Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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


Murray’s of Maghera
Co. Westmeath

‘Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain with grammar and nonsense and learning’, scoffed Oliver Goldsmith. ‘Good liquor, I stoutly maintain, gives genius a better discerning’. The son of a clergyman, Goldsmith spent his Arcadian childhood in a parsonage near the ‘deserted village’ of ‘sweet Auburn’ on the border between Counties Longford and Westmeath. Described as ‘impenetrably stupid’ by his first teacher, this ‘small lumpish’ man with a ‘lively, sad, ugly face’ is today hailed as one of the most remarkable literary figures of his age. His monument, sculpted by John Henry Foley, stands outside Trinity College Dublin.

The landscape that inspired Goldsmith to write his classic poems (‘The Deserted Village’), stirring novels (‘The Vicar of Wakefied’) and graceful plays (‘She Stoops to Conquer’) was the countryside he knew as a child. It extended westwards over bumpy bog roads, rich pastures and diminutive streams to the sloping shores of Lough Ree, the second largest lake in the Irish midlands. One of the small hamlets lying along the lake is Maghera, from the Irish ‘Machaire Rátha’, meaning ‘plain of the ring-fort’).

At the heart of this remote community stands Murray’s Old Style Bar, a white-washed 18th century cottage with an asbestos roof, boasting one the smallest bars in the land. Behind the counter stands Lizzie, the fourth generation of the Murray women to run the bar. Lizzie, who was born here, inherited the pub upon the death of her mother in 2002. Her husband, a farmer, keeps cattle and sheep in fields to the back of the pub.

Lizzie believes it started as a shebeen some 300 years ago. The Murrays have been there since at least 1823 when a forefather was laid to rest in the local graveyard. The pub was as simple then as it is now, a straightforward drinking den. In the days of her grandmother, there was a small grocery attached, ‘for tea, sugar, maybe a loaf of bread’, but today it is straight up drink.

Above the bar counter hangs an anonymous quotation with considerable appeal to the bachelors who drink at Murrays. ‘When a man is single, he lives at his ease. He don’t give a damn and does as he please’. To breathe, a pub should swell with its own personality, even when everyone’s gone home. Murray’s has that look about it. An ostensibly quiet pub by day, it evolves a mischievous persona the instant darkness falls. Everything that seemed stationary bristles with life. Chairs, stools and chequered tables start shuddering with anticipation.

As Lizzie says, you really do need to be here at night to get ‘the real tone of it’. On Thursdays and Sundays, musicians take a pew beside the old turf-burning stove and set up a jig that soon has ‘the auld lads and auld lasses out there dancing’. Her father was a keen singer in the generation past. Of course, business has quietened somewhat since the drink-driving laws came in but, as a man at the bar says, there is nothing to stop you getting close by boat.

An old house likes old colours’, says Lizzie, who chose the khaki greens and russet earthy colours because she felt they would absorb the hue of her customer’s tocbacco. An overhead strobe light radiates off the pitch pine floor and ceiling, rippling along the brown bottles of cider, larger and ale stocked behind the bar. On a shelf above, three Kilbeggan whiskey jars are in deep conversation with a rare bottle of the ill-fated Guinness Bitter. A poster for ‘Lizzie’s Lotto’ promises a small fortune but everyone knows that the winner will most likely be obliged to buy them all a drink. A barometre symbolically indicates that there is no pressure at all. Photographs of smartly dressed characters who drank here half a century ago are juxtaposed between a song sheet for Danny Boy, a Bridget’s cross and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On another wall hang various prints collected down the years - a JW Gozzard landscape, a wren by F. Toole, set-dancing by A.C. Pape, John Everett Millais’s portrait of pretty Eveline Lees.

‘I have my own trade from round about. Every evening we have a certain amount but a good few come in on a Friday night.’ In the wintertime, local farmers and fishermen gather around the stove, often clasping playing cards in their paws. The subject of conversation often concerns the number of eels dwelling in the shallow freshwaters of Lough Ree. Traditionally many of these families depended on eel fishing for their livelihood, particularly for those who once lived upon the lake’s islands. In 1960, three clergymen espied an immense eel that fitted the description of ‘a great conger eel, seven yards long, and as thick as a bull in the body with a mane on its back like a horse’, recorded by 19th century folklorist Thomas Croker. Inevitably, the sighting has inspired comparisons with Lough Ness although this particular monster has not been seen for nearly half a century.

‘Some days I open at 11 o’clock’, says Lizzie. ‘On others, I’ll wait until 12. There’s always work to do and when we have one bit done, then we have another bit to do. But I’ll always open because there’s always someone popping around’.



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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