Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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

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Michael Finucane’s
Ballylongford, Co. Kerry

Late in the evening of Friday 28th April 1916, Michael Joseph O'Rahilly dragged his bullet-riddled body into a doorway off Dublin’s Moore Street and lay down. Before he died, the Kerryman managed a short letter ‘written after I was shot’ to his ‘darling Nancy’. He explained his predicament to her, sent ‘tons & tons of love dearie to you & the boys & to Nell & Anna’. ‘It was a good fight anyhow’, he concluded. ‘Goodbye Darling’. The O’Rahilly was the only leader of the Easter Rising to die in action.

As he prepared to meet his executioners the following week, Padraig Pearse apparently said ‘I envy O'Rahilly - that is the way I wanted to die’. [1] If they make a movie of 1916, the actor who gets the O’Rahilly’s part can be sure of a dramatic finale.

The O’Rahilly was born in 1875 at his father’s home in Ballylongford. The small north Kerry town lies along the most westerly banks of the River Shannon. Michael O’Rahilly built the two-storey property in 1809; its Columbian pine floor dates to this period. By 1861, his entrepreneurial grandson Richard O’Rahilly had expanded the business to such an extent that he was variously described as baker, draper, grocer, fish curer, miller, farmer, landowner, importer, inventor, post office, shipping agent, general merchant and, perhaps most importantly, a purveyor of wine and spirits. [2]

Richard is even said to have had the first refrigerator in Ireland. He was undoubtedly the wealthiest man in the area. When he died in 1896 he left his estate to his wife Ellen and his business to his son Michael.

Where Richard was a prudent investor, loyal to the Crown, his son and heir was a deeply compulsive man whose opinions were increasingly at odds with the British forces in Ireland. In 1898, Michael sold his father’s businesses in Ballylongford and sailed for New York with an engagement ring in his pocket. In April the following year, he married his ‘darling Nancy’.

A life-size portrait of The O’Rahilly’s hangs today on the wall of the public house which he briefly owned, surrounded by photographs of his De Dion-Bouton car, a copy of the letter he wrote to Nancy, the Proclamation of 1916 and images of other rebel leaders. The O’Rahilly association inevitably meant the pub became something of a stronghold for Republican get-togethers during the formative years of the new state. Indeed, one man well-known in Finucane’s was Dan Keating who, at the time of his death in 2007, was the oldest man in Ireland. Keating, a veteran of the War of Independence, liked to address the pub’s owner, Michael Finucane, as ‘The Young O’Rahilly’.

Michael Finucane is a large man with an easy smile and warm handshake. Before he took on the pub, he worked as a builder on the mighty factories and power stations that dominate the skyline along this part of the Shannon. He is not, as it happens, any relation of The O’Rahilly. His great-uncle Mike Finucane purchased the Ballylongford business from the rebel leader in 1898 with money made working on the American railroads during his youth. Mike seemingly converted the building into the pub which he ran as a drapery and grocery bar until his death in 1942.

As Mike had no children, he left the pub to his nephew, Michael Finucane who ran it with his wife Ellen, a schoolteacher, for the next forty years. When Michael II died in 1982, the pub passed to the present owner, Michael Finucane III. ‘We’ve not had to change the name over the door in a long time’, says Michael.

Michael has done much to ensure his pub remains an aesthetic delight. An overhead shelf perambulates the room, groaning under the weight of, tobacco stained footballs, whiskey jars, tumblers, brass lamps, ash plant canes and fishing nets. Cheerful green leather stools assemble along the Columbian pine bar, miscellaneous oddities hang from the ceiling above. A pair of 40-gallon hogs heads behind the bar recall a time when publicans watered down 100% proof whiskey to suit the tastes of their customers.

Among the photographs on the walls, pride of place is given to Michael’s late uncle, Father Donal Bambury, bestowing his blessing on the first Sunday race meeting in England at Doncaster. In a snug to the rear, shelves cascade with further peculiarities – a 1930s builders helmet, a Bush radio, a bankers coin-checker, an album by The Pecker Dunne, a coathanger “stolen from the House of Lords”.

‘Bally’ was once a thriving town with two creameries and a massive corn-mill. At the back of the pub stands a series of white-washed buildings and a storehouse with a hatch that leads directly onto a small riverside pier. In the O’Rahilly’s day, barges pulled in at this pier, laden with 20-stone sacks of flour, drapery cloth and general cargo from Limerick. Horses and carts were also at the ready to transport large quantities of salted herring, mackerel and salmon, stored in barrels of salt, to the railway station at Listowel and from there to Dublin.

During the 1980s, both creameries closed and the corn mills followed suit. The north Kerry farmers found themselves increasingly short of excuses to journey into ‘Bally’. Only during the week of the Listowel Races would the seaside town become busy. The younger generations began to emigrate in droves to New York, beckoned by useful connections to a Ballylongford émigré who was already in the higher echelons of the Big Apple’s trade union.

Finucane’s pub still had a grocery and drapery attached when Michael was a youngster. At one end of the bar counter is the yardstick used by the in-house tailors to measure arm lengths. Customers would sit at the bar and drink a pint or two, while their tailor proposed different colours and cloths. ‘People had more time then’, explains Michael. ‘It was very civilized’. The rise of superstores in the 1960s brought an end to the drapery and the grocery section came to a similar conclusion a decade later.

Michael is not one to sit about waiting for customers. Aided by his wife Deirdre and several stalwart friends, they have ensured the pub remains the epicentre of life for the surrounding community. Michael claims he would know ‘every seed, breed and generation of them’.

His 26-year-old son, Micheál IV, concurs. ‘The customers are like your family. I could name the time they’d come in, where they’d sit and what they’d order’. The pub only opens in the evening time but is frequently packed.

Michael is settling into a lifestyle of fishing, shooting and the occasional boating jaunt around the estuary to Ballybunion. ‘I’ve a bit of land out the way and I do a bit of gardening’. He cultivates oysters out in the harbour and is one of the co-organizers of the annual Ballylongford Oyster festival. The town hosts a Summer Festival in honour of the poet Brendan Kennelly. A touching poem Kennelly wrote on the death of Michael’s mother Ellen is framed on the pub wall.

Micheál IV, presently works in financial services and is debating whether to take on pub. Having grown up in a pub, the 26-year-old understands what that might entail. His father believes he might be better off sticking to stocks and bonds. ‘I wouldn’t blame him – it’s a tough life’.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Quoted on p.223 of Winding the Clock - O'Rahilly and the 1916 Rising, Aodogán O'Rahilly, Lilliput Press, 1991. The origianl source of this quote is unknown. It is not in SEAN MAC ENTEEs account of O’Rahilly in EPISODE AT EASTER, or the account in 'Enchanted by Dreams' by Joe Good (Brandon Press). Elizabeth O’Farrel, Linda Kearns and Elsie Mahaffy also give accounts of seeing him, but none mention Pearse’s quote.

[2] 'Richard Rahilly was apparently not a publican. He sold wine and spirits but apparently did not run a public house. He is listed among "grocers and spirit dealers" but not among "public houses" in Slater's directory, 1870. He is listed as a grocer in Bassett's, 1880-81, which also confirms he was a spirit dealer. He is in "grocers and spirit dealers" but not in "public houses" in Slater's, 1881. He is in "grocers" but not in "vintners" in Guy's, 1893. Aodogán O'Rahilly met a woman in Ballylongford who said her uncle bought the shop from Rahillys, and there was a great store of wines in the cellar under the shop.' (Mark Humphrys, August 2014).

Thanks to Manchan Magan and Mark Humphrys.

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CONTENTS

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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