Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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

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O’Loclainn's Whiskey Bar,
Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare

In 1022, eight years after Brian Boru defeated the Vikings at Clontarf, Ireland experienced a brief interregnum during which the two ‘regents’, Cuán O'Loclainn, the chief poet, and Corcoran, a cleric, ran the country. Little is known of either man save that Cuán, a distinguished scholar who wrote a poem about the Palace at Tara, was assassinated just two years later. According to the Annals of Tighernach, ‘the party that killed him became putrid within the hour’, a vengeance known as ‘a poet's miracle’. Nonetheless, Cuán’s descendents flourished and, by the 15th century, the O'Loughlins (O'Loclainn) had established themselves as the most powerful family in north-west Clare. They bore the title ‘Kings of Burren’, presiding over that mystical, magical limestone Burren landscape, with castles all along the shore of the Atlantic and Galway Bay.

By 1653, Cromwell’s New Model Army finally achieved victory in a long and gruelling campaign against the Irish Confederacy. Some 12,000 Cromwellian veterans were awarded land confiscated from the Irish in lieu of pay. The O'Loclainn's territory was seized and regranted to the Duke of Buckingham. He allowed the O'Loclainn's to retain full use of the land in return for a nominal rent. In the late 19th century, these same lands passed to Colonel Henry White, later Baron Annaly, son of a Dublin bookseller who secured a vast personal fortune operating the State lottery. Annaly seems to have quadrupled the rent on his lands and subsequently evicted the O'Loclainn's of Newtown Cashel for non-payment.

Small wonder then that Peter J O'Loclainn, chief of that name, should ally himself with the causes of nationalism and republicanism in the early years of the 20th century. In the summer of 1918, he was elected first Sinn Fein chairman of County Clare. Inevitably, Peter became a target during the War of Independence. In 1920, the Black and Tans threatened to burn his house unless carry out certain orders. ‘I do not believe I can have your order complied with’, replied Peter. ‘In any event I’m not going to try. So don’t wait 24 hours; start burning now’. The soldiers carved ‘God Save the King’ in his hallway and marched away for a rethink.

During the 1920s, Peter became an intimate colleague of Eamon de Valera, holding an important position on Ireland’s first banking commission. From 1938 to 1944, he held a seat in the Dail, the Irish Parliament, and he was later elected to the Irish Senate. Away from politics, Peter ran a large shop at Monks in Ballyvaughan where he operated as a tea, wine and bacon factor, selling basic grocery goods, hardware, animal feed and fertilizer. One of his core businesses was the supply of coal to lighthouses along the surrounding coastline. He also purchased pigs from a large factory in Limerick and, as agent for Guinness, supplied all the pubs in the neighbourhood with stout.

In 1935, Peter’s sons, MacNeill and Eamon, purchased MacNamaras Hotel in Ballyvaughan. The hotel, formerly owned by Dylan Thomas’s father-in-law, dated to the 1840s and featured in many nineteenth century guidebooks. The thirteen bedroom hotel, known today as O'Loclainn's, was originally a stop off for horse coaches but, with the advent of motor age, became popular with motorists. An enamel endorsement by the AA’s forerunner, the Motoring Union of Britain & Ireland, hangs outside the pub door today.

MacNeill O'Loclainn and his wife May lived in the old hotel with their five children. They ran the business as a bar and grocery, supplying newspapers to the parish. ‘Mac’ also concentrated on running the family’s dairy farm, which they had regained since Irish independence. From 1995, his eldest son Peter took an increasingly active role in the business and, upon Mac’s death in 2000, Peter succeeded to O’Lochalinn’s.

Today, this intimate traditional bar in the tiny Burren village represents one of the finest establishments on the west coast. It also boasts a connoisseur's selection of whiskeys. Peter’s father is credited with the hypnotic range on display, now numbering over three hundred golden bottle, including rare breeds from several distillers that have long ceased to exist. Peter confesses that he prefers stout to whiskey but his counsel on the subject is constantly sought and the man certainly knows his subject exceedingly well.

Peter was born above the bar and now lives in the old hotel bedrooms with his wife Margaret and two children. He remembers life here as ‘a young lad’. ‘There would be seven or eight people drinking here all day, every day. Where they got the money from, I don’t know. Some did have money, more didn’t. But they’d sell their potatoes or their cattle and they’d come in and pay it all off’.

In 1996, Peter recruited designer Angela Murphy to incorporate a new fireproof ceiling and rearrange the interior. The bar counter was shifted one way and the rusty green grocery drawers, redundant since the advent of supermarkets, were placed to the back. Scotch pine boards clamber seven foot up each wall, then yield to painted brick upon which hangs a series of ash-framed photographs of local characters by Veronica Nicholson. The view from the window beholds Galway Bay and a meadow of stumpy ash trees. The landscape to the south is an ancient, sometimes eerie plateau of unusual flora, limestone caves and burial tombs. The whole effect is dark, efficient, inspiring and immaculately clean. If Cuán O'Lochainn was to return to earth in pursuit of a place to write some further stanzas, he would be hard pushed to beat the pub now run by his lineal descendent.

 

***

As Edward O’Loghlen wrote in an email to me in 2016: "The duke of Buckingham (Grenville Nugent) was before his time, in that he built a church for his Burren tenants during 1785, well before the 1829 Act. Donough OBrien, 4th Earl Thomond, may have been as responsible as General Ireton for helping to dilute the local Gaelic heritage. It is a fraught history over a number of centuries, but pubs such as this one, provide a haven for both local and visitors to this village."

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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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