farmer and head of the local tourist industry. Perhaps anticipating that such a workload might be the end of him, Mulhall was also the local undertaker, escorting hearses to and from the surrounding graveyards on the back of a beautiful two-seater Victorian pony-trap. PJ died in 2004 and the pub was sold to Carlow publican Tom Lennon who has thankfully retained the pub’s traditional interior right down to the official white grocery coats sported by the bar staff.
The pub is effectively a large wooden cavern, softly lit by lamps that hang from a ceiling held up by metal beams. The room is loosely carved into a warren of snugs and seating areas by dint of wooden partitions and stand-alone walls seemingly crafted from old biscuit tin lids and banjaxed clocks. The legendary charm of Morrissey’s undoubtedly hails from the incredible collection of old world goods on display on its dark shelf-lined walls. They are stuffed with the sort of goods that would have abounded in a village grocer half a century ago. Huge jars of sweets and clove rocks. An old slicing machine, an Edwardian cash register, a tin of Bourneville cocoa from the Boer War, Boyne Valley corn flakes, packets of freshly ground coffee and Morrissey’s own ‘Famous Tea’, right beside the scales on which the packs were weighed. The walls are bedecked with wonderful advertisements from the early 20th century. ‘Hello Daddy! Guess What I’ve Just Got!” says a happy girl with a Fry’s chocolate bar in her hand. Two cloth-capped flappers motoring through the countryside, smoking furiously, hatch down, beneath the teasing caption, ‘Gold Flake – The Man’s Cigarette that Women Like’.
In its hey-day, Morrissey’s was one of the pioneering establishments where barmen received their training. In the sort of initiative one would expect Ryanair to adopt, the apprentices often paid the pub for the privilege of working there. An apprentice spent his first year working behind the bar before graduating to the grocery section. Training for bar-work was considerably more specialised in those days. One had to be able to bottle beer, to decant each one so that the sediment stayed behind. Pouring a pint was a serious work of art. Whiskey also came in large containers and had to be “tested” for “specific gravity”. Apparently, the railway staff who transported the drink south were partial to sampling the containers, then refilling with water. The rule of thumb was that the further you were from Dublin, the more your whiskey was watered. Morrissey’s whiskey was never watered because they always tested it first.