When the wind blows, its breeze tickles every string of a harp evenly. For Wolfe Tone and his fellow United Irishmen, in pursuit of a symbol to encapsulate their fundamental belief that all men be treated equal, irrespective of faith, such an inherently Irish instrument was perfect. When the rebels gathered across Ireland in 1798, it was the golden harp on the green flag that flew highest of all.
It is a curious coincidence that the village of Ballitore in County Kildare should be home to a pub known as The Harp. In 1798, the peaceful Quaker community who lived here witnessed an appalling episode of bloodshed when the doctor and other elders were dragged from their homes and slaughtered on the street. It is difficult to imagine such events when strolling through the sleepy village 200 years later. Nonetheless, the consequences of that tumultuous summer still drift through the air, carried on the uileann pipes and impassioned baritones that gather in The Harp to sing of a Wednesday evening.
The Harp Bar has always been The Harp Bar but it has had other names too. A hundred years ago it was owned by John Horan, a bachelor who lived above the grocery-bar with his two spinster sisters. Since 1936, the name above the door has been that of ‘E. Butterfield’. ‘E’ stands for Elizabeth Butterfield, nee Nolan of Kildoon, grandmother of Lisa Creagh who runs the pub today. Indeed, it was Lisa’s mother Philomena who operated the pub during the last three decades of the 20th century, making it one of those rare pubs to have been run by three female generations of the same family in direct succession. Philomena was the youngest of the twelve Butterfield children, all raised in a large house near the pub. All the siblings left Ballitore save Philomena and two brothers, Gerry and Jim, both butcher-farmers.
Dating to 1780, the pub is a straightforward one-room affair, flagstone floors, rustic white-washed walls and rough hewn farmyard doors and arches with the wood peeling off. The bar is a solid piece of timber set upon a wall of old planks, reminiscent of some weather-beaten pirate’s ship. The shelves behind carry miscellaneous oddities, a harp, a hunting horn, an advertisement for Bendigo Plug Tobacco, a railway lantern, a Brownie camera. To the right are ten old grocery drawers, recalling a not so distant time when the pub operated as the village store. Customers sit in close proximity, on stools, chairs and old church benches. The endangered art of communal banter is encouraged with Lisa behind the bar, her laugh as merry as marriage bells. Red embers glow from a vast brick fireplace, enchanting the words that whistle to and fro. Lisa’s mother removed the snug partitions where women of another age used to enjoy a secretive hit of snuff tobacco along with a glass of stout. The left-side snug is now home to a pedal organ created by John Malcolm & Co, which takes centre stage on musical evenings.
It is impossible to live in Ballitore and not be engrossed by history. The village’s star pupil Edmund Burke, was one of the greatest philosophers and political thinkers of the Georgian Age. His tutor Abraham Shackleton was the ancestor of another local hero, the Polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton, who grew up just outside the village. Local farmers still talk of the Wizard Earl of Kildare whose ghost gallops around the nearby ring-fort of Mullaghmast, while more ghosts emerge from the mists in the form of forty local chieftains treacherously massacred at this same ring-fort in 1577. Indeed, Lisa’s grandmother was old enough to know some of the 800,000 people who attended Daniel O’Connell’s famous Monster Meeting at Mullaghmast in 1843.
Like any pub, Butterfield’s has photographs of great moments from times past, including a splendid black and white of six men, all wearing cloth caps, seated at the bar in 1963.
‘And they’re all dead?’ I ask.
‘They’re not all dead!’, hollers a cloth-capped old man at the corner of the bar and everyone laughs. Dan Mackey has been a patron of Butterfields for as far back as anyone can recall. He was a farm labourer all his life, working in an age when there was ‘nothing only a spade and fork and no hydraulics at all’. He enjoyed the farming life. ‘When you got home, you hadn’t a care only that you could get something to eat. You’re better off than the people now with their mortgages and two cars. Unless you had nothing to eat!’ Dan is of the view that life goes full circle. ‘The farmer will be back’, he says. ‘You might call me mad but I’m telling you now, the wheel will keep turning and the horse and cart will be back’. Whether Dan’s forecast comes good or not, it is hoped that the bloodline of Elizabeth Butterfield will still be running the pub a hundred years from now.