Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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


M.J. Byrnes
Greenane, Co. Wicklow

‘There was no such thing as stabbing or kicking that time. If you pulled a knife or kicked a man when he was down, the rest of the lads would turn on you. But the boys would always shake hands after half an hour and have a drink together’. That’s the way both Pa Byrne and his friend George Thomas remember fights in Greenane in the good old days. And there were plenty of fights between the rival families who lived up in the Glen beyond. In the winter of 1580, an army of three thousand English soldiers came clattering into the Glenmalure Valley in an attempt to subdue the mountain men. Under the leadership of Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne, the Wicklow warriors came howling from the woods with sufficiently sharp swords, spears and axes to leave over eight hundred Englishmen dead by close of day. It was the greatest defeat the English had yet experienced in Ireland. Fiach was killed in action seventeen years later and his pickled head sent to London.

Pa Byrne is not sure if he’s related to Fiach MacHugh. He concedes there may be more to it than coincidence that the family owned pub he inherited quarter of a century ago is situated an axe’s throw from the ancient O’Byrne stronghold of Ballinacor. The name ‘M.J. Byrne’ above the door refers to his mothers’ father, doubling up the Byrne patronymic. Pa’s father farmed the land nearby and married M.J.’s daughter during the latter months of the Irish War of Independence. Pat, the second youngest of nine, was born in 1930 and lives in a house next to the pub with two of his sisters and his dog Sandy.

‘If there’s any bit of sun at all, we get it here’, says Pa. Sure enough, Greenane or ‘Grianan’ in Irish, translates as ‘a summer residence’. Despite such positive credentials, the hamlet has somewhat declined over the past two decades. In Pa’s youth, there were two pubs, a bakery, a wheelwright’s forge, a post office and a chapel. All have been abandoned or converted to private residences so that today, the only commercial properties that remain are Pa’s pub and the Greenane Farm Museums.

The building probably dates to the 17th century and was almost certainly a shebeen for travellers crossing the mountain pass between Aughrim and Dublin. The original thatch roof was galvanized in Victorian times, then slated in the 1930s. Wooden boxes once full of spices and tobacco recall its hey-day as a grocery bar. After the village baker closed down, a bread van came on a daily trek from Donnelly’s of Rathdrum. George Thomas, who lives in an isolated farmhouse two miles away, remembers the same van driver leaving a daily loaf in his gateway. The counter over which such bread transactions took place is still there. However, the pub benefited from an old fashioned revamp when Greenane bridge was selected by director Neil Jordan for one of the penultimate scenes in his Oscar-nominated biopic of ‘Michael Collins’.

Pa still draws a good crowd for funerals and at weekends, particularly when local musicians come and settle in for the night. Inevitably business has declined considerably for roadside establishments like his since the drink-driving laws came in. Perhaps his greatest commercial loss has been the customers who came in daily to drink anything up to fourteen pints in a row. ‘They’d all be all singing in the end’.

The decoration in M.J. Byrne’s is minimal and untouched. A fluorescent light overhead rebounds off a tiled floor, laid down over the original slabs in the 1950s. A pot-bellied Romesse stove steams gently between tables. Behind the bar rests a safe that someone once tried to elope with in a wheelbarrow. ‘We know who was behind it but we won’t name any names, God rest him’, says George. The walls behind the bar are lined with shooting trophies won by Pa when he was a marksman with in the FCA (An Fosa Cosanta Aitiuil, Ireland’s volunteer army reserve) during the 1950s. ‘Shooting rabbits as a young fellow stood me in good stead’, he suggests.

George drank in M.J. Byrne’s for many decades. However, when the pub closed its grocery section, he was obliged to visit the supermarket in the nearby town of Rathdrum. As such, when he arrived at the pub, Pa said: ‘Hello George, I haven’t seen you for a long time’. George ordered a bottle of Guinness and the two men began to reminiscence about characters who drank here in times past. Amongst these was a quiet old war veteran who had lived many years in Australia. ‘If he liked you’, says Pa, ‘he’d tell you of the things he saw’. For instance, the poor man had the profoundly unpleasant experience of seeing the head of a friend blown clean off while the two were sprinting from one trench to another during the Boer War. The dead man’s body kept on running until the veteran pushed it over.

Happier memories concern the annual ‘Klondyke God Rush’, as it was known, when carts, wagons and horses came cantering into Greenane from all directions on the last Sunday in July. The catalyst for this mayhem was the hunt for the fraughans (or wild bilberry) in the surrounding hills. Asses and jennets would be hastily tied to the bars along the window of M.J. Byrne as the hunters bolted into the hills. Traditionally the idea was for young men to pick the berries which their sweethearts would put into tarts and serve up at the ‘Fraughan Sunday’ dance that evening. But if you didn’t have a sweetheart, recalled Pa, ‘there was a fantastic price for them in England’.



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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